Now, Where Was I? 6 Strategies For Dealing With Workplace Distractions

Distractions at work are nothing new. Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch) wrote about strategies for dealing with work distractions way back in the 1300s. In his Life of Solitude, Petrarch offers the following advice for the medieval scholar: "Close the doors of your senses in order to achieve solitude in the presence of other people." Today, you will find many people doing exactly that in coffee shops and other public places.

Yet distractions have gotten worse, much worse, in fact, and technology is largely to blame. As late as the 1960s, the only piece of technology on a worker’s desk was a telephone (and maybe a typewriter). Contrast that with today’s collage of desktop computer, notebook computer, voice over IP (video) phone, smartphone, iPod, iPad, and other devices. Each one of these electronic "servants" vie for the attention of its master with beeping alerts, trendy ringtones, and flashing screens. This army of devices is overloading us with information, and we battle to keep up.

According to the New York Times, we consume three times more information today than we did in 1960. In fact, we are being interrupted 11 times an hour, according to Basex Research, and these interruptions are taking an hour and a half out of our workday, according to a recent uSamp survey. The cost? More $10,000 per employee per year, according to the same survey. A Stanford study found that interruptions cost more than money; they cost us our health through increased stress. And if you think that today’s Gen Y multitaskers are less affected, note that another Stanford study found that multi-taskers are actually impacted more by interruptions than non-multi-taskers.

What can we do to fight distractions and reduce stress? Here are six proven strategies, three for individuals and three for organizations.


  • Turn off alerts. Email and instant message alerts are one of the biggest causes of interruptions. One study found that 71% of people answer IM alerts within 2 seconds, and 41% of people respond to email alerts within 15 seconds. Turning these off will do wonders for productivity.
  • Off-site, out of mind. If you have work that requires deep thought or creativity, like writing or coming up with new ideas, find a quiet place outside the office, like a library or study, where there are fewer distractions.
  • Be "alone in the crowd." Follow Petrarch’s 650-year-old advice and find a way to shut out the world in crowded spaces. For example, work in a café with a pair of headphones. Many people find it easy to shut out distractions when they are not targeted at them.


  • Create email policies. Limit the number of email recipients for a given message. Limit the length of an email thread, and encourage people to pick up the phone instead of sending endless emails. Discourage the use of email’s "cc" capability.
  • Create meeting policies. Not all meetings need to be an hour or a half hour. Shorten meetings and make sure computers are closed (unless needed for note taking), phones are off, and insist that texting is strictly verboten.
  • Reduce context switching. Workers change windows 37 times an hour, on average, according to the New York Times. We use too many applications to get work done. We spend the day cutting information from one window into another; all this toggling is sapping us of our ability to work. New collaboration tools are actually making things worse. Forrester Research found that 61% of organizations have invested in 5 or more collaboration tools, but that most of them are not being used effectively. At one of my recent seminars, one participant went as far as to say, "If I have to use one more productivity tool, I won’t get ANY work done." The key is to make what you have already work better by integrating them so typical workflows like document and knowledge sharing are contained in a work context.

For more on reducing distractions in the workplace, see author David Lavenda's presentation Now, Where Was I: Digital Distractions In the Workplace. To submit your own "distraction story" for future posts, please email

[Image: Flickr user joshuahoffmanphoto]

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  • David Lavenda

    One thing I find fascinating is that in every age, people felt overloaded. It is only in retrospect that we see people living in a simpler time (remember The Waltons or even Bewitched? - Darrin was home for dinner at 5PM and the only disturbance he had was a telephone and an intercom).  Having said that, there is no doubt that technology is having a huge impact on the level of distractions with which we are dealing. 50 years ago, when you went on vacation, there was no way to reach you. You may have been thinking about work, but you weren't being disturbed by work.  On the other hand, a few years ago, I had the absurd experience of having to take a conference call while at Disneyworld. The insanity of going around and around on the Dumbo ride while listening to my CEO talk about major changes in the company was my wake up call that something is seriously wrong with the way we let technology take control of our lives. I suggest taking a look at William Power's "Blackberry's Hamlet" and look at his idea for an "Internet Sabbath." A great idea.

  • Michelle Swoboda

    It is interesting to note that as television portrays the past in shows such as Mad Men and Pan Am - that you immediately feel that their daily lives were less cluttered and distracted.  You realize the impact that technology has on all of us every minute of every day. 

  • Carissa Lucas

    These are all tactics that are suggested by The Effective Edge in our individual and team productivity workshops. When you are multitasking, you're expending 40% of energy between the devices you're using. That means that more than 20% of your energy is lost just switching between programs or devices. Such a huge waste! Thanks for the great tips!

  • Sam Parker

    At my office, we have "focus hours" twice daily (from 9 - 11 am and 2 - 4). This is time when everyone commits to no interrupting others unless it's a customer emergency. We break it from time-to-time but we always get back to it. More here...

  • Michael Brown

    I must say I felt most guilty of the instant email alerts critique after realizing that my reading of this very article was in response to an instant email notification.

  • Angela Neal

    Great article.  This is something that I have been combating.  My solution (to some degree) has been to schedule times and limits for specific activities such as Facebook and email.  I also have our office team now dedicate 1 hour per day to looking at "distractions" such as reading news bulletins, bookmarking cool content and general surfing.  With so much coming at us from all angles, sometimes we do need to take the time to surf the information wave. :)

    Helping small businesses create an effective presence online

  • Rayesparza

    Thanks for providing such useful information. I really appreciate your professional approach. I would like to thank you for the efforts you made in writing this post.I really appreciate the kind of topics you post here.

  • Cedricj

    We also live with the illusion that the 'open door' policy leads to greater collaboration and communication. This is not always true. Time for quiet thought and even a nap can be regenerative. There has to be ways of "closing the door" to interruptions. This is vital to productivity that requires deep thought. I know of leaders who escape the office and retreat to Starbucks or the gym for such solitude.

    Without gaps between musical notes all one gets is noise. We forget the power of silence.
    Inspiring leaders to inspire others