Minimizing Distractions

Managing Your Work Environment

Email is just one of many distractions that can affect your productivity.

© iStockphoto/joxxxxjo

How often are you distracted at work? It's a question that's almost laughable, right? Most of us are distracted several times, if not dozens of times, every day. We get emergency emails and phone calls. We take breaks to browse the Internet. Co-workers walk into our office for a quick chat, or send us amusing instant messages.

It doesn't matter where you work or what you do, you probably deal with distractions on a daily basis. And these distractions are costly: a 2007 study by Basex estimated that distractions cost U.S. businesses $588 billion per year, and this high cost is likely repeated in organizations around the world.

What's more (and depending on the complexity of our work), regaining concentration after a distraction can take quite a few minutes. If we're distracted 10 times a day, multiply the time lost by 10, and it's easy to see why we sometimes don't get much quality work done.

Learning how to minimize distractions can dramatically increase your productivity and effectiveness, as well as reduce your stress. Without distractions, you can get into flow  , produce high-quality work, and achieve much more during the day.

In this article, we'll discuss the most common distractions we face at work, and we'll look at strategies for minimizing or eliminating them.


While email is incredibly useful, it's also one of the biggest work distractions we face. Many of us could spend entire days simply reading and responding to emails.

  • Schedule "email" times – Minimize this distraction by scheduling specific times to check and respond to emails. For instance, you could check email when you first arrive at work, at lunch, and right before you leave, and specify a half-hour slot every day to respond to your emails. (If you do this, it may be useful to let co-workers and customers know that they will need to contact you another way if they need you urgently.)
  • Check and respond to email at "low productivity" times – Remember that there are certain times of day when you probably do your best work  . Some people work best in the morning, and others late at night. Schedule your email check-in during your less-productive times – and save your peak hours for doing creative, high-value work.
  • Turn emails into actions – If an email will take more than a few minutes to action or respond to, add it as a new action on your To-Do List   or Action Program  .
  • Keep your email program closed – When you're not using your email program, close it entirely – or at least turn off the visual or audible alerts that distract you. This eliminates the temptation to check it constantly.

    Most email programs will also allow you to fetch new email manually with a "send/receive" button, or will allow you to set it to get new email automatically at certain times of the day (every three hours, for example).


See our article on Managing Email Effectively   for more strategies on minimizing the distractions caused by email. Our article Overcoming Information Overload  , and our Expert Interview on Managing Email with Mike Song, may also be helpful.


A disorganized desk or office can be very distracting. When your work space or work life is disorganized, it can be difficult to think and plan clearly.

Getting organized is a topic that could easily fill books, and it does! We have several good resources here at Mind Tools.

Our articles How to Be Organized  , Actions Programs  , The Art of Filing  , and The 5S System   will help you to organize your office and work life, so you can be more productive – and less distracted – during the day.

Instant Messaging (IM)

Instant messaging   can be useful, but many times it's also a way for co-workers to interrupt you without having to get up and walk into your office.

If you use instant messaging (it's very powerful if used in a disciplined way), get into the habit of using it for small, quick queries. It's often better to use email or the phone for more complex ones.

Also, if you find yourself distracted by IM, consider setting specific times during the day for being "online." Then, when you don't want to be contacted, leave it off or set your status to "busy." If people need to contact you, make sure they know your "hours" for IM.

Phone Calls

The ring of the phone has become almost like Pavlov's bell for some people – we think we must answer it, even if we're concentrating   on something important.

Minimize phone call distractions by turning off your phone during your peak work hours. Or, let your team know that you won't take non-essential calls between specific times, such as from noon to 2 p.m.

Alternatively, get people into the habit of using IM to check with co-workers that they are OK to take a call. If co-workers are deep in concentration, they can ask to "talk in 10 minutes" without losing the thread of their work.

The Internet

Browsing the web can take up enormous amounts of time from our day, and when we start looking on the Internet for one thing, it's easy to get lost for 20 minutes or more.

  • Read the news before the start of the day – Visit news sites or read newspapers before work, so that you know the news. That way, you won't be distracted as much during the day.
  • Close your Internet browser – Eliminate Internet distractions by keeping your browser closed when you're not using it. If you repeatedly check personal email, or go on social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter, then log out of your account. If you're forced to take those few extra seconds to log in each time, it may remind you that you're not focusing on work.

    However, bear in mind that tools like Twitter are increasingly useful for staying in touch with events in your industry. Just make sure that you only check it at set times of the day – for instance, before lunch and at the end of the day.)

  • Use special software – There are some useful software applications such as Freedom and Anti-Social that help eliminate online distractions. You can specify which websites you want to block, and set a timer for how long you want the block to remain active. Using technology like this to block access for yourself can be a big help.
  • Take short Internet breaks – Remember that taking little breaks, especially after working for an hour or more in deep concentration, can be quite useful for resting your mind. These tiny breaks allow you to return to focus with renewed energy. Use casual Internet browsing as a reward for every hour you devote to high-quality, focused work – and you'll feel as if you've earned the time.

Other People

Co-workers often create the greatest distractions.

  • Close your door – Close your office door to keep people from casually stopping by. If they knock or come in anyway, explain that when your door is closed, you shouldn't be disturbed unless there's an emergency. A sign on your office door may also help. (If you're a manager, there's clearly a tension between this and – very importantly – making sure that your "door is always open" to members of your team. Consider working from home or in a conference room when you don't want to be disturbed.)
  • Use headphones – If you're in a cubicle or open office environment, people are less likely to interrupt you if you're wearing headphones. (You don't even have to be listening to music!)
  • Talk to the disrupter – If you share an office with someone who often disrupts your day, talk to the person about the problem: he may not realize he's distracting you. Or, if a co-worker often comes in, sits down, and chats for a while, don't allow her to do it – place a pile of papers on the chair she'd use, or stand up immediately when she comes into your office or cubicle.


Our article Managing Interruptions   offers further help on dealing with interruptions by co-workers.

Work Environment

Windows, a busy highway, or loud co-workers may all contribute to a distracting work environment.

  • Work in another location – If possible, work in a conference room or empty office to regain your concentration. If your job allows it, working in a different setting, such as at home, at a library, or in a coffee shop, may also help you to focus more.
  • Use "white noise" – If noise is a problem, install padded partitions, or consider buying a sound machine that produces white noise to cover annoying sounds. Noise-canceling headphones with soft music can also improve your focus. You can also download white noise files from the Internet and set them on "repeat." Having white noise play constantly helps block unwanted sounds.

Other Projects and Tasks

An overwhelming To-Do List   may be a major distraction during the day. You may then procrastinate   on those tasks, simply because you have so much to do, which further lowers your productivity.

  • Prioritize your To-Do List – Commit to accomplishing the two most important tasks on your list every day.
  • Track your day – Pick one day to keep track of everything you spend your time doing. You might discover that you spend five hours managing interruptions and dealing with emergencies, and four hours doing actual work. This assessment would then show you that you have only four productive hours each day to achieve your most important tasks.
  • Delegate – Learn how to delegate effectively  . This is important for managing an overwhelming list of tasks and projects.


Coming to work well rested is vital to having a productive day.

  • Get enough sleep – Many people don't get enough sleep   at night. When you're tired, it's very easy to become distracted.
  • Stay hydrated – When you don't drink enough water and you become dehydrated, you may not think clearly. Dehydration can also make you feel tired and less alert. Keep a water bottle on your desk, and drink regularly during the day.
  • Go for a walk – If you're tired at work, go outside for a walk. Getting some fresh air and moving your body can give you more energy, and can make you feel more alert.
  • Watch your diet – Your diet may also influence how tired you feel. For example, avoid heavy lunches – and instead eat smaller, healthy snacks throughout the day.

Key Points

We all face distractions on a daily basis. Distractions not only lower our productivity, they also increase our stress.

You probably already know what distracts you the most – phone calls, emails, instant messages, Internet browsing, interrupting co-workers, and so on. Strategies like scheduling email checks, turning off your phone, and leaving the office for a quieter environment may eliminate distractions so that you get more done.

Try several strategies to find the ones that work, and then stick to them!

This site teaches you the skills you need for a happy and successful career; and this is just one of many tools and resources that you'll find here at Mind Tools. Subscribe to our free newsletter, or join the Mind Tools Club and really supercharge your career!

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Comments (13)
  • alicynkane wrote Over a month ago
    don't waste your time on things that don't matter
  • Donald wrote Over a month ago
    well said
  • Dianna wrote Over a month ago
    Impressive Francisco!!! I have to admit I'm a bit of a Packrat too. You've inspired me to take a good hard look at my desk and start emptying... and to stop looking at the pile of "to shred" documents (that I've been staring at for a year) and just go ahead and shred them. Honestly, if I haven't needed them this past year I'm not EVER going to need them... right??

  • fxgg090 wrote Over a month ago
    Thank´s Midgie:

    Yep, I have to keep it this way now.

    Before this massive cleaning, I did clean my desk and put in the trash papers every 2 months or so, not very often.

    Now I want to do it at least every week, if I keep cleaning every day will be more easy and more organized.

    Yes it did help!

  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Francisco,
    WOW, definitely sounds like you had a massive clear out! Well done and now the trick is to keep it up with regular tidy ups and clear out.

    If you were to schedule time on a regular basis, how often would you do a tidy up? How often would you do a big clear out?

    Hope this all helps you to stay focused on your work!

  • fxgg090 wrote Over a month ago
    Oh dear, I need it this... ¡MY OFFICE!

    Before Christmas I had to do a clean up, I had papers since I think 1992 (not kidding) I can´t believe this, I think I need everything at hand when I don´t.

    I did a clean up, did put in another office more papers, did copy my important documents. And did clean all the desk, put in the trash things I didn´t even know it existed there.

    I realize how important is to have at least 3 agendas, yes I have 3, one for my Secretary I share with her every day with what she must do and what I need to do for the day, I sign off those. The other agenda is personal, emails, phones #, passwords (I never store passwords or personal numbers on Excel or o the computer is not safe). And my other agenda is for the month, what I need every month to do or not do, in that agenda I write what I need to change in myself for good.

    I had some books I gave as a gift to my co workers, I did order my phones, all electrical things in one place, clips, post its in one place and i will try to put them back every day. I feel better, more organized, people who come I see how they react also.

    Believe it or not when I was in disorder I knew every paper, but it wasn´t it´s place or I didnt need them, but I remember everything I had.

    I bought something for my coat too, it looks better too, I bought some nice mugs too, and they are in one place, I had to change my printer (again, is wireless no need for wires there), and my ancient Egypt, Mexican, American, European things I have (my office in reality is like a museum where people wonder what´s there or what´s new, I produce motivation that way), but that museum was for sure a mess, total mess, after I ended my cleaning I came to my home doing the same because all my offices at home and my room were a mess plus, I guess spiders could live there properly without me knowing they were hiding.

    So I had to clean my house too, I found out the mints I got in a restuarant in 2003-2004, I found out a notebook since I was in high school (I still have it), also some books since I was in elementary (I guess the museum keeps at my house), oh my gosh I found even pencils I did use like 20 years ago, no kidding a mc Donalds box, oh some news papers from last year, oh! homework since I was in college and I never saw, some coins I lost someday, also some medical tests I got like in the year 1998 and so on....I just can´t believe all the mess I got. _ And I thought that was order-

    Anyway, my intention is to keep my offices clean everyday, and in order, to not keep so much papers, put them in the trash, recicle them or whatever but not kept all, I want to scan all my documents too and get a file for that.

    Im doing a check box list, where every week or so I will check if I have that thing that I need the most and if I dont need it your gone from my eyes, just the relevant tools I need near by, I do this in my checklist nothing less nothing more because I get distracted too very often.

    Oh I forgot I also found those 3.5 Big Disks we used in those old computers.

    I don´t need to take pictures I have a very big memory but for those who forget how to order their desks I can tell you take some pictures so you can remember how they look when they are neat and clean, im trying to be consistent in this how do I appear to other´s in my profession? what is the impression giving by my physical space??

    Anyway, God created Chaos...

    So, these tips about not being distracted are very good, sorry I can´t follow the time for emails, it´s impossible for me to have times for -emails I get emails almost every 20 minutes or so, and some are really important, I get filters too to just get and not be distracted by spam mails, about phones I don´t get direct calls neither do interviews on the phone, but someone else took my calls for me (that´s a relief).

    I did find out that smell or odor is very important, so is not just to have a clean desk but a nice smell, usually fresh coffee or a deodorant we use in the place, people get nice where they smell nice, I bought a new chair and new items for the desk.

    Francisco X González.
    The orderly guy.
  • Rachel wrote Over a month ago
    Hi All

    Colleagues, email alerts, social media notifications - all of these can distract us at work.

    Learn how to minimize distractions like these, in this week's Featured Favorite.

    Happy holidays!

    Best wishes

  • Dianna wrote Over a month ago
    That's a great tip. And with so many great headphones on the market these days people are sure to find a set that work well for them.

    How long have you been sing this strategy? Did you experience any resistance at the start? Maybe with people feeling insulted that you want to tune them out? It would be great to hear how you've made this work for you.

  • timmartin wrote Over a month ago
    Bose head phones work really well...They cancel out distractions
    opt for the microphone socket it's amazing
    Tim Martin
    The Harley Street Mind boutique
    1 Harley Street
    027 047 1964
  • Dianna wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Whilhelmina,

    Let us know how things go after a week or so. It's a good idea to keep track of your interruptions using a log. Then you can go back and look for patterns and people! that cause the most interruptions. There are lots more tips on this in our article on managing interruptions:

    Looking forward to hearing how it goes...

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