Working together with colleagues in a large open space office can be a lot of fun. There is always laughter, and jokes, and time to chill and have a chat in between tasks. But sometimes it is also very distracting, and you have trouble completing the first task on your list by the end of the day. Distractions reduce attention and productivity, and work seems harder. You feel overwhelmed by all you still have to do and feel like you didn’t accomplish anything today! So how can you focus and concentrate, whilst enjoying a job with a great atmosphere, but in a noisy open space?
Another unfocused day
A few words with a colleague or a quick joke now and then aren’t really distractions, but constant background noises, especially loud ones, are hard to ignore for long. Here’s a list of what my own colleagues find most annoying when working together:
- Constant loud chatter, phone calls and video conferences done in the open workspace.
- Other people’s sound notifications from mobiles and laptops – when loud they are terribly distracting!
- Own notifications from Slack (our internal chat), email, social media and mobile.
- Chat direct message notifications which interrupt a flow of thoughts at precisely the wrong moment, especially when someone keeps chatting until you reply.
In addition, here are a few of my own distractions, which you might recognize too:
- Distracting thoughts – like what to have for dinner, when to get the shopping, etc.
- Feeling overwhelmed by all the things to do or that could be done but you can’t find the time to do…because of all the distractions!
- Feeling overwhelmed by your own task list – especially when a task takes days!
Break the cycle
There are many blog posts and articles advising ways in which to remain focused at work. Unfortunately, many of these include tips such as “five minutes of yoga breathing” and other “desk exercises” which no one in an open space office would ever dare to try. Other tips are more useful, so I tried and tested them all, and here’s what I found works best:
Use pomodoro technique to set tasks and work on them one at a time: this is a great time management technique where you work for 25 minutes (one pomodoro) and then take a 5 minute break. Every four sessions, you take a 15 minute break. There’s a handy app that shows how much time you have left and reminds you to take a break. For longer tasks, you can either break them down into smaller sections, or you can assign two or three pomodori to them – but remember to take the breaks!
Each morning, spend the first 10 minutes sipping a hot drink and setting up the day’s tasks. Assign a number of pomodori to each task and do your best to stick to the schedule – but be kind to yourself if you don’t manage: any amount of success is better than no success, and you can always pause a pomodoro if something urgent crops up. Also, be realistic about the time it takes to complete each task.
Don’t multitask! Multitasking has been shown to reduce IQ by 10 points during a task. Also, each time you switch from one task to another your brain goes blank for 0.5 seconds. That’s a lot of seconds of blank – wasted – time in a day! Try to focus on one thing at a time, and only start the next task when the first one is finished. You’ll be surprised by how happier and more successful you’ll feel!
During a 25 minute session, do your best to ignore notifications (or turn them off if you can!) unless they are really urgent and can’t wait. In the case of something urgent, stop what you’re doing, help out, and then get back into focus and continue your task. Remember you can always reset your pomodoro timer if you had to do something else for too long. If it’s not urgent, it can wait 25 minutes, and you’ll deal with it before starting on your next task.
Use break times to check emails and social media, but be sure to set a new 25 minute task if you have to send replies or do other related work.
Don’t skip breaks! The whole point of time management is to help you be efficient and focused throughout the day. If you skip breaks and just work through tasks one after the other, you’ll be burned out by lunchtime. During breaks make sure you do something different: check your facebook page, stare out of the window, have a glass of water, chat to someone, have a snack. But don’t work! Breaks help us to re-focus, free our minds and prepare for the next task.
Each morning, make sure you write a realistic list: if a task is too long or complex, split it into smaller tasks. Each task shouldn’t be more than two or three pomodori. Also make sure to write your list points in order of priority: the most important/most difficult tasks should come first – when you are still fresh.
And last but not least, make sure your colleagues are aware of your time management practices. Communication is the key to success here: let your colleagues know you are working on 25 minute sets (and maybe encourage them to try it too). If others around you know your working patterns they will not get angry or offended if you reply to a chat message after 20 minutes, or if you ask them to wait before helping them out. They will also not be too worried when you go into “screensaver mode” and stare into space during your breaks.
Finally, there will always be noise in an open space office. You can listen to music or try to ignore it, but remember the noise doesn’t usually last all day – so don’t get too frustrated! If you’re having trouble completing a task, pause it, do something else that requires less brain power, and return to it when the office has quietened down again. Kindly pointing out to your colleagues that things are getting too loud also works: again, communicate!
You’ll be surprised by how much easier it is to focus and ignore distractions if you know you’re doing it for 25 minutes at a time. And if your colleagues know you’re working this way, they will be more mindful of your time and maybe ask if you’re free before interrupting you.
Do these techniques work for you? Do you have any tips to share? Let us know!