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Mental Health: Defeating Distractions – Part 3: Environmental Distractions

This post continues a discussion of managing distractions to maximize efficiency when working on tasks. Check out Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

We’ve discussed a few techniques for managing internal distractions, like working on just one task at a time, scheduling breaks, and the “distractibility delay” technique. Even when we use these strategies, there are many things in our environment that can distract us when trying to do something important for work, for school, or in our personal lives. Distractions can include things we see, things we hear, movements and vibrations (think about trying to focus or read on a moving train), physical factors like how comfortable the seat is, and the room’s temperature. This means there are lots of different strategies we can use to optimize our physical environment for better cognitive functioning, though you may need to get creative to figure out a plan to minimize the distractions that are specific to your home or environment.

Reflect back, and think about your past efforts to concentrate on a task. What have been the biggest sources of distractions? Some of the usual suspects are phones ringing, people talking to you directly, nearby conversations in the background, phone or computer notifications, and the radio or TV. Below are examples of some common distractions, and ideas for how to minimize the chance they’ll pull you away from the task at hand.


Background conversations Find another quiet place to work; use headphones and listen to music without words; listen to white noise or rain noise; use earplugs
People walking up to speak to you Create an open door/closed door policy to indicate when you’re available/busy; hang a “Do not disturb” sign (sometimes using headphones sends a social signal to others that you do not want to be disturbed); find another place to work (yes, hide for a bit if that’s what it takes to focus!)
Phone calls/text messages/notifications Turn your phone off while you work; turn your phone to silent; put it face down on the other side of the room or in another room; use the “Do not disturb” mode (can often allow exceptions for family members or certain coworkers in case of emergencies)
Staring out the window Close the blinds/curtain; turn your desk away from the window; find another place to work
Silence, tinnitus, or the sound of the clock Listen to music without words; turn on a fan; listen to white noise or rain noise
Nearby items/tasks drawing your attention (like forms you need to fill out or laundry piling up) Take a few minutes to prepare a clear, clean work space before beginning a task; use the distractibility delay technique from Part 2 [create link]
People moving around (seeing them, hearing them, or feeling the footsteps) Find somewhere else to work; sit with your back to where people will be walking; use music or earplugs; change your seat and/or put your feet up
More appealing alternatives (the TV, videogames, the fridge)

Find a separate workspace; give the TV remote or power cord to someone else; schedule timed periods of work alternating with scheduled rest periods


There are countless other strategies that can be used, which again will depend on the specific environment and source of distraction. The idea is either to prevent distractions in the first place, or to create extra barriers which make it more difficult for the distraction to affect your focus.

You probably won’t use these strategies for all situations. It’s easier to work on something simple and familiar in a distracting environment, compared to something boring and/or totally new. But when the stakes are high and small mistakes can lead to big consequences (like filling out medical paperwork) or when working on something you don’t really want to do in the first place (like filing taxes, for most people), then using a few of these strategies can really help.