Work Interrupted: How to Limit Distractions

Tips for staying focused at work

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Seventy-nine. That's how many times I was interrupted at work the other day. Even keeping the tally was a distraction, but the research was for a good cause.

In the modern workplace, where we wear so many hats that our hats are wearing hats, interruptions are commonplace. From people stalking us immediately after hitting the send button ("Did you get my email?") to bosses calling us into their offices every hour on the hour, something has to give.

[See Tips for Breaking Up With a Job.]

After making several mistakes at work, I decided it was time to re-evaluate the way I was working. My conclusion: I am being interrupted far too frequently. Plagued by a similar problem? Try these quick fixes.

Make yourself unavailable. Even at the turn of the century, doctors were letting us know whether they were in or out of the office with signs. The same way you wouldn't interrupt a radio deejay when the 'on air' light is illuminated, you should not address coworkers when they are clearly engrossed in other activities. As such, find your own version of an ‘on air’ light. Perhaps it’s as subtle as a pencil behind your ear and reading glasses; or maybe you need a physical sign for your cubicle wall.

Commit yourself to monotasking. One might be the loneliest number, but sometimes it’s solitude that allows us to achieve greatness. When you find yourself engaging in multitasking, stop yourself, literally. Decide which item you need/want to work on and shut everything else out. If another item creeps up after you have committed to a primary task, remind yourself, aloud, that you have already vowed to finish X before working on Y.

Take your work elsewhere. I have already established that many companies secretly do not believe in allowing workers to telecommute, but that doesn't mean you have to be chained to your desk all day either. If you find that interruptions are interfering with important projects, find another place to work. It could be a conference room, a park bench, or the office cafeteria. Sometimes changing your environment can lead to more quiet time, better concentration, and even new and interesting ideas.

Forward your phone. This might not be a popular move with your boss, but sometimes your phone needs to go directly to voicemail. Apart from the possibility of getting distracted by the ringing or, worse yet, a long conversation that focuses on things other than the project you are trying to complete, it’s important to know that your phone is not going to ring. Just be sure to tell your boss, or anyone of importance that might be looking for you, that you are doing this.

[See Rules of the Paper Inbox.]

Look harried. I don't love this tactic, but the reality is if you wear your “business” on your face, people will be less likely to interrupt you. It’s also easier to tell people that you are working on other things and will have to get back to them. Don’t believe me? Muss up your hair, get a clipboard, walk the hallways with purpose, and then let me know how many people bother you.

Schedule everything. I know, I know, work is fluid, and not everything in life can be planned. But when it comes to work, you sure can come close. Whether you choose to use a physical journal or virtual calendar, start each day by blocking off time for each work-related activity; from checking e-mails to following up with coworkers, jot items down in the morning and adhere to the calendar as strictly as humanly possible. Of course you need to be smart enough to know when to make an exception. (For instance, a Code Red call from the boss about that client meeting; let’s hope you didn't have that phone forwarded!)

Use the comments section below to let us know how you handle interruptions at work.

Andrew G. Rosen is the founder and editor of Jobacle.com, a career advice blog. He is also the author of How to Quit Your Job and an established freelance blogger who is available for hire. Follow him on Twitter (@jobacle) or connect on LinkedIn.

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