Your to-do list seems to be getting longer by the minute, as you race against the clock toward the end of the workday. You know what you need to focus on, but just as you’re making some headway, yet another interruption brings your progress to a screeching halt.
Whether it’s an endless barrage of emails, chatty co-workers or social media notifications, workplace distractions are the norm rather than the exception. According to a survey by Udemy, nearly three out of four workers admit to feeling distracted while they're on the job, with 16 percent claiming they're "almost always distracted."
Protect your productivity by heading into the workday with a plan. The next time these common distractions threaten to impede your progress, try our expert-recommended strategies to nip them in the bud.
There are many reasons gossip is best avoided, including the fact that it’s a major distraction in the workplace. "It's very easy to fall into patterns where you spend upwards of 20+ minutes talking with coworkers about office gossip heard through the grapevine," warns Dana Case, director of operations at MyCorporation.com. "It's a major distraction from the day and takes up more time than you may realize."
In addition to being a time-sucker, gossiping could also earn you an unwanted reputation in the workplace. "Do you want to be known for spreading rumors, or would you rather be remembered for being a hard, dedicated worker?" asks Case.
The best way to avoid this distraction is to stay focused on your workload. "Steer clear of individuals that you know are particularly chatty at work and try to surround yourself with those who work hard instead," she recommends. If all else fails, wearing a pair of headphones can help detract from conversational interruptions.
While technology can often help you be more efficient and productive, it also has a sneaky way of siphoning your time if you’re not careful. Smartphones in particular put endless distractions—such as text messages, social media and personal email—at your fingertips.
To kick a social media habit, Lokey recommends designating "work" intervals and "rest" intervals throughout the workday. For example, you might schedule 20-minute intervals of uninterrupted focus on workplace tasks. Each work interval is then followed by a three-minute break, during which you can check social media or do any other non-work-related activity.
Having trouble sticking to your mandated intervals? Another option is to install a productivity-themed smartphone app to block you from accessing social media for a specified period of time.
While it might seem efficient to work through lunch, Chris Smith, founder of I Am Net Worthy, points out the importance of sustenance when it comes to performing well at work. If you don’t fuel your body properly, your brain won’t have the energy to help you excel at your tasks.
To keep cravings from chewing into your productivity, Smith recommends taking the time to prepare and bring lunch for work, and to stock up on healthy snacks to sustain you during long days. Food with unhealthy fats can have an effect of sluggishness, he warns. For increased energy and focus, try sticking to protein-rich foods.
From background conversations and music to noisy eaters and gum-chewers, there are countless auditory distractions that come with working in close proximity with other people, says professional organizer Rolanda Lokey. "Listening to music through earphones, or even using earplugs, can drown out distracting sounds in addition to sending a message to others that you’re not open to interruptions," she notes.
Employees at virtually every level within their organizations admit to scrolling through their social media pages while on the clock, Lokey says. "Unfortunately, instant access to these activities often comes at the expense of workplace productivity," Lokey warns.
Maciej Duszynski, career expert at Resumelab, recommends switching off your smartphone notifications during work hours. "How many times a day do you check your Facebook messages or comment on your friends' Instagram photos? This is effectively placing your mind elsewhere, and it's hard to pick up the work from when you left it after you just saw your friends' photos from Maldives' holidays," she says. "All your messages will still be there a few hours later and, most likely, your friends are trying to focus on their work, too."
Instant messaging and in-person interruptions
Both of these are done for the same reason and both can have the same negative impact, notes Mary Kutheis, president of MCK Coaching and Training. Most likely, the person who sends the message or drops by the office is trying to get information to move their own project forward—but the timing is probably not ideal for the person being interrupted.
"Lack of time to maintain focus on one's high-priority projects is a struggle for almost everyone," says Kutheis. "That lost focus can deteriorate quality, impact deadlines and even affect budget. When your work is being evaluated based on those criteria, diminished performance can certainly have an effect on a career trajectory."
As a potential fix, Kutheis suggests creating a company- or department-wide culture where everyone thinks first about the urgency of their question before interrupting a coworker. "Perhaps accumulate several questions and ask them all at one time, rather than interrupting the same person several times a day," she recommends. "Remember that it never feels like an interruption when it's your question—but it probably does feel that way to the other person."
Duszynski suggests agreeing to chat during small breaks. Perhaps every two hours, you and your co-workers can leave your desks to stretch your legs and have a quick conversation away from your workplace. "This way, you will all learn to separate work from relaxation areas," she says.
Open work environments
While the idea behind this type of trendy work environment is to create a more collaborative culture, it's not ideal for people who are easily distracted by incessant noise, notes Kutheis. In fact, an open workspace can cause these people to become stressed, irritable or unable to focus.
"If you know you need at least some time in a quiet environment, make sure to arrange it," Kutheis says. "Perhaps your company allows for some short periods of time where you can wear noise-canceling headphones. Or you can take your work to an empty conference room or even work off-site at home or in a library."
When you think of workplace distractions, you probably think of external stimuli, like a ringing phone, an influx of emails or a chatty co-worker. But as Leon Ho, founder and CEO of Lifehack, points out, internal distractions can be just as much of a drain on your time, energy and focus.
"One of the most common internal distractions at work is that we have too many options on hand—'should I start on this project, answer my emails or plan for my meeting?’ This can cause priority chaos, which is a major demotivator," he warns.
To prevent this, Ho suggests identifying which task needs the most focus to get accomplished, and then break it down into smaller, bite-sized tasks. Each task should have a very clear, short-term benefit (something you can easily describe in one sentence) and a time limit or duration, he says. Then, once you have your list completed, you can prioritize, starting with the focus task and then fitting the others around it.
While it’s not realistic to eliminate all workplace distractions in this fast-paced, hyper-connected culture, you can take proactive steps to better manage them and protect your productivity.