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6 Ways to Re-Focus in an Open Office Environment

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Whether you believe that open floor plans are a “gigantic experiment in willful delusion” or not, the fact remains: you probably work in one. As more than 70 percent of the offices in this country TEAR DOWN THOSE (cubicle) WALLS, we are left to pick up the pieces. And while there are plenty of articles talking about how to be a respectful neighbor or how to talk to your colleague about his loud personal phone calls, sometimes you need a more immediate fix.

[Related: How to Deal When Your Company Moves to an Open Floor Plan]

I’m talking about when your cubemate suddenly slams the phone on its hook five times, just to make sure the person is really disconnected. Or when, in the midst of a prime brainstorming session, you’re interrupted by the sweet sounds of phlegm exiting your intern’s respiratory tract. In emergency situations such as these, here’s how you can get yourself back on track.

1. Take 10 deep breaths.

When you’re pissed off by an interruption and desperately need to get back in the zone, deep breathing is the first trick you should try. Deep breathing increases the supply of oxygen to your brain and stimulates your nervous system, producing a feeling of calm. Disclaimer: Deep breathing while scrolling through emails does not count. Close your eyes, clear your mind, and take long slow breaths—in through your nose, out through your mouth. You will be amazed.

2. Try a quick, guided meditation.

If the breathing isn’t enough to rid your mind of other people’s bodily fluids, try a quick meditation. Yes, at work. Head over to Calm.com (or get the app on your phone!) and select your meditation length—2, 5, 10, 15, or 20 minutes. Next, you can choose “guided,” in which an appropriately soothing woman’s voice will walk you through your selected time period, or “timer only.” Select your preferred nature scene, pop in your headphones, and get your zen on. It’s so worth it.

3. Take a break or start your lunch early.

My first impulse was to add “coffee” before that “break,” but even a coffee addict such as myself knows that caffeine can often exacerbate feelings of frustration or anxiety. Still, when you’ve been jolted out of the productivity zone, stepping away from your desk—for coffee or other less-stimulating liquids—is never a bad idea. If it’s almost lunchtime, skip out a bit earlier than usual and return during the peaceful hour when everyone else is taking their break.

[Related: “I’ll Say It: Open Floor Plans Can Be Really, Super Lonely”]

4. Get your focus on with music.

If the interruption—phlegm or otherwise—continues, try to zero in with a solid pair of noise-canceling headphones and a focus-focused (ha!) playlist. Spotify has a bunch of options specifically designed for focus, or give Focus @ Will a try. For more on maximizing productivity with music, check out “What Type of Music Will *Actually* Help You Focus?” Alternately, you could try drowning your neighbors out with Simply Noise, a service that offers several wavelengths of noise including white, brown, and pink. I don’t know what pink noise sounds like, but it can’t be worse than mucus.

5. Head to a conference room.

If your corner of the office is simply cursed, heed this advice from Kurt Greene, President of Arrow G Consulting. “Don’t be afraid to regularly book a small conference room for yourself for the chunks of time you need for the solitude or for the uninterrupted, distraction-free time you need to get your stuff done,” he said. “If you are a manager, make it totally OK for your employees to do this too.”

6. Dive back into just one task until it’s done.

Last but not least, if you’re feeling out of sorts, don’t try to plunge back into your day by tackling—or even just thinking about—everything at once. “Research has not only shown that multitasking doesn’t work, but also that it’s bad for your brain,” said Tor Refsland, author of Time Management Chef. “When you try to multitask, you perform several tasks with below average quality, and your brain will work less effectively when you try to focus on a single task.” Dive back in with just one task, even if it’s a small one, and set your mind to it completely until it is finished.

Photo: Caiaimage / Tom Merton / Getty Images

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Join the conversation:

This is so timely. I struggle with the open office plan & I like people ! I prefer a calming workspace, so the open office is an uncomfortable dance between working in the way that leads to producing your best work and not having your coworkers think you're an anti-social jerk.

Great tips! I'll definitely try them out! :)

This is super helpful, our office has a "bubble" with a row of desks all attached... gets pretty noisy.


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