While open-office layouts are great for things like team meetings and spying on coworkers' lunches, it's sometimes hard to stay productive in the midst of so much coming and going. So we went straight to the pros to ask: How do you actually get something done in an open office?
1. Take a Breather
At least temporarily. The constant noise and distraction in open offices can make you feel out of control of your surroundings, says Gary Evans, Ph.D., a professor of environmental and developmental psychology at Cornell University. That can lead to an underlying sense of helplessness that puts a damper on motivation. Stress and open-office noise. Evans GW, Johnson D. The Journal of applied psychology, 2000, Nov.;85(5):0021-9010.
The single easiest way to avoid it? Remove yourself from the situation. That may mean finding an empty conference room in which you can concentrate or simply washing your face in the bathroom. Either way, a time-out can break your action-reaction mode and help you ignore the constant office chatter, says Joshua Ehrlich, Ph.D., chairman of the Global Leadership Council.
2. Block Out Noise
If you're not keen on slinking in and out of unused conference rooms, noise-cancelling headphones are another great solution to keep you focused. While obvious, they create clear (visual) boundaries that will both blanket sound and keep you from disruptions, says Ned Hallowell, M.D., a psychiatrist and author of Driven to Distraction at Work: How to Focus and Be More Productive.
Hallowell also recommends the app Focus@Will, which plays music that’s specifically designed to not engage you.
3. Create an Agenda
Picture this: You grab coffee, arrive at the office, and immediately check email. If this sounds like your standard morning, you could actually be messing up your entire day, Hallowell says. Opening emails right away usually means you'll start your workday putting out fires, which can leave you feeling similarly frantic all afternoon.
Hallowell says to instead delay opening email for half an hour and use the time to make an agenda. Setting priorities gives you a lifeline and starts your day with a cognitively demanding task that will set the foundation for staying focused right off the bat.
This is especially important because the two hours after we wake up are our most productive, says Dan Ariely, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University. To get the most out of each day, pack important items into that time and leave basic tasks for the post-lunch slump, Ariely says.
4. ACT Wisely
While it's easy to say yes to everything that comes across your desk, constantly jumping from task to task means you accomplish less, Ehrlich says.
Instead use the ACT method: accept, curtail, and triage. Accept whatever's being asked of you, ask when it's needed ("curtail" the need to do it immediately), and delegate the new task to fit your priorities. That way, the agenda you created at the start of your day isn't destroyed.
5. Establish Your Domain
Design and plan your desk environment to reestablish a sense of control whenever you look at it, Evans says. Whether that means adding a beautiful filing system or fresh flowers, try to create a sense of "yours" in the midst of the shared office.
Likewise, Ariely says it's important to stock your desk with things that remind you of your purpose. Seeing a constant reminder of what's fueling you—whether printed emails from happy customers or photos from a recent vacation—will bring you back to your mission.
6. Practice Mindfulness
If temporary escapes, headphones, and desk bliss all fail, Ehrlich says turning inward can be a game changer. Before you roll your eyes, listen up: Our attention is wired to go after the new—which is why email and nearby conversations are so enticing. Mindfulness helps you take control, so you can stay focused in the midst of a hundred different moving parts. Ehrlich recommends the app Headspace to get started, although yoga and deep breathing are also good entry points.