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Bounce back from interruptions and distractions at work

Picture this: It’s 9:30 AM, and you’re all settled in at your desk with a mug of coffee, ready to start working hard. You’ve answered your emails, and now you’re ready to start that big project that you know will take most of your energy and focus today. You start typing, you’re in the groove of your project, and then all of a sudden…

An instant message pops up on your screen.

A notification for an email marked “URGENT!” pops up.

Your chatty co-worker drops by to talk about last night’s sports games.

Those are just a few of the many types of interruptions that office workers encounter on a daily—often hourly—basis. And while you may feel very productive answering that urgent email quickly, responding right away to an instant message, or convincing yourself there’s no harm in taking a surprise chat break, these things are actually damaging your productivity. In fact, researchers at the University of California, Irvine, discovered that it typically takes an office worker over 23 minutes to get back on track after an interruption. Especially if you’re dealing with multiple interruptions a day, this can add up to a ton of wasted time.

Unfortunately, it’s tough to really get a handle on reducing interruptions in the workplace, as many of them are out of your control—but you can work on learning how to better manage your time and your responses to interruptions so you can regain your productivity faster. Below, we’ve compiled our top 12 tips to help you minimize the impact of interruptions. While some tips may not be possible for all workplaces (for example, a call center employee may not have the ability to wear headphones at their desk), we’re certain you can find a couple strategies that you can use to help you stay efficient, or bounce back to productivity quicker!

Control or eliminate self-distractions. Your colleagues aren’t the only ones interrupting you at work—chances are, you interrupt yourself, too! Are you often distracted by social media, the internet, or your phone? Set limits on when and how often you’ll use these things, and during periods of time where you’re not using them, set them aside or don’t log on.

For example, tell yourself you’ll check your phone and social media accounts at lunch, and then at two five-minute breaks during the day, but that the rest of the time you’ll push them aside so you can focus on your work. Once you come up with the right plan for you, stick to it even when you might be tempted! Remind yourself that you can use them later—just not right now.

Do your most important tasks first. Believe it or not, work that’s of lesser importance (busywork) can distract you from doing your most important work. People often think that by crossing a ton of small items off their to-do list, they’ll feel productive. Don’t let these little tasks interrupt the progress you need to make on your bigger goals!

Make a list of priorities where tasks labeled A are the most important, B tasks are of medium importance, and C tasks are of lesser importance and you’ll get to them when you can. Then, do your A tasks first, B tasks when you’re done your A tasks, and C tasks when all the B tasks are done. Sure, this method probably won’t help you cross ten things off your to-do list before lunchtime—but it can help you make progress on your larger, more important projects while not forgetting about the other less-crucial projects on your list.

Keep a list. In addition to having a priority list for your tasks, consider keeping another list—an interruptions list. Keep a notepad by your desk and put today’s date on the page. Whenever someone calls, visits, or instant messages you needing something that is important but not right-now urgent, and you’re already in the middle of something else, write down what they want instead of immediately jumping into what they asked for.

This can help you minimize the impact of the interruption. It allows you to stay mostly focused on the task at hand and to only take a brief break to write the new task down. Writing it down can prevent you from forgetting about the new task. Then, once you’re finished your current task, take a look at whatever you’ve written down on your interruptions list and decide if you need to re-prioritize any of your other tasks to accommodate them.

Time-block and batch tasks. Whenever possible, it’s a good idea to do similar tasks together. For example, if you need to write two articles and analyze three reports over the course of a day, you may want to make time in your schedule to do the two articles in the same timeframe, and then block out another period of time to analyze the reports. Because writing an original piece and analyzing data each utilize two different mindsets, it’s best to batch like tasks together so you’re not constantly switching back and forth between the two “brains” you need to do the work. (Studies show there’s actually a “switching cost” that forces you to slow down when you’re trying to switch back and forth between tasks that are very different.)

Blocking out time for like tasks also presents you with another advantage: You have your schedule well-organized with your must-do tasks, which means you can build time to accommodate new tasks around those periods. So for example, if you’re writing your articles between 9 and 11 AM, and someone comes by at 10:30 AM to interrupt you with something they want you to do, you can tell them, “Sure, I’m happy to learn more about it—I’m free at 11:00 to discuss it further.” Then just make a note to reach out to that person at the time you specified, and turn your attention back to the task at hand.

Handle email efficiently. Email can be both a help and a hindrance. It’s a help because it’s an easy way to communicate and to keep a record of what people sent you. It can be a hindrance because it’s tough to control when the emails come in, the notifications might distract you when you’re handling another task, and it contributes to an “always on” type of feeling.

Take control by scheduling times to manage your email. Many workers are constantly interrupted by email. Set your own personal rules, based on what’s realistic for your workplace culture and what’s most helpful for you, as to how often you check and respond to your email. For example, on an average day where there’s nothing too crazy going on, could you check it at the beginning of your work day and then once an hour, and not at all when you’re in the middle of a time-block for a project? Of course, on a day where there is an urgent project that requires your attention and collaboration, you may need to temporarily abandon this routine.

Designate yourself as busy. Is there a setting you can activate on your email or instant messages that designates you as busy? If so, set it during times that you are focused on your projects and would prefer not to be interrupted. If people notice you’re busy, they may wait to approach you until the “busy” setting is turned off.

Pick a new location. While not everyone will be able to do this, if you keep getting interrupted by people stopping by to chat with you, or if you are distracted by noisy neighbors, ask if you can work on your project in a quieter location for a while. Perhaps you could use a conference room to do a few hours of work, or you could even ask to take your work home for a couple hours so that you don’t have as many in-person interruptions.

Try the Pomodoro Technique. If you are distracted and interrupted by anything and everything because you’re having a tough time focusing in general, the Pomodoro technique may help you. It involves intensely focusing on your project for 25 minutes at a time. When you’re in that timeframe, make sure you don’t address any interruptions like email, and concentrate strictly on the task at hand. You can even use an online Tomato Timer to help you time those 25 productive minutes!

Manage expectations. If you’re working on a big project and need to focus on it, don’t be shy! Let others around you, or those you work with frequently, know this in advance. It could be as simple as something like, “Hey guys, I really have to get this report for ABC Client done by noon, but I’m available after that if you need me!” This type of polite statement lets people know that you’re busy, implies that you don’t want to be interrupted, and shows that you are happy to help accommodate them later on.

Wear headphones. Even if nobody’s talking directly to you, if noise causes you to lose your focus, see if you could work with headphones on. If music with lyrics distracts you, play some classical music or nature sounds, like waves on the beach or bird calls in the rainforest. Bonus: If people see you working hard with your headphones on, they may be less likely to interrupt you as they walk by!

Don’t chime in. Although it’s always a good idea to be friendly and social at work, if you really need to focus and are on a tight deadline, minimize the amount you participate in non-work-related conversations happening around you. There’s plenty of time to join in the chatter later in the day, when everyone’s winding down and your projects are completed.

Take a walk. If you need to recover from an interruption, get up and take a 5-minute walk. Walking can clear your head and help you get back to your desk feeling focused and ready to re-start your task. Plus, you’ll get a few extra minutes of physical activity and an opportunity to stretch your legs!

For Health Advocate Members

If you’re a Health Advocate member with access to the EAP+Work/Life program, call us to talk to a Licensed Professional Counselor or Work/Life Specialist. They can help you address concerns like stress management, work/life balance, issues in the workplace, and more.