How to Stop Of­fice Chat­ter When You Need to Fo­cus

The Washington Post Sunday - - CLASSIFIED - This special ad­ver­tis­ing sec­tion was pre­pared by in­de­pen­dent writer Kelly Bilodeau. The pro­duc­tion of this sec­tion did not in­volve the news or ed­i­to­rial staff of The Wash­ing­ton Post.

You’ve been try­ing to fin­ish up a re­port for the last hour, but the whole time you’ve been half-lis­ten­ing to the far more in­ter­est­ing dis­cus­sion be­tween your nearby co­work­ers about the big game last week­end. The real score of the game: of­fice chat­ter, 1, your pro­duc­tiv­ity, 0.

Of­fice distractions can be a real is­sue in the work­place, es­pe­cially so-called open work­places with fewer walls, which make up some 70 per­cent of of­fice en­vi­ron­ments to­day. “Distractions in­clude: loud co­work­ers, chit chat­ters, wannabe DJs and singers, and—if you’re in close prox­im­ity to your neigh­bors—even food crunch­ers, pen click­ers, drawer slam­mers and more,” says Lynn Tay­lor, au­thor of “Tame Your Ter­ri­ble Of­fice Tyrant: How to Man­age Child­ish Boss Be­hav­ior and Thrive in Your Job.”

Not sur­pris­ingly, stud­ies over the years have demon­strated that peo­ple don’t work as well in noisy en­vi­ron­ments, in­clud­ing a study which showed noise af­fected peo­ple’s abil­ity to per­form men­tal arith­metic. Ac­cord­ing to Cor­nell Uni­ver­sity, of­fice noise not only makes you less pro­duc­tive, it also in­creases your stress level and even your chances of get­ting sick.

“The hu­man brain only has the ca­pac­ity for 1.6 con­ver­sa­tions, ac­cord­ing to Julian Trea­sure, au­thor of ‘Sound Busi­ness,’” says Peggy Dun­can, a per­sonal pro­duc­tiv­ity ex­pert and au­thor of “The Time Man­age­ment Mem­ory Jog­ger.” This means your chatty co­work­ers may be hog­ging a pretty good chunk of your brain’s band­width. “If you can’t use your full brain to work, there is lit­tle to no pro­duc­tiv­ity,” she says.

So what can you do to dampen the din and get back to work?

Be­low are some strate­gies you can use to re­gain your fo­cus.

Take ad­van­tage of tech­nol­ogy. Put on a pair of noise-can­cel­ing head­phones, which can drown out dis­tract­ing noises with quiet mu­sic or sounds. If you find mu­sic or sounds are too dis­tract­ing, try a white-noise or sound-mask­ing ver­sion to re­gain your con­cen­tra­tion.

Set bound­aries. While open-door poli­cies are good in the­ory, they need lim­its. “Con­sider hav­ing an as­signed time for the open door,” says Dun­can. Also, po­si­tion your of­fice fur­ni­ture to help pro­tect your space. “Move your of­fice fur­ni­ture around so you can’t make eye con­tact when peo­ple pass by,” says Dun­can. This makes a pop-in visit less likely. Use a donot-dis­turb sign for those times when you re­ally need to fo­cus.

Be direct. Tell co­work­ers when you need some space, says Dun­can. But think be­fore you speak, says Tay­lor. “Don’t fall into the trap of an emo­tional out­burst when you’re at your wits end,” she says. Keep the con­ver­sa­tion pos­i­tive, main­tain a sense of hu­mor and avoid

be­ing judg­men­tal.

Con­trol elec­tronic distractions. Learn how to fil­ter out the distractions of cell phones, in­stant mes­sag­ing and so­cial me­dia, says Dun­can. “Un­less you are 911, an emer­gency room doc­tor on call or fifth-tier tech sup­port, you do not have to be avail­able the in­stant a re­quest ar­rives. If you jump ev­ery time and get dis­tracted, when will you get im­por­tant work done?” In­stead, set des­ig­nated times to check emails and mes­sages and use tech­nol­ogy to your ad­van­tage to limit distractions by al­low­ing calls to go to voice­mail when you’re tight on time.

Seek help. If noise is a big prob­lem look to higher-ups for as­sis­tance. Poll co­work­ers to make sure you’re not the only one who finds the noise level dis­tract­ing, and then ap­proach HR, says Tay­lor. “If you’ve tried ev­ery­thing else and have had lim­ited suc­cess, you can al­ways craft a per­sua­sive ar­gu­ment for your boss sug­gest­ing you be moved to an­other part of the of­fice.” she says. Prac­tice what you preach. Ul­ti­mately, ev­ery­one can make a dif­fer­ence by en­sur­ing they’re not part of the prob­lem them­selves, says Tay­lor. “Make sure you are a good neigh­bor,” she says.

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