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Some days cubicle-dwellers may think they need an actual cone of silence at work to get anything done.
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updated 6/27/2012 8:02:39 AM ET 2012-06-27T12:02:39

Some of us get pushed off balance by the slightest interruptions at work, while others easily tune out distractions. The truth is, nobody is completely attentive to their work 100 percent of the time — and we can all use some guidance on ways to ignore disruptions in the office.

We turned to career experts Phyllis Mufson, Andy Teach and Meredith Haberfeld to find out what to do.

“At work, just as in life, distractions are par for the course. The key point is how well you manage them,” saidHaberfeld, an executive coach, and co-founder of the Institute for Coaching.

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Teach, a corporate veteran and author of From Graduation to Corporation: The Practical Guide to Climbing the Corporate Ladder One Rung at a Time, agreed: “All workers have trouble with distractions in the workplace to some degree. The key is to limit those distractions as much as possible.” However, Teach believes occasional workplace distractions can actually be a good thing. “We’d all get burnt out pretty quickly if we didn’t get distracted from time to time and take our minds off of work. The danger, however, is when distractions take up too much of our time and prevent us from getting our work done,” he said.

If those interruptions in the office are not managed, they can seriously erode your ability to focus and may lead to factual mistakes and poor judgment, which can lead to poor performance, said Mufson, a Sarasota-based career coach.

Frequent distractions can also negatively affect your mood, Teach said. Why? They can prevent you from getting your work done on time, which creates more stress for you and consequently makes you more frustrated and unhappy at work.

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Mufson added: “Happiness largely comes from feeling that you are doing a good job at work that has meaning to you and seeing positive results from your efforts. It takes skill and focus to produce high-quality work at the top of your game. Distractions can decrease focus, which increases stress, which can intensify any poor work habit you may have. Distractions can acerbate all of the issues that lead to poor performance, creating a negative spiral where poor performance leads to more stress which leads to more poor performance, and so on.”

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Distractions range from external annoyances like loud phone talkers in open cube space to self-distractions such as Facebook, personal email or surfing the Web, Haberfeld said. “Moreover, work-style habits can cause real distraction and are often masked as ‘unavoidable work issues,’ like spending your day checking and answering email or prioritizing your day based on whatever comes across your desk, keeping you from getting much of your other work done.”

Though the frequency and nature of distractions depends on your line of work, office setup, workplace culture and the size of your company, among other things, there are a number of common workplace disruptions that many of us endure. Those include: unceasing email (personal and work), text messages, social media and other websites not related to work, personal calls, co-worker or client interruptions, last-minute requests, unscheduled meetings, audible distractions (i.e., music, television, email alerts, IM’s, phones ringing, other people’s phone conversations, noisy copy machines or printers, people or vehicles going by outside your window, elevator doors or restroom doors opening and closing, etc.), gossiping co-workers, and micromanaging supervisors.

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If you regularly lose focus at work because of one or more of these distractions, there are a few things you can do:

Manage your time and space
“Reserve regular blocks of time for work that requires concentration,” Mufson said. “Try using the first hour at work to make headway in your most difficult project. Ask your co-workers for quiet time, and if that is not possible, take your work into a conference room or other quiet space,” she suggested.

Limit technology interruptions
Spending a few minutes each day checking personal email, handling an online bank transfer or texting is not a problem, but doing any of these in excess will distract you from your work, Haberfeld said. “Turn off email and text alerts and, if your role allows, only check your messages two to three times a day. Reserve your personal calls and errands for the lunch hour,” Mufson added.

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Organize your workspace
Have a tray for incoming work and keep only the project you are working on now in front of you, Mufson suggested. If your workspace tends to the chaotic, it may be a sign that you are a visual organizer and the common organizing tips won’t work for you.

Learn self-management
Learning self-management skills will help you increase your focus and reduce stress, Mufson said. “Peoples’ work styles are different. Some of us are naturally more distractible, or more social, or more physically restless. Rather than beating yourself up for your lack of focus, experiment to learn what works for you.”

Make a plan
Haberfeld advises picking your top two distractions and giving two weeks' attention to keeping them high on your radar and resolving them. “Create a strategy and keep honing it as you see what works and what doesn’t.”

And share it
If you are prone to self-distraction, ask a friend at work to have a designated check-in time each week to go over your progress,” Haberfeld said. Letting others know about your strategy to minimize distractions will help you stay focused.

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Take action
If your day is riddled with people walking over to meet with you at their convenience, Haberfeld said, get the friendly word out that you’re setting up designated office hours for walk-ins.

Take care
It's also important to take care of your health. That begins with getting enough sleep. Lack of sleep makes you tired, irritable and erodes your ability to focus, Mufson said.  Drink water and stay hydrated. Being even a little dehydrated will make you feel tired and sluggish — and possibly more susceptible to distractions.

Take it easy
Take time at the end of the day to reflect on your day and what you want to focus on tomorrow. Write your priorities for the next day and review your list when you come in.

© 2012 Forbes.com

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