If you work in an office, you know how difficult it is to avoid distraction! There are the conversations with co-workers that you want to be part of and then there are conversations that you have no choice but to overhear. "Drive-by" meetings (when someone drops by and says, "do you have a minute" and to avoid being rude, you say, "sure") eat into well laid plans for our day. Urgent issues inevitably come up on your busiest day, and you may get invited to yet another meeting that doesn't really pertain to you. Sometimes distractions can be something as slight as someone's idea of a soothing playlist, a squeaky noise coming from the vent, or the temperature being too hot or too cold. If you work at home, distractions, though different, are still there. The cat, the laundry, the repairman - the list goes on and on. It's amazing that we accomplish anything, right?!
The fact is, there are always going to be distractions. We can have a plan for an ideal day, but unless we build in some flexibility and learn to go with the flow, we will end up frustrated and unproductive. I've worked in many different environments over the years - in a cubicle in an open office, in several offices with doors with varying amounts of people nearby, at a desk in a wide open area, and even at home. Each present their own challenges, but there are a few universal tips that help to keep me focused.
1. Set low expectations
This may sounds strange, but don't make a huge list of all the things you want to accomplish in a day only to be disappointed in yourself when you can't complete them all. Instead, identify your Must Do's - usually this will be 2-3 things that HAVE to get done during the day. The time these take will vary, so if your Must Do's for the day are very short tasks, you can have more or if they are labor intensive, maybe just pick one. If you get through all of these, then you'll feel like a rock star and everything else you accomplish will be gravy!
2. Meet with yourself
Create a MEeting (a meeting with yourself) to do your most important work. Go so far as to schedule this on your calendar so that others don't think you're free all day when in fact you need several hours to complete your critical tasks. Use some of this time to plan and identify your must do's for the following day.
3. Say no (or at least not now)
Learn to decline meetings that don't pertain to you or ask for someone who is already attending to fill you in. Be bold when that "drive-by" meeting request comes to you. I know you feel like a big meany, but saying, "I don't have time right now, but how about 2:30 p.m.?" won't make anyone hate you!
4. Plan for solitude
If you really don't want to be bothered, let others know the time frame where you'll have your nose to the grindstone. Send an email to your colleagues who are prone to stopping by to let them know you will be working on a project from this time to that time and will only be available for urgent matters. Consider setting your out of office assistant on your email with a similar message and setting your instant message status to unavailable. Configure your phone to go straight to voicemail and even customize the outgoing message. Hang a sign on your closed door (if you have one) or on your cubicle wall that says, "Working hard, please knock if it's urgent." Very few people will knock!
"...you're not being a meany, you're protecting your own productivity."
5. Plug your ears
Don't actually stick your fingers in your ears, but use ear buds or headphones! You don't even have to listen to music, just put those earbuds in to instantly block out noise and trick people into not bothering you. Most people will think twice about tapping you on the shoulder if you have ear buds in. Again, you're not being a meany, you're protecting your own productivity. If you can work with music in the background, find a playlist designed for focus and jam out!
6. Plan to waste time
We all need a break and some socialization. Plan for small periods of time to do this throughout the day. Get to work a few minutes early on Monday to chat about the weekend with your coworkers, or plan a lunch date or a break at the same time as the people you most want to talk to. Get up and move every hour - even a bathroom break counts. Drink lots of water and the bathroom breaks will take care of themselves! A quick walk outside does wonders for your concentration when you get back to your desk.
7. Keep track of your time
Write down the time you start and stop each task. For me, when I'm being timed, I'm more efficient. I also learn how long it really takes me to do things so that I can be more realistic with myself. I'm not going to get through my email inbox in 5 minutes, but there are other tasks that will fit into that short of a time frame. I'm also less likely to waste time when it is written down on a piece of paper. It also helps me look back and give myself grace when I don't get my Must Do's complete because I can see that I spent 5 hours in meetings, 2 hours dealing with urgent and unplanned tasks, leaving not a lot of time to get those things I wanted to do complete. Consider using the Pomodoro technique (25 minutes of deep work, a 5 minute break, repeat) I wrote in depth about this in a previous post.
If time is really dragging for you, write down the time you'll be at work down in 30 minute increments (ex. 8:30 a.m. - 9:00 a.m.; 9:00 a.m. - 9:30 a.m.; 9:30 a.m. - 10:00 a.m., etc.) and mark them off as the time passes. You know that little high you get when you check an item off of a to-do list? You get that same feeling for marking the time off, but you also get the feeling that you better kick it into high gear because your available time is waning.
8. Get creative with your schedule and workspace
If you work in an environment where you can control your schedule in any way, use this to your benefit! Sometimes coming in 30 minutes before everyone else (or just that one person who talks so much) can allow you to get as much done as you would have in three times that long during your regularly scheduled time. Take your lunch opposite of those in your vicinity to allow for some quiet time while the others take their lunch. Try working in an alternate space, like a conference room or vacant office, if you have something to complete that takes high focus. Consider a working lunch away from the office. If you have the option to work from home, give it a try. Many people find it much less distracting at home, while others need the structure of an office to keep them on task.
Give these 8 tips a try and let me know if they help you. I'm not going to lie and say that I can always stay distraction-free or perfectly productive, but I have learned that these tricks do help! Do you have other tips to share? Please post in the comments.
A woman with many roles in life who knows the necessity of keeping things in order!