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How To Get Past The Modern Office’s Endless Distractions

It’s about physical, not just digital, boundaries.

Focus, in so many ways, is the route to achievement. But even in the best of circumstances, our brains aren’t great at staying in one place. Even people who have been meditating for years catch thoughts popping into their head every 10 seconds or so. And in today’s modern world, we’re endlessly bombarded with distractions. So clearly, if we’re going to be able to actually concentrate at work, we’re going to need all the help we can get.

The conventional office is not exactly the most conducive place to get work done. Research suggests that sound—especially of the sort made by our fellow human co-workers—is the most distracting thing in our modern workplace. (After all, who can resist a little good-natured eavesdropping?) Visual noise is also a big distractor, be it a television left on mute in the background, or the ceaseless movements of your hyperactive colleagues. (If you feel exhausted just being in an open office all day without even talking to anyone, that speaks to the psychological resources being spent trying to repeatedly gather your attention after it wanders onto some novel thing within your line of vision.)

Between those real life distractors and the endless parade of onscreen notifications, researchers estimate that workers are taken off task every 11 minutes or so, while they need something like 20 minutes to reacquaint themselves with the details of what they were just doing. Neuroscientists have found that heavy multitaskers have it even harder, since instead of being able to return their attention to what they were last doing after getting off course, they go in a completely different direction. A recent Microsoft research report found that interruptions and the time it takes to recover from them consume 28 percent of a worker’s day.

What we need to do then to thrive at work is to optimize our workplaces—from the desks to the conference rooms—to support us in doing our best, most focused, most enterprising work, striking out on our own when we need to, and collaborating well when it’s time to team up. Here’s what leading management scholars, organizational psychologists, and business experts say are key to a workplace that encourages the best possible outcomes. It’s about organizing your day, your interactions with colleagues, and your workstation itself.

Welcome to The Thrive Guide to Working Smarter

Thrive Global is a behavior change platform focused on lowering stress and burnout while increasing well-being and productivity. The company, founded by Arianna Huffington, creates lasting change in people’s lives by giving them sustainable, science-backed solutions to enhance their performance and overall well-being.

This Thrive Guide will show you the fundamentals of ergonomics and making your workspace work for you.

We’ll begin with what psychologists have discovered about how offices really work. Thrive is all about Microsteps—small, science-backed changes you can immediately incorporate into your daily life that will have a big impact. (Want to skip right to those? Here they are.)

You’ll meet the New Role Models of Success who show how precisely to work smarter. Andreessen Horowitz general partner Vijay Pande reveals how he gets things done with no wasted effort, author Leigh Gallagher on the “system of fences” she puts around her schedule, and Olympic gold medalist Nastia Liukin speaks on how she reformed her relationship with her phone.

In our Tech to Thrive section, we’ve curated the best technology for optimizing the way you work.

Of course, if change is really going to happen in a company, it needs to happen at an organizational level. Our Managerial Takeaways helps leaders set smart precedents not only for themselves, but for their teams, too.

By the end of this guide, you’ll have the latest research on working smarter. Let’s start with the science.

Find your “cave” and your “commons.”

If you want to arrive at truly original ideas, the research indicates that you’re better off working on your own—at least for a while. Leigh Thompson, a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, encourages teams to take a “cave and commons” approach to their workdays. That means having a place where you can toil in solitude—whether that’s working from home or an empty conference room—as well as an in-person or digital space where everyone can collaborate, connect, and regroup.

“Creativity happens when you work independently,” she says. “Individuals are really good at generating a whole lot of ideas, while groups are good at selecting, shaping, and refining those ideas.”

Of course, this is the sort of thing you can’t just do on your own. Your colleagues need to know where you are, after all. So be sure to get buy-in from everybody on the team for designating space—and/or a time—where you can go into do-not-disturb mode.

Work your way around the open office.

A lot of us work in “open offices” — about 80 percent of American companies now have them— those boundariless spaces where everybody is thrust together in the same room. While this might sound like a cheery way to work, Susan Cain, the author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, points out that the “open” way of working can actually keep people from opening up.

“When people are first forming friendships, the currency they’re using is the exchange of confidences,” she says, and if everything you say is going to be heard by everyone you work with, you’re not going to start revealing personal (and potentially sensitive) things about yourself. And without those mutual confidences, it’s hard for trust—a key enabler of innovation —to form. One Australian study found that people working in open offices had fewer at-work friendships than people in private or shared offices—even fewer than people who worked from home or on the road.

There are some very traditional human strategies to get around that: lunch, dinner, drinks, or simply taking a walk. Getting away from your desk allows for those oh-so-important in-depth conversations. The stakes are high: A recent review of 58 studies found that people get less burned out and have greater well-being when their teams and organizations give them a sense of belonging and community. It’s about cultivating “a sense of we-ness,” lead author Niklas Steffens, psychologist at the University of Queensland, explained in an interview.

And if you can’t get away from your desk but you need to get away from your coworker, put on a pair of headphones. They’re now “a widely accepted signal that you’re focusing,” says Cain, the introvert advocate.

Get your workstation to fit you

If your desk doesn’t fit you—not the right height or angle of keyboard, monitor not at eye level, or, god forbid, you spend all day on a laptop— your typing speed goes down, discomfort increases, and so do error rates. And if you ignore it all for too long, repetitive stress injury and carpal tunnel syndrome can start to take hold, leading to pain and numbness. (If you get a tingling in your hands and wrists after a long day of typing, that’s your nerves telling you that they’re getting pinched, and you need to correct your posture.)

“Your workstation should fit you like a tailored shirt,” University of California ergonomist David Rempel said in an interview. “If I come to your workstation and you’re six inches taller than me, it shouldn’t fit me.”

It’s also important to realize that there’s no such thing as an “ergonomic posture”: your body was designed to move, so the best thing you can do for it through the 8-10 hours of a workday would be to alternate between sitting, standing, and walking. The more dynamic your movement through the day, the better.

And while you’re doing that, you might want to take a second to clear your desk. Neuroscientists at Princeton have found that having crap everywhere saps your attention, since your brain thinks it needs to do something with the papers and granola bar wrappers that may or may not be building up on your workspace.

Commit to change now.

Working smarter starts with a few simple practices. Here are our Thrive Microsteps:

  1. Sit up straight!
    Research shows that adopting a confident pose can actually change your brain, making you more assertive and less anxious.

  2. De-clutter your workspace.
    Spend just a few minutes a day getting rid of some clutter. It could be physical clutter, like accumulated papers and supplies, or digital clutter, like unnecessary icons and apps filling your screens. Delete it, throw it out, or give it away.

  3. Customize your workspace with at least one image that ignites the joy in you.

    It can be of your child, a pet, the ocean, a painting you love — anything that inspires a sense of wonder, contentment or peace. And any time you feel stressed, go to this image.

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