Depending on the sensitivity of your work and the time when it’s due, distractions in the workplace can mildly inconvenience or seriously disturb your work. Unfortunately, they can be inevitable unless you spend your day in a soundproofed room. Your ability to concentrate also affects how many “distractions” will interrupt your day. Today I’ll take a few minutes to discuss distractions and what you can do about them.

Types of Distractions

A distraction, of course, is anything that interferes with your ability to focus on the task you are performing. Most of them are related to your senses, which can deflect your concentration on a particular thing:

  • Visual
  • Auditory
  • Aromatic
  • Physical/Vibrational
  • Et cetera

Visual distractions can include flickering lights, people/activities/movement in your peripheral vision, or other electronic devices or screens.

Auditory distractions include conversations, machinery, alarms, objects falling/breaking, and so forth.

Aromatic distractions can include food, machine fluids, solvents/cleansers, perfumes/colognes, and biological (body) odors.

Physical/vibrational distractions can be produced machinery/computers/printers, footsteps, ground vehicles, aircraft/helicopters, air conditioning/heating failures, and construction.

Tuning Out

All of these can be avoided or tuned out to one degree or another, depending on your ability to focus and your state of mind at the time. Sometimes you can override random sounds with more rhythmic sounds, such as music, to counteract a distraction. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you can become so engrossed/intrigued by your task that you don’t even notice something other people find extremely disturbing.

In the end, it comes down to mind over matter–if you don’t mind (whatever the distraction is), it really doesn’t matter, and you can go on with your day.

Other times, it is impossible to factor out the noise or other distraction in your workspace: a particularly loud/raucous conversation; a cologne that triggers your allergies and causes you to sneeze; or a tremendous alarm, bang, or disruption, which might be worth interrupting your work in case it’s an emergency (fire, earthquake, etc.).

What’s Within Your Span of Control

Most offices hiring technical writers are not particularly loud because others realize the need for quiet or subdued noises to perform work effectively. Sometimes people forget (or are just rude). In that case, you’re within your professional prerogative to ask the people talking to please lower their voices or take their conversation elsewhere. If they don’t or they outrank you, then you might be force to relocate. If the person wearing an exceptionally strong (or copiously applied) scent, you can explain your allergic sensitivity and ask him/her if they could refrain from wearing it or wearing so much in the future. If the task at hand is worth it, you might do exactly that.

In the event of visual distractions, you can turn off a distracting screen or device or orient the device (or yourself) away from the source of the distraction.

If the distractions you face are endemic to the work location (e.g., an office building directly under the runway of a major airport; odors emanating from a factory; or vibrations from a nearby train track), you might consider asking for a new work location, if one is available. After a while, you might get used to whatever the distraction is (vehicle noises are often easier to tune out than our fellow humans).

If your relocation options are limited, then it falls to you, the individual writer/editor, to find your own ways to focus. It’s not easy, but if you can train yourself to dampen the signals coming from your other senses, you will find distractions in the workplace much less disturbing. It’s a useful skill!

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About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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