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7 Ways to Stay on Track at Work

LearnVest •  April 15, 2016 | Business and Careers

There’s a disturbance in the workforce—a lot of them, actually.

You know the ones: the persistent ding of social media alerts, the unending stream of “urgent” emails, the cubicle mate who conducts every call on speakerphone …

How can we get any work done with so many distractions afoot?

The answer is that most of us aren’t accomplishing as much as we could be. Research from the University of California, Irvine, found that the typical office worker spends only 11 minutes on a task before getting interrupted or abandoning it for another project. And once workflow has been disrupted, it can take about 23 minutes to get back on track, explains professor Gloria Mark, who led the study.

To help you out, we asked productivity experts to share their tricks for regaining focus and keeping time bandits at bay. Even if you’re distracted right now, you’ll definitely want to pay attention to their tips!

Productivity Killer: Your Colleagues

Every office has ‘em: the chatty Charlies who pop by to ask a “quick” question—but then linger for the next 30 minutes to give you a run-down of last night’s episode of “The Bachelor.” Add the time spent socializing to the 23 minutes it’ll take you to refocus after each distraction, and you could potentially lose several hours of productivity.

Focus Fix #1: Take a Stand—Literally

When colleagues drop by your desk to ask a question, get up to talk to them, recommends Cathy Sexton, a productivity strategist, author and founder of The Productivity Experts.

The reason? It’s much easier to cut the conversation short when you’re standing than it is after they get comfortable, Sexton explains.

Focus Fix #2: Play Hard to Get

Occasionally hanging a simple “do not disturb” sign can speak volumes to would-be chatters. Also look at how you might be contributing to the interruptions. If you have a candy jar on your desk, you’re begging for a constant stream of sugar-seeking visitors. Hide those treats in your desk instead, or ditch them entirely.

Focus Fix #3: Combine Your Conversations

Even when your distractions are truly work-related—such as emails and surprise meetings—you can still take control of your time. Author Maura Thomas, founder of, suggests using a “Talk to” list to eliminate constant back-and-forth email chains and cut impromptu drop-ins.

“When you have a lot of recurring interactions with someone, like a colleague or your boss, you often think of things that you want or need to share with that person,” she says. “Rather than emailing every time you think of something, create a ‘Talk to’ list for that person.”

That means batching several of your questions, to-dos and talking points into one email instead of sending them piecemeal. Be sure to number your tasks in a prioritized list for fast and easy communication and to ensure the recipient addresses every part of the message. Then ask that your colleagues do the same for you.

“If the other person has a list for you, as well, this process results in very effective and less disruptive communication,” Thomas adds.

And if a pop-up meeting does have to happen, ask your colleague when they can meet and how long they’ll need. Then schedule it on both of your calendars so you’re in control of your own time, advises Sexton.

Changing Jobs? Top Financial Considerations Beyond SalaryProductivity Killer: Your Own Distracted Self

Not all of our disruptions can be blamed on our coworkers. It turns out half of the time, we’re interrupting ourselves. Whether struggling with an Instagram addiction or just feeling overwhelmed by an overpacked schedule, it can be very easy to get off track. Fortunately there are things you can do to help keep your attention where it needs it to be.

Focus Fix #4: Choose Your Background Noise

According to the International Facility Management Association, about 70% of U.S. offices have adopted some type of open floor plan, with many believing the layout would foster collaboration and communication. For many workers, however, the open office just created less privacy and more disruptions.

“Academic research—and a mountain of anecdotal evidence—shows open offices inhibit productivity and creative thinking and can damage the attention span of workers,” says Thomas. “Some research shows it isn’t the open office itself that is the problem; rather its execution is to blame.”

If you find yourself getting distracted by some of your colleagues’ noisy quirks, both Thomas and Sexton recommend grabbing your headphones and turning on some tunes via the Focus@Will app and website to dampen some of the office noise. The specialized music service features a library of instrumental pieces programmed to help soothe the limbic system (the part of the brain that controls basic emotions and drives) to continuously tune out external stimuli in 100-minute increments.

Focus Fix #5: Give Multitasking a Miss

Whether you’re popping between projects every few minutes or taking a work call while checking your Twitter feed, your common multitasking behaviors may be severely hampering your productivity. Experts say that single-tasking is a better way to go and that it can not only help you get more done, it can also make you sharper and smarter.

A single-tasking strategy motivates you to attend to your priorities and it can also help ease stress. “Think small,” Thomas says. “You don’t have to persuade yourself to do everything on your to-do list; you only have to persuade yourself to do the next thing. Once you’ve selected a task to tackle, close everything else and just do that.”

And as a rule, Sexton advises including no more than three priority tasks total on your daily to-do list to help you stay on track even if you get interrupted.

Focus Fix #6: Zone Out

Counterintuitive, we know. But studies have shown that focus, like our physical endurance, is a limited resource. That’s why as the brain works harder to complete attention-draining tasks, we’re more likely to be distracted—it’s an energy-saving mechanism to reserve mental strength.

Most people can only work for about 90 minutes before their productive energy levels start dropping, says Sexton. When this happens, it helps to take a mental break to recharge and refocus. But instead of reaching for your phone or tablet, Thomas suggests simply letting your mind wander.

“Your brain needs quiet time to make connections and generate insights,” she says. “What we need is often just a little idle time.”

This idle time can be as simple as sitting back in your chair, closing your eyes for a few seconds and thinking about something pleasant, Sexton adds.

Focus Fix #7: Keep Your Workday Tight

If you need a break after 90 minutes, imagine what your body needs after five days of your 9-to-5 (or 6 … or 7) routine. So if you think you’re getting more done by tacking on an extra 15 hours to your regular work week, think again.

Research shows clocking in for longer periods of time doesn’t actually make you an all-star worker—instead, productivity drops off at about 50 hours per week. And putting in an inordinate amount of overtime on a regular basis can lead to additional stress, sleep deprivation, burnout and a slew of health issues.

While navigating distractions and learning how to refocus can help reboot your productivity, there’s also the acceptance that you won’t get as much done in a day as you think you will.

“While everyone would like a magic bullet, there really isn’t one,” says Thomas. “Accepting the reality of the situation can go a long way toward relieving your stress …. The best thing you can do for your work is not work.”

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LearnVest, Inc. is owned by NM Planning, LLC, a subsidiary of The Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

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