Work Smarter//

How to Stop Feeling So Distracted at Work — and See Your Productivity Spike

Hint: It’s not about staring at screens more.

Courtesy of Ahmet Misirligul / Shutterstock
Courtesy of Ahmet Misirligul / Shutterstock

We work hard to manage our time, stress, and relationships — but what about our attention? With the rise of technology and smartphones, distractions are constant and draining. It’s harder than ever to maintain our workflow.

According to a recent Harvard Business Review article, smartphone users check their phones 150 times a day, which adds up to 2.5 hours of simply opening and closing your phone. A single text — which HBR claims takes 2.2 seconds to read — can double work error rates, and it takes 11 minutes to regain the flow achieved before the distraction. Needless to say, our productivity is at risk.

What can we do to battle these staggering statistics? Here are three simple tips from productivity experts for taking back your attention, once and for all:

Keep a two-week “habit diary”

Actions speak louder than words, but when you put your actions into words, you harness a new type of control. “Much of what you do is habitual, so it’s useful to keep a ‘habit diary’ in which you track your behavior for two weeks and observe what you’re doing. That will help you to become mindful of behaviors that have become mindless,” Art Markman, Ph.D., professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Bring Your Brain to Work, tells Thrive.

What does it look like to track habits? Markman suggests noting when you are performing a particular behavior, such as scrolling through your phone or switching from task to task without finishing the first, as well as where you were when you did it, what else you were doing, what you were thinking and feeling, and how long you spent doing the activity. “If you do this for two weeks, you now begin to recognize the circumstances that lead to the behavior you’re trying to quit,” Markman tells Thrive. If you’re tracking smartphone use, for instance, you’ll begin to understand when and where you are most susceptible to distraction.

After tracking habits, Markman says you’ll be able to use what you learn to reconfigure the way you deal with technology at work. For example, if you know that you are more focused in the morning, you can rework your schedule so that those hours go towards work that requires your full attention. “Set a timer for 10 minutes at the start of the workday. Triage your email to deal with the three or four emails that must be addressed right away,” Markman suggests. “After the timer goes off, set the timer again for an hour and do something else important for that hour without checking email.”

Take conscious breaks

The greatest misconception about productivity is that if you seal people off from the world, they’ll get more work done, Erik Altmann, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Michigan State University, tells Thrive. If you’re distracted at work, maybe you just need to take an effective break. Don’t expect to work productively for hours on end without time to recharge — you’re bound to find yourself distracted.

“Sometimes people need breaks to let things incubate,” Altmann tells Thrive. So, after checking your habit diary, find those lulls in time when you’re most distracted and schedule in some breaks, whether it’s a solo walk, some banter with colleagues, or a nap. Your brain will thank you.

Put distractions out of sight and out of mind

Hiding the main source of your distraction is the most effective way to stop giving into the temptation. There are several different degrees of “out of sight” so how you practice this tip is dependent upon your work situation and level of distractedness.

Markman suggests blocking websites that cause distractions (like social media), keeping your phone on silent, and keeping apps such as email and text closed so that you have to re-open them each time you need them, decreasing the number of times you check them. He also proposes creating a specific time of day in which you check portals such as Slack, rather than doing it throughout the day.

If these methods aren’t extreme enough to battle your distractions, Altman recommends you go as far as shutting your phone off completely or leaving it in your car during periods when you need to get deep work done. Completely eliminating the source of distraction is bound to make a difference.

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