Battle the Hum: Reducing In-Office Distractions

Q: You know, it’s funny, the one place I’m supposed to be able to work, I can’t. When I’m in my office, I have so many distractions. Everyone is up in my grill like I’m shish kebab. It’s like my office door doesn’t exist. And, when people aren’t asking me an unending string of questions, I can’t stay on task. There’s my personal email, all of my social media accounts, local news, sports news, podcasts, YouTube … I’m drowning. How do I shut out the noise?

JT, Washington

A: Modern life is information overload all of the time. These are some first world problems you have here, my friend. But, in all seriousness, there is always now a low hum of something else to do, for which there are major and minor solutions.

Reclaim Your Time

There are essentially two major types of distractions: other people, and other things to do. While you can reduce or eliminate the other (presumably the less critical, non-work-related) things you could do while you’re at the office, people are a thornier problem, because you can’t reduce or eliminate them. And, in any event, the isolation experienced by true solos, who aren’t engaged in even an office space arrangement, is a disadvantage unto itself. It’s not that you don’t want to talk to people, it’s just that you want to talk to them on your terms. This is all about managing expectations.

There are at least a few ways to manage expectations, which apply equally well to officemates, employees, and others. A tested method is compartmentalizing your time. Concentration is defined by a lack of distractions. To focus on your work effectively, you need to be able to be able to eliminate pop-ins and random pings, and you need to do it for an extended period. Take some time, then, to figure out when you work best (for many people, it’s the morning), block off two hours for yourself every day, and tell everyone you’re not to be disturbed.

Don’t pick up the phone; in fact: turn off your auditory notifications. Shut your door and put a do not disturb sign on it. If there’s still too much background noise in your office, use noise-canceling headphones. Now you’ve got yourself a two-hour slot during which you will be disturbed only for emergencies. This will be really hard to do the first time you do it—for you, and for everybody else. But it’s the same as instilling any other habit. The more and more often you do something, the easier and more normalized it becomes. How many times have you really started kicking down the door on an important project, only to bump up on another deadline, or a scheduled call, after which you have to get into the mood all over again? Blocking time doesn’t guarantee motivation, it merely provides more space in which to find it.

Of course, you still want interpersonal stimulation, which is why you have an office in the first place. And, this is where the timer comes in. Every focus system of any kind requires a carrot for its stick. So, after your two hours are up, understand that you’ve probably been more productive than anyone else in your office, and you deserve a break. Now, go out for lunch. Or, talk about last night’s episode of The X-Files in the breakroom. The idea is not to lock out your humanity, but to let it flourish again after a (substantive) job well-done. After all, it’s essential to maintain relationships not only for personal reasons, but also to bolster professional development and referral networks. Many time management systems, including, most notably, the Pomodoro technique, revolve around continually recurring periods of work sprints and shorter breaks.

While there are valuable reasons for interacting with the people you work in physical proximity to, there are also work conversations that just aren’t necessary. If those conversations relate to definable processes or are generated by office inefficiencies, you should eliminate them by addressing the underlying issues. If you find that your staff is always asking about processes that they should be aware of, that just means that it’s time to codify those. Build workflows that define the major tasks for each case type, and do the same for administrative projects. That way, everybody stays on the same page, without even having to ask and you can reserve your staff meetings for discussions that move the business forward. Similarly, if your old technology is holding you back, it’s time to make a change.

Reclaim Your Attention

It’s not always other people that are distracting us. We’re also pretty good at distracting ourselves. Sometimes it’s urgency addition: something new comes across your plate, and you feel compelled to look. Sometimes it’s procrastination: you just don’t want to do something, and avoid it by doing other (often less important) things. Whatever it is, though, you need to develop a system to keep yourself on track when you’re meant to be. There are a number of time management systems that people use, including Getting Things Done, the Covey matrix and even Do It Tomorrow. Any of these systems are aimed at driving down distractions and prioritizing tasks. So, it doesn’t much matter which one you choose, so long as you choose one, and stick to it.

Sound is a key component of any work environment, but it’s a very personal choice. If you like to work in complete silence, even muted whispers can do damage to your mojo. In those instances, you can try noise-canceling headphones. But if your aversion to sound is not quite that intense, it may just be a matter of moving your workspace, and maybe only during lunchtime. On the other hand, if you like noise and work better listening to music or podcasts, then wearing your headphones can help to maintain your workflow without encroaching upon others people. And, if you must move around throughout the day, things such as walking around at set intervals and using a standing desk can all combine to make a slight improvement in your physical fitness.

Perhaps the most obvious tip for eliminating distractions in the office is the one folks least want to do: log off. If you are distracted by Facebook, only use it when you’re not working. Social media, in general, can be a vicious black hole; but, if you allocate your use of it to specific times, it can be a real boon for your productivity. If you’re unable to avoid checking your email, log off when you’re drafting a document and give yourself a solid hour or so to work on something straight through. How many times in the last year have you received an email that actually required an immediate response? If an hour or two is immediate enough, then you’ve just bought yourself enough time to get some real work done.

Note that if you’re going to start driving down distractions in your practice, it’s important to know what you’re after. If you can identify your distractions, you will be far more likely to be able to shut them down. There are time tracking programs that monitor your device time so that you don’t need to make any manual inputs—that’s a time-saver in itself. Watching too many cat videos on YouTube? Now you’ll know for sure. Going to too many lunches or engaged in too much water cooler talk at the office? You’ll know because you’ve been away from your device for large portions of unaccounted time.

When it comes to in-office distractions, it’s less about what you’re doing, and more about what you’re not doing.

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