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How to Manage Workplace Distractions

It’s 11:13am on a Friday and you feel like you haven’t accomplished anything this week. At least not any real work on your big project. Which is strange, because it seems like you’ve been pretty busy. What have you done? Answered a lot of emails, read through a bunch of chat threads, and attended a slew of meetings that seemed to go nowhere.


It’s normal to feel frustrated by the challenge of getting work done in a world that’s saturated with information and distractions. Check out this infographic. You’re not the only one who’s adversely affected by “excessive emails, unproductive meetings and constant interruptions” which take you away from your work and sacrifice productivity.

But there is help. We’ve pulled together some resources that provide insights and strategies to manage workplace distractions in an overwhelming world.

Control Workplace Distractions Instead of Letting Them Control You

Conquering Digital Distraction by Larry Rosen and Alexandra Samuel

Psychologist Larry Rosen and technologist Alexandra Samuel are both experts in the field of managing workplace distractions, although they take different approaches. Rosen conducted research which found that people’s attachment to their smartphones is so strong as to cause a spike of anxiety in individuals after 15 minutes of separation from their phones. He advocates that we turn our backs to the constant flow of information and focus on recharging ourselves. Samuel empathizes with the need to stay online in today’s world, but says to do this we must “fight fire with fire” - in other words, use technology itself to tame information overwhelm.

Both agree it’s important to “control the digital overload rather than letting it control you.” Here are some of their strategies to help people regain attention, energy, and the ability to be productive.

  • Design an experiment to wean yourself from your digital devices. Rather than going cold turkey and turning off your device for a whole day, Rosen suggests setting an alarm for 15 minutes (or the minimum time that you can bear) during which you don’t check your phone. After this 15 minutes, you’re allowed one minute for a “tech check-in.” As you get more comfortable, practice increasing your offline time.

  • Give your brain a break every 90 minutes. When you’re highly stimulated by information, the brain goes into cognitive overload and can’t take information in meaningfully. Instead of forcing yourself to do more, you can go for a walk, take a few deep breaths, stretch, or do a quick mindfulness exercise to calm and recharge the brain.

  • Make technology work for you. Samuel encourages people to abandon the myth of “keeping up.” She suggests using automatic rules and filters to “streamline the process of deciding what gets your attention” in email inboxes. To streamline news consumption and social media output, Samuel recommends apps like feedly and Flipboard, and Hootsuite and Buffer.

Manage Information Overload In and Out of the Office

Infomagical Challenge by Note to Self, an NPR podcast

Earlier this year, Note to Self launched “Infomagical,” a campaign with daily challenges to help people manage information overload in and out of the office.

We were surprised to learn from the podcast that humans can’t really multitask, unless one of the actions is automatic (think walking and chewing gum). So when we’re emailing, texting, and talking on the phone to Uncle Barry, it’s not all happening at the same time; we’re just rapidly switching our attention between tasks. What does this do to our systems? Bad things. According to Dr. Gloria Mark, Professor of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine,

“The more that people switch their attention, the higher their stress level.”

Challenge 1 of Infomagical empowers people to start undoing this bad habit with the direction to avoid multi-tasking, and to work on one thing at a time with full attention. By guiding people to focus on doing or eliminating something specific for each day of the campaign, Infomagical helped many people sort through information overload and focus on identifying and achieving their goals. Here are the results.

It’s not too late to join the Infomagical challenge. Some of us here at Meeteor have already tried it!

Check-ins and Task-Switching: Potential for Good

Researchers Mark J. Cotteleer and Elliot Bendoly found that check-ins and tasks can positively or negatively affect productivity depending on how they’re handled. Whether you’re interrupted by someone else at work, or you self-interrupt, it takes more than 23 minutes to get back into the work you were doing. 23 minutes!!! That’s roughly the length of your favorite sitcom! They also found that,

“management behaviors and monitoring can actually motivate workers to frequently switch between projects, negatively impacting worker and organizational productivity.”

Here are two strategies that Cotteleer and Bendoly offer:

  • Reduce unscheduled process checks or meetings. This is for you, managers! Managers who are capable of “resisting the urge to perform unannounced progress checks” are rewarded with employees who are less likely to task-switch unnecessarily. These employees are able to conserve and channel their energy toward work as they see fit. Managers should plan check-ins in advance so people know when and how to prepare.

  • Structure project work as many small tasks. It sounds simple and it is: break bigger projects down into smaller steps. Smaller tasks are closer to completion than bigger projects. This inspires workers to stay focused on a small task until it is done instead of switching tasks unnecessarily.

What strategies do you use to deal with workplace distractions? We’d love to hear from you!


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