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Can't Focus at Work? 3 Common Distractions and How to Deal

Amy Bergen profile image

Amy Bergen

A person holding their smartphone and looking at their laptop.

No matter where you work, it can be remarkably easy to get sidetracked from the work at hand. According to a University of California-Irvine study, most office workers get interrupted by something—a chatty colleague, a Facebook notification, a new email—every 11 minutes and a 2018 study by Udemy found people often underestimate the time it takes to get back on task.

So what’s keeping us away from work? Three of the biggest offenders are social media, internet surfing (including checking email), and coworkers. None of these factors are going away, so it’s up to you to take control of your time.

Rein in social media use

Anyone who has and frequently uses a social media platform knows how many hours these sites can consume. Quick checks to your personal account throughout the day may not seem like much, but they add up and become habit-forming. So how do you keep the temptation at bay?

Planning your online time in advance will go a long way.

Adjust your notification settings. Most sites and apps let users control how and when they see updates. Opt to receive fewer activity notifications or to get them less frequently. Phones can be toggled this way too—many phones have a "Do Not Disturb" mode or an option to put the phone on silent.

Download a site blocker. Can't seem to stay off of Facebook? These apps and add-ons do the work for you by restricting your access to certain sites.

If your phone is the culprit, put it out of reach. You don’t have to turn your phone off at work if that’s not a practical option. The solution can be as simple as relocating the phone to a place where it’s not constantly visible (but accessible if needed).

Delete phone apps. Ease of access can make social media extra enticing. And going through an extra step to get to a site (having to go through your browser rather than having the app on your phone) might mean you visit the it less often.

Plan your time spent online

The internet can be a blessing and a curse for getting work done. Planning your time spent online will go a long way.

Schedule email checking time. Workers spend an average of 20.5 hours in a 40-hour work week reading and answering email, according to one estimate. If you cut down even a fraction of that time, your productivity will skyrocket. Instead of leaving your inbox up on the screen, set aside blocks of time for correspondence.

Sort emails according to priority. Not every message is an emergency. Figure out which emails require immediate action, which give information for long-term projects, and which can wait. Gmail and Outlook, two common email service providers, allow users to prioritize certain messages and sort others into folders and archives.

Read up on current events—then focus elsewhere. If a national crisis is unfolding or a local development has everyone buzzing, you may want to stay tuned in. But this habit can leave you feeling more distressed than informed. Try reading updates once or twice a day outside of work hours.

Try the Pomodoro Technique. This popular method breaks your time into segments of 25 minutes called "pomodoros." Work on a task for 25 minutes, then take a five-minute break, and repeat. Once you complete four 25-minute work blocks, you can extend your break. Every time you’re distracted, though, you have to start over again. This method also works for splitting large tasks into more manageable chunks.

Cut down on coworker distractions

Even if coworkers aren’t constantly approaching your desk to chat, they can disrupt you simply by making noise in the office. While there isn’t much you can do to stop daily office noise, you can block it out. And you can clearly but politely let them know you are in do-not-disturb mode.

Wear headphones. Many people find instrumental music (without lyrics) provides a relaxing background. If you prefer a quiet atmosphere, try a white noise app like Noisli. Youcan also wear headphones without playing music as a nonverbal signal to potential disruptors.

Use the "inform, negotiate, and call back" strategy. Francesco Cirillo, inventor of the Pomodoro Technique, suggests using this three-tiered method for coworker interruptions:

  • Inform the other person you’re in the middle of a task right now.
  • Negotiate to schedule a time when you two can talk.
  • Call back at the designated time or whenever your task is complete.

The phrase "I’m working on something at the moment, can we chat in 15 minutes?" takes care of all three tiers at once.

Find or make a quiet space if possible. If your workspace allows you to move around, pick a quiet spot far away from the main action of the office, like an empty table or conference room. Removing yourself from the presence of other people can take away the temptation to socialize.

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Amy Bergen profile image

Amy Bergen

Amy Bergen is a writer based in Portland, Maine. She has experience in the social impact space in Baltimore, Maryland, the educational museum sphere in Columbus, Ohio, and the literary world of New York City.

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