How eliminating distractions at work can improve your mental health

I like to think that multitasking is one of my super powers. 

I will commonly be seen participating in a meeting, responding to a Slack thread for someone that just pinged me about something coming up, and following up in an email from a candidate, all at the same time. My mind can bounce from one thing to another and back again as if it were a ping pong ball. This can help me to move faster sometimes, but it can also take a heavy toll on my overall productivity and mental health.

I have seen multitasking behavior manifest physically as a parent as I try to pick up every last piece of clothing, a water bottle, and a lovie as I head up the stairs to avoid multiple trips. Most of the time I can make it up the stairs keeping everything in my hands. But this morning, as I opened the door to my bedroom trying to carry my yoga mat, blocks, laptop, and cell phone to do morning yoga, my cell phone crashed to the floor. With a deep sigh of disappointment I picked it up, repositioned everything in my hands, and headed out the door. Like all of the things that I tried carrying out my door this morning, when I pile up my commitments, I get caught up in multiple tasks and put undue pressure on myself, and something will come crashing down at some point. 

I’m getting better at noticing when I begin to slide into this behavior and pulling myself out of it, but I’m still a work in progress to be sure. I still feel at times like multitasking is the only way I’m going to get things done. But I’ve found that eliminating distractions helps to keep my load more manageable and improves my focus; my main tools for this are starting the day with intention, breaking down tasks, taking control of my calendar and notifications, and making time throughout the day to get up and take a break. 

Starting the workday with intention

To-do-lists and action items have become my best friends. Not only do they keep everyone else organized, but I can also see what I have to work on, prioritize by importance, and come up with a list that guides my brain through how the day is going to go. I have leveraged tools like Trello to keep myself on track with my progress for writing content. I’ve used frameworks like RACI to keep everyone on the same page with what they are responsible, accountable, consulted or informed on within a project and I practice listing out action items from every meeting in internal Wikis like Notion

Breaking down tasks 

A lot of projects that I work on are complex. They have dependencies on people in other departments and need to have stellar communication in order to be successful. Big projects like this can become overwhelming if you try to tackle them all at once. It’s like trying to cook all of the dishes at Thanksgiving at the same time – the turkey will be underdone and you will end up with a severely burnt pie. 

That’s why I’m a strong believer in breaking down projects into manageable tasks and, like in product management, assigning them a size and a timeframe for completion. This way I have a clear picture of what I can realistically get done with the time that I have each week, delegate out tasks to other members within my team, and proactively plan for tasks that I know I will have in the future. 

This framework has been super helpful when planning a company-wide offsite. You need to create a basic agenda and outline the things that you want to try to do; identify the logistical pieces that you have to nail down before anything else, like location and accommodations; and then you can start to delegate certain parts, like the content for company-wide and team-specific meetings, to key stakeholders.

Taking control of your calendar and notifications

These days I am guided by my calendar both on a professional and a personal basis. At work, if I have a big task that I need to do, I block off a chunk of time on my calendar so that no one will book over it. I bulk together phone screens with candidates to avoid context switching, I add in a “do not book” during my lunch time, and I put in my working hours of when I will be online (updating my Slack status in real time as well). This helps a lot with setting boundaries with colleagues by setting the expectation that I am going to be grabbing lunch and away from my keyboard at a certain time. 

For my family, my husband and I add each other to our activities outside of working hours and when we RSVP a kid to a birthday party or schedule a dentist appointment, that gets added to both our calendars (sometimes it’s a bit of a competition who can get it on the calendar first).  

If it is not on the calendar, then it doesn’t happen. If there is an action item for me to do that will take more than 1-2 minutes, it gets a dedicated spot on my calendar to make sure I do it. 

Making time for movement breaks

There have been a ton of studies that show that taking regular breaks has a positive impact on a person’s productivity as well as their mental health. I use this time to reset and recharge. When I might be thinking through something and hit a wall, I move to different scenery to reframe my way of solving the problem. I’ve recently gotten into the process of doing a quick stretch, a 5 minute yoga session, and even trying to stand on my head to stimulate different thoughts. Really, anything that will get me up and out of my seat hunkering behind a computer. 

Building an environment where you can minimize distractions will improve your mental health, help you to feel less stressed, and in the long run, more fulfilled. Start your day with intention, continue your day by batching your tasks into manageable pieces and take time for breaks to refocus and reframe your thoughts.

Learn more about our Author: With a master’s degree in Opera, Jen Paxton didn’t think she would have a career in Talent Acquisition or PeopleOps, however, she fell in love with helping candidates find the right role. She started her career at JobSpring Partners placing technical professionals then moved on to Robert Half before deciding to move to an in-house recruiting team. She has grown teams at later-stage startups like Fiksu and LevelUp and built Recruiting and PeopleOps strategies from scratch at small startups like Logentries, TrueMotion, Privy, and Smile. She took a slight detour from her usual Head of People roles to Co-Found a video content platform called Jamyr which was recently acquired by Recruitics. She has been a part of four successful acquisitions and almost all of her companies have won “Best Place to Work” awards at least once while she was there. She loves coaching managers, fostering a feedback culture, and building programs that will help develop a sense of belonging. In addition to her career, Jen is a mom of two girls, loves being outdoors, eating tacos, and drinking her weight in loose-leaf teas.

*Disclaimer: This post was not generated by A.I. It is indeed written by a real life human. A pretty cool human in fact.