Distractions at the workplace come in many forms, and highly depend on your environment, of course. If you are working in a larger company with lots of people sitting at desks in different departments, it is likely that a good part of your day involves coordinating with colleagues, or meeting with your direct manager, boss or head of department more or less regularly. This is part of company culture these days, but one thing has changed: we are less likely to physically move around the office as things are done over the phone or using some kind of messaging system (email, text messages, skype, ticket workflow systems, etc.) whereby the tasks come your way without any input on your part.
In the past, more personal interaction was helping to better understand the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of a particular task, these days it’s all about the ‘when’ it has to be finished and each task has its deadline that we have to somehow fit into our own regular list of things to do. Also, we usually not only get jobs assigned from higher up, but we have to coordinate task with our colleagues, leading to a whole lot of messages and calls. In fact, I have seen a resurgence of personal visits to colleagues again over the last couple of years and I believe that this is because it adds a social dimension to the workplace that goes beyond the lunch break chat.
The crux of the matter, though, is that the interactions through the media are initiated at the other end, without your consent, and most likely will interrupt whatever YOU are doing at the time, thereby leading to a constant series of distractions that will make finishing tasks consistently much more difficult. Also, sending an email intrinsically involves the belief that the recipient is going to drop whatever they are doing at the time and get going with that new request. Clearly, that is not the case and this leads to a certain level of friction through false expectations!
If you are working in a small company or you are self-employed, you have a lot more flexibility to determine your own fate when it comes to allowing distractions. Interruptions will still occur, of course, but usually it will be about YOUR work rather than someone else’s job that you are supposed to assist with. The worst that can happen is that you’ll have to discuss things with suppliers and customers, and it is likely that more of your time will be spent getting your own tasks done rather than helping someone else with their tasks.
Let’s assume you are at your workplace, chipping away at a task that requires your full concentration, but you are interrupted regularly and have to get back into the groove after each of these distractions. So what are those distractions? And how can you deal with them to minimise the effect of those distractions?
When a phone call comes in you are always in direct communication mode with whoever is calling. Within a couple of sentences you could be embroiled in a lengthy discussion about something completely different from what you were doing just then. Not only do you have to wrap your mind around that new topic, by picking up the phone you have given explicit consent that you are available for a call.
But have you? Really? Unless the other party is your boss (or potentially a customer), you could deflect the call by stating that you are not ready to discuss this right now, but happy to call back later. In that case, it is important to give a clear indication of the time this is likely to occur and to follow through with that call! Building confidence in your reliability will make these deflections more acceptable in short time, and the person who takes your availability for granted will not just be less aggressive over time, and hopefully learn that you are not just working for them, but have responsibilities beyond their concerns.
If you are confronted with a demanding boss who constantly interrupts your work, it might be worth telling them that their calls are keeping you from finishing the jobs that you have been given earlier. There might be some middle ground here to agree on certain times for short (!) calls to catch up on matters and pass information. Or better yet: use email!
You might say that we can monitor phone call, and that is true to a degree. Let’s face it, though: if you are sitting at your desk in the office, can you actually focus on your ongoing work while the phone is ringing? You’d be distracted anyway and you can as well pick up the phone in that instance. It’s a different story altogether if you manage to put your phone on mute or pass messages to a voice mail box directly. Be aware, that will lead to extra work later on as you’ll have to monitor your voice mail and experience tells that extracting information – especially phone numbers or address details – from a recorded message can be tricky.
Instant messages are similar to phone calls in this respect. It is generally expected that the "instant" part of instant messages involves the recipient to reply right away. The company I worked for had a simple rule: if you didn't want to engage with instant messaging, you were allowed to ignore it. It was seen as a replacement for short information calls rather than for emails.
That brings us to emails: not only do they give you the opportunity to herd certain activities into time blocks, but emails can be easily monitored and assessed through popup systems or regular checks (not every minute, though). Just seeing the sender and subject line pop up will give you a sense of the urgency and make you aware that something has arrived. You could use a mindfulness approach and acknowledge the email, then return to the job at hand until the time block assigned to it is finished, and then return to the incoming emails and check what needs to be done.
It is generally a good idea to keep on top of incoming messages, but there is a point to be made to schedule a “review block” after each block of time that I spend on a particular task.
What are those ‘blocks’ all about? It has been proven to increase productivity if you can plan ‘blocks’ of work focused on one task rather than multitask all day long. There are different ideas on how long those blocks should be, and personally I think that this is really up to each person and the specifics of the tasks at hand, but I believe that starting out with blocks of 30 or 45 minutes is a good idea. The theory here is that each block is followed by a 5-10 minute rest period: that could be a tea break, a bit of exercise, or a chat break… anything that will take your mind off the task and reset you for the next one, whatever does the job.
I have found that a 1-2-3 approach seems to work for me: doing one “task block (1)” followed by a short “review block (2)” (that involves reviewing incoming messages, identifying actionable items and assigning them into the next available block rather than doing them straight away) and then the “break block (3)”. I’m not personally very hung up on uniform length of those blocks as I believe that some focused tasks take longer than others and require a certain flexibility when it comes to the length of those blocks. My main concern is to focus on the task block, then review new evidence, then break. And then start the next task block. Simple?
Meetings can be tricky, especially if you work in a company where meetings are daily routine. If they are focused and productive and you feel like you walk away with important information most of the time, things are good. If, however, meetings are perceived as mainly a chore without practical use for you, something is going wrong. Especially if the meetings keep you from finishing your assigned tasks!
Be sure to understand what a meeting’s goal is, and if you can make a clear case that a large part of the meeting is about matters that do not concern you, it might be useful to tell whoever runs the meeting to separate it out into several shorter ones and organise them back to back so that each participant only gets whatever they need to hear and can go back to their regular tasks after a shorter period.
That being said, I also believe that meetings are the glue that holds modern corporate life together: we rarely meet our colleagues any more since the advent of electronic communications, and those meetings are as much about social cohesion as they are about business. Similar comments can be made for self-employed business owners: meeting suppliers and customers semi-regularly and getting to know each other better is a good practice to keep misunderstandings at a minimum, to keep the work flowing, and build a more personal relationship with them.
Walking into someone else’s office or place of work unannounced can go both ways: they might be working on something that requires focus and continuous work and you could be interrupting something that took a long time to set up. Planning ahead is usually not a bad idea. I know that where I worked, some people where open to surprise visits, while others would rather be in a position to deflect. In those cases, we generally adapted a technique of sending a short message or calling with a simple question “are you available for a quick chat about…?” or “can you make time for a chat and cup of tea?”. I know I did appreciate this approach as it gave me a chance to align my schedule with theirs, and I was given the impression that the other person appreciates I might not be available at any given time to talk to them.
That being said, of course we are always at liberty to tell people on the phone, by email or when they show up at our doorstep that we are busy right now. It might seems a little rude to us, but ultimately the other person should really understand as they most likely have been in similar situations. And with a modicum of social niceties these things tend to work out well. It’s all down to communication and ensuring that whatever you decide is in the best interest of your task or your business.
Coming back to the subject at hand: distractions. As you can see, most distractions I mentioned are incoming ones and people based. If you can hold yourself to your schedule – and my assumption here is that you are able to do that – then it remains your choice when and how you would interact with any of those distractions, within a given area of opportunity. While you may not be able to escape the weekly meetings, it might be up to you to draw clear lines when and how you prefer to be interrupted. You could mention times that you are not available, you could have a sign on your door that indicates when you come back from a period of focused work, … there are lots of ways to keep the distractions at arm’s length. It’s up to you to make use of them.
Here's a bonus for you. From now on, whenever I have a video that fits the bill of the blog post, I'll make it available directly from here. Enjoy.
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My name is Tilo Flache and it is my mission to help my clients organise and declutter their work spaces.