How to Stop Office Chatter When You Need to Focus

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

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 this 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?

Regain Focus

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 do-not-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 9-1-1, 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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