5 Ways to Minimize Office Distractions
Bad news for the self-proclaimed multitasker: research continues to debunk the myth that you can productively do more than one task at a time. The human brain simply isn’t designed to function this way. Attempting to divide your focus increases stress and decreases performance.
Unfortunately, however, most workplaces are not conducive to focus. They are full of urgent and attractive interruptions that reduce our ability to devote attention in a way that produces both high-quality results and pleasurable engagement. Evidence of our attention’s fragility continues to mount. A ringing phone damages productivity, but even a small vibration can impose a substantial cognitive tax. And if that weren’t enough, additional studies show just the presence of a phone undermines our focus and weakens interpersonal connections.
Persistent interruptions become especially insidious when we are unaware of the powerful role our surroundings play in shaping our thoughts, moods, and choices. I call this being environmentally unconscious. Think of the last time you were reading a book on a flight. As the sun set and the cabin darkened, you began to strain in order to see the words on the page. The gradual change in your environment happened outside your awareness without triggering the obvious fix: turning on the overhead light.
Modern office interruptions seem similarly subliminal. For example, email alert chimes trigger feelings of anxiety and curiosity. In order to relieve the itch, many people disengage from a more important task to check their inbox or phone. While they may not enjoy this disruption, few people pause to consider that they can control it by silencing the phone — or better yet, silencing the phone and banishing it to a purse or drawer, out of view.
Simply gritting your teeth and attempting to ignore nagging interruptions doesn’t work. Here are five ways to take control of your environment so it stops controlling you.
Monitor emotions. Try this little experiment: The next 10 times you allow yourself to be interrupted, stop and ask, “What was I feeling immediately before I switched tasks?” Most of our interruptions are addictive responses — learned tactics for avoiding uncomfortable emotions.
In a small experiment, I asked college students to journal their interruptions, and I found that over 90% of task switches were a response to feelings of anxiety, boredom, or loneliness. Becoming more aware of the motives behind your response to seductive interruptions will help you develop healthier strategies for managing your feelings — and for resisting that email or phone alert.
Take the easy wins. Unconscious anxiety about incomplete tasks can also make you vulnerable to distraction. Rather than letting worry take control, help yourself focus by simply knocking off a few high-anxiety but low-complexity tasks from your list. Anything on your to-do list that’s unfinished draws on your attention. And the interesting thing is that, as David Allen points out in his book Getting Things Done, the low-complexity tasks draw disproportionately from that finite reserve of attention.
For example, “Finding a cure for cancer” attracts more of your attention than “Setting a lunch appointment with the boss.” However, this latter task tends to draw more than it deserves. So, free up mental energy by simply knocking off any task that takes less than two minutes to finish before focusing on the cure for cancer.
Structure solitude. Carve out time and space for focus. Learn what your most productive times of day are, then schedule blocks of time for concentrated work on complex tasks. And don’t just schedule the time: create a ritual around building a peaceful space. Turn off phones, alerts, and even internet access, if you can. Give yourself a temporal and spatial oasis and then enjoy the space. At first, you may experience withdrawal pains (see #1 above). But hang with it.
Build your attention muscle. Attention is a muscle, and the appeal of interruptions is evidence of atrophy or underdevelopment. But the stronger the muscle grows, the longer you can focus on a task. Carl Sandburg shares a relevant story in his book Abraham Lincoln. An observer saw Lincoln sitting on a log, lost in thought as he wrestled with an especially vexing issue. Hours later, the observer happened by him again, still in the same position. All at once, a light broke across his face and he returned to his office. Lincoln had the ability to sit with a problem long enough that it surrendered its secrets to him. Be patient as your muscle grows. Time how long you can focus. Allow yourself to increase your sessions of structured solitude gradually to match your ability.
You can also build the muscle by using some of your drive and commute time to simply sit still and allow your mind to sort and present ideas to you. Turn off all media and let your mind relax and follow its own agenda for a fixed period of time. Try five minutes if it’s difficult, then increase the time as you discover the creative and therapeutic value of silence.
Take a problem on a walk. If the office environment makes it difficult to exclude interruption, develop a walking plan. Take an interesting and important problem with you on the walk. Moving your body can supplement mental activity. And you’ll be less likely to encounter interruptions while in motion.
You don’t get to vote on whether our interruption-driven world is influencing you. Instead, you’ve got two choices: take control of these distractions or let them control you. If you allow the latter to happen, interruptions will undermine your performance, increase your stress, and weaken your capacity to pay attention.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. If and when you take control of the things that control you, you can reap the benefits of our always-online world without so many of the costs.