Workplace Distractions – And How to Deal With Them

By Edmund Wang

You wake up in the morning, all bright and chirpy. You start your work day, rapidly clearing your emails and breezing through everything on your plate. But that scenario sounds too good to be true, because such days are few and far between.

A more accurate depiction would be you dragging yourself out of bed, skipping your breakfast and entering the office, where you are greeted with a cacophony of ringing phones, instant messaging alerts, and the occasional indecipherable grumble from a nearby colleague.

What’s more, this eclectic cocktail of noises will follow you through the day as you shuffle between attending meetings, replying emails and working on the two projects you currently have on your plate.

People working in offices are interrupted—or self-interrupt—roughly every three minutes (guilty as charged!), according to various academic studies. And after being brought on a ‘roundabout’, it can take as long as 23 minutes for a worker to return his or her full attention to the original task at hand, according to Professor Gloria Mark of the University of California, Irvine, who has studied the effects of digital distraction in the workplace

Workplace distractions are also costly to both employers and employees - on average, such distractions are estimated to cost companies upwards of US$10,000 per employee per year. Employees also suffer a build-up of stress, finding it difficult to concentrate and churn out top-quality work, which can lead to lowered productivity and possibly missed deadlines.

In fact, in the few minutes that you’ve taken to read this article, chances are that you will already have checked your phone, spoken to a colleague or had to reply an urgent email. From one office worker to another, here are some common distractions and tips on how to deal with them:

Of Emails, Instant Messaging and Chit-Chat

Even though digital technology has permitted significant increases in workplace productivity, the truth is that the modern tools used in a typical workplace almost seem custom-made in obliterating individual focus.

Email is the worst culprit as everyone is now an easy click away. Employees tend to communicate almost entirely over email or the office instant messaging system, even if it is some as trivial as discussing breakfast plans for the coming week.

Open-concept offices and an emphasis on collaborative work also leave workers with little insulation from colleagues' chit-chat, regardless of intent, interest or medium.

To get around this, truly urgent messages and issues that require lengthy discussion should be conveyed over the phone, or better yet, face-to-face. Email should be reserved for messages that aren’t time-sensitive, or have a lot of information to convey - this will significantly reduce the email clutter in your inbox.

Resist the urge to overuse the office instant messaging system, even if the gossip there is pretty good – it will really mess up your ability to focus on your work!

Online, Always

Unless it is directly relevant to your work, social media and other online activities such as surfing YouTube or viewing 9GAG pictures are evil. Also, keep Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and any social network platforms you have closed - out of sight, out of mind. Disable any vibrating or auditory notifications from your phones so you won’t find yourself wondering who needs a life on Bejewelled Blitz or who is inviting you to play Candy Crush (extremely fun addictive games).

These rules may seem simple and intuitive, but incredibly easy to break at times. If you need some extra help, there’s always SelfControl, a programme that shuts off your access to sites like Facebook and YouTube for a designated period of time.


Most, if not all, of us have colleagues with annoying habits. The usual suspects include co-workers with incredibly high pitched laughter or loud voices. Snapping at them when you have reached your limits will only guarantee you a one-way ticket to a frosty relationship with said colleague, and possibly lead to you being stereotyped as the office Grinch.

Try dropping subtle hints while having lunch with the offending colleague, as they may be wholly unaware of their behaviour. If your pet peeve isn’t resolved, plugging in your favourite MP3 tunes helps, or head off to a quiet corner or the office or a café nearby if the going gets really rough.

And ironically, nothing causes distractions more than a fatigued mind. Cut yourself some slack and let your mind wander occasionally when you are stressed out – your mind is like a rubber band, it can only bear so much tension. Keep your break short, though, or you will be boarding the 23 minutes return train to producti- oh look, a funny tweet!

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