A recent UC Irvine study showed that it takes up to 23 minutes to recover from a distraction--so it's no wonder that work environments full of social busybodies and rich in shiny objects can drive down productivity.
People are inundated with stimulation and requests for their attention, leaving them with little to no uninterrupted time to focus on their work. In fact many company are now eschewing the open office in favor of less noisy and more focused work environments.
The likelihood of being distracted is directly related to the amount of pull something is having on your attention and indirectly related to the interest you have in your task. When you're completely engrossed in what you're doing, you'll shut out everything around you.
The professional basketball player at the free throw line, for example, can completely shut out the thousands of screaming fans. However, when you are only marginally interested in what you're doing, then you might turn your attention at the slightest prompt. Increasing your ability to focus will come from balancing those two types of interest level.
It's also important to know your triggers. For instance, I know I'm highly visual. I can be intensely focused on a task and not hear a sound, but if there's a television display in my field of vision, I can't help but look. Other people I know can have a wall of screens in front of them and not blink, but someone talking behind them can cause them to use earplugs.
If you're stuck in a distraction-rich environment, here are 18 things you can do to reduce the chance that your attention will get pulled away from the work at hand:
- Wear headphones, but don't actually play any music. Headphones both cut down the noise and also serve as a deterrent from people bothering you. The bigger headphones, the better.
- Put a sign on your door or on your desk saying "busy" or "I'm focusing" or "Do not interrupt" to let people know you shouldn't be bothered right now.
- Hang a signup sheet on your door or next to your desk with your calendar including empty slots indicating when you're free to meet with them.
- Establish office "focus time" for certain hours of the day or days of the week where everyone agrees not to bother or distract people.
- Use a white noise system to provide background noise or music without lyrics to drown out other people's conversations and keyboard noises.
- Turn off the notifications on phones and browsers for a period of time during the day. Use autoresponders to let people know when you'll get back to them.
- Schedule your day so that you're working on projects that require the greatest amount of focus during naturally distraction-less times. If you have flexible hours, consider coming in an hour early to get some quiet time before everyone else arrives.
- Use pomodoros to create a natural rhythm to you work and increase your mental capacity for focus.
- Exercise or take a walk before sitting down to do important and difficult work. This practice increases your focus and energy level.
- Try using deep breathing and meditation techniques to calm your mind before engaging in focus time.
- If your mind is swimming with ideas or things to remember, try a mind sweep to get them on paper and free up your thinking space to focus on the important task at hand.
- Breakdown big or difficult task into smaller and easier first steps to kick start your engagement and focus.
- Find a partner and do a productivity challenge to see who can get more done in an hour or ninety minutes.
- Go to a coffee shop or a co-working space where nobody can find you to get a few hours of distraction-free time outside of the office.
- Get more sleep so you have the mental capacity and focus to stay alert and to focus on your work.
- Redefine your goals and tasks to be more compelling and motivating so that you're more engaged in the work.
- Set mini goals and rewards for completing focused work sessions throughout the day. Use completion targets to challenge yourself. See how much you can get done by a certain time.
- Eat foods that will increase your mental focus and give you the energy you need to stay productive for longer periods of time.
While we can't always avoid every distraction, we can often greatly reduce our exposure to things that pull our attention away from our work. Knowing our weakness and putting in systems and devices to cut them off at the source is the key.