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4 dumb ways (and 1 good way) to manage workplace distractions

Working while distracted: It’s dangerous, especially if your job is dealing with creative work. What are some ways to deal with distractions?

First, let’s define the problem. Focus is nice. At work, it’s also elusive. People come by and talk to you, meetings interrupt your day, the coffee pot calls, friendly coworkers drive by with fast-track project requests, and personal matters require your attention.

What’s more, thanks to technology, never in history have we faced more distractions. Frequent use of social media is practically mandatory for your personal life and your career. There’s always some smartphone or tablet beeping somewhere. Amazing advancements in computers have conspired to make sure we have constant access to cat videos. The technology loop is real.

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An uninterrupted day of creative flow can do wonders for your work. Let’s look at five ways to make that happen and the pros and cons of each.

1. Move away from the distractions.

Thinks of a novelist toiling away at a cabin in the woods. Does that describe your office, or anywhere you could reasonably work? Me neither.

The benefits of human contact are just too great to be dismissed. Unless you’re a free agent with tremendous discipline (like a novelist, or stay-at-home freelancer who only needs to check in once a day) you should probably reject this approach outright.

2. Tell people to stop distracting you.

Ever try to distract a kid who’s deeply absorbed in his favorite video game? That use to be me when I’d get interrupted in the middle of writing or editing. I would be cranky. Sometimes I would actually feel panic. And I’d communicate that to the people around me. I might lash out at whoever interrupted me.

This technique is problematic simply because it’s wrong to snap at well-meaning people. Building walls like this might help get stuff done in the short term, but ultimately it strains relationships, making it harder to get stuff done in the long term. On to the next idea.

3. Schedule time in your day to work alone.

Some people will block off a period of time in their schedule — maybe an hour a day, maybe half a day every week — for uninterrupted time. This goes a long way toward reducing interruptions from coworkers, but unless everyone in your workplace does it, you could be making yourself into an island, and creating awkward situations. (“Why exactly weren’t you at my meeting?”)

What about an hour without email or social media? A few years ago, I heard someone recommend spending the first hour of every workday doing work before checking email. That might have made sense 10 years ago, but today it’s so essential to stay connected that this advice feels outdated and unrealistic.

So let’s rule out method 3.

4. Fake it.

Try this: Get absorbed in a project. Then when someone or something interrupts you, give the bare minimum amount of attention. Smile and nod at coworkers, or tap out a short and hasty replies to your emails, or Instagram a photo of your lunch—all without any thought whatsoever. Then get back to your project, which you’ve secretly been thinking about all along.

Seems reasonable as a coping strategy, but it’s a half-assed way to work. Never do something (particularly talking to someone) if you can’t give it your attention. You’ll make mistakes.

So we’ve gone through 4 dumb ways to manage workplace distractions. What’s left that works?

5. Pause focus.

The skill I call pausing focus is more than just handling interruptions with grace. It’s getting right back into the flow after the interruption ends.

I think successful creative people in today’s work environment demonstrate this ability. They have that ability to fully engage in in a project for 30 minutes, pause to talk to somebody for 2 minutes, and then pick the project back up with no loss of momentum. During that 2 minutes, they still give the person they’re talking to honest, human interaction—not half-interested muttering while their brains continue to work on something else. Then, like a needle temporarily raised off a spinning record, they resume exactly where they left off.

Pausing focus requires practice. I’ve found the more I work, the better I get at it. One shortcut that has helped me improve is keeping a brief personal log of what I’m doing. For example, if I start editing a series of 5 documents, I might type into my log, “began editing docs 1-5.” If the phone rings in the middle of document 3, I’ll quickly change that item, “edited docs 1-2, working on 3, still have 4 + 5.” That very simple step saves me a little bit of time and mental energy when I return to the project later. And over time, I’m needing to keep fewer and fewer notes, since that routine is paved into my brain.

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Some day we might start to restructure our offices to make sure everyone gets the right amount of distraction-free, uninterrupted time. Until that miracle occurs, I believe being a successful creative person in a workplace depends on cultivating the skill of pausing focus. I’m trying to practice it and get better at it.

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Image © R_lion_O/Shutterstock

— By Daryl Lang. Filed under Copywriting

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