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How to Stay Focused When You Keep Getting Interrupted

Whether you’re WFH or back in the office, here’s how to stay zeroed in on the task at hand

Close up of a man holding his face with very stressed expression
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The screams for playtime. The TV, just feet away. The dog needs a walk. The text and email notifications buzz and buzz. And buzz. 

Or maybe that nosy coworker needs — needs — to have a chat IRL. The breakroom is bustling — is it cake? And still, the text and email notifications buzz and buzz and buzz.

Whether you’re working from home or in the office, distractions and interruptions just seem never-ending. We asked two experts on productivity how to stay focused when you keep getting interrupted, distracted or generally off your game when it comes to your work.

Own the ‘interruption’ before it becomes a ‘distraction’

Something happens psychologically when we are distracted, says productivity coach Melissa Gratias. 

Whether it’s your kids stepping into your home office or a coworker sticking their head in your door, there’s a brief but important lag “between that interruption and the start of the actual distraction,” she says.

Don’t float through that blink-of-an-eye moment. Take a pause and put a bookmark into what you were doing.

“Ask for 10 seconds to make note of where you were, then attend to the secondary task,” Gratias says. 

We think that the interruptions are the primary culprit. “And they are,” she says, “but the resumption lag can take us anywhere from seconds to days to get back on track. It’s that resumption lag which is critical to reduce.” 

Create boundaries (and maybe signage)

Setting boundaries, at home and in the office, is essential to at least minimizing distractions. Some people do this already, subconsciously, when they put headphones on in the office. 

“Headphones go a long way to communicating that people were in their work,” says executive coach Clare Kumar. “And even if they're not on, it’s sort of a barrier. I recommend the big over-the-ear ones.”

But at home, with kids? And spouses? And dogs? And TV sets? It’s a little trickier.

“If you have a home office, signage on your door about ‘silence requested’ can definitely help,” says Kumar. “I used to tell my kids that unless you’re bleeding, this is not a time to interrupt Mom.”

But my emails!

“Because so many of our tasks arrive via email, I strongly encourage having a task management tool that easily integrates with a person’s email,” says Gratias. This will help you manage your workload as tasks come in and out, causing distractions.

“If they’re an Outlook user, I typically recommend Outlook Tasks,” says Gratias. “Because it’s right there, and you can click and drag an email to Tasks. If they are a Google user, I do not recommend the Google task function. I would go to outside tools, such as Trello.”

Create structure (and maybe block off time)

You have GCal meetings for marketing, finance, catch-ups, touching base and so on. What about some me-time? As in, scheduled time to ramp up, unwind and focus.

“I recommend two appointments on your calendar, each day,” says Gratias. “The first one is an opening ritual — a 30-minute appointment where you look at your calendar for the day to get yourself in that headspace.

“And then the last 30 minutes of the day is a closing ritual, where you update your task list with what you have done and what needs to be done in the future.”

Kumar agrees, adding that structured work time can keep you focused and with notifications off.

“Early in my career, my boss had nine people in his office having a meeting — and he took phone calls,” she says. In other words, attempting to multitask but being rude while others had his attention — not a good look. 

“Being both a communication role model and a time-management role model shows your respect for other people’s time. It will stand out.”