How To Manage People Distractions


Photo by See-ming Lee

Nothing can derail productive time faster than distractions. Today I am going to look at people-caused some distractions and give you some strategies for handling them.

The Two Categories of Distractions

There are two ways to be distracted from the task at hand by other people. One is when someone is physically demanding your attention, which I will call active distractions, and the other when they are not aiming their requests specifically at you, which I will call passive distractions.

Active Distractions

Have you ever had a day where people are constantly pulling at you? Maybe they are showing up at your desk or calling on the phone; at home multiple people are asking you different questions or tugging on your clothing.

These interruptions can completely derail a task, and there are two ways to deal with them.

"An Ounce of Prevention…"

Benjamin Franklin said "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." The best way to minimize distractions is to encourage them not to happen.

  • Close yourself off. This can involve shutting doors to physically separate from the people demanding your attention.
  • Move. If you don’t have a door, you may consider moving to a new location that does. People will have to look for you harder.
  • Hang a Do Not Disturb sign. If you can’t move and don’t have a door, a simple piece of paper with "Do Not Disturb" placed where people can see it will do wonders. It is best if you put an ending time on there as well so that people can be assured you will be available to them at some point.
  • Turn off the phone. If you can send your phone directly to voice mail, do so. If you can just silence it, do that. The ring will distract you regardless. (If you’re worried about emergency phone calls not coming through, check your phone manual for selective and timed ringing for groups).
  • Turn off email. Email is a subtler attention grabber. Unless your job is to answer email, turn it off.

"…Is Worth A Pound of Cure"

If, in spite of all these tactics, you are still interrupted, you can minimize the distraction:

  • Point out you are busy. Some people are simply clueless. Tell them nicely you are trying to focus and give them the time you will be free to help them. "Can I talk to you later about that?"
  • Give alternate means of contact. "Can you send me an email about that?" This allows them to take some action, while giving you a chance to finish what you are doing.

Passive Distractions

I find that passive distractions happen frequently, especially in an open office environment or at home. This is when something else is going on just outside your focus that pulls your attention away, such as a conversation, loud laughing, music, or noise from other people’s activities. The best thing for me is to plug in to my iPod at this point, and pick something to cover it:

  • Music. This is good when you know the music will not distract you further. Depending on the type of task I am doing, I might listen to classical or rock.
  • Environmental sounds. I find these are good when I need to block out talking or irregular noises. My favorites are rain and ocean.
  • Pink/White Noise…and isolating headphones. This is where I really need to block things out. I use my Skullcandy earbuds, which isolate all the sounds, and the pink noise will block out everything else.

Distractions can be managed with a few quick techniques so you can get back on track. Do you have any favorite tools? Share below.


Photo by See-ming Lee