Reducing Distractions at Work

To say law firm life is busy is an understatement. When you add in the modern cacophony of push notifications, instant messaging, and the expectation of constant multi-tasking, it can sometimes feel utterly chaotic. Associates, in particular, can feel pulled in a million directions at once, with multiple supervisors and matters calling out for attention.

Studies have shown that distractions at work are more than just annoying — they’re stress drivers and productivity killers. People are five times more productive in a “flow state” (that sense of being “in the zone” of creativity and critical thinking). But being interrupted (up to 60 times a day!) makes that state difficult to achieve. And stress shoots up when your workflow feels out of your control.

Reducing distractions at work is a smart strategy. Here are four practical approaches to try.

1. Schedule blocks for communication

Every time you glance at that phone alert or take a quick peek at your email, you derail your train of thought and take a bite out of your productivity. Schedule blocks of time devoted to checking and responding to messages and shut down interruptions at all other times.

  • Frequency. The needs and culture of your team will determine how long you can reasonably stay in “do not disturb” mode. Some people can check messages only once an hour, while others may need to check more frequently. The key is to consolidate your activity so you’re not constantly interrupted. Talk with your supervisors and teammates to get a sense of what works for everyone — and be aware that expectations for in-office and work-from-home availability might differ.
  • Temptation. When you get a notification, the urge to check it is nearly Pavlovian. Reduce those intrusions by (i) turning off push notifications from any apps that aren’t really important (especially social media), (ii) setting your phone to airplane mode except during your designated time to check messages and (iii) setting yourself to “do not disturb” in your email program and collaboration apps like instant messenger or Slack.
  • Flexibility. Associates can find it especially difficult to take control of distractions when certain partners, clients or key stakeholders need constant access. Look for ways to reduce interruptions while remaining flexible. You can customize settings in most programs to allow message alerts from certain people. For instance, your phone’s “do not disturb” mode will block all notifications except those from the contacts you choose.

2. Create quiet time and space

That fabled “flow state” is easier to achieve if you intentionally carve out time and space for it.

  • Book time. When you need to focus, block off time on your calendar so no one can schedule a meeting and people will be aware that you’re occupied. You might find it useful to schedule a recurring “focus time” meeting with yourself every week; if that’s not feasible, book the time you need when a big project or complex task is on your plate.
  • Making space in the office. If you work in an open-plan office, distractions that undermine your ability to focus can be constant. And even if you have a cubicle or office with a door, phone calls and “pop-ins” may still be a source of unwanted interruptions. Consider booking a conference room or other private space during your scheduled focus time; you can leave a Post-it on your desk letting people know where to find you if something is urgent.
  • Making space at home. As hybrid work has become commonplace, our relationship with working at home has shifted. 
  • If you divide your work between the office and a remote location (typically home), you might plan to tackle your most critical-thinking-intensive projects on your work-from-home days.
  • If you work from home daily, invest in your space. If possible, set up your office in a spare room, and consider noise-canceling headphones to help you block out loud neighbors and package deliveries. You might also consider by-the-day private office and conference room rentals for times when there are too many distractions at home.

3. Distinguish urgent, important, and informational messages

It’s tempting to react immediately to every email and text, especially if you’re more junior and feel pressure to prove yourself. However, there are varying levels of urgency to any message you receive, and thoughtfully sorting things into categories can reduce the feeling of chaos.

A metaphor may help: think of incoming messages as plumbing issues.

  • Urgent, e.g., “The sink is leaking water all over the floor.” Sometimes there’s something so pressing that it requires an instant response. To decide if a message is urgent, ask yourself, “Will there be concrete negative consequences if I don’t tend to this right away?” If the answer is yes, it’s worth dropping what you’re doing to respond. Otherwise, categorize the message as “important.”
  • Important, e.g., “the faucet is dripping.” Most communications that require action can wait a bit without dire consequences. If a response isn’t urgent, ask yourself, “How long can I wait before this becomes urgent?” Then flag the message for response before that urgency hits: the end of the day, within 24 hours, within the week, or whatever is reasonable.
  • Informational, e.g., “The sink is okay for now, but a new faucet would be nice.” Not all messages require action on your part. Maybe it’s just information you’d like to refer to later, or something nice to do if you have time. Ask yourself, “If I don’t respond, would anything bad happen?” If the answer is no, file the message for future reference or archive it.

4. Email more effectively

Responding to incoming messages more efficiently is only half the story. Optimizing the messages you send and handling responses effectively can reduce the flurry of back-and-forth email that distracts you.

  • Send thoughtfully. Ensure every email you send has a clear subject line, a concise-yet-thorough description of your request and clear action items with due dates. Use bolded headers and bullet points to make reading easier for recipients. Address a single topic in your email; if you have multiple topics to discuss, send each under a separate cover to keep things organized.
  • Stay on track. When emailing multiple, include only the necessary recipients. If you include certain people just for visibility, do them the courtesy of noting that they are copied for their information only and do not need to respond. And use “reply-all” judiciously. If your response isn’t relevant to everyone, send it only to those who need to see it.
  • Boost productivity. Ever find yourself checking email over and over when awaiting a response, or using a sticky note to remind yourself to follow up? Productivity tools help you email more efficiently by automating specific tasks like (i) scheduling emails to be sent at a certain time (ii) getting reminders to follow up and (iii) creating prioritized to-do lists. Check out a few of the useful solutions here.

Pop quiz: how many times did you peek at your email or check your phone while reading this article? For many of us, responding to distractions — even those generated by our own minds! — is so ingrained that we don’t even realize how often we’re interrupted. Next time you sit down to focus on a task, make a game of tallying up every time you’re interrupted to see how pervasive distractions can be.

Experts say our propensity for multi-tasking can add up to a 40% loss in productivity. Developing your awareness of distractions and strategies to reduce them could be a key factor in being less stressed, more effective, and in control of your workdays.