Squirrel! 5 Fast Fixes for Handling Distractibility at Work

Feb 27, 2015
7 Min Read

It's one of those days. You're sitting at your desk and staring at the computer, but you're not thinking about work. In fact, you're thinking about everything else but work. You try to focus, but you simply can’t. Suddenly every sound, every sight, every thought is an utter distraction.

In the workplace, distractibility takes a tremendous toll— whether it’s due to lack of sleep, stress, personal issues, or even true-blue ADHD. When you can’t focus, your to-do list snowballs and your productivity plummets. Worst of all, this inattention is not only a burden to you, but it’s a drag on everyone around you.

When you feel an "off" day coming on, there are steps you can proactively take to ensure that you stay on task:

Narrow your goals

Even if you are a ninja multitasker, you simply cannot juggle ten priorities on an off-kilter day. If you try to multitask when you are distracted, you will feel overwhelmed, and you’ll be unlikely to accomplish much at all. It is far better to limit your expectations and have clearly defined, measurable goals.

Start by making an exhaustive to-do list (this will help clear your head). But then set that list aside and determine what your non-negotiable, top priorities are for today. Once you identify those priorities, set everything else aside.

This doesn’t mean you have to limit what you accomplish— it means that you can only do one thing at a time. When one task is done, you can go on to the next priority. It’s not about doing less—it’s about structuring your time in a way that decreases the likelihood that your distractibility will affect your productivity.

Set a timer

One key trick for making yourself focus is to go old school and set a timer. When your head is in the clouds, you need to force yourself to just keep moving forward. By setting a timer, you artificially create a sense of time scarcity— which will naturally motivate you to be more efficient.

Depending on what needs to be accomplished, assign an appropriate time frame (30 minutes, for example) and just start working. The key is to work at a steady pace while the timer is counting down and then…. stop and take a break.

But set the timer for the break as well.

Nothing will motivate you to make better use of a break than knowing you only have, say, ten minutes. After the break, you can dedicate another time segment to the same task or move on to the next priority. This may sound tedious, but if you break down an eight-hour work day into thirty-minute timed segments (with breaks) you’ll be amazed by what you can accomplish.

Ignore technological intruders

Endless dings and beeps are distracting—even on a good day. But on those distracted days, it’s even more imperative to limit your exposure to electronic distractions.

Phone calls, texts, notifications, social media, and email are the enemies of productivity. Do yourself a favor and mute your phone— even better, put it on airplane mode or turn it off. If you can, log off email while you’re at it. The idea is to limit the likelihood that you will find yourself wandering down the proverbial rabbit hole of nonessential communication. Just say no. Not forever—just until that timer goes off.

Eliminate sensory distractions

You can’t expect yourself to focus when you are surrounded by annoyances. Turn off the music. Shut the blinds, if need be. If you’re hungry, have a quick snack. If you’re tired, grab a coffee. If you’re cold, throw on a sweater.

Don't forget to close the door, to keep the sounds of the office from pulling your attention. If you have a cubicle and your neighboring colleagues are distracting, find an alternate place to work (such as a conference room). You want to eliminate every annoyance that would otherwise give you an excuse for not focusing on the task at hand.

Give yourself a gold star

Everyone needs something to look forward to.  Neuropsychologists tell us that our frontal lobes, which regulate our attention span and impulse control, cause us to feel more motivated to do something when we face the prospect of a desirable reward.  You can use this science to your advantage.

Plan ahead to reward the completion of your day’s goals with something very tangible— a mocha latte, a phone call to a friend, or maybe dinner at a new restaurant you’ve been hankering to try. Anticipation of this reward will increase your dopamine levels—which in turn will increase your energy and attention.

The ability to deliver results, even on “off” days, is essential in today’s fast paced business climate. Adding these simple strategies to your repertoire prepares you to overcome distractions and reclaim your day.