Whether you blame open-plan work spaces, constant email interruptions, ever-present smartphones, or chatty co-workers, work distractions have reached epidemic proportions in the American office. Ninety-five percent of people say they struggle to stay focused during the workday, a 2014 Virgin Pulse survey found.
Why can’t we buckle down and stay focused on the task at hand? The roots of work distractions are more complicated than many realize. While it’s easy to blame Facebook or online shopping for blown deadlines and delayed projects, the real productivity killers at the office are the same ones people battled a generation ago. Coffee breaks, trips to the bathroom, and gossiping with co-workers are the most common ways people spend time at work not working, found a survey by BambooHR, an online HR software company.
Before you chain yourself to your desk, keep in mind that breaks from work aren’t all bad. A few minutes spent not working can actually make you more productive, but only if you use your time wisely. Frequently pausing to check social media might make it harder to stay focused in the long run, but pausing to take a short walk outdoors or do a quick 5-minute workout can give you the burst of energy you need to get things done.
If you find it difficult to stay focused at the office, a few lifestyle changes could help. Eating a healthy diet can improve your productivity, as can getting enough sleep. Unfortunately, you can’t go back in time and get a better night’s rest when you have a deadline looming and you can’t concentrate. In those cases, a quick fix is in order. If you’re fighting work distractions, try one of these five simple tricks to stay focused and get stuff done.
1. Install an app
Most apps are likely to cause distraction rather than prevent it, but a few are designed to transport you back to a time before you were constantly fiddling with your phone. ClearLock is a free Android app that lets you temporarily disable distracting apps on your phone. You can shut yourself out of Instagram or Candy Crush for as little as 10 minutes or as long as 3 hours. Once you lock your apps, you won’t be able to access them without restarting your device. Installing this productivity-enhancing app takes just a minute or two and will definitely help you fight work distractions.
Meditation can help you stay focused and get more done at work, and you don’t have to spend hours in a lotus pose to get the benefits. Numerous meditation apps can help you increase mindfulness, reduce stress, and fight distractions in just a few minutes. Or try this 2-minute breathing exercise suggested by Ariana Ayu, the CEO of Ayutopia International. The “technique won’t make your obstacles go away, but it will give you the calm, clear mind you need to deal [or] navigate through those hectic days,” she wrote in Inc. magazine.
3. Get outside
If you can’t stop fidgeting at your desk, get up and take a walk, preferably outside. Not only will walking for as little as two minutes an hour reduce your risk of dying, but doing so outside can improve your mood and overall wellbeing. A mere five minutes of exercise in a park or other green space reduces your risk of mental illness, a 2010 study found. Brief walks also free your mind from distractions and make it easier to solve problems.
“[S]taying inside, in the same location, is really detrimental to creative thinking. It’s also detrimental to doing that rumination that’s needed for ideas to percolate and gestate and allow a person to arrive at an ‘aha’ moment,” Kimberly Elsbach, a professor at the University of California, Davis Graduate School of Management, told NPR.
4. Do one thing for 5 minutes
Multitasking and procrastination are the enemies of productivity. When you have a lot of things on your plate, it’s tempting to try to do multiple things at once in the name of efficiency. Or, you might find yourself overwhelmed by all the things you have to do and not accomplish anything. Andrea Bonior, a cognitive behavioral therapist and author of The Friendship Fix, suggests focusing on one thing for just five minutes if you want to be productive. Dedicate a few minutes responding to essential emails or finishing your expense report, then move on to the next task. The strategy is especially effective for procrastinators.
“[Y]ou pick the task you want to work on, and you vow to work on it for five minutes, and five minutes only,” Bonior wrote in an article for The Huffington Post. “[T]he biggest magic of the five-minute rule comes from the fact that often, for procrastinators, starting is the hardest part.”
5. Declutter at the end of the day
Are there papers on your desk that haven’t moved since the last century? Is your work space littered with moldy coffee cups that could be mistaken for a grade schooler’s science experiment? Research has shown clutter makes it harder to concentrate. Spending five minutes at the end of the day to clear away some of the junk can free your mind from distractions and improve productivity when you return to work tomorrow.
“Take the last 5 minutes of every day to clear the surface of your desk,” Joshua Becker, the author of The More of Less, wrote in a blog post. “A clear office desk will grant you more focus, peace of mind, and productivity.”