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10 Ways to Deal With Distractions Back in the Office

Tips for handling interruptions you don’t have working from home

spinner image a woman in business attire tries to calm down while being surrounded by demanding co-workers

As workplaces reopen, the distractions of working in the same room with others are coming back too. A recent survey found that 1 in 4 employees consider their coworkers their top distraction at work.

Now that more employees are back in the office, many find themselves having to adjust to interruptions they didn’t have at home, including catching up with coworkers they haven’t seen in person in a while. If you’re having trouble staying focused, here’s some advice about overcoming those productivity-busting interruptions in the office. 

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1. Set your space up for success

As you look for ways to work efficiently, start with your immediate environment, says executive coach Henna Pryor, founder of the Pryority Group, a coaching and consulting firm. Determine what interrupts your focus most. If you’re tempted to look at your phone too often, put it in a drawer. If office noises distract you, invest in a pair of noise-canceling headphones or earbuds. “Don’t rely on your willpower alone,” she says. Pryor also suggests creating custom wallpaper for your phone that says something like, “Is this the most important thing to be doing right now?”

2. Turn off notifications

“These days, the most common workplace distractions are digital,” Pryor says. You may be bombarded with a text ding, a Slack notification or an email alert pop-up, “all while we’re on a Zoom call and hammering the mute button before someone hears all of it,” she says. Turn off as many notifications as possible, so you’re not always being pulled into a new task before you’ve finished the one you’re working on.

​3. Recognize which goals matter most

Despite all the vehicles we have to communicate, we often don’t do it well, says executive coach Bill Catlette, a partner at leadership consulting firm Contented Cow Partners. “Despite billions spent on internal communications, and comms portals located in every pocket or palm, we generally do a pitiful job of helping our teams understand — really understand — where we’re headed,” he says. It’s important to work with your supervisor to understand how your work contributes to organizational priorities. It’s hard to get fired up about your job and be as productive as possible if you don’t understand why your work matters.

4. Make the most of your energy spikes

You likely notice times during the day when you have more or less energy. Protect those high-energy or high-focus times for the work that demands the greatest concentration and creativity, says Sarah Deane, founder and CEO of MEvolution, an organizational consulting firm. “We all have a natural rhythm throughout the day. In an energy upswing, we can better direct our attention and can be more productive.”

5. Retrain your brain

It may take a little practice to get back in the swing of working near other people, Pryor says. “Our brain is a mental muscle that can be trained and optimized.” With practice, you can retrain your brain to work in deeper periods of focus, but it does require conditioning, she says. So work on setting goals and monitoring your progress and how well you’re deterring and ignoring distractions.

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6. Schedule times to catch up

If you’re newly back at work or on a hybrid schedule where people aren’t often in the office together, it’s likely that you’re happy to see your coworkers and want to catch up. “We’ve missed connection, so it’s easier lately for unrelated office chatter to take over again,” Pryor says. One tactic for corralling chitchat is to set a time limit up front, saying, for example, you have 10 minutes now to chat. Alternatively, schedule a specific time to catch up over lunch, coffee or during a short break.

7. Block time on your office schedule

Pryor also recommends blocking off time on your office schedule for specific tasks. Keeping your personal energy cycles in mind, use your calendar to designate specific time blocks for certain tasks, such as one-on-one conversations or administrative tasks. Another method is the Pomodoro Technique, where you set a timer for a fixed period and focus on nothing but a specific task during that time. “These techniques help you access focus in shorter bursts and tend to be more accessible than trying to do long, multi-hour blocks without getting distracted,” she says.

8. Play “red light, green light”

Visual cues can also be helpful in office settings, Pryor says. Employees at some companies have adopted a “red, yellow, green” framework for their workspaces, using colored paper or even Post-it Notes as indicators somewhere on their workspace. You can also create a digital version.

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  • Red means “I’m in the zone on something important. Please don’t interrupt.” 
  • Yellow means “Approach with caution.”
  • Green means “I can chat, come on in!” 

9. Watch out for burnout

It’s hard to be productive if you’re burned out, which has a direct impact on your health and well-being, says Cara de Lange, founder of Softer Success®, a company that provides evidence-backed burnout solutions for businesses. “ ‘Quiet quitting’ is happening because people are burnt out,” she says. Work on recognizing the signs of burnout and giving yourself breaks if you feel tired or irritable.

10. Delegate when you can

Don’t fall into the trap of believing you have to do everything yourself, says Andrea Meyer, director of benefit services at WorkSmart Systems. Delegation is not a sign of laziness — it’s a sign of effectiveness. Instead, delegating tasks “provides an opportunity for your employees to gain leadership experience and develop skills that will ultimately benefit your company,” she says. Freeing up your time for tasks that are better suited to your strengths will also help you be more focused and get more done.

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