Dealing With Distractions and Interruptions: Strategies for Staying Focused on Important Tasks


More than ever, modern workers are bedeviled by distractions and interruptions that pull us away from the key activities of our jobs. If it's not your noisy office-mates, it's the siren song of the Internet, or an over-fascination with email. Therefore, it's imperative that you learn to trim your activities down to the few things that are truly important, so you can actually get your job done and become both the envy of your peers and the apple of your boss's eye.

Proper focus requires discipline and mastery to achieve, like any other skill. In this article, I'll help you get started in your quest to wield your focus like a blade, stripping away the things that keep you from getting your work done on time and under budget.

Let's start with one of the worse culprits: your subconscious.

Eliminating Self-Sabotage

If you're like most people, many of the distractions you face when trying to focus are self-imposed. Some are activities that you consciously engage in, like chatting over the water cooler or getting up too often for a cup of coffee, without realizing that they're slowing you down and blunting your focus. Some, however, are percolating along under the surface, all but invisible—but damaging nonetheless.

In several recent newsletter articles and blogs, I've discussed two of these problems at length: perfectionism and procrastination. Perfectionism is based on the admirable desire to do the very best job possible; but when taken to extremes, it can distract you from getting the job done. Trying to work out every little detail and plan for every possible contingency ahead of time can result in time-wasting paralysis. Instead, once you've made a decision to do something, get started and work through the details as they arise.

Procrastination is simply dragging your feet because you don't want to do something. In the final analysis, your reasons for doing so don't matter; if you procrastinate for any reason, the result is lost productivity. The solution is to force yourself to work: visualize what you need to do, break it down into smaller tasks that are easier to handle, and then buckle down and get it done. Easier said than done, perhaps, but it's just as necessary to push through procrastination as it is to jettison perfectionism.

One self-sabotage topic I haven't previously discussed is negative self-talk. Each of us goes through life constantly thinking about and internally commenting on the situations we encounter. This "self-talk" helps us manage our reactions and decide what to do next. Unfortunately, self-talk can be self-defeating. If you convince yourself that something's too difficult or that there's no point in trying, you throw roadblocks in the path of productivity. Negative self-talk is a prime component of procrastination, and can also contribute to perfectionism—for example, if you keep telling yourself you've got to do something just right or else.

You've got to get a handle on negative self-talk before it leads you into the slough of depression and ruins your productivity. The best thing to do is to dispute it all the way down the line. First, do a reality check: are your facts straight? What evidence do you have for your negativity? Are you jumping to conclusions? Next, put it all in perspective. Challenge your self-talk:

• Is the situation really as bad as it seems?
• If so, what's the worst thing that could happen?
• How about the best thing?
• What's most likely to occur?
• How would I perceive this situation if I were in a positive mood?

It's difficult to eliminate self-sabotage in any of its forms, since many of us tend to be our own worst critics. But in order to be productive, you have to be realistic and ruthless about facing down your subconscious.

The Mistake of Multitasking

Ever heard the saying, "Energy flows where attention goes"? That may sound a bit glib, but it's spot on. As I've outlined in this month's tip, for biological reasons, most of us can absorb and integrate only so much input at once; we literally have a limited amount of attention that we can pay out.

This is why multitasking doesn't work very well, despite all our attempts to prove otherwise. You can't really develop a productive focus when you're trying to do more than one important thing at once. Yes, you can probably walk and chew gum at the same time, because those tasks are so simple that they tend to fade into the background. This isn't the case for high-level tasks requiring constant processing of new information.

Consider cell phones and cars. Although most of us do it, we know it's foolish to talk on the phone and try to drive at the same time. Both tasks require such a high investment of cognitive resources that they detract from each other, causing us to do one or the other poorly—or more likely, both. The high number of phone-related car accidents is proof enough of this. So imagine how ineffective it is to simultaneously try to work on a report, chat, listen to Dire Straits, check the CNN website, and steal a second here and there to check your email. There's never an opportunity to drop into the kind of productive trance that gets the job done efficiently.

Multitasking isn't quite as subtle a form of self-sabotage as negative self-talk or procrastination, but you're still hurting yourself when you practice it. Learn to concentrate on one thing at a time, because attention is meant to be undivided. You can't afford to distract yourself, especially when you already have to deal with distractions from others...which brings us to our next topic.

Limiting External Distractions and Interruptions

A recent study concluded that 28% of the average office-worker's day is spent dealing with unnecessary interruptions, and then subsequently recapturing focus. That's outrageous! Clearly, you need to root out every source of interruption you can, and take steps to block other distractions as well.

Basically, this involves cutting yourself off from the outside world. Other people aren't necessarily aware of your need for quiet, uninterrupted workflow, and many just don't care. If you've ever worked in an open-plan office, then you've probably been forced to listen to co-workers nattering about inconsequential matters outside your cubicle. Others will call or pop in unannounced. People get caught up in their own concerns and forget to be considerate, hurting your productivity in the process.

It's easy to insulate yourself if you're in upper management and have an office staff to filter out the inconsequential. But some of us don't even have the luxury of having an office door to close. Even so, you can arrange your workspace so you're not constantly derailed by interruptions and distractions. If you do have a door, get up and close it; that will not only soundproof things a bit, it'll keep many people from bothering you. For the clueless, hang a "Do Not Disturb" sign on the door.

If you can't completely shut yourself off, you still have options. First, you can try moving away from the worst disturbances. This may involve relocating permanently to a distant office or cube, or simply taking your laptop to the break room or to a bench outdoors, where you can work for a while in peace.

Otherwise, find a way to signal when you need to be left alone, and communicate it to your co-workers. For example, you might wear a red cap when you're too deep into something to be bothered, or hang up a little sign on a string across your cubicle entrance that says "Please Do Not Disturb." I once knew someone who strung plastic flagging tape (the kind surveyors and hunters use) across the door of her cube when she was hard up against a deadline, to head off socializing and casual questions.

Whether you move or stay in place, you'll need to attenuate noise distractions. The simplest way is to put on earphones and listen to some soothing music or ambient sounds. I recommend something that you're thoroughly familiar with and won't get too involved in, so you don't have to think about it.

Finally, if your office uses shared scheduling software like Microsoft Outlook, you can also create a virtual "blackout" period by blocking out distraction-free periods on your schedule. That way, anyone who looks will know that you're unavailable, and they won't try to schedule your time for meetings and other interruptions.

The Modern Scourge of Electronics

In a recent blog, I outlined how the "electronic leash" of email, handhelds, cell phones, and the like can disrupt your workflow, shatter your productivity, and even temporarily lower your IQ. In order to avoid this self-inflicted ADHD, you've got to do right by yourself and come to your senses. These are tools, and you need to treat them as such—not as demanding little bosses constantly crying out for your attention. Why should you let them be in charge of you? Who's really the tool here?

The solution to electronic overwhelm is simple: when you're trying to concentrate, turn off and tune out. Kill the incoming message alerts on your email, chat clients, and social media. Let those phone calls roll over to voice mail. Sure, most of us need to stay in touch in order to get our jobs done, but who says you have to answer every message as soon as it comes in? There's very little that you have to attend to instantly.

Rather than allow yourself to be distracted and interrupted—which is exactly what you're doing when you stay constantly connected—set aside blocks of time when you can receive and answer your messages all at once, be they email or telephone. You can do it twice a day for half an hour at a time, once in the morning and once in the evening. That way, you can focus on getting your professional interactions taken care of all at once, without letting them defocus you throughout the day.

A Note About Socializing

The upshot of all this strenuous effort to head off distraction may be that you get labeled as unfriendly or distant. Well, so be it. If you're consistently productive, you can't listen to the critics.

Admittedly, social interaction is necessary to ensure the smooth functioning of any organization, but there's a time and a place for it. You have lunchtime, breaks, and the "twilight time" before and after work to rub elbows and be friendly with your co-workers. You can get to know them better when you're involved in team-building exercises, or take the time to do so offline, away from work. You can still be nice and get more than your share of work done.

The workday is for working; the rest of your life is for socializing and taking care of yourself and your family. The more you keep that in mind—the more you can keep your professional and social lives from bleeding over into each other—the better off you'll be.

The Metacognitive Edge

Metacognition, literally "thinking about thinking," is an excellent defense against distraction. How does it work? Simple enough: you implement strategies in which you use your knowledge about the way you think to shape your behavior. No one knows you as well as you do; if you'll just be honest about that knowledge and use it to your advantage, you can become more self-regulated and less distracted by the unimportant.

Learning to focus properly requires more self-reliance, and thus more metacognitive effort, than most workplace tasks; that's a given, so just accept it and move on. No matter how sloppy a thinker you believe you are, you can force yourself to focus—if you're willing to apply self-discipline, stop sabotaging your own efforts, organize your workplace and work-life, and put your tools in their place. You constantly have to be on the ball, thinking about what it takes to narrow your focus to the few things that really count, and putting what you discover into play.

Yes, it's painful; and yes, it may be quite a while before you completely master your focus. But it's worth the effort when you can, at will, invoke what author Winifred Gallagher calls the cobra feeling: "an almost muscular albeit mental bearing-down on a subject or object, which you rise above, hood flaring to block distractions, and hold steady in your unblinking focus." All it takes is a serious commitment to removing distractions and interruptions from your cognitive path. Easy to say, hard to do—but remarkably rewarding in the end.

Make it a productive day! ™

(C) Copyright 2011 Laura Stack. All rights reserved.


© 2011 Laura Stack. Laura Stack is a personal productivity expert, author, and professional speaker whose mission is to build high-performance productivity cultures in organizations by creating Maximum Results in Minimum Time®. She is the president of The Productivity Pro®, Inc., a time management training firm specializing in productivity improvement in high-stress organizations and the 2011-2012 President of the National Speakers Association. Since 1992, Laura has presented keynotes and seminars on improving output, lowering stress, and saving time in today’s workplaces. She is the bestselling author of four books: SUPERCOMPETENT; The Exhaustion Cure; Find More Time; and Leave the Office Earlier. Laura has been a spokesperson for Microsoft, 3M, Xerox, and Office Depot. She is the creator of The Productivity Pro® planner by Day-Timer and has been featured on the CBS Early Show, CNN, and the New York Times. Her clients include Starbucks, Cisco Systems, Wal-Mart, and Bank of America. To have Laura speak at your next event, call 303-471-7401 or visit to sign up for her free monthly productivity newsletter.