Time. We all want more of it, but too often, by the end of the day, we discover that the time we were allotted has somehow eluded us. Solutions like timers and project management software can only go so far. We need to change our habits as well.
When it comes to productivity, our human capacity for focus (whether it's tasks, activities, or simply living in the moment) is what drives our level of production. In order to maximize the number of productive hours we have (or let's get real: precious minutes), we need to figure out how to minimize the distractions preventing us from staying focused.
Here are some of the best ways to eliminate distractions and improve your productivity level.
Benefits of Workplace Productivity
Ask any workplace manager, and they'll tell you: The whole point of their job is boosting productivity.
The benefits are clear within any typical business structure. Higher productivity can be measured through increased production, a lowered cost to produce, or both. It results in more efficient resource use, faster time-to-market, better quality, and reduced overhead. That all results in more profits funneled to shareholders thanks to a higher per capita income.
From the perspective of an average worker, better productivity can pave the way for a better work-life balance, since you'll be able to meet your workload expectations with additional breathing time left over. And, assuming your manager values your contributions, you'll be better positioned for a raise or promotion.
Why Is It Important to Eliminate Distractions at Work?
It's no secret that workers should stay focused on while on the job. Constantly disrupting your focus on a work project drops your productivity, which boosts your stress level.
And the health consequences of stress on the human body are near endless, increasing risk for everything from anxiety, depression, and headaches to long-term issues like blood pressure, heart conditions, and even arthritis. Once your brain gets used to working without distractions, you'll be on a path to working smarter and healthier.
How not to get distracted at work:
- Silence or turn off your phone
- Delete unnecessary apps on your phone
- Limit your phone screen time
- Block or limit access to certain websites
- Turn off the Internet
- Maintain an organized workspace
- Constantly refine your email filters
- And refine your social media filters, too
- Work alongside others
- Set boundaries with interrupting coworkers
- Work in blocks
- Schedule time for distractions
When it comes to increasing productivity, there's nothing that can provide you with more additional time to do actual things than turning off your phone. The constant interruption brought on by the barrage of notifications, texts, and emails will stymie your level of focus and lead to minutes or even hours of wasted time.
If you're afraid of missing important calls or messages, then take the lighter route and silence your smartphone. Make sure to turn off notifications from unnecessary apps or services, though, so that you aren't distracted by the visual stimuli. Most devices even offer a ‘Do Not Disturb' setting for use at work and while asleep.
Phone addiction is real and it's worse for some than for others: Research firm Dscout found in 2017 that the top ten percent of phone users will touch their device an average of 5,427 times per day. Cutting that number down can get rid of work distractions, and as an extra bonus, it'll also likely speed up bathroom breaks and give you a better night's sleep to boot.
Even the best mental health apps try to help you cut down on your screen time, but personally, I'll sometimes just delete certain apps on my phone that have a tendency to steal my attention. Knowing that certain apps are readily available at your discretion can often serve as a temptation to procrastinate.
For non-essentials like Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, or Candy Crush, just go ahead and delete them. Whether you're studying or working on something for your job, delete the apps that 1) aren't necessary in helping you complete your task(s) and 2) have a history of distraction. Utilizing this method allows you to still access your phone's essentials, so that you don't miss out on important correspondence. Calm down – you can always re-download those apps when you're done.
The Internet is vast and filled with so many great (and not-so-great) things for you explore! This is, of course, a major problem for our productivity-seeking purposes. But deleting your apps is the last resort: First, you can try merely limiting the amount of time you spend on each one.
The most recent iOS makes this easy. Click on Settings and then the Screen Time option to pull up a list of functions: You'll get a (painful) chart of the average amount of time you've spent on your phone per day during the current week, as well as this list of ways to limit it:
- Downtime — schedule a set timeframe during which you'll be able to access essential apps and make phone calls
- App Limits — This is the same as downtime, but specific to each app on your phone
- Communication Limits — If calls and messaging apps are your vice, you can limit them here
You can view and set similar limits on the Android OS as well, if you open Settings and click on the “Digital Wellbeing” option. With modern tech, you can zero in on the specific apps that are keeping you away from your goals.
Don't forget blocking sites and screen time on your desktop as well as on your phone: There are a lot of services and programs readily available for our use to help us limit the amount of time we spend on distracting sites (I'm looking at you, Reddit).
Many of these tools and services can completely block your access to those sites for a finite amount of time:
- LeechBlock: An add-on that simply allows you to block those darn time-wasters.
- StayFocusd: Really popular Chrome app that limits the amount of time you spend on distractive sites per day. A “nuclear option” allows you to completely block certain sites for hours at a time.
- Cold Turkey: Similar to Anti-Social but has the added function of allowing you to block computer programs like Outlook for a certain amount of time.
- SelfControl: A free and open-source application for Mac OSX that blocks access to your selected sites.
If you're not sure of what sites to actually block or limit, try using RescueTime to help you measure which websites or applications you're wasting too much time on. It's a paid service, but there's a free trial.
Or, better yet, why not just turn off your Internet? If Internet access isn't absolutely essential to your task at-hand, then just turn off the darn thing. The best way to do this? Literally unplug your modem.
You can also try using Freedom. It's a program that enables you to turn off your Internet connection for a selected amount of time. In order to get back online, you need to manually reboot your computer, which is the worst (and precisely why Freedom utilizes it as the only way for you to reconnect).
Similar services are available online: Pick one that looks the best for your needs, and give it at least a two-week trial period, as it might take some getting used to. And if it — or any tip on this page — doesn't work for you personally, don't try to force it. When it comes to figuring out how not to get distracted at work, there's no one-size-fits-all solution.
Remember all of those times in college when you'd find yourself wasting hours cleaning your room instead of writing that paper due at 9am? Having a cluttered workspace is distracting – we can't help but want to stop whatever we're doing and clean or organize the mess before our eyes. So, make sure that your space is always organized, or at least free of messy distractions.
Granted, the effectiveness of this tip might depend on your personal attitude towards messes. Perhaps it helps your workflow to keep a lot of papers or office supplies available on your desk for easy access — a practice that many others would consider messy. Whatever the case, you'll need to figure out what method of organization keeps you focused on your current task.
Similarly, we can get too easily distracted by the mess on our computer screens. Superfluous promotional emails, irrelevant tweets, and whatever else – we all experience them on a daily basis. The best way to deal with these distractions is to filter them out completely.
Fully utilize the filter options on your email client, sorting messages into different categories and visibility options, depending on how important or non-essential they are. A 2019 McKinsey analysis found that the average white collar professional spends 28% of their work day reading and sending email, so you can save a lot of time by cutting back.
While you're at it, consider just picking a set time during the day to check your email, and keep your inbox tab closed for the rest of the day. Depending on how important email is to your job on a daily basis, you might even be able to get away with just answering your email every other day.
The same goes for social media. Unfollow people who aren't adding to whatever experience you're trying to mold through social media, or sort them into lists or categories (I'm thinking specifically of Twitter here) so that your info streams are more focused. This allows you to, say, get on Twitter without getting sidetracked by comedians' tweets (since you'll presumably have a list for those specific users).
This applies to the business software you use to keep in touch with coworkers or clients as well. Perhaps you'll need to mute your Slack notifications during certain hours, or look into a good project management solution. For individual users, the best free project management software is more than enough to help you centralize your daily tasks to better focus on your priorities for each day.
If you're the type of person who has a tough time not pulling up a Twitter tab or flicking through the newest Instagram stories every five minutes, try working closely beside one or more coworkers. If they're buried in their work, you'll be surprised at how much their dedication will rub off on your own work ethic. It's a virtuous cycle, too: Your work will help keep them more focused.
And what if you work remotely, or you freelance and aren't on a team at all? In those cases, co-working spaces or coffeeshops can fit the bill. You can also look up websites for “body doubling,” the term for the video conferencing version of hanging out with a partner in order to (separately) focus on work.
In the worst case scenario, you could try pulling up one of those free websites that plays the audio of people mingling at a coffeeshop.
I know, I know, we just said that you should try working alongside other living, breathing people. But working with others can come at a cost: You're more likely to be interrupted with a mundane work request or clarification that can derail your own project.
(Granted, a five-minute interruption should not be setting you back an hour on your project: If you find that a single one-time disruption of your focus throws off your entire day, consider looking into the indicators of ADHD. It's an underdiagnosed and for my money poorly understood disorder, and if you're this far into an article about avoiding distractions, it's an option worth considering.)
These quick questions are an important part of collaborating with your team, though, and if you're in an office with a team you work closely with, you likely should be available to answer any concerns as they come up.
So, just figure out what system works best for you: Maybe you can ask your coworker to wait five minutes so you can finish coallating your current spreadsheet. Or perhaps you'll want to let everyone know that you're available for an hour at the start of the day and an hour at the end of the day, so that you'll have a chunk of time in the middle of the day to get your projects finished.
Set yourself a timer for a 60 or 90 minute period of time in which to accomplish a specific goal. This works due to a couple different reasons.
First, you'll be able to prioritize your goals more easily. Pick out the most important ones to do first, and you'll always stay on top of your schedule. Second, you'll give yourself a manageable deadline, which can trigger a greater sense of urgency. Constant stress is always a bad thing, but a little bit of safe, short-term stress can give you the extra focus needed to buckle down.
Most importantly: know that distractions are inevitable. From having to respond to email, to simply needing to take a breather and watch cats on YouTube, know that you'll need to eventually break your concentration. The best way to do this is to schedule times for these things.
Whether it's “check and respond to email at 9 am and 1 pm” or “take a 5-minute break every 30 minutes,” distractions work best to your advantage when you prepare for them ahead of time and set limits on the amount of time you spend on such distractions.
Sometimes knowing how to avoid distraction is all about knowing when to give in to one.
How to Continue Staying Focused at Work in the Future
You don't need to use all twelve of the productivity tips listed above. Instead, shuffle through the ones that seem the most relevant to your specific challenges. You'll likely want to adapt them one at a time, to avoid overwhelming yourself with a completely different routine than you're used to.
Everyone's different, but hopefully something on this list will prove to be right for you. Don't forget to check in regularly with yourself to see if it's still working. And, above all, remember to be kind to yourself: Sometimes an inability to focus can stem from a major life event or a medical condition that's ultimately out of your control.
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