If you’re like me, you’ve had two back-to-back workdays where, one day, you feel extremely productive and the next day, you feel like you didn’t accomplish a single thing. Having a productive day feels amazing, as if you’ve just conquered your profession. And those non-productive days, well, you’re just glad they’re over.
What I’ve learned through trial and error is that most of those unproductive days are, gasp, nobody’s fault but my own. Even if I was distracted by coworkers, or last-minute urgent projects arose, or I had a splitting headache, I should be able to tell people that I’m busy, or leave space in my schedule for unexpected work, or take a Tylenol and find a quiet, dark place to sit for 10 minutes. There are remedies for almost every distraction.
I’m not saying we can’t have a slack-off day every now and then, but if your unproductive days happen more and more often, it’s time to do a little soul-searching, organizing, and planning to make distractions go away.
How to Minimize Distraction to Get Things Done
1. Learn to anticipate yourself.
According to a study conducted by the University of California Irvine, office workers are only able to focus on any single task for an average three minutes and five seconds before they’re distracted. And, surprisingly, 44 percent of those distractions are internal — hunger, boredom, stress, sleep deprivation. The good news is that internal distractions are the only kind we can truly control. Know your patterns for hunger, bored, stress, and sleepiness and plan ahead. Keep snacks at your desk, mix up your to-do list by interspersing boring and interesting tasks, or find a quiet place to take a short nap.
2. Send out busy signals.
If 44 percent of distractions are internal, than 56 percent of distractions come from external sources. People, email, phone calls, pets (if you work from home like I do), and chatter from other cubicles fall into this category. To stop external distractions before they start, you have to give the right signals to the outside world.
Put up your “busy” message on instant messenger and wear headphones (even if you’re not playing music). Stand to greet cube visitors to show them you want to move the conversation along. If you face the entrance of your cube or office when seated at, move your computer to the back of the cube to face the wall when working. Subtle queues like these might seem a tad passive-aggressive, but they might also save you from annoying distractions.
3. Make technology work for you, not against you.
Even though it might seem like the enemy most times, technology can be your anti-distraction friend. Turn off email alerts, set your phone to go straight to voice-mail or create an auto-response to text messages you receive that says something like, “In the middle of something; will get back to you later.” Block chunks of time on your calendar as “busy.” Unless your job involves life-or-death situations, everyone will manage just fine for the few hours when you’re off the grid.
4. Ask for a more flexible schedule.
In a recent study of 800 job seekers looking for flexible jobs conducted by FlexJobs, the number one reason for wanting to work from home was to avoid distracting coworkers. Even if you can’t work from home full-time, maybe your boss will let you telecommute one or two days a week in the interest of productivity. Or, try rearranging your work hours to be in the office earlier or later than typical work hours for some quiet time. Even escaping to Starbucks for an afternoon of coffee-fueled, solitary work can help you be more productive.
5. Stop being so darn accommodating.
Are you a people-pleaser? A “yes man?” Is your favorite line from any movie, “I’m right on top of that, Rose!” from 1991’s Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead? The nicest people are often the busiest people, and when asked if they can help with something or take on a new project, they immediately accept to be polite or a team player. But if you’re already overloaded with work and feeling like you never get anything done, the last thing you should do is take on any new projects. Let people know that while you’d love to help, your plate is full.
If your unproductive days are starting to win out over your productive ones, it’s time to figure out where your distractions originate, and put a stop to them. By being proactive, silencing technology, working a more flexible schedule and letting people know, both passively and actively, that you are b-u-s-y, you’ll be less distracted and more productive.
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