Recently I ran a poll on what people find most distracting in the office. A whopping 50% blamed constant interruptions, 32% open-plan offices, while 18 % chose people talking loudly.

Here’s a list of 6 suggestions for minimising disruptions.

1. Establish rules and consequences in open-plan offices.

Let’s start with what’s outside your control – open-plan offices. While they may be one of the worst ideas ever, OPOs can work well if people agree on what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour. Not dealing with issues is the worst thing you can do.

While there’s no blanket rule for what’ll work best if you’re in an open-plan office, it’s essential everyone agrees on acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.

This includes enforcing consequences when people break the rules and acknowledging ‘good’ behaviour.

Be careful. If you just focus on being punitive you run the risk of ruining a healthy workplace culture. Perhaps make it a game, like a swear jar for kids?

And don’t make leaders and managers enforce the rules. Everyone needs to take responsibility and speak up when there’s a breach.

2. Take conversations to private rooms (and I don’t mean the lunchroom or staff kitchen).

There’s nothing worse than having your break interrupted by people having a work meeting. Worse still, don’t interrupt people with work issues when they’re taking their break.

3. Put up a physical – or electronic – DO NOT DISTURB sign when you don’t want to be disturbed. Wearing a headset is usually interpreted as such a sign. Even if you’re not listening to anything, people are less likely to interrupt you. But don’t overdo it.

4. Don’t interrupt people without their consent. This is a minefield. When you walk up behind someone and tap them on the shoulder, most people will let you interrupt them because they don’t want to appear rude.

This is especially difficult when the interrupter is in a position of power or authority. Email or IM in advance and give people as much notice as you possibly can.

5. Untrain people from interrupting you.

Your colleague’s lack of planning and foresight is not your emergency. You don’t have to down tools every time they’re having a crisis.

If you do, you’re simply reinforcing their behaviour. You’re saying it’s okay for them to encroach on your time and territory and training them to expect you to be available.

Take back ownership for how others treat you, don’t blame the interrupters.

This usually means saying ‘no’ – which while wildly freeing – is really hard to do if you’re typically conflict-avoidant.

I suggest practising a few alternative responses in advance:

E.g., “I’d love to assist you but…

  •  right now, I’m in the middle of something
  •  I don’t have the time
  • I have other pressing deadlines (priorities) to meet
  • I need to get the task I’m working on completed first and unfortunately, I can’t.

Having a backup comes in handy if they won’t take no for an answer:

  • I understand this is important to you. Can we arrange a time to discuss/meet/work on this later that is mutually acceptable?
  • If I stop what I’m doing to assist you, I’ll need to negotiate a new timeframe for delivering on other expectations (i.e., whatever else you’re working on)

Setting clear boundaries moves you from camp ‘victim’ and puts you firmly back in control of your time.

6. Consider the impact of not dealing with distractions.

If the person interrupting you is important (your partner, child, best friend), in a position of power (your boss), or you’re scared to say no to the office bully, ask yourself ‘what’s the impact of being a yes-person in the long term?’

Saying ‘yes’ usually reduces discomfort in the short term, which is why it’s so hard to break the habit.

But over the long term, if you’re constantly complaining about the interrupters, you’re simply giving them even more of your precious time and energy (and becoming even more of a victim).

Brené Brown suggests choosing discomfort over resentment. What she means is – that riding out the temporary discomfort of saying ‘no’ now, is typically much easier than dealing with the consequences of feeling long-term resentment.

I know it’s not easy, but distractions only lessen when there are clear rules about what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour in open-plan offices (with actual consequences) and when you start protecting your time.

Rather than offending people, I think you’ll find that when you set clear boundaries, people start respecting you and your time a whole lot more.