A couple of weeks ago I found myself, as I often do, propped up cosily in a local coffee shop sipping a cappuccino, pen in hand. I walked out a couple of hours later totally drained, having spilt my entire day’s supply of ideas and plans onto the pages of my favourite Leuchtturm notebook, like you might accidentally spill your coffee. My ability to stay focused had returned, like a lost and found superpower and I left that café with a hardly-touched cup of cold coffee spinning in my wake, amidst a dusty whirlwind.

That last part didn’t really happen. But it has struck me before how fleeting the ability to stay focused and get work done is and comparing this to a Superman-style exit seemed the most appropriate way to explain. To my knowledge, I don’t have any superhuman powers – so why does this happen?

It’s not particularly quiet in this local café, but I find the hum of voices and the clinking of crockery a warm, comforting sound, one that is entirely inoffensive. I don’t feel distracted by it, yet I’d notice if it wasn’t there. There’s something about complete silence that is unnerving and unpleasant and we generally don’t feel compelled to stay in silent places. Most horror fiction is set in silent places – you wouldn’t catch Dracula slurping a frothy coffee in a peopled, well-lit coffee shop.  There are loads of people who agree that the best environment for creative work features a little bit of background noise. I’m sure I wouldn’t have made quite so much headway sat in my empty flat; perhaps it’s the buzz of other people’s productivity that sparks those around them to join in.

Notebook and coffee stay focused in cafes

This seems an argument indeed for the open plan office. But where this might encourage the low key background banter conducive to creative tasks, so too might it introduce unhelpful distractions. Scientific studies in this area offer some explanation for why we might concentrate in bustling coffee shops but not in offices where conversation occurs at a similar rate. The key seems to be to avoid getting involved in face to face conversation, but instead to let the gentle gossiping of others slide off you, still allowing you the freedom to think for yourself and stay focused. This way, you’re emulating what happens at the café when you are amongst chatterboxes but they are strangers to you, thus you do not tend to embark on probing conversations with them like you might with your peers.

Five simple tactics to stay focused in the office.

This observation made us think about focus in the workplace overall, and how sometimes it seems so difficult to knuckle down. It’s not always possible to sneak out during working hours to find your favourite thinking space, so we’ve compiled a small list of (hopefully) useful tactics for keeping distraction at bay:

  1. Pick up an object or puzzle to occupy your hands and relax you if the chatter becomes unbearable.

Anything from pipe cleaners and paper clips to fidget spinners. Stress balls have long been considered to improve focus and relieve any distracting tension, and there are now plenty of humorous variations out there.

2. Treat yourself to some sugar to perk you up after the lunchtime slump.

A small amount of sweetness will help satisfy distracting cravings for the rest of the afternoon and in our experience, a packet of post-lunch jelly beans always goes down well in the office.

3. Exercise. 

Make sure you assign some of your allocated break time to stretch your legs and go for a walk. Maybe you’re lucky enough to benefit from a nearby lunchtime yoga class? Endorphins will enhance your mood leaving you refreshed and ready to stay focused for the rest of the day.

4. Take a break. 

Regular short breaks are good and you’ve probably put those into practice already, but also consider gathering the team together (if you are in a position to do so for a 10 minute meeting) for a chance to break away from your screens and chat as loudly and distractingly as you like. You’ll get any unnecessary talking out of your system and you may even get inspiration from the spontaneous meeting!

5. Organize your workstation.

Make to-do lists, establish a filing system, clear the clutter and de-crumb your keyboard. Clear desk, clear mind!

Notebook and coffee stay focused in cafes

So there are good distractions and bad. Determining which of the good you can use to your advantage, and which you need to learn block out to stay focused when working is up to you – perhaps an exciting week of experimentation lies ahead?

Ps. Be careful to not confuse constructive distraction associated activities like the ones listed above, with plain and simple procrastination – remember the aim is to boost productivity!