Simple rules for banishing distractions at work and carving some much needed space

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Say what you like about the closed-door office culture of the Mad Men era, but it did at least mean you could get stuff done (or drink whiskey in your own sweet time, in true Don Draper style).

Interruptions are the bane of modern work life, with open-plan structures cutting away the barriers to chit-chat. Generally, that's a good thing but it does mean that our days can erode into one catch-up after another, with the occasional snatched burst of productivity in-between. 

There's also big difference between being voluntarily distracted - say, by honey badgers on YouTube - and being interrupted. It can feel like you have little control over the latter; whether someone grab five minutes with you to talk about that exec report or Kim Kardashian's latest contouring trick, there's not much you can really do about it.

Or is there? With the help of leading career experts, we look at five ways to carve out space to think in your office and get people to back off - without raising their hackles or appearing rude:

Be proactive in communicating with people

"Planning ahead is a great way to limit distractions before they occur," says Deb Lee, of the organisational website Unclutterer. "Is a teammate, project manager, or client waiting on information from you? If the next action lies with you, consider completing it ahead of schedule — before they contact you with a reminder. This is a win-win solution for everyone and you’ll be rewarded with a solid block of focused time. Additionally, you can be proactive and keep others up-to-date with your project by communicating with them first, and on your schedule. When others are well-informed of your progress, they won’t interrupt you to see how you’re doing."

Have a back-off phrase handy

"It is possible to prevent an interruption when someone is literally walking up to your desk," says careers expert Sara McCord. "You don’t want to ignore her or cut her off to explain how busy you are, so the key here is to pre-empt her: Have a phrase that you always use to start (and end) a conversation when you’re too busy to talk. When you see someone coming toward you, say, 'I’m in the middle of something right now—can I check back with you tomorrow?' or 'I’m swamped right now, can you send me a meeting request?' This way, she knows following up is on your to-do list, but that now’s not a good time."

Hide away

"Sometimes, the easiest way to avoid interruptions is to hide from them," says careers coach Chrissy Scivicque. "And by that, I mean really HIDE. There are two simple ways to do this.

First, you can hide right where you are by simply requesting a wall. If your desk is out in the open, it’s way too easy for people to drop by. If they can’t see you, it’s a lot harder. One wall is all it takes (usually) to block you from view from the majority of foot traffic. They have pretty Japanese inspired designs (like this one) as well as plain old cubicle style ones. They’re also light enough that you move them for your “open office hours” if you wish, and they’re very inexpensive for the amount of peace they provide. (If you have cubicles in your office, you can probably find a spare wall if you look hard enough.)

The second way to hide is to GET OUTTA THERE. Physically pick up your work and head to a quiet spot. Is there an empty conference room you can use perhaps?

If it’s absolutely impossible to get uninterrupted time at the office, you may need to negotiate a day or half-day outside the office. I did this at my last job and it made a world of difference. A few hours of focused time can result in more work accomplished than days of interrupted time."

Be honest with your coworkers

It may seem difficult at first, but letting your colleagues know that you need some time to yourself to focus on your work is often a good tactic, says Meredith Haberfeld, co-founder of the Institute for Coaching.

“If your day is riddled with people walking over to meet with you at their convenience, get the friendly word out that you’re setting up designated office hours for walk-ins,” she says.

This will help people to know that you do want to catch up with them – just during allocated times, when you can give them your undivided attention rather than secretly wishing you could go back to your emails.

Even if you don’t have your own office, being honest with your colleagues can really help. “If you are prone to self-distraction, ask a friend at work to have a designated check-in time each week to go over your progress,” Haberfeld says. “Letting others know about your strategy to minimize distractions will help you stay focused.”

Listen to your favourite playlist

If telling your colleagues that you don’t want to be distracted isn’t for you, then you can give them the message plainly and simply by wearing headphones – and studies have even showed that listening to music can help you concentrate, so it’s a win-win for getting your work done on time.

“If your workplace allows for you to wear headphones, then by all means opt for this simple yet effective manoeuvre,” says career coach Dr Madeline Lewis. “With headphones on, you’ll never have to listen to your cubicle mate and her complaints about life, the world, or whatever else she may feel has slighted her.”

It also allows you to get your message across without being confrontational. As Lewis says: “If you can exercise the ‘headphone option’, then even the most oblivious coworker will soon get the hint that you’re not listening.”

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Stylist Team