How to stay focused on work in a world full of distractions
Last updated on: December 21, 2021
I hear the kids playing outside, and they’re talking about ice cream. Should I go get some ice cream before or after lunch? Not sure. Wait, where was I? Oh, I’m supposed to write a new article. It’s so strange how your mind can get distracted in a blink of an eye. Now, having such random thoughts when working can redirect your attention and make you less productive. But, stay with us, we’ll show you to improve your focus and avoid distractions.
In this article, we’ll discuss:
- what the most common workplace distractions are,
- why it’s difficult to ignore distractions, and
- how to maintain your focus and avoid these distractions, both external and internal ones.
What are the most common workplace distractions?
No matter whether you perform your job from an office or from home, workplace distractions are usually hard to avoid. So, what are the most common sources of distraction?
According to the survey In search of lost focus, by The Economist Intelligence Unit and Dropbox, here’s what remote and on-site employees claim as their key distractions:
- face-to-face interruptions from colleagues: 34%,
- reading and responding to emails: 29%,
- office distractions (ringing phones, chatty colleagues): 23%,
- their minds wandering: 23%,
- meetings (in-person and virtual): 21%,
- technical difficulties: 20%,
- non-work and personal activities: 11%.
As you can see, some of these distractions come from other coworkers. Also, distractions may derive from dealing with some work-related activities that can be time-consuming, like checking emails and attending meetings. In general, there are two kinds of distractions:
- External: they don’t come from your mind but the world around you. For example, your colleagues stopping by, phone calls, emails, notifications, social media, meetings, visual distractions, and technical issues.
- Internal: these are distractions from your mind, such as an illness, personal problems that you’re experiencing, or even thinking about what you’d rather be doing instead of work.
Why is it difficult to fight distractions?
Even when we try to avoid them, distractions happen. But, why can’t we just ignore them?
When it comes to some cases of external distractions, it’s because our brain loves them. In this article, David Rock, an author of Your Brain at Work, explains why our brain reacts this way:
“The brain loves to know what’s going on in the social environment, and it’s incredibly important to our survival to know what’s happening socially. Whether it’s someone walking past your desk or someone sending an email, we can’t help but check out who that person is, are they okay? It’s a knee-jerk reaction.”
Although your brain enjoys taking such breaks from work, your attention may suffer when you get interrupted.
Speaking of internal distractions, one of the most common types is mind wandering. It usually happens when we’re bored or tired and not feel like doing what we should do at the moment.
As neuroscientist Amishi Jha says in her speech for TedTalk, the reason we mind wander so frequently is that our mind can time travel with ease. She uses a music player as a metaphor for our minds.
“We can rewind the mind to the past to reflect on events that have already happened. Or we can go to the future to plan for the next thing that we want to do. And we land in this mental time travel mode of the past or the future very frequently, often without our awareness.”
When our mind wanders without our awareness, we make errors, miss information, or find it difficult to make decisions. Amishi highlights that an opposite of a wandering mind is a mindful mind. It’s when we pay attention to the present moment.
Back to the music player metaphor, we need to be on the Play button in order to keep our focus on what we’re handling right now. So, in the next section, we’ll explore some valuable tips on how to keep your mind from going forward or backward and stay focused at work.
How to maintain your focus and avoid any distractions
The University of California Irvine survey shows that you need 23 minutes to regain your focus after being distracted. To minimize the time you need to refocus, we gathered some handy tips that can help you when dealing with distractions.
Raise accountability by sharing your schedule
On the days when you have a busy schedule, and you need to finish some complex tasks, the last thing you want is to get interrupted. So, having colleagues stopping by your office probably wouldn’t be a good idea.
To let your coworkers know when you’ll be busy throughout the week, be sure to share your schedule with them. For instance, you can create a daily or weekly plan in the Google sheets and send them the link. If you work remotely, here are some ideas on how to create a remote work schedule.
In addition, you can use Clockify to enter all your weekly tasks and take advantage of the Calendar view. This feature helps you have a clearer picture of your weekly plan. Plus, your colleagues can simply select your name from the list to review your schedule, as you can see below.
If your coworkers notice that you have a lot on your plate, they’ll be more understanding. At the same time, you’ll be able to complete all assignments on time.
Now, in case you work from home, your family members might be the ones interrupting you, but the solution is the same. Make them aware of your working hours and when you’ll be unavailable for chats during a week. You can print out your plan and attach it to some visible place around the house.
Schedule time for browsing the internet
How often do you browse the internet and social media channels when taking a brief break? And how often does that short break turn into a much longer one? Let’s face it, this situation happens quite regularly.
Forcing yourself to switch your attention back to work can be challenging. Cal Newport, an author of Deep Work, says that’s because our brain craves distraction. Here’s an idea that he proposes:
“Instead of scheduling the occasional break from distraction so you can focus, you should instead schedule the occasional break from focus to give in to distraction.”
In line with Newport’s idea, you should schedule the time for distractions, thus, for browsing websites. Of course, this implies if you don’t need the internet for work tasks. However, if you have to use the internet for work, you should find an app that blocks particular websites, such as social media, news, and similar. Therefore, only the sites you select will be blocked.
Then, while you’re working, your attention has to be aimed at tasks. In one Forbes article, Newport claims this routine “helps your mind get more comfortable with being bored, with being free from novel stimuli at all times.” Furthermore, you’ll be capable of doing your assignments more effectively.
Keep your phone away when working
Your phone buzzes, you reach out to get it instantly. Messages, notifications, and similar sounds can surely divert your attention.
To maintain your focus and avoid such noises, you should keep your phone out of your reach when working. Just leave it in another room or in a desk drawer.
If needed, you can check your phone once per hour, in case you need to return someone’s call or answer a message.
Use your headphones to block any background noise
Coworkers talking loudly, phones ringing, or dogs barking outside. Even when you’re trying not to pay attention to background noises, you can easily lose your train of thought.
The most convenient way to handle this issue is to use your headphones. Get yourself a noise-canceling pair if possible.
Then, choose whatever works best for you, either listening to some podcasts, white noise sounds, or your favorite radio station. When it comes to music, be aware that it can affect your productivity both positively and negatively. So, be creative, try different genres, and you’ll find what suits you best. In my experience, music helped me regain my focus at work countless times.
Ensure that your workspace is organized
We talked about sound distractions, but what about the visual ones? For example, you’re working from home, and you keep your favorite book at your desk. The chances are that you’ll be tempted to read a page or two. Or in an office, if you keep some important paperwork all over your desk, it will distract you and you might lose it.
Even if you believe that you can find everything you need in your creative chaos setting, maybe you’ll start reorganizing once you read the next sentence. According to the Harvard Business Review article, scientists from the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute have found that when we’re constantly looking at the clutter around us, our ability to focus gets lower. In addition, when participants from the study cleaned any mess at their workstations, they were more likely to reclaim their attention and boost productivity.
Once you make sure that your work setting is clean and that you don’t have any unnecessary personal items around you, it’ll be easier for you to focus.
Focus on one thing at a time
Do you tend to multitask? The habit of switching between tasks and projects feels like we’re handling two or more tasks at a time. In most cases, multitasking will only make us confused and won’t make us more productive.
Instead of dealing with several assignments simultaneously, try to focus on one thing at a time. By doing so, you’ll be thinking only about that task: how to do it, what resources or tools you need, and when your deadline is. Therefore, your concentration will be improved, too. Even if you get distracted by the outside world when single-tasking, it will be easier for you to re-direct that focus than when you’re multitasking.
Refresh your mind by moving your body
When you’re tired, it’s likely that you won’t be able to focus. In such situations, you can easily get distracted, too.
As David Rock points out in the aforementioned article, “we need to quiet down the brain overall to be able to notice quiet insights.” So, whenever you’re struggling to concentrate, take a walk or do something that you’ll enjoy. Rock claims that refreshing your mind not only enhances your focus but helps you be better at decision-making, too.
In an article for Entrepreneur, Marissa Vicario, health and wellness coach, talks about another benefit of moving your body. When walking, you’ll active your mitochondria, a part of your cells responsible for your energy levels. Plus, taking a walk outside, in the fresh air, stimulates blood flow to the brain. Therefore, you’ll be able to re-direct your focus after a break.
?We have some additional ideas on how to activate your brain and body in order to boost your productivity in our 10 Productivity exercises for body and mind blog post.
Keep a notebook nearby for writing down personal thoughts
You’re doing an important task and suddenly, you remember that you need to go to the ATM or call your mother after work. I bet this sounds familiar.
Now, to prevent any further mind wandering, be sure to keep a notebook nearby and write down these personal thoughts straight away. Thus, you’ll get these thoughts out of your mind, and you’ll be able to move on with your work. So, instead of thinking about your near future, you’ll aim your attention at the present moment. Moreover, you’ll have a reminder for personal errands that you need to run after work.
Have you been distracted while reading this article? Hopefully, not too many times. Although you won’t be able to avoid every single distraction that comes your way, you can learn how to prevent some of them. For example, if you share your schedule with your colleagues, they’ll know when you’ll be busy, and they won’t interrupt you. Along with this one, we covered some other tips to help you maintain or regain your focus after being distracted. By including these tricks into your daily work routine, diversions will feel more tolerable.
✉️ How do you fight distractions in order to stay focused?
Send your answers, suggestions, and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org and we may include them in this or future posts.