Skip to main content

Around 505

How To Cope with Distractions

Apr 04, 2013 01:42PM ● By Scott Blackwell

We live in a world of distractions that take us away from the task on which we’re trying to focus: interruptions from colleagues, friends and family; distractions from telephones and email; multiple unfinished projects calling for attention; and new emergencies to attend to. Flashing billboards even distract us from focusing while we drive.

While some people enjoy a world with a constantly changing focus, the negative effect on productivity is enormous, and the resulting stress takes a toll on health. So-called multitasking is really just multi-interrupting, and it can take up to 20 minutes for our brains to “reboot” and get back to the original task, if we ever do manage to get back without yet another interruption.

Distractions can come from two places – the outside world, and the inside world of our own thoughts. External distractions can be visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile or even taste. Internal distractions are those created by our brains.

Understanding what types of distractions interrupt you can also help you find specific tools to keep you on track.

Don’t Look Now

Many people are bothered by visual distractions, by seeing items that draw them irresistibly to the tasks and ideas they represent. Minimizing the clutter helps. Use your planner as a visual tool to be sure that the important items get the priority and attention they deserve. And put other distracting items out of sight. That will allow you to have a better chance of concentrating on the task at hand.

It’s interesting that those people most distracted by visual clutter are also most attracted to bulletin boards and refrigerator magnets.

A few visual reminders can be helpful, but somewhere along 20-25 sticky notes, and these individual reminders get lost in the clutter. Use transparent containers to organize papers or other things. The contents become less distracting, but can still be seen.

If you find yourself literally looking for distractions, try this soothing visual tool: hang a picture of something you find peaceful and calming. Softer lighting can also have a calming effect.

Heard, But Not Seen

Some people can ignore visual clutter, but can’t ignore auditory distractions. We may be genetically programmed to respond to auditory distractions – it helped us survive. A growling saber-toothed tiger was one thing but a ringing phone only rarely warns us of impending disaster.

Earplugs can help. And don’t be afraid to turn off the ringer on your phone and close your email program when you need to concentrate for an hour. That’s not heresy, it’s just good time management.

There are also tools to help “filter” unwanted sounds coming in to your ear. Many people find that soft music or “white noise” helps drown out distracting conversations, if that is an option in your work environment. Headphones work if you must keep the sound to yourself.

Touchy, Feely

If tactile sensations distract you, choose carefully anything that will be touching you; this can include chairs, pens, pencils and any other tools you use, even irritating clothing. Make your environment as comfortable as possible.

Tools that can help tactile people include the many fidget toys. Anything that feels interesting or can be manipulated can help you focus.

Mind Games

Internal distractions created in our brains can be the result of worry or anxiety, of an impending deadline, or of thoughts, feelings, or sensations, very pleasant ones as well as irritating or painful ones.If brilliant ideas keep derailing you, keep a place to record them – paper, tape recorder, computer or hand-held device.

Meditation has been shown to help us increase our ability to focus and concentrate.

Music or white noise may be able to filter the internal distractions as well. Or try an old-fashioned kitchen timer that tick-tick-ticks its way down to a chime. The ticking filters out distractions and reminds you that you only have to stay on this task for a finite time.

What distracts you, and how can you change something to minimize its effect? Discuss with other people; they’re probably bothered by many of the same things. Hold a meeting to brainstorm ways to minimize distractions and interruptions. Would
temporary “Do Not Disturb” signs be helpful?

Finally, if distractibility is a serious problem for you, consider professional help. First, consult your physician. Then think about hiring a professional organizer. Many find that working with a professional can make life substantially less stressful and more productive.

Distractions, whatever their source, are facts of life. Investing the time and energy to minimize their impact on your productivity will bring great returns in your life, both at work and at home.

Next time: The benefits of decluttering. ©2013 Katherine D. Anderson. All rights reserved.

– Katherine Anderson has been helping businesses, groups and individuals get better
organized for more than 30 years. Visit her at