One of the nicest things about working in an office is your co-workers. Having other people around to talk to and work alongside can make working more enjoyable, and make tedious things seem not quite as bad.
Sometimes, though, you’ve got work that requires your full attention. For me, it’s usually the editing phase of an article I’m about to turn in – I need to be fully engaged, paying complete attention, for an hour or so to make sure the article is perfect. Trouble is, co-workers aren’t always so good at knowing when you need some solitude, and unwelcome distractions are a staple of anyone who tries to actually do work.
With a few simple tricks, though, you can kill (or at least minimize) those distractions when you want to, putting them off until you’re in the mood to be distracted. Here are eight ways to defeat the distractions that keep you from getting real work done:
For some reason, most people won’t interrupt someone who’s wearing headphones – it’s a universal symbol for “please leave me alone.” For some of us, music can be a distraction too; don’t even listen to music. Just put on a disconnected pair of headphones, and work away – you’ll be able to hear just fine, but since other people will think you can’t, they won’t try distracting you.
I worked in an office where that rule – if I’m wearing headphones, go away – was made explicit, and it worked really well. In most places, though, the rule still unofficially applies, so throw on some headphones and enjoy the peace and quiet.
Standing Room Only
The difference between someone coming into your cubicle or office for 30 seconds, and 30 minutes, is often whether or not they can sit down. If you don’t have a chair in your office, there’s nowhere to sit and get comfortable, and the length of visits (welcome or unwelcome) drops considerably.
If you want to provide a place to sit down, but don’t want the distractions sometimes, try putting a pile of papers on top of the chair. Take it off when you’re in need of some distraction.
Walk and Talk
I had this tactic used on me, and decided it’s genius. If someone really needs to talk to you, have them talk to you while you go do something you need to do anyway, like get a cup of coffee. You’re not losing any time because you needed coffee anyway, and our conversation is limited to the time your little errand takes. Once you’re back at your desk, make it known you’ve got to get back to work.
Distractions don’t just come face-to-face: the ringing of the phone or the “Ding!” of a new email can both be huge distractions that are tough to recover from (studies show that it can take up to fifteen minutes to get back to work after even the smallest distraction). When you’ve got crucial, attention-demanding work to do, fall off the grid – close your email client, silence or unplug your phone, and get to work.
Disconnecting from the Internet entirely is a good thing, but isn’t always possible. At the very least, make sure you’re getting rid of anything that will make sound, pop up, do somersaults, or otherwise dance its way into your attention.
Be in the Middle of Something
If someone comes over and starts chatting you up, don’t stop working, turn around, kick your feet up and start a conversation. Keep working, pausing at necessary moments to answer them. Don’t be impolite, but make it clear that you’re in the middle of something that can’t afford to wait. They’ll get that, and give you space to get your work done.
Make Up Somewhere to Be
I use a couple of different reminder services (things that pop up and say things like “Go get your laundry” at a time you tell it), but never for actual reminders. Instead, they’re great excuses for the work equivalent of the “call from the hospital” to get you out of a blind date.
Some services, like Skype, can be set to call your phone at a specific time; others, like Google Calendar or Task.fm, can pop up on your computer or send you a text message. It’s all gold. Anything that dings, rings, buzzes or beeps is the perfect excuse to say “Oh, I have to take this. Let me get back to you.” And boom – you’re back to work.
Most of the things people come to talk to you about, or email you about, aren’t particularly pressing. Sure, they might be important, but odds are you don’t need to talk about it right this very second.
That’s why there’s no problem and no shame in saying “I’m in the middle of something – I’ll come find you when I’m done.” That way, they’re not going to come back looking for you, because you’re going to them when you get a chance. It frees you to do what you actually need to be doing right now, and get to the rest later.
One of the classic parts of the vacation auto-responder emails everyone sets up when they leave is something to the effect of, “if you need help, call Dean at 555-1234. If you REALLY need help, call my cell phone at…” Create the same sort of system for your workday.
If at all possible, have another person – an assistant, or partner – who can deal with people who need you, while you’re working. If people absolutely need to talk to you this very second, create a system for that. Knock three times, quack like a duck, and bring me a Coke. Or, you know, something like that.
I wouldn’t trade office life for anything – I love having people to eat lunch with, ask questions of, and collaborate with to make things better than I could do myself. It’s also a lot harder to procrastinate when everyone can see you on Facebook, but I digress. Distractions do come, some unavoidable, but by minimizing necessary distractions and avoiding unnecessary ones, you’re in great shape to get tons more done.
How do you deal with distractions when you need to get work done?
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