We’ve all been there before, you’re working on a design that needs to go out that afternoon, you have to finish cutting some code because it’s been promised to the client, or you’re trying to get that proposal out because you want to enjoy your weekend. You are in the zone, smashing out work like never before, feeling confident about getting it all done and then suddenly, an email, a “hey, you got a sec?”, or you can’t find that pen that was in front of you two seconds ago. When you lose the zone, sometimes it can be a real struggle to get back into it. I’ve found a few simply, dare I say obvious, ways that help me to stay focused on the task I need to complete and use most on a daily basis.

Minimise on and off screen distractions

On screen distractions

To me, these are my primary distractions. On the most part, these are 5 second little distractions that don’t have much of an effect, but all you need is to be caught out and before you know it you are off doing something else. The best way I have found to limit these distractions from the start though is get them as far as possible from my line of vision. Running two monitors on my Mac means that I can have my dock sitting over the fair right which means I can’t see that little red star of Apple Mail telling me I have a new email, or that little bouncing duck from Adium telling me someone wants to talk to me.

There are plenty of ways that you can prevent on screen distractions, so you you find something begging for your attention, see if there is a way you can shift it to the side.

Off screen distractions

These can be just as detrimental as on screen. I try to always remember to have my mobile on silent and I have my desk phone just out of view when I’m planning on working solidly (phone messages are there for a reason). It’s important too to make sure that anything on your desk is related to the project. If you have the sexy brochure from another project sitting on top of the sketch you are doing for another client and the notes from your last meeting all within view, you’ll be more likely to catch that little glimpse which starts you thinking about that instead of the project at hand.

A clean and organised desk will make it easier for you to stay in the zone and also reduce the time you need to try and locate something you forgot you needed for your current task.

Avoid interruptions by colleagues

This can really pull you out of the zone if you aren’t careful. There a many ways to reduce the amount of colleague distractions but the mains ones that I have found to work

Listen to music with headphones

Obviously there are times when you’ll need to keep an ear open to answer that “Got a sec?” question, but when you really need to pump out some work, this is a pretty good indication to people that you don’t want to be disturbed. It also helps to drown out the dull tap of keyboards and the murmur of office chatter that can stop you concentrating at the task at hand. If someone really does need your attention then they can try and get you on Instant Messenger, or if it vital, they can come and tap on your shoulder.

Let people see what you are doing

Sometimes it can be good to not have every eye in the office peering over your shoulder and seeing what you are doing, but when it comes to get down to business, simply having your work visible to people will let them know you are flat out. Once again, if it is vital, they can come and tap you on the shoulder.

Auto-responders aren’t just for when you are on leave

If the work you are doing really can not afford to have you pulled away, set up an auto-responder. Something as simple as “I’m away from my desk until later this afternoon” will let a client know that the email has come through, but you can’t deal with it straight away. It also lets colleagues know that you busy on a project and don’t want to be disturbed.

Find a hiding spot

Unfortunately I don’t have the luxury of picking up my desktop and shifting it to another office, but if you have a laptop and can afford to be away from your desk, then this is a perfect way to let those around you know you are busy. First of all, if they need to ask you something, they have to find you, this can usually be enough to warrant an email, but if they do come looking and find you, at least you know (or can hope) that is vital they speak with you.

The old trusty “not right now”

As long as you don’t come across blunt, as we all probably have before, this is pretty much a fail safe way to stop distractions. Let your colleagues know that you can’t deal with their question right now and to either try and sort it out themselves, ask someone else, or just wait until you can afford to take a 2 minute break and then you’ll chat to them. You have to remember that these people have the same issues you have dealing with distractions so most understand (even when you do come across blunt) that you really can’t be disturbed. It also encourages people to look for alternative ways to solve a problem, especially if it’s a fairly straight forward one.

Work within reasonable time constraints

In this industry, as with almost every other, we have to work with time constraints. Be it budgets, or timelines, or just that promise you’ll deliver something by that time, but you need to make sure that you aren’t putting too much pressure on yourself. Trying to deliver something that requires your utmost attention with a tight deadline can lead to clock watching. This puts even more pressure on you to deliver something and this is where silly little mistakes can filter through. Of course there are times when we can’t avoid these, but for the most part, if you just let the person know you are delivering the work to you’ll be an hour or two late, or you won’t have the files over to them until tomorrow afternoon now, most people will understand. At the end of the day, most would rather top quality work with thought and attention than something rushed that will inevitably take more time to rectify later on.

Think ahead before you begin

Timelines and budgets are in place of obvious reason, so the excuse “I just ran out time” doesn’t always cut it. It’s up to you to make sure that you are prepared before you begin the long haul. There is no point avoiding all the distractions above if you can’t remember where that sketch or document is, or trying to find that pen that you swore you saw before you began. Even the simple things like making sure you have a drink on your desk, or the stack of reference material sitting beside you can help prevent any self imposed distractions.

When all is said and done, it’s down to you

The only person who can really stop you falling out of the zone and getting distracted is yourself. I’ve offered a few of the ways that I try and keep myself focused in what can be a very hectic environment. Some of these may work for you, and you might have some methods of your own, so feel free to add a comment below on how you deal with the distractions of your workplace.

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