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

“Close the doors of your senses in order to achieve solitude in the presence of other people,” Petrarch wrote (more than 600 years ago). Distractions in the workplace are nothing new, but technology has made them much worse. Here are six time-tested strategies for regaining laser-like focus at work.


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
, and these interruptions are taking an hour and a half out
of our workday, according to a recent uSamp
. 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
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


  • 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]


About the author

A technology strategist for an enterprise software company in the collaboration and social business space. I am particularly interested in studying how people, organizations, and technology interact, with a focus on why particular technologies are successfully adopted while others fail in their mission. In my 'spare' time, I am pursuing an advanced degree in STS (Science, Technology, and Society), focusing on how social collaboration tools impact our perceptions of being overloaded by information. I am an international scholar for the Society for the History of Technology.