5 ways to reduce distractions at work

By Scot Herrick | Job Performance

Sep 17

In my last post, I talked about how the workplace has a crisis of attention. All of the tools we use to supposedly help our productivity actually destroy our ability to concentrate and achieve flow. We get distracted, interrupted, and drained of energy from useless meetings to the point where we just don’t get anything done. The real question, though, is what can one do about it? There are lots of useless answers, including my favorite: delegate more. Like we can do that working in a cubicle. Right.

But there are some things to try. Things that are actionable. None of these will double your productivity, but perhaps it will allow you to get more engaged in your work and achieve the “flow” state more often. Here they are:

1. Be a badass about your time

One has to start with your attitude about how people use your time. Not how you use your time, but how other people use your time. I was talking with someone in my cube today about good business stuff and another person came and said that she wanted to ask a quick question while the person I was talking to was there. And she did. Then kept asking questions. After five minutes, I looked at her and said “I thought this was going to be a quick question and, instead, it is turning into a meeting.” At that point she apologized — and asked another question.

Point noted. Allow no openings for this person to interrupt you ever again; she will totally disregard your time. But the point was also that I was being a badass about my time. I need to be likeable at work, not nice.

It starts with your attitude about time.

2. Appear offline on IM

When you block out an hour on your calendar to do some task, it’s not enough to not look at email. You also need to turn off Instant Messaging. People who instant message you (outside of back channel conversations during meetings…) are deliberately saying their priority is more important than whatever you are working on at the time. I’m wholly guilty of this practice, so don’t think I’m all angelic here. I’m not.

But it clearly tells me that if I need to get something done, if I need to get into a state of flow in my work, and the task needs good concentration, I need to appear offline on IM. How many times have you heard someone tell you, “Oh, let me check…no, he’s been offline for two hours.” Usually it means that person is out of the office. But it also means taking yourself out of “instant availability at all times no matter what” mode.

And that’s a good thing.

3. Don’t read email; process it

There are endless tips about how to handle email — from not looking at it for long periods of time, to dozens of other things. All interesting tips. None get to the heart of the matter. Email is rampant with potential rabbit holes and sparkly things. There is only one way to prevent that:

Don’t read email; process it. Tweet this

I’m going to do a full article on processing versus reading email, but the essence is this: determine if you have any tasks created by this email, write that task into your task management system (you have one, right?), and then move the email out of the inbox by deleting it or filing it.

The key is that you are purposefully going through the email, responding to it, and getting the inbox to zero. You stop “scanning” your email and leaving it in your inbox without processing it. You stop casually looking at it with the two minutes you have between meetings. You process email.

4. Work away from people who interrupt you

Or, work from a place where you won’t get interrupted by people coming up to you to ask about work. The “drive-by” is a killer to your concentration. It’s great to be in the office because you can do a lot of hallway work, but people will ignore the hallway and come to the cube instead. It kills your productivity.

Home, coffee shop, empty conference room — get away when you have to concentrate on a task. The difference between no interruptions and what normally happens in an office is getting something taking half the time with twice the quality. There is just no comparison — but we let the interruptions kill our productivity.

5. Influence what meetings you attend

Finally, take a hard look at the meetings you attend. With many, of course, you have no choice. You need to attend for all sorts of good reasons.

But many you don’t. My criteria is this: If I’m attending a meeting on the phone and can have a conversation for five minutes with a coworker that isn’t in the meeting, or I’m reading personal stuff, or I’m multi-tasking (which is not multi-tasking) for most of the meeting, I shouldn’t be in that meeting.

The meeting becomes an easy crutch to not do more important work. It’s a way of avoiding hard questions about how you spend your time. It means you aren’t being a badass about how you spend your time.

I’m not advocating here that you are on point doing work 100% of the time. I am advocating that you can have much better engagement with your work, be more productive, and produce better quality work by getting rid of the distractions.

Hard to do. Requires a lot of discipline. But necessary.