How to eliminate distractions at work

Five ways to clear out the clutter from your diary
Helen Beedham
The astronomical clock in Prague installed in 1410

When did you last get a good stretch of uninterrupted time at work? A normal working day for most people is filled with calls, meetings, impromptu requests, urgent deadlines, high email volumes and messages pinging in across a variety of channels.

In a survey of working professionals that I conducted in November 2020 I asked ‘what doesn't appear in your work calendar that you would like to see in there?’; the two most common responses were ‘free time to do work’ and ‘do not disturb time’. We’re working longer hours than ever before, our working time has blurred into our non-working time and we’re contactable (and responding) at all hours of the day or week. As we cram ever-increasing amounts of activity and technology into a finite amount of time, one of biggest challenges in the work of work today is figuring out how to minimise distractions, focus our attention and get more done.

It wasn’t so long ago that working from home one day a week was seen as the answer. The pandemic reminded us of some of the shortfalls of home-working that counterbalance the genuine benefits. We typically gain more autonomy over how we flex our working day, allowing us to fit family and domestic commitments and exercise in more easily But we also gain delivery drivers and tradesmen knocking at the door, chores being squeezed in between calls and perhaps a home-working partner popping their head up at inopportune moments for ‘a quick chat’. Plus online distractions via our phones, laptops and the constant toggling between Zoom or Teams calls. Small wonder that many of us are craving a return to the office for some ‘focused’ work time.

But it’s not a perfect world in the office either. First there’s the new distraction of actually securing your workspace, with allocated desks consigned to the past. Then there’s time spent finding out who else is in the office too, as that’s no longer a given either. Office days tend now to be dedicated to in-person or hybrid meetings, networking conversations, development discussions, team catch-ups and social or work celebrations. We’re more likely to bounce from interaction to interaction than to have extended periods of distraction-free time in which to crack on with urgent or important work. Office environments are typically full of auditory and visual stimuli, from overheard conversations to colleagues or managers tapping you on the shoulder. We can retreat to headphones and body language that signals ‘do not disturb’, but these are rarely sufficient.

So our productive working time has become very fragmented and in parallel, our workplace norms and environments make it difficult for us to focus for any reasonable length of time. These issues matter because constant distractions and interruptions aren’t good for our cognitive functioning. The human brain requires broadly 3 conditions for optimum functioning: high autonomy and control over our work and our time; clear temporal boundaries (defined start and end points for different activities); and periods of inactivity and rest to process, sort and store the flood of incoming information it is absorbing. Being engaged in a constant mental sprint with frequent switching and interruptions depletes our brains leaving us feeling wired, tired and increasingly burnt out. Our perception, creativity, judgement and interpersonal relationships deteriorate, which is bad news for our businesses as well as for our own health and performance.

Encouragingly, we can design our working practices and spaces to minimise these distractions and it doesn’t require an expensive office re-vamp to achieve this. The key to success is not to leave it to each individual to resolve, but to tackle this collectively across teams and the whole organisation. By discussing the difficulties openly, acknowledging the challenges and agreeing some changes to trial, we are far more likely to come up with effective solutions and stick to them. Here are 5 recommendations to consider:

1. Set up quiet spaces online and in offices

Put in place a ‘golden hour’ or ‘no fly zone’ when meetings are discouraged, to allow people to concentrate or to switch off. Some organisations are introducing meeting-free days and even weeks, to ease people into a new year for example. Silicon Valley businesses issue noise-cancelling headphones and green/red lights to each worker to signal whether they welcome interruptions or not.

2. Create time-savvy teams

Facilitate a discussion with your team about the work priorities and people’s work preferences, and explore ways to manage time across the team more effectively. This might include buddying and back-up arrangements when people are unavailable, arranging team meetings and performance/development discussions on certain days of the month, expected email response times and how you’ll signal ‘do not disturb’ time.

3. Focus on a few clear priorities

Agree what the longer-term goals are and which strands of work are/aren’t contributing to these. Be ruthless about renegotiating or stopping work that is of questionable value. Keep asking ‘why are we doing this?’

4. Check assumptions

When work is commissioned, explicitly confirm the deadlines and the required output. This Harvard study of 4,000 working adults found that ‘many deadlines are a lot less strict than they may appear, and some are downright arbitrary’. This way we can schedule work more successfully and reduce late-hour changes.

5. Block out time in your diaries

Most business leaders I speak to create a rhythm to their working week/month/year by blocking out time in advance for certain activities and conversations. Schedule regular catch-ups with key stakeholders, preserve uninterrupted time for strategic planning and reflection, and use your ‘peak energy’ hours for the most cognitively demanding work. Most importantly, be transparent about these time habits so others are aware.

In our post-pandemic, virtually enabled world, businesses will be left behind by competitors who make better use of employees’ time and attention. So don’t sweep this issue under the carpet - deal with your organisational distractions now before they give you an even bigger headache.

The Future of Time by Helen Beedham is published by Practical Inspiration Publishing, £14.99

Written by
Helen Beedham
March 9, 2022
Written by
March 9, 2022