Genuine Curiosity

Author Dwayne Melancon is always on the lookout for new things to learn. An ecclectic collection of postings on personal productivity, travel, good books, gadgets, leadership & management, and many other things.


Maintaining focus in a cubicle

I work in a "cube land" kind of office. In some ways, I like it. It's open, light, and I get to interact with the folks around me which makes it easy to collaborate, etc. I'm rearranging things soon so I'll be surrounded by my team, and I'm looking forward to it.


The dark side of working in this environment is that it can be very distracting - there is a fair amount of noise, it's easy to find yourself getting sucked into others' conversations, you get lots of drop in visitors, etc.

Around our office, we've had to develop tactics for dealing with this. I'll share a few of them here for two reasons:

  1. You may work in a similar environment and find these tactics beneficial.
  2. You may have techniques you can share that will help me.

Cut out the noise

Cutting out the noise around me is perhaps the most effective tactic to help me stay focused.  Some of the methods I use are:

  • Use noise-canceling headphones. I use Bose QuietComfort headphones, which  I've had for a long time.  I originally bought them for travel.  They are fantastic, but they are so big I almost never took them on trips.  I have found them to be great for cutting out the extraneous noise in the office.
  • Use a focus "soundtrack." A few years ago, I bought a CD called "Music to Enhance Concentration," and I started using it during my GTD Weekly Reviews.  It is engineered to be the right kind of music to help you focus on what you're doing, and it works really well - better than a random playlist.  I highly recommend it - I ripped it to iTunes, created a playlist, and I use it during writing, project work, inbox processing, or any other task that requires focus.  When I listen to it through my Bose headphones, it's even better.
  • Use a white noise generator. At home, I sleep with a white noise generator.  At the office, I use a SleepMate white noise generator to keep the background chatter from distracting me.  I keep it under my desk where I can easily turn it on & off as I need it.  Having it under the desk also makes it less likely that it will annoy others around me who may not like white noise.  The one I use is a mechanical white noise generator, because most of the electronic ones I have tried have annoying "artifacts" in their sounds, or looping kinds of effects - mechanical ones (like the one I use in the link above) don't.

Obscure the view

If your problem is visual distraction, try to block it out.  Some ideas for doing this:

  • Face away from the aisle, or away from high-traffic areas. If you face an aisel or "thoroughfare" you are more likely to get distracted by motion, make eye contact with others (which could invite "drop in" visitors), or get sidetracked.  Face toward a cubicle wall or toward a lower-traffic area to counteract this effect.
  • Use a privacy screen. Sometimes, the reason you are facing high-traffic areas is because you don't want people to see what's on your computer screen.  If that's the case, a privacy filter can help.

Send signals

  • Establish a protocol with people around you about when you can and can't be interrupted.  In one of the places I worked, we used big "dots" - they were circles about 6 inches across that were red on one side, green on the other.  If your dot showed the red side out, people knew you didn't want to be disturbed.  This works best if you come to an understanding within your team or in a broader group.
  • Hanging up a sign can help too, such as, "Weekly Review in Progress - Do Not Disturb" or something like that.

Get a room, camp in a coffee shop, or work from home

  • For really intense projects or times I need undisturbed focus, sometimes there is no substitute for getting out of the office.  This could be reserving a conference room for a couple of hours (though in our office, conference rooms are scarce); finding a local coffee shop you can camp out in for a while (be nice - buy some coffee and/or snacks); or working from home, if that is an acceptable option for you.

Shift your day

  • Coming in early or staying late can help combat the hustle and bustle of your office.  You'd be surprised how productive it can be to come in even 1 hour earlier, when the office is almost empty.

Those are some of my most common techniques, and they work pretty well.  What about you - do you have other techniques that help you focus?  Drop me a note or a comment - I'd like to add to my playbook.