Avoiding a Culture of Distraction at Your Agency

By Calvin Morris

You’re finally getting around to completing that pesky task in Flow that you’ve been putting off for months. You’re zoned in, and you’ve got a solid chunk of time to yourself so you’re sure it’s going to get done this time. You hit a point where you’ve got to stop typing for a minute and really think about your next move. The world around you sees this pause in your flurry of activity and pounces.

Slack notifications from three different people at once. You get an email with “urgent” in the subject line. Your spouse sends you a text to remind you about that thing you said you wouldn’t forget to do (but you totally forgot, you knew you would). The calendar app dings to remind you about that meeting in fifteen minutes. A coworker taps you on the shoulder and needs just five minutes of your time before that meeting starts, if possible. You reluctantly change the task’s due date – again – and consider working remotely tomorrow. From a cave.

We can all agree that distractions and interruptions are bad. We know this because we get mad at ourselves when we get distracted and mad at other people when they consistently interrupt us. With the popularity of open office plans, the rapid adoption of messaging apps like Slack, and every single app on our phone begging us to turn on notifications the second we install it, it’s easy to see why distraction is a universal problem.

All of the notifications



We spent an afternoon chatting about this issue a few years ago. Here are some ways we tackle this problem here at Simple Focus.

Pinpoint the Distractions

Make lists of the things that distract you individually and things that others are distracted or interrupted by. Compare lists and figure out what the biggest common problems are. I’m guessing your list will be something like this:

  • Email
  • Instant Message
  • Phone
  • Meetings
  • The Internet*
    *yes, the whole damn thing

What do most of those things have in common? I think you’ll find that your lists mainly consist of communication channels. The problem often isn’t the channel, it’s how it’s used.

Set Expectations

We picked the channels we used most frequently and set expectations for how we use them so that everyone is on the same page. Here’s what we came up with:

  • Email – response preferred in an hour or two, but later is OK.
    Side note: this works because we make it a habit to respond to every email within 24 hours, regardless of who sends it–unless it comes through on the weekend. We’re good like that.
  • Slack DM – response needed in 15 minutes or less.
  • Unscheduled Phone/Skype call – response needed immediately
  • Tapping someone on the shoulder when they have their headphones in – death is imminent.

Fight Back

Expectation-setting is a good start, but it’s not going to magically fix everything and keep you focused. You can fight back against distraction and interruption by preparing for it. Here are a few things we do in our office:

  • Show everyone you’re busy – I throw on a pair of giant headphones. Giant headphones literally communicate that I cannot hear you; therefore I don’t want to; therefore don’t try. Unless, of course, death is imminent.
  • Work somewhere else – a change of environment for a morning, afternoon, or even a week can be super restorative to your focus. Breaking your routine and putting physical distance between you and your habitual distractions is effective.
  • Meeting hours versus work hours – Sometimes after a couple of busy weeks in a row, it’s time to buckle down and churn out some work. Set (and communicate) some consistent hours to produce and some consistent hours to have meetings. We’ve actually started trying to schedule meetings in the afternoons so we can reserve mornings for coffee-fueled productivity and focus.
  • Respect your own time – “Just say no” to meetings. Or at least, don’t be afraid to challenge yourself and your officemates to reassess what needs to be a meeting and what needs to be an email.

Discuss

Distractions and interruptions are going to happen, and they’re going to happen every day (turns out clients don’t really care about your inter-office communication guidelines). But, dealing with problem areas head-on and brainstorming ways to be more productive is important. What do you do to manage distractions when you’re working?

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