Jory MacKay
Jory is a writer, content strategist and award-winning editor of the Unsplash Book. He contributes to Inc., Fast Company, Quartz, and more.
April 16, 2020 · 14 min read

3 Steps to Minimize Workplace Distraction And Take Back Control of your Focus

Minimize Workplace Distraction

There’s no denying that we’re living through uncertain times. The spread of COVID-19 has forced more people than ever to adapt to working from home. And along with relearning how to communicate and collaborate when you’re not in the office one thing is becoming painfully clear: Home is rarely a distraction-free space.

Out of the nearly 90,000 people who took StackOverflow’s latest developer survey, the majority said the greatest challenge to their productivity is a distracting work environment.

Whether it’s the ding of an incoming email or someone asking you to help out with family obligations, there’s always something waiting on the edges to interrupt your focus and flow. And while many of these distractions need to be dealt with right away, most don’t. Unfortunately, we’re pretty bad at making that distinction.

As the authors of The Book of Life write:

“Human beings are pathetically prone to distraction. It’s almost comically easy to get us to stop concentrating on anything even a tiny bit challenging and turn gratefully to something more immediately gratifying or interesting and almost certainly a lot less productive.”

Not only are we quick to give in to distraction, but the impact it has on our productivity is massive. In her research, UC Irvine professor Gloria Mark found that once distracted, it takes us an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to our original task!

While we’ve written at length about how to be more productive, and the best daily routines and habits to build, none of these tips matter if you're constantly distracted.

In this guide, we’ll cover the root causes of distraction and how to avoid them and be more productive and focused wherever you’re working from.

What causes distraction?

We all know what it means to be distracted in an abstract sense, however, nailing down just what distraction is can be difficult.

Do a quick Google search and you’ll be told that distraction is “a thing that prevents someone from giving their full attention to something else.” But that ‘thing’ could be, well… anything.

To make sense of what distraction is and how to avoid it, we need to narrow our definition a bit.

What we’re really talking about here are workplace distractions. The things—both internal and external—that break our sustained attention and take time away from our most productive work.

According to Daniel Goleman, author of Focus: The Hidden Power of Excellence, there are two primary kinds of distraction:

While this is a good high-level definition, to really understand the actionable ways we can remove distractions from the workday, we need to narrow our definition again.

Going beyond just internal and external distractions, a full theory of workplace distraction needs to address three specific areas:

  1. Environmental distractions: These are the distractions you get from your surroundings. Noise. Coworkers/family. Interruptions.
  2. Digital distractions: These are the distractions that come from the tools you use every day. Your phone. Apps. Websites.
  3. Internal distractions: This is the internal nagging that pulls you away from the task you’re focused on and compels you to do something different (like checking email or chat, browsing social media, or cleaning your kitchen).
Once distracted, it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the original task.

In order to rebuild your focus and get more done, you need to attack each of these factors head-on.

How to minimize all three types of distractions and rebuild your productivity

The hardest part of talking about distraction is that it can be so many things. As Joshua Rothman writes in The New Yorker, distraction “can be internal or external, habitual or surprising, annoying or pleasurable.”

To tackle the many faceted angles of workplace and home distraction, we need to go after each contributing factor head on. Let’s start with one of the worst: your work environment.

Step 1: Get rid of the distractions in your work environment (especially when you’re working from home)

Our work environment has a profound impact on our ability to focus and fight distraction. Where you work is the “invisible hand” that guides you through the workday. Unfortunately, many of us get into a rut when it comes to our work environment. We go to the same place, sit at the same desk, and get annoyed by the same things.

But as psychologist David Neal writes, we lose our self-control when we repeat the same actions in the same environment:

“People, when they perform a behavior a lot—especially in the same environment, same sort of physical setting—outsource the control of the behavior to the environment.”

Instead, studies show it’s easier to change your behavior when you change up your environment. Luckily, there are a few simple changes you can make that will help you immediately.

Remove the clutter from your workspace

There’s a famous quote attributed to Albert Einstein that goes:

“If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”

While it’s a fun quip at the neat freaks among us, modern science has proven this statement wrong. According to neuroscientists at Princeton, physical clutter in your work environment competes for your attention and results in decreased performance and increased stress.

Physical clutter in your work environment competes for your attention and results in decreased performance and increased stress.

Even the basic things around you—your phone, to-do list, notes, books—can become massive distractions. (In fact, one study found that the mere presence of your phone can significantly reduce your cognitive capacity.)

This only gets worse when you work from home and don’t have a dedicated space and end up working from a couch or the kitchen table.

Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as just throwing everything away. Instead, you need to develop better habits and routines around what you accumulate and why. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Give yourself clear limitations. We have a tendency to fill up the space we give something. So whether it’s Twitter followers, open browser tabs, or unfinished tasks, setting limitations for yourself is a good way to start clearing up your work clutter.
  2. Conduct a monthly review of your workspace. Take time to clean, sort, and discard both your physical and digital clutter. If you want to take this a step further, spend the last few minutes of your day cleaning out and dealing with your browser windows, desktop and downloads folder.
  3. Replace your clutter with personal items. As Alan Henry writes in The New York Times, personal effects like a photo or sweater you can wear if it gets too cold “will make your desk—flexible seating or not—feel like a place you can settle in and get work done.” If you’re working from home, this means curating the things in your home office (or workspace) to keep you motivated, yet focused on the work at hand.

Design your immediate environment for “laziness”

With your clutter dealt with, you can now optimize your work environment even more for focus. But to start, we need to understand a little bit about how the brain works.

The Lazy Brain

Our brains are lazy. They want to conserve as much energy as possible and have a tendency to opt for the easiest option available. The easier it is for you to access distractions (like social media, your phone, or TV) the harder those things will be to block out. It’s why you find yourself flipping through Twitter when faced with a hard task.

But by making it harder to do distracting things, you’ll be less likely to do them. Stanford psychologist BJ Fogg calls this “designing for laziness.”

This could mean adding a social media blocker like Freedom or RescueTime to stop you from using distractions during the day. Or, locking your phone in another room so you’re less likely to pick it up.

However, you can also make good behaviors easier. One example is from the author and illustrator Austin Kleon who splits his work environment in two depending on what work he wants to be easier:

  1. A digital desk with his computer and other digital tools for when that is his focus.
  2. An analog desk with art supplies, newspapers, and books for when he wants it to be easier to do art.

If you’re at home, think about how you can create different “zones” for different work. Maybe you have a desk for when you need to focus on in-depth tasks and a space in the living room when you’re doing shallow work and want to be around family.

Choose the right music (or none at all) for the right task

One of the worst distractions in any work environment is noise. According to recent studies, most people say the most distracting aspect of their work environment is unwanted noise along with a lack of sound privacy (not being able to control what you hear or who hears what you’re saying).

Unless you have a dedicated home office (and have great neighbors), you’re most likely to deal with distracting noises during the day. And while silence has been shown to be the best option for keeping you focused, listening to music can also help block distractions.

According to Daniel Levitin, the author of This Is Your Brain on Music, there are certain rules you need to follow when using music to help you focus:

  1. Engaging music is bad for focus. Stick with classical or “chill” soundtracks.
  2. Don’t listen to songs with lyrics. Songs with words are basically the aural version of multitasking.
  3. Put your favorite tracks on repeat. Repetitive sounds can put us in a state of flow.

Finally, if you’re opting for silence, it’s good to invest in noise-canceling headphones (even if nothing is playing through them.

Optimize your workplace for light, nature, and air

Finally, while you might think that working in a windowless cave would mean fewer distractions, the opposite is actually true.

Studies show that natural light, fresh air, and natural elements like plants or even a view of nature reduce mental fatigue and make it easier to focus for longer. At home try to situate your work environment by a window where you can get light and fresh air. At a minimum, pick up a plant or two to add to your desk.

Step 2: Optimize your tools and tech to be distraction-free

With your home and workplace optimized to be distraction-free, it’s time to do the same to the apps and tools you use every day.

Even though they’re designed to help you be more productive, most tools—like email, chat, and other collaborative apps—offer too many opportunities for getting sidetracked.

Even just casually glancing at your inbox can send you spiraling down a path of distraction instead of maintaining our focus. In fact, UC Irvine’s Gloria Mark found that most workers only spend 3 minutes on a task before switching to something else and just 2 minutes on a digital tool.

You can’t give up your email, chat, or project management tool. So how can you make sure they’re working for you and not the other way around?

Do a notification audit on your apps and tools

Today, pretty much every tool and app wants to send you notifications. But you need to be ruthless with what you allow access to your attention.

In fact, one study found that in most offices, workers spend 80% of their time on collaborative activities like emails, calls, chats, and meetings. Notifications constantly pull you away from what you want to focus on. They’re the worst kind of “productive distraction” you can get as you feel like you’re doing the right thing, even though you’re distracted from the bigger picture.

Notifications are the worst kind of “productive distraction” you can get. You feel like you’re doing the right thing, even though you’re distracted from the bigger picture.

Instead of giving your apps and tools total control over your time, go through and audit each one to see how important they truly are. When it comes to your phone, designer and writer Erin Casali suggests breaking each one down into three groups:

  1. Instant: Anything you want to know about as soon as it happens. For example, texts, calls, or other important messages. Keep these notifications as they are.
  2. Relevant: Anything you want to know about at your convenience (but not immediately). Turn off all notifications except for icon badges so you can check at your leisure.
  3. Kill: Anything you really don’t need to know about. These you can either turn off all notifications or delete the app entirely.

You can also do a notification audit on your other workplace tools. This could mean muting certain channels in your chat app. Setting app notifications to come as a daily digest rather than all at once. Or turning off desktop notifications on your inbox so it doesn’t constantly pull at your attention.

Learn to love Do-Not-Disturb mode

While a notification audit will help you reduce the overall distractions coming at you, there are times where you need extra help. Pretty much every device you have contains some sort of do-not-disturb mode—a global setting where no new notifications, alerts, messages, etc… will come through.

This is a powerful tool for minimizing distraction, especially when you have serious work to get down to. Yet few people do it out of fear they’ll “miss out” on something important.

However, as Paris Martineau wrote after leaving her phone in DND mode for 8 months:

“Sure, the downside is I don’t answer texts and emails immediately, but the upside is I don’t answer texts and emails immediately… I haven’t technically missed anything. The notifications are all there on my screen waiting for me if I really feel the need to know what’s going on, but that decision now happens on my terms.”

Of course, you can’t go DND all day long. Instead, try a few short stretches during the workday—just 15-20 minutes—and see how much more you get done.

Push as much of your work as possible to your laptop

Your phone is a massive source of distraction during the workday. And while changing notification settings and using DND mode can help minimize its impact, it’s also worth it to think of your overall relationship with your phone at work.

In many cases, you use your phone for both work and your personal life. This means every ping and notification could be a meaningless status update. Or it could be a sick child, family emergency, or a surprise visit from a friend.

Psychologists call this variable rewards and it’s the same reason we love to gamble. Every pull of the slot machine handle offers a wealth of opportunities.

To reduce your phone’s impact on your focus, move important work off of it. Only check emails on your laptop. Delete your chat apps.

Not only will this lower your likelihood of checking your phone throughout the day, but computers and laptops are our go-to tools for doing meaningful work. This means you’re more likely to scrutinize your time spent on it in a way you wouldn’t with your phone.

Use distraction-free tools (and settings)

While you can try to reduce the distractions your apps and tools send you, another option is to simply use less-distracting apps. Most modern workplace tools have settings, features, or alternatives that are designed to help you focus.

For example, instead of using a full word processor, try a simple markdown editor like iA Writer or Focused. Instead of a complicated note-taking tool like Evernote, use something more pared down like Simplenote. Or instead of a complicated project management tool like Asana or Jira, use a more user-friendly option like Planio.

The tools you use are just like your work environment. They can either distract or help you focus. The right tool gives you what you need when you need it, instead of inundating you with options, menus, and distractions.

Step 3: Minimize your internal distractions

The final piece of the distraction puzzle is understanding how and why we distract ourselves. We may say we want to be focused during the workday, but our actions often speak otherwise.

The Chatter of our own Minds

Here are a few examples:

As Daniel Goleman, author of Focus: The Hidden Power of Excellence, writes:

“It’s not the chatter of people around us that is the most powerful distractor, but rather the chatter of our own minds.”

More than just changing a setting on an app or cleaning up your work environment, this involves being hyper-aware of your actions and optimizing them for sustained focus.

Prioritize ruthlessly so you know what work matters

One of the main reasons we go looking for distractions is that we’re bored. We’ve been working on a task for too long or don’t see the value in it and so our brain starts looking for something more appealing. While some advice would say this comes down to willpower, studies have shown that we can’t will ourselves into behavior change.

Instead, the easiest way to minimize distractions is to make sure you’re working on the right tasks.

As Curt Steinhorst, author of Can I Have your Attention, writes:

“Distraction, at its core, is this: confusion about what matters.”

There are tons of strategies for how to prioritize your work. However, my favorite method is to use the Eisenhower Matrix and categorize tasks as either important or urgent.

Here’s how we explained it in our guide on How to Become a More Productive Software Engineer.

Developed by former US president Dwight Eisenhower, the matrix is a simple four-quadrant box that helps you separate ‘urgent’ tasks from ‘important’ ones. In basic terms, urgent tasks are things you feel like you need to react to right away, like emails, phone calls, texts, or news. While important tasks are ones that contribute to your long-term mission, values, and goals.

The matrix is a simple four-quadrant box that explains what to do with each type of task:

The Eisenhower Matrix

Use a productivity system like Getting Things Done to organize your time

Prioritization helps you spend more time on things that matter (and not get distracted). However, you still need a system for keeping you organized and focused. A productivity system like Getting Things Done (GTD) is a great way to turn your scattered, distracted brain into a productivity machine.

GTD helps you minimize distractions for a number of reasons. First, it captures all your to-dos, tasks, and projects in one place so they don’t float into your mind at the wrong time. Next, it makes it so you always know what needs to be done next.

As Nicole Dieker writes in The Billfold:

“There’s a weird brain-thing that happens when you put all of your open mental loops onto a single list. You literally stop thinking about them until it’s time to go to the grocery store and you open the list to see all of the groceries you need in a single place.”

If you want to get started with GTD, a great place is in our Guide to Getting Things Done in 2019.

Of course, you also need a tool to help organize everything and set deadlines. Planio is a great option for teams of all sizes. Start your free 30-day trial today!

Batch your communication time (and set clear expectations with your team)

Out of all the things in your workday that will distract you from work that matters, communication is the worst.

The way most of us use email and chat during the workday is really just another form of multitasking. Just think about how often you bounce back and forth between your inbox and more important work. (If you’re like most people, you “check in” every 6 minutes or so!)

This is an especially big problem for remote teams who feel the need to be performative at work (i.e. always be available and be a part of every conversation).

Instead, set aside specific times in the day for checking in with your team. This type of “bursty” communication not only helps quiet that inner voice telling you to check email all day, but it can also make you more productive and creative.

However, for this to work, your entire team needs to know when you’re available (and when you’re not). Make sure to communicate clearly when you’ll be around and set expectations on response times.

Follow your body’s natural flow of energy and take more breaks

Lastly, we become more easily distracted when we’re tired.

Our body follows an ebb and flow of energy throughout the day called the Circadian Rhythm. This is a 24-hour internal clock that dictates when you’re alert and when you’re tired.

The Natural Flow of Energy

The problem is, the more you try to do tasking work when you’re tired, the more your brain will go off looking for an easier distraction (and there are tons of these in your house!). Instead, understanding your energy levels helps you schedule your day so you can work with them.

While everyone’s rhythm is slightly different, most people follow a similar cycle:

  1. After waking up and breaking out of our sleep inertia our energy levels start to naturally rise
  2. By around 10 am we’ve hit our peak concentration levels that ride out until a natural post-lunch energy dip between 1-3 pm
  3. In the afternoon, our energy levels rise again until falling off again sometime between 9–11pm when most of us go to bed

The key here is to match your tasks to your energy levels. That means meaningful work in the morning when you’re most alert and low-value work like emails and communication when you’re more naturally tired.

The more you can follow your body’s energy levels, the less likely your brain will go off looking for a distraction.

You don’t have to live a distracted life

It seems like we’re spending more and more of our lives in a distracted state. And whether that’s from our environment, the tools we use, our own internal issues, or a combination of all three doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that this doesn’t have to be our default state.

By following these tips, we can learn how to minimize the distractions in our workday and be more focused, productive, and happy.