7 ways to stay focused at work when distractions are inevitable, according to a productivity coach

With the help of social media and our narrow attention spans—we’re all guilty of having one too many opened tabs on our internet browser—sitting at a desk all day can really put our concentration skills to the test. 

According to a survey conducted in 2018 by Udemy, an online learning platform, nearly three out of four workers (70 percent) admitted they feel distracted when they’re on the job. The bright side is that when workplace distractions are reduced, 75% of employees are more productive. “About 50% of our distractions are well within our control,” Melissa Gratias, who has a Ph.D. in industrial/organizational psychology and has been a productivity consultant since 2007, tells HelloGiggles. So, the big question is, what is causing these distractions and how can we stay focused when they’re inevitable?

While some of the most common workplace distractions include coworkers dropping by, office noise, meetings, email, the internet, and social media, you don’t need an expert to tell you that staying focused and productive is one of the most difficult challenges employees face in the workplace. But what a productivity expert can tell you is how to break up your workday with different action plans to avoid these interruptions from impeding your productivity. Peruse their words of wisdom, below.

Simple ways to stay focused at work.

1Figure out your peak productive hours.

According to Gratias, breaking up your workday depends on two things: your peak productivity hours and the typical ebbs and flows in your particular work environment. “If you are most productive in the morning—most people are before lunch—then it’s important not to schedule a lot of meetings [during that time]. Schedule those cerebral, creative tasks during the time where you’re most focused and energetic,” says Gratias . Of course, there’s no one-size-fits-all scheduling formula that will work for everyone. Still, she encourages all workers to have an organized email system in place, which brings us to our next point.

2Create designated time slots for email.

“If we don’t intentionally determine when we’re going to process our email, then we might feel like we have to do it all the time. We’ll always have it open on our ancillary computer screens. Or, we’ll feel like we need to check it every time there’s a break in a task,” says Gratias. To counteract this urge to be at your emails beck and call, give yourself three to four time slots a day to respond: Early in the morning, right before lunch, later in the afternoon, and possibly add another one when appropriate. During these processing periods, you can either quickly reply or add the task to your to-do list with progress dates. “It’s incredibly distracting to manage these tasks mentally. Delegating the task of remembering stuff to your to-do list is a key way to free up your mind and allow you to focus on the things that are most important to make progress on,” she says. 

3Use the “take ten, give five” rule.

We’re not the only ones who are distracting ourselves. You’ve probably been in a situation where your co-worker comes to your desk and says, “Got a minute?” According to Gratias, about 50% of our distractions are caused by other people, which is why she says to “take ten, give five.” 

“If someone [approaches or calls you], take ten seconds to scratch out a note of what you were doing or highlight the sentence you were writing on the screen or put a post-it note on your desk,” she recommends. Those ten seconds may feel like an eternity but it’ll be worth it when you jump back into your task with much-needed clarity. Then, you’d ask the person who swung by or called if they need more than five minutes with you. If so, explain that you may want to schedule a time to talk or save it for lunch. Gratias also explains that if your office is particularly noisy and distracting, find an “escape room” or request to work from home once a week. 

4Color-code your calendar.

The author of Decluttering For Dummies, Jane Stoller (a.k.a. Organized Jane), helps workers restructure their time and become more productive by teaching them the cardinal rules of calendar management. Her tried-and-true method will break up your workday into scheduled timeframes that emphasize self-care and planning ahead. Yes, making time for exercise, relaxing, and commuting are also part of the equation. She suggests to color-code, over-plan, and incorporate meeting plans into your calendar.  

“Color-coding not only makes your calendar look pretty, but it works. It’s perfect for Google and Mac calendars and even the old-school written agendas, where you can use different color pens. Color-coding also helps for a quick-glance overview. For example, if you have meetings in red and [if] you only see red when you open your calendar, then maybe you have too many meetings? For me, when I am missing light pink, I know that I am not working out enough,” she says. Stoller also explains that workers need to over-plan by taking their free time into account. “Even CEOs need this time blocked to reflect and actually create hypotheses on their findings,” she adds.

5Be diligent about scheduling meetings.

According to Stoller, meetings shouldn’t be scheduled longer than necessary. “If you plan your meeting, [try to] get it done in 45 minutes or less. And if a meeting takes six minutes, book six minutes, not 30. People few and far between actually share their calendar with each other, but it’s a game-changer and time-saver for both parties when you’re trying to schedule a meeting,” she says. “I hate going back and forth to plan meetings with friends or co-workers. When my calendar is shared [with them], then my free time shows up and that time can be booked, simple as that!” Gratias also suggests auditing your calendar to see if you’re spending your time in the right meetings. “Decline further participation, delegate attendance to someone else, or even suggest shortening the meeting, if it’s appropriate,” she says. 

6Use a time cube to stay on track.

Before anything else, make sure that you’ve scheduled desk time to complete tasks so your calendar doesn’t just get filled up with other people’s meetings. Stoller suggests having your key priorities written down the evening before. Using a “time cube” to stay on track can ensure that you’re blocking out time in one hour or less intervals. “It minimizes distractions and allows for you to complete high-priority tasks in a timely manner. You can keep it at your desk, and bring it into brainstorm meetings to ensure everyone is productive and has insightful ideas to contribute to the conversation,” she says. 

7Turn off all notifications—yes, even email.

A task list doesn’t just free your time, it stops you from wasting it on tempting interruptions when there’s a pause in your workflow. “When we are transitioning from one task to another, that’s a key distraction point. The temptation of that transition is to get on Instagram or Facebook and go down a social media rat hole,” says Gratias.

Instead of asking yourself what to do next, your task list will tell you what to work on. Another necessary way to say focused is to turn off all app notifications, especially email. “It’s transformative if you can overcome your hesitancy that you’re not going to be immediately responsive to every bing, bong, and buzz that comes in,” she says. 

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