Thomas Barwick—Getty Images
By Kentin Waits / Wise Bread
October 6, 2016

Are your coworkers engineers of interruption? Champions of chat? Agents of endless amusement? Don’t let them derail your day. With a few simple strategies, you can stay focused at work without offending your cube-hopping coworkers. Here are eight smart ways to beat the masters of distraction.

1. Tell the Truth

Don’t feel obligated to engage a chatty coworker. Instead, develop tactful ways to communicate just how focused you are (and how focused you’d like to stay). Go-to phrases like, “I’m really in the zone right now. Can we catch up later?” or “Let’s chat after work; I’m under a tight deadline today” are truthful, but polite ways to defend your schedule.

2. Live by Your List

I’ve a firm believer in the quiet power of list-making — especially when faced with countless distractions (human and otherwise). Take a few minutes each morning and list five or 10 things you must accomplish during your workday. Be specific and keep yourself motivated by mixing minor to-dos with major ones. Don’t allow yourself to be distracted until you’ve completed the last task on your list.

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3. Divide and Conquer

It’s human nature — when overwhelmed, we tend to welcome any distraction that comes along. Avoid this temptation by dividing complex projects into smaller, more manageable to-dos. As you achieve each mini-milestone, reward yourself with a 10-minute “distraction break.” If your coworkers are in the same boat, help each other stay on-task and coordinate your break times.

4. Gamify Your Day

Games are an effective way to work toward a goal and still have a little fun. Engage your distracting coworkers with a friendly low-stakes wager. Bet on whatever makes sense for your line of work: who can take the most calls in a week, make the biggest sale, or follow-up with the largest number of clients. The winner gets a free morning coffee. The loser has to clean the microwave.

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5. Plug In and Tune Out

You’ve marveled at how well your kids can tune out the world with technology, so why not give it a shot yourself? If it doesn’t conflict with office policy, listen to music or podcasts on your MP3 player or smartphone. Those little earbuds are magic — they discourage interruption without saying a word. Can’t concentrate with music or podcasts playing? Pop in the earbuds anyway and just enjoy the silence.

6. Sneak Away

Most offices today are open-concept with low-walled cubicles as the only nod to privacy. If your area is hopelessly chaotic, try to find a reasonable alternative. Sneak away to the office library, a corner table in the cafeteria, a flexible workspace for traveling employees, or a seldom-used conference room.

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7. Make Interruptions Part of Your Itinerary

The longer we work, the more likely we are to suffer from fatigue, lose focus, and fall victim to any diversion that comes along. Instead of pushing yourself to work eight hours straight without a single distraction, segment your day into 90-minute chunks. At the end of each hyper-productive period, refuel with a well-deserved 10 or 15-minute break.

8. Don’t Feed the Wildlife

Distracting coworkers tend to buzz from desk to desk looking for receptive audiences. Don’t lure them with sweet treats. Retire your community candy dish or reserve it for specific times of the day or week (say, Friday afternoons). It’s a passive, but effective way to discourage chatty visitors.

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