One of the key capabilities of a more productive you is the ability to maintain focus. Focus on your tasks, your medium term plans and your long term goals. Rather than trying to block out all sound and concentrate fiercely, brainstorm what distracts you from focussing and develop a strategy for dealing with each type of distraction.

What distracts you from focussing on your work?

Different strategies are needed for dealing with different types of distractions – you wouldn’t treat a colleague who interrupts you the same way you treat emails. So the first step to reducing your distractions is to brainstorm what currently distracts you from the task at hand. Time box this brainstorming to 10 or 20 minutes and just come up with as many things as possible, without categorising or thinking about how you should deal with them. I.e. this is about getting out as many ideas as possible.

Alternatively you can collect a sample of data by making a note every time you find yourself distracted. Note down the cause of the distraction. After a week you should have a good range of distractions and also the frequency of each one. Knowing the frequency of each type of distraction tells you the benefit of developing a strategy to effectively deal with that type of distraction.

Everyone will have a different set of distractions and you’ll need to think about different strategies for your situation. Here are a few ideas for dealing with some distractions I’ve experienced.

Internal distractions

These are the things where you think you’ll just take a harmless little timeout either before starting your day, or in the middle of the day. All of a sudden you wake up and realise you’ve wasted an hour and are behind on your plans. The key to dealing with this is self-discipline and timing.

If any of these are familiar:

  • I’ll just browse and check the news headlines
  • I’ll just have a look on the forums and see what people are talking about
  • Just a few minutes browsing my Facebook and twitter feeds
  • I’ve got time to read all the newsletters I’ve subscribed to

Try these strategies:

  • Don’t get to work and start the day with these activities; start with your most important tasks, then check email and/or these types of activities later. The momentum gained will make you more productive for the whole day.
  • Plan some time to satisfy the need for these activities by picking a regular timeslot so that it doesn’t distract you from the important tasks. E.g. every afternoon at 4.30 you can browse social media for 30mins or even an hour, before leaving for the day. If you are disciplined about this it’ll help keep your focus.
  • Create an environment that’s conducive to getting stuff done. If you create the right circumstances by setting up your environment you’ll find that there are inherently less distractions around (e.g. no TV), which will give you the best chance of being productive.
  • If you feel reluctant to start on your work and it’s this procrastination that’s driving you towards distractions, a good strategy is to break your tasks up into smaller chunks and set a goal of focussing on the task for 15 minutes. This way the work won’t look as scary, and once you start on it the momentum will often keep you going for a long time afterwards.

Electronic interruptions

Emails can be a source of frequent and time consuming interruptions for many people. Luckily these can be dealt with very effectively by simply limiting your email checking to a few times a day. E.g. you could check your email at 10am and 4pm, and process your Inbox systematically by actioning emails on the spot if you can do it within 2 minutes, or moving them out of the Inbox for actioning later if it looks like a bigger task. There are many systems out there devised to help people process email.

The trusted trio (3 folders: Reply – takes longer than 2 minutes to action, Follow Up – waiting for responses, Archive – may need in the future) is something I’ve previously used quite effectively. These days, however, I’m pretty good at keeping the Inbox to less than 5 messages, but the Reply folder fills up and I never go back to check it. On the positive side, I’m effectively putting aside these emails that initially seem important but clearly aren’t. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post it’s important to continually refine and improve yourself. Maybe it’s time I look at a new way of dealing with emails, as with Agile and the new usage of post-it notes, emails aren’t a primary source of tasks as they once were.

Human interruptions

I’ve split work related human interruptions from non-work related interruptions because you’re likely to use different strategies to handle each.

Most of the time you want to help people who come to you with questions. A core part of leadership is helping others become better at their jobs. However, sometimes there’s a colleague who comes to you many times a day, creating a constant stream of small interruptions. How do you deal with this?

One way is to set up a regular catch-up with this person; twice a week or whatever seems appropriate. That way they’ll know that they have that 1/2 hour in the afternoon to ask you all their questions, and they won’t feel the need to come and interrupt you unless it’s really time sensitive.

Social distractions

If you find too much time slipping away due to:

  • Stream of colleagues dropping by to ask about the weekend
  • Colleagues who just want to chat
  • You just want to chat


  • Take control of the situation by taking the initiative to walk around to all your colleagues and ask them what they did on the weekend. The idea is that you’ve picked a time, so you’re not being interrupted and having to re-focus to get back in the zone after the interruption.
  • If it’s just that you want to chat because you’re a bubbly person, well, you won’t find this to be a distraction then!

Endless number of meetings

Some weeks you look at your calendar and realise you’ve got hardly any availability as you’ve accepted a large number of meeting invitations. This can also be a problem on a team level if multiple members of your team are attending the same meetings.

Some meetings are valuable but there are a lot that aren’t. If you spot meetings where you’re not really needed to provide input and you can get the information from other sources later, decline it. If your whole team has been invited to a meeting, just have one person attend and fill the others in later. For the meetings you set yourself, make sure you know what you want to get out of it and that you have the right people. Otherwise you’ll end up needing more meetings!

The distraction of being busy

There’s a thought provoking article on about the perils of being constantly busy. It’s clear that being busy reacting to endless requests, interruptions and ‘urgent’ tasks can detract you from achieving your real goals.

Further reading

A couple of good blog posts on email management techniques:

What are your strategies for handling distractions?