6 Tips for Dealing with Workplace Distractions

Bandit interuptingI had every intention of getting my to-do list done before noon today.  My dogs, especially Bandit, had other intentions.  My dogs are a fixture in my office; they are also my biggest distraction.

I completed my three mile morning indoors on the treadmill this morning, much to the chagrin of the pups.  I plan on taking them out this afternoon or evening, but there was no way I was going to take spaz-pup Luke on a walk when I could not see right in front of my face.  Too many opportunities for tripping, twisting of ankles, darting off to chase unseen creatures – the treadmill was much safer.

The dogs didn’t care and I think Bandit got a little miffed by that and built resentment.  In the middle of one writing project he sat next to me and started the low whine.  Dog owners will recognize this as the “notice me, but I’m not really drawing attention to myself.”  It did not work.

He promptly climbed up in my lap for the more direct approach.  After an appropriate time of belly rubbing and “good boys” I had him get down and started to work again.

Then he began “talking.”  This is a step up from the low whine, but more gusto.  Just in case he had to go and couldn’t hold it, I took them outside and left the door open for them to come and go as they please.

A bit later, he was back.  A combination of talking, climbing and pawing.  His game had elevated.  Turns out this time he really needed to go outside but the door was closed.  I am convinced he told Luke to shut it just so he could cause more ruckus.

This is when I had to have a little talk with him, pictured here, and the inspiration hit me for this blog.

I have always managed to handle workplace distractions pretty well, dogs included.  Let’s face it, sometimes they are just so darn cute!  Although your co-workers or boss will not be doing the low whine or climbing on your lap (that is a whole other issue!) there are ample opportunities for distractions at work.

The most common are an avalanche of emails, loud conversations in your vicinity, last minute requests, talkative co-workers, unscheduled meetings/calls and auditory distractions from music to loud copiers.

Here are tips to help tune out some common distractions and still be productive:

Quiet Your Mind

Before you leave for the night, make a list of priorities for the next morning.  This will help you start fresh and have a clear picture of what you need to get done and what you want to get done.

This will also allow you to schedule a block of time for high priority.  If your co-workers are chattiest in the afternoon and the copy machine is not used before 11 am, schedule your high priorities for the morning.

If, during this period, you are still finding others near you to be distracting, go to a conference room or empty cube.  It is okay to give a gentle hint in gathering your materials and letting them know, “if you need me I’ll be in the conference room, I really need to concentrate on this to complete it.”

Quiet Your Technology

Turn off all notifications.  Silence your phone and turn off email notifications.  Technology is a wonderful thing, but is also a huge interruption.  So many of us, myself included, have become condition to stop whenever we hear a notification on our phone.  It may be a Twitter or Facebook notification and we may not look at it immediately, but we stop and register it when we hear it.  Unplug while you concentrate.

Quiet Your Space

Plan your workspace for efficiency and minimal distractions.  Keep only the high priority item in front of you at the moment; place everything else in a tickler file or in a drawer temporarily.  It is too easy for our eyes to wander on the mountain of paperwork calling our name.  Some jobs do not allow for this, when I worked in Compliance there was no way my desk would ever be described as “minimalist”.  What I would do instead is get an empty paper carton, put everything in there (in my own organized manner) and put the box under my desk.  I just had to NOT see it.

Quiet Your Critic

I used to beat myself up about lack of organization and being easily distracted by the chaos in and around me.  This negative self-talk actually encouraged distractions.  I one day realized that this is my style.  I can clean my desk picture perfect and the next week it will be back in chaos.  It is my organized chaos and it is my comfort level.  I learned to work within my own strengths and weaknesses, “forgiving” myself for not being so structured and organized.

Shutting up that inner critic and going with your own quirks allows you to be creative in solving your problems.  You are more accomplished in doing so because it feels right to you and you stop failing at using what everyone else uses.

Quiet Your Misplaced Manners

How many times has someone popped their head in your office or in your cube and asked, “Do you have a minute” and continue the conversation without waiting for a response?  Often we will not interrupt them because 1. They told us it would just be a minute (lie) and 2. It would be rude to interrupt.

Have you ever noticed that they are completely oblivious to your typing away on your keyboard or completely entrenched in something?  How do they not see that?  They do.

This is misplaced manners.  You are not being rude in interrupting them; they are being rude in not respecting your time.  When the “a minute” interrupter starts in stop what you are doing, hold up your hand in the “stop” motion and firmly say, “Actually, no. I do not have a minute right now as I am finishing this up, but as soon as I am done I will come right over to see you.”

If they persist in their rudeness, “But this will only take a minute” (oh look, they are doing the low whine like Bandit), stay firm.  Simply reply, with as much as a genuine smile as you can muster, “I am sure it will, but I am right in the middle of a stream of thought and I do not want to lose it.”

After each response, get back to work; do not even acknowledge their sad puppy eyes.  Stay strong.

Quiet Your Glutton for Punishment

When the boss comes and says, “I need you to drop everything and do this right now” take a breath.  Sometimes our natural instinct is to accept their perception and drop everything to do that task.

Before you start on the project, listen to what the fire is and then explain the situation.  Let them know what you are working on, ask if they would prefer that you finish that project or is their immediate project a higher priority.  What is a fire to one is not a fire to all.  Sometimes the boss does not remember or know what is on your plate.  They may have forgotten that your current project is a top priority.

If you work for more than one boss, this can be a little difficult; however, communication will help delegate and allow you to avoid taking full ownership of everyone’s fires and subsequent unhappiness in having their project pushed aside.  If you are working on a project for Boss A and Boss B comes to you and tells you that this is higher priority than Boss A’s project let Boss B know, in taking the project, that you need to let Boss B know.

Duel bosses do not always communicate.  They can also be sneaky.  They can come play on your sympathy and glutton for punishment in wanting to do such a good job at everything that you end up managing an impossible project.  They will come to you when the other boss is not around.  Boss games are fun.  Take yourself out of the game by being open and communicative with all bosses and let them know that you are doing so.  Sometimes Boss B will back down when he realizes you are going to go tell Boss A.

When to be Distracted

Allow yourself a distraction now and again to avoid burnout.  Take a break to help keep focused.  I allow a puppy break now and again to recharge my batteries.  Take a short walk around the office or the block to clear your head and come back more focused.  Just make sure that if you do take a walk around the office, you do not become a distraction to someone else.

Lisa K. McDonald, CPRW

Brand Strategist & Career Coach

Certified Professional Resume Writer


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