5 counterintuitive ways to beat distractions at work

When you’ve tried all of the conventional advice and you still find yourself scrolling through Facebook, try one of these methods.

5 counterintuitive ways to beat distractions at work
[Photos: Markus Spiske/Unsplash; Tim Mossholder/Unsplash]

You’re constantly distracted, and you’ve tried every conventional method to beat it, from time blocking to the Pomodoro Technique and installing extensions to block certain websites. But no matter how badly you want them to work, they don’t. Doing any sort of deep work is a constant struggle, and you’re sick of not being able to focus.


Don’t despair, you might just need to give unusual methods a go. While these hacks might not look like your usual productivity tips, they might just help you kick up your concentration levels up a notch.

1. Stop trying to control everything

Ever had an experience where the harder you try to control something, the less you’re able to do so? Kyle Cease, author of I hope I screw this up: How falling in love with your fears can change the world, told Fast Company that a big cause of stress is “trying to control the things you can’t.” You might turn to distractions to avoid dealing with your stress, and this can lead to excuses and inaction. If you feel like this situation resonates with you, try and practice letting go. You might just find yourself with new opportunities and a desire to focus on those.

Related: What to do when the biggest office distractions is your coworkers 

2. Take more breaks throughout the day

When you’re distracted, you might think you don’t have time for breaks. After all, you need to make up for all the work you didn’t do because you were distracted right? According to research, you might not be giving yourself enough time to leave your desk. A 2015 study at Baylor University surveyed 95 employees who primarily used a computer for work. They were told to document their “break” activities, and found that whenever employees intentionally stepped away from their work, they experienced “increased job satisfaction and decreased emotional exhaustion.”

3. Let yourself be distracted

Yes, you might be wondering how this can help you focus. Here’s the thing–creativity often happens when you’re distracted, and being creative can help you focus because it gets you more excited about whatever it is you’re doing. According to psychology researcher Shelley H. Carson, the key is to observe your distractions “in a non-judgmental way.” When you’re not fighting it, and you’re allowing yourself to pay more attention to your surroundings, that’s when you’re more likely to stumble on an idea “that solves a problem that’s been shimmering in the back of your mind,” Carson said. If you suspect that the cause of your distraction is hitting a wall, not fighting it might help you break that wall.

Related: Five ways to say “no” so you can finally reclaim your focus


4. Take note of your “triggers”

If you really don’t know the root of your distraction, you might have to do some introspection and understand why certain feelings push you to carry out certain activities. Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: how to build habit forming products, told First Round Review, “The body gets us to act by making us feel these uncomfortable sensations that we seek to escape. It’s called homeostasis. If you feel cold, you put on a jacket. If you feel warm, you take it off. All human behavior–distraction included–starts from an internal trigger.”

So next time you find yourself scrolling on Facebook instead of finishing off that report, note what you felt. Then, ask yourself what it was you were getting away from. Was if frustration? your lack of belief in your ability to execute the task? Eyal said, “Only when we hone in on that underlying emotion, can we start finding a different way to deal with that emotion than reflexively trying to escape from it altogether.”

5. Find a way to to engage in “craft-adjacent play”

Sometimes, you need a little mental warm-up before you dive head first into a task. Aaron Britt, brand content editor and head of editorial at Herman Miller, engages in a 20-minute round of anagrams with his team before he goes on to tackle his work. As he previously wrote in Fast Company, he finds this a great “mental warm-up” and team building exercise, and puts him in a better headspace to tackle his work. He cited a 2017 study that you can achieve more cognitive and creative benefits when you “play first and work later,” rather than work and break in the middle of the day. Miller calls the ritual “purposeful” play, as he uses the same “skills and mental resources” that he and his team utilize in the course of their work.

You might not be a content creator, but there might be games you can play that use the same skills you exert for your job. For example, if you’re a salesperson, you can do an improv session with your colleague to get yourself psyched up, or you might put together a jigsaw puzzle before tackling a thorny problem. You might just find that the urge to look at your phone every 10 minutes disappears.


About the author

Anisa is a freelance writer and editor who covers the intersection of work and life, personal development, money, and entrepreneurship. Previously, she was the assistant editor for Fast Company's Work Life section and the co-host of Secrets Of The Most Productive people podcast.