6 time-tested ways to minimize distractions at work

distractions at work

If you’ve ever felt distracted at work, you're not alone —- you’re in the majority. One study found that 99% of employees reported getting distracted while working. And according to a Udemy and Toluna poll, workers’ most common distractions are chatty coworkers (80%), office noise (70%), feeling overwhelmed by changes at work (61%), meetings (60%), and social media (56%). The worst part about distractions? It takes an average of just over 23 minutes to get back on track after getting interrupted by a distraction.

Distractions are everywhere, but they don’t have to hinder your productivity. With the right tools in your toolbox, you can effectively manage and eliminate distractions to get more done and save time. In this post, we rounded up six of our best tips for minimizing distractions at work with some tactics to help you apply them in your workday. 

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1. Create a plan for your workday and stick to it.

It’s much easier to avoid distractions when you have your day planned out. Having flexibility in your schedule can be a good thing, but when the workday is too fluid, various distractions can steal our work time. 

One of our favorite ways to plan for the workday is to leverage time blocking. Time blocking consists of choosing what to work on (or creating a to-do list in advance), deciding when to tackle each task, and blocking off time on your calendar to work on each task. This strategy helps reduce distractions for a few reasons. 

First, time blocking adds structure to your day and fills in the “empty” space (like the random 30-minutes between meetings that lead to scrolling through your favorite social media feed). Second, it enables you to take control of the hours since you’re proactively determining what you need to get done. That way, you spend less time during the day deciding what to do next, which can inevitably lead to unintentional distractions — whether work-related or otherwise. Finally, time blocking helps you set time limits for your tasks, which can add an element of healthy pressure to stay focused.

Another pro-tip to minimize the impact of distractions on your schedule is to schedule the most important tasks first thing in the morning (or, in the world of time management strategies — eat the frog). This helps ensure that distractions don’t prevent you from getting your high-priority work done on time. 

Finally, as part of your workday plan, schedule time for deep work. Deep work is cognitively demanding, requires deep concentration, and improves your skill. Just like you set aside time on your calendar for meetings and other rote tasks, build time in your schedule for deep work to get in the flow of distraction-free concentration. Clockwise can create more Focus Time in your calendar that you can use for periods of deep work, so you don’t have to do it manually. 

2. Store your phone when you don’t need it.

Could you live without your cell phone? Research suggests that Americans check their phones 344 times per day on average. Divide that over approximately 16 waking hours per day (taking into account sleep time), and that’s just over 21 checks per hour. The same study revealed that 70% of Americans check their phones within five minutes of receiving a notification (talk about a serious interruption!) Phone calls, text messages, and other notifications are flooding our brains constantly.

While smartphones offer many benefits, including connectivity, mobile banking, GPS directions, educational applications, and more, they can hurt our work if not appropriately managed. The expression “out of sight, out of mind” is helpful if you don’t need your smartphone in your direct line of sight while working. Consider storing it in a bag, drawer, or another room if you’re working remotely. If you can’t keep your phone out of sight, try using Do Not Disturb mode on your iPhone or Android to tune notifications out. With these settings, you can set who can interrupt you. That way, a friend or family member can reach you if needed. 

To set boundaries with the apps on your phone, try using the Screen Time settings for iPhone or Digital Wellbeing settings for Android. These features allow you to set time limits for various apps. When you reach your time limit, your phone will notify you. Timers reset daily, and you can always adjust your settings if you need to get back into an app before the timer resets. 

Speaking of apps, if your social media apps are particularly distracting, you aren’t alone. One study estimated that logging onto social media costs the United States economy $650 billion because it’s a significant distraction for the workforce. Social media can be addicting, and if it’s preventing you from getting your work done, consider removing social media apps from your phone or disabling all notifications. Or, try a focus app

3. Cut out unnecessary notifications.

A constant stream of pings and red bubbles can feel overwhelming. Between email inboxes, chat tools, tagged comments in documents, and more, notifications send our brains into overdrive, triggering anxiety, stress, and hyper-vigilance. And while there are some benefits to notifications — such as staying on top of things — it’s essential to avoid feeling bogged down by too many notifications. CEO and co-founder of Buffer Joel Gascoigne conducted an experiment disabling notifications on his phone and reported being able to focus more on a problem and feeling calmer. Similarly, in a “Do Not Disturb” challenge in 2015, researchers found that participants felt more productive and less distracted without notifications. They also reported missing some information, which caused some anxiety. 

You can cut out unnecessary notifications on your phone and computer for a full notification detox. For example, try turning off email notifications and schedule specific times each day to check and respond to emails. Set a daily cadence for checking emails based on what works for you, whether one, two, or three or more times per day. You can also leverage your email settings to send an auto-response letting senders know that you check your email periodically and your average expected response time. Like limiting email checks, try muting your chat tool (if you use one) when you need to get work done. You can mute your notifications and set a status message on Slack to let others know that you’re heads down right now and will respond later. The same is true of Microsoft Teams and Google Chat.

4. End conversations on time and schedule follow-ups as needed.

You’re getting ready to crank through your to-do list and enter deep work mode. Your coworker drops by your desk unannounced (or asks you to hang on at the end of a remote call). Before you know it, 45-minutes have passed, and your overly chatty coworker, no matter how much you like them, has completely thrown off the plan you had for your workday. Now you feel anxious, annoyed, and stressed that you’re behind. 

We’ve all been there. While some level of socialization amongst coworkers is healthy, it’s essential to be mindful of others’ time and priorities. Some workers find banter distracting and unnecessary, especially about non-work-related issues. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) recommends the following for managers addressing chatty employees:

  • Talk to the employee privately about how their conversations might be disrupting their colleagues. 
  • In addition to having a private conversation with the chatty employee, have an open discussion with team members who the talkative coworker impacts. 
  • Set guidelines around sociable conversations at work.
  • Try to understand the root cause of excessive chatting behavior, as it could result from stress or boredom. 

In hybrid work, it’s essential to know how to end video calls running too long. A couple of key phrases for these situations from Aja Frost featured in The Muse are: 

“Your ideas sound really promising; can’t wait to see them in action. In the meantime, you’ve probably got a lot on your plate, so I’ll let you get back to work.” 

“Wow, I can’t believe it’s already [time]. Do you mind if I hang up and finish up my to-do list?”

5. Replace distracting noises with white noise or calming sounds.

Whether you work in an office every day, work remotely full-time, or are a hybrid worker, you’ve likely run into distracting noises, sometimes referred to as noise pollution. When it comes to noises that might distract you while you work, anything from background office noise to noisy coworkers to pets in at-home offices can quickly throw your productivity off course. One study revealed that noise negatively impacts 69% of in-office, global employees’ productivity, concentration, and creativity levels.

Invest in noise-canceling headphones to eliminate excessive noises. This will help prevent you from hearing unwanted noises, but they can also signal to others around you that you are doing focused work and can’t chat at the moment. When wearing noise-canceling headphones, some workers prefer silence. But if you’d rather opt to listen to something, try a white noise tool like Coffitivity (which recreates ambient cafe sounds and other white noise). Or, if music is more of your jam, a productivity playlist can help you stay focused while you do high-quality work. 

6. Set expectations around non-immediate response times.

Technology helps us collaborate, but the tools we lean on, such as email and chat tools, also enable a sense of urgency and constant access to our attention if we allow it. Resisting the urge to provide immediate responses when you are in the middle of something is healthy and necessary to protect your time. To guard your productivity and focused work time, it’s crucial to learn to identify what’s urgent and what’s not. If you’re unsure if a request is urgent, ask the sender for more information so you can determine what needs your attention.

Work with your teammates to set cultural norms around response times. Mode Analytics published their Slack guidelines, emphasizing that employees should check Slack periodically throughout the day, read direct messages within 24 hours, and respond if needed. Get your teams (or better yet, your organization) on the same page around response times to eliminate feelings of pressure around sending immediate responses. When everyone is on board, it’s easier to ignore distractions until you have the time to deal with them head-on. 

Going forward

Workplace distractions can be a serious productivity buzzkill, but they don’t have to be. Plan your workday, store your phone, turn off notifications, and use noise-canceling headphones to get in the zone. Try ending conversations on time and setting expectations around response times to foster more control of your time. Clockwise can help you beat distractions in no time. Be sure to take advantage of the Focus Time feature for the best results. 

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