A typical conversation about productivity in an open, collaborative work environment often unfolds something like this:
Person 1: “I can never get anything done when I’m in the office. Every 15 minutes, Person X stops by my desk with a question or a story that has nothing to do with my work and it totally throws me off. I can’t take much more.”
Person 2: “Me neither. I wish I could work from home more often so I could actually get things done.”
While part- and full-time remote work is growing in popularity, the office (or co-working space) is still a fact of life for many employees. We work with other people, and thus a barrage of distractions is inevitable. Between meetings, coffeepot chit-chat, and a genuine desire to share with those we spend our days with, it can be a struggle just to get to the essential items on our to-do list.
For guidance on navigating the social, modern workplace I turned to the ancients, specifically Epictetus’ Discourses as quoted in The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday.
“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own…”
Digging into the Stoic philosophy has radically impacted the way I approach my work and organize my day-to-day life. It’s easy to shift the blame and feel like everything would be better if people weren’t always so [fill in the blank] or our boss wasn’t so [fill in the blank]. However, in actuality, the truth is simple: we struggle to set boundaries and effectively manage our time.
So we’ll focus on that. Regardless of your workplace, office design, or daily schedule, you have control of yourself. A company that supports different work styles—and a team that has clear goals and supports each other in achieving them—remain key factors to achieving workplace success. However, the ultimate combination of coworkers, workspace, and workplace culture that will enable you to be your most productive self will likely remain elusive. After a certain point, you are responsible for creating the work environment you need to be able to excel.
Start with an honest examination of the various tensions, pains, and frustrations you face each day. Before you start scowling over your monitor at everyone who distracts you with a story about their weekend, first ask yourself: “Could I fix this by setting clear boundaries, being more proactive, and using my time with greater intention?”
You don’t have to rely on your willpower alone to create a more focused work environment. Below are five tips and tools to help you stay productive when small-talk and workplace distractions beckon:
- Read The Daily Stoic. Reading a short passage each morning has been a great start to my day. Each entry contains a dose of practical wisdom that helps me keep my internal narrative and emotions from distracting me throughout the workday.
- Use Pomodoro, or another system that helps you focus on one task at a time. Multitasking does not make you more productive. Do one task, get it done, and move on to the next.
- Wear bulky headphones. Headphones like these make it clear to everyone around you that you aren’t free to talk. Put them on whenever you need to focus, even if you don’t put any music on. And if you do listen to music, choose carefully.
- Make time for your co-workers. Forging genuine relationships with your colleagues and having conversations beyond deadlines and project logistics is valuable and helps you feel more connected to your work. Set aside time each day to catch up with a few people and, when you ask them about their lives, truly listen to their answers.
- Be accountable and effective with your time. It seems so simple, but make sure you actually do your work at work. Don’t click around to your favorite blogs. Don’t write a long email to a friend. Don’t get lost in an album. When you simply focus on your job you may be surprised that interuptions will no longer phase you.
Take time to reflect on where the sources of distraction and frustration come from during your workday and use the suggestions above as a way to develop a plan to cut out distractions. When you push yourself to focus you’ll be surprised how much you can accomplish and, at the end of a productive day, you can feel good about the hours you spend away from work and enjoy your free time with your friends and family.