Here I am scrolling through a meaningless FaceBook feed while a work deadline looms … and then a text text distracts me from the distraction and I cannot help but smile.

Trying to focus on work some days is like a asking a toddler to eat broccoli in a candy store. It has become such a problem, that there are now researchers who specialise in the impact of distractions and interruptions. They have found:

  • That working while distracted by incoming calls or emails lowers your IQ by 10 points. This is the equivalent of missing a night of sleep.
  • Using a mobile (hand held or hands free) delays your reactions while driving as much as having a blood alcohol content of 0.08%.
  • The average person’s mind is wandering 47% of the time they are working.
  • We are less happy when we are distracted than we are when focused on a task.
  • People who are heavy multi-taskers are the most prone to being distracted because they find it difficult to filter out irrelevant stimuli from their environment.[1]

Overcoming Distractions With Four Simple Strategies

Distractions are cunning thieves that steal our time and make us less productive. Fortunately there are four simple strategies we can use to overcome them including (1) switching off input (2) training people to behave differently (3) using the 20 second rule and (4) pomodoro time.

1. Switch Off Input

It is easier not to be distracted when you cannot see or hear the distraction. Ways to shut off in put include shut down email alerts, close web browsers, have phone calls go automatically to voice mail, put phone on silent and close your door. Email has become such a problem in one organisation I work with that they have a practice of downloading emails only at certain times of the day.

2. Train People To Behave Differently

Sometimes it is the people we work with who are our biggest interruptors. When it comes to nicely training them to behave differently, I have tried things such as:

  • Removing visitor chairs from my office so they weren’t inclined to stay and chat.
  • Asking them how they have tried to solve a problem before I provide solutions. 
  • Asking if I could come back to them in a few minutes when I have finished the thing I was currently working on.
  • Changing the angle of my desk, so I didn’t make eye contact with everyone on their way to the staff room.

3. The 20 Second Rule

The 20 second rule refers to the fact that people have a reluctance to do things that will take them longer than 20 seconds and are more willing to do things that will take less than 20 seconds (because they are perceived as easier). The classic example is what you reach for when you go to the fridge. Is it something you can eat quickly or is it something that will take some work and preparation?

How do you use the 20 second rule to stay more focused and less distracted at work? Here are some things I have seen people do:

  • Use a complex 30 character password for social media sites, so it takes longer than 20 seconds to log in.
  • Put a phone on silent and in the next room when you need uninterrupted time to focus. (It will take longer than 20 seconds to get to when you hear the buzz, so you find it easier to ignore).
  • Place the filing cabinet beside their desk so it took less than 20 seconds to walk to.
    people didn’t just pop in for a chat, asking them what they have tried to solve the problem for themselves and asking if I could chat to them in a few minutes when I have finished the thing I am working on.

4. Use Pomodoro Time

Pomodoro time is the process of working in 25 minute blocks with a 5 minute break at the end. After four consecutive blocks, you take a longer break. You can use an app or an alarm as a timer. This system of working makes it easier to stay focused as:

  • Your brain knows that you will get a chance to engage with the distraction when your working block finishes.
  • It works with the rhythms in your brain for maximum focus before needing a break.
  • Provides you with a structure to stay disciplined when your own willpower isn’t enough to ignore the distractions.

Life Is Easier When Distractions Are Tamed

Working days are easier and happier when we can make distractions more controllable. Anything that can help us finish work on time and happy is surely a good thing.

 [1] Ophir, Nass and Wager (2009).