How often do you find yourself having one of those days where you feel like you’ve been really busy the entire time but on reflection, you haven’t actually accomplished very much?
Distractions can come in many forms. From looking at your inbox because a new email alert popped up to thinking about what to cook for dinner that your fussy daughter may actually agree to eat, distractions can be related to any part of life and carry different levels of urgency or pleasure.
The problem is they can reduce your ability to focus, make tasks take that much longer to complete and increase the number of mistakes made in the process.
Why do we get so easily distracted at work?
More often than not, distractions pull us away from our work tasks because of one of two reasons.
- The thing that we’re doing isn’t very stimulating/engaging and we’re looking for something more enjoyable to focus on. This could either be because the task is too intellectually demanding and you need a break or it’s so boring you’re struggling to stay awake.
- The thing that’s distracting you is something you perceive as being more important or urgent than the task you’re meant to be focusing on. This often occurs because something else has been left unfinished and is niggling in the back of your mind urging you to provide closure (this is called the Zeigarnik effect).
How COVID has boosted our ability to procrastinate
When COVID hit, the ability to procrastinate during work hours expanded. A lot. Gone were the colleagues who could casually peer over your shoulder to see what you were doing. Gone were the in-person team meetings that took up such a large chunk of your day. Gone was your ability to take too many coffee or bathroom breaks for fear of missing the phone.
No, the new post-COVID world encourages procrastination!
It’s a more accommodating environment as we learn to work from home where the boundaries between personal and work life begin to blur. It’s now easy to have a movie playing in the background or to have music blasting (provided you’re not in the middle of a meeting of course). It’s easy to take a longer lunch break or to start later (provided you’ll make up the hours during the week), to duck out for a walk with friends or catch up for an afternoon coffee.
The truth is, we expect greater flexibility when it comes to working from home, not only for ourselves but also for others. Without the rigid hours, we now expect others to become accessible outside of what were our standard hours and so are more forgiving if they’re not available at certain times during the day. Similarly, we’ve gotten used to internet cutting out, partners or kids accidentally interupting zoom calls or parents needing to take breaks to set up school work or entertainment for their children as they try to juggle competing priorities that had never posed problems before.
Social norms in a pre-COVID workplace
When it came to work, the pre-COVID world offered us some measures to minimise distraction.
In an office, your best chance of distraction was chatting for a little too long to a colleague in the kitchen to catch up on office gossip or your personal lives. If you really hated what you were doing, you might have taken an extra bathroom or tea break too. But much more than that was limited to the really game, desperate or those with little work and access to private, unsupervised space.
Thanks to social norms, in the back of your head you always knew that other people were watching and comparing your actions to their own, therefore reducing your likelihood of procrastination. Similarly, you’d be far more cautious about researching an upcoming holiday or shopping for clothes online while in the office for fear of criticism or being called out.
So how do we minimise distractions in our new work from home environments?
Create clear boundaries
OK, so this one isn’t the easiest to achieve for everyone, especially anyone with young children who don’t quite understand why they can’t come say hi when the door is closed and mum or dad is trying to work. However, in embracing a more fluid way of working, having the ability to switch off and set boundaries is critical to being able to maintain focus. For those with the luxury of space, having a separate area for work where you can close the door and mentally switch off is incredibly valuable. This also allows you to prime your mind so that you can flip into work mode as soon as you enter the room (or even space if you just partition part of a room). Ideally, you want this space to feel as work like and as little like the creature comforts of home as possible. This means getting dressed (yes, even when pyjamas are as comfortable as they are), keeping the TV in a separate area and acting like you are in an office of sorts.
Put yourself in an environment where you feel like you’re being watched
You may not have colleagues able to swivel their chairs around at any point in time but if it’s the unknown element of surprise when someone else could catch you slacking off that helps, there are workarounds! Whether you find yourself a coffee shop, park or even just have a photo with eyes plastered in front of you (yes this can actually work), creating uncertainty or a self-imposed expectation that you need to behave can be useful. And for those who can’t create an environment where someone else is watching, rope in a colleague to help and have them send you emails or messages or even calls at random points in the day to touch base.
Create targets to strive towards
When you get overwhelmed by too many tasks and too much uncertainty, the temptation to procrastinate, to find things that bring relief or pleasure becomes that much harder to resist. In a way, this approach borrows from the adrenaline rush that a looming deadline can create. Creating even one somewhat structured target for the day can help refocus you so that you’re less likely to be tempted by distractions. Just remember not to make your task list too rigid as leaving things incomplete or having too many items can be just as overwhelming and harmful.
Learn your working body clock
We know that some people are early birds and others are night owls but did you know that your personal mental clock works differently at different points in the day? You might find that you’re more creative in the morning and more analytical or detail oriented in the afternoon. By taking advantage of how your brain works, you’ll find it easier to concentrate on the tasks at hand and find the allure of the news or even facebook that little bit easier to resist.
Identify your weaknesses and temptations and modify your environment accordingly
The internet is a wonderful thing but if you’re not careful, can lead down a rabbit hole where time disappears. The same applies to Netflix, Amazon, TV marathons and online shopping. We all know our personal vices or weaknesses and the situations most likely to trigger us into seeking out those comforts. Whether you turn to researching your passion project or getting lost in new episodes of the Kardashians or a football replay, these distractions rarely take your mind away from work for just 5 minutes. And the more addictive they are, the harder it becomes to resist, especially when you’re already dragging your feet completing tedious tasks for that unenjoyable project your team has been working on. If it’s something that you can make harder to access, the temptation gets reduced as the effort increases. So like the diabetic who knows it’s better to avoid buying chocolate at the supermarket than to fight a continuous battle resisting what’s in the fridge, do yourself a favour and make it harder to access. For example, you might try one of the timer lockout tools that blocks certain webpages, put your personal phone in another room or even set timers to make sure you don’t let breaks run longer than they should.