How to minimise distractions at work

How to focus on workIn any office work environment there are plenty of distractions. A ringing phone, an email pop up alert, a colleague who wants to talk about weekend football. Some of these distractions are productive, like a break for example, but many are just keeping us from doing our work.

A recent observation study by Fast Company [1] found that office workers stayed on each task for a little over 3 minutes. The bad news is it takes 23 minutes and 15 seconds, on average, to get back on task. So, believe it or not, if you are a multi-tasker you probably spend more time preparing for tasks than actually getting them done.

Here’s how to start your work day more focused on your goals, avoid distractions and stay on task. Not every tip will work for your situation, however, follow as many as you can and you will get more done.

1. Start work early: Start work before your colleagues and you should be able to work interruption free before they get in at 9am. You will be amazed at what you can get done in one hour that would otherwise take you all day to do.

2. Take some time to think: Arnold Schwarzenegger uses exercise to calm his mind and give him time to think. Arnold also talks about meditation, as an alternative, in his interview with Tim Ferriss. Steve Jobs used to take long walks to think about the day ahead. Walking for just 30 minutes is thought to be good for your mind, not just your body (Benefits of Walking). Take some time to think about your problems before you get into the work.

3. Start with your daily routine: I have found starting with my normal daily routine prompts my brain into action, particularly if I am starting later than usual or working from home. Next time you are working at home try getting ready as if you were going to work. You might be surprised at how much better you work.

4. Open your calendar first at work: You should always start by looking at your plan. What you enter into your calendar is about your goals, your meetings and your agenda. If you start your day in email you will end up spending too much time on other people’s agendas.

5. Avoid news websites: I used to start every day reading news websites. I soon discovered I was spending a lot of time following links to read articles of interest, posting comments on Facebook and discussing the news with colleagues. It took me a long time to learn that so called ‘news’ websites are there to entertain, not inform. Tim Ferriss, Author of the Four Hour Work Week, points out the benefits of having a low-information diet. I was reading Tim’s book when I first discovered how much time I was wasting each day!

6. Turn your phone down or off: A ringing phone demands your attention but the call is very rarely about an urgent matter. When you answer a call you stop what you are doing and focus on the conversation (at least that’s what you should do). According to the study we mentioned earlier it can then take you more time to get back on task than it would have to ignore the call and complete the task. Turn your phone down when you first get to the office and spend an hour or two working on your most important tasks.

7. Set your IM presence to busy: Some offices have an instant messaging application for colleagues to contact each other. Most of these IM applications have a ‘presence’ indicator, so you can mark yourself as busy or available. Set your presence to busy, so people understand they may call you but they will be interrupting important work. For less urgent matters, most people will think twice before they call. You can do the same with personal IM applications like MSN and Skype.

8. Turn off automatic notifications: When you install software related to social media, email, instant messaging or phone calls it is usually already set to notify you by flashing up on your screen or playing some sort of alarm. You can and should disable these alerts in your settings. It is okay to be slow replying to social media. If someone needs to contact you urgently they can call your mobile.

9. Schedule your email checks: Email is overused. Email is free, which is why most people choose to send more than their fair share of email around the company. Many of my colleagues leave their email on, so they can check it as soon as they hear ‘ding’. Schedule some time in your day to check your email, rather than leaving it on all day. So, rather than switching tasks every time you hear that alarm, (turn the alarm off) answer email during the time you allocate.

10. Schedule social media checks: Staying off social media at work is no longer an option for most people. It can be a welcome distraction. That’s okay… but treat it like that. Turn off your notifications and alerts and focus on the task at hand. Schedule set times during the day to check social media. Social media is entertainment, it’s not news.

Please take the time to put these things into practice. Try them for a week and see if you can save yourself some time. Some people will tend to read this and believe they know what the result will be, without ever trying any of these tips.

Your results may vary depending on the type of work you do, so I suggest you try these things, make some adjustments and discover what works for your situation.



[1] ‘Worker, Interrupted: The Cost of Task Switching’, Fast Company. Accessed at on June 29, 2015.

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