Tips to create a distraction-free workspace

Our world is getting more high-tech by the day.

Seventy-seven percent of American adults say they own a smartphone, up from just 35 percent in 2011, and just over half of young adults (18- to 29-year-olds) say they live in a house with three or more of these devices, according to the Pew Research Center.

Amazon recently opened the first cashier-less convenience store, and cars that drive themselves aren't merely fodder for futuristic cartoons anymore.

With technology advancing at such a rapid rate - and continually encroaching on how we work, study, interact socially and consume information - the question becomes: can our minds keep up with our machinery?

In The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World, neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley and psychologist Larry Rosen explore whether our brains are equipped to handle all the distractions technology creates and how those distractions affect our productivity. (Spoiler-alert: constant interruptions from our devices are not helping us accomplish tasks).

"Technology allows the creation of multiple stimuli vying for our attention all the time, which makes it difficult to get work done," says Dr. Darren Gitelman, senior medical director of the Advocate Memory Center, located at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge.

"Think about the office of the 1970s. There were no smart phones or personal computers. One could work with minimal interruptions. Now, a single device has multiple apps (messaging, social media, email, etc.) - each with notifications. The problem is that we still have the same old human brain," Gitelman said

And that brain is limited in its ability to focus on, understand and utilize all the information coming at it.

While it seems unlikely in a world where Apple's app store has made $300 million in a single day, there is still room for us to minimize distraction and be productive at the office. Here's some tips how:

Clear off your virtual and physical workspace

When someone changes their eating habits, it's recommended they clean out their kitchen and remove the "unhealthy" foods they no longer wish to eat.

The same "out of sight, out of mind" philosophy works when it comes to technological distractions.

"When something is out of sight, it is not distracting us," says Gitelman. "The world has an unlimited number of stimuli, but humans, all animals really, have limited attentional capabilities. We use our attention to filter out (i.e., ignore) unneeded information."

Having all notifications and emails on all the time is like a band playing in your office - it is very, very difficult to ignore, he added.

Create a distraction-free work environment

Clear off your desk:

Only have materials out that are related to the task at hand. Put whatever you're not using - phone, planner, notebook, away and out of sight.

Work in a quiet place:

Close your office door or consider wearing noise-cancelling headphones if you work in a public space or open-floor plan office.

Keep open only tabs, documents and apps related to the current task:

Close all others.

Avoid having your email open:

Don't check email while working on a big project such as a report or presentation. Instead, designate specific times of day that you'll read and respond to messages.

Silence your cellphone:

Keep your phone out of sight and turn off all alerts and vibrations.

Create a block schedule (include breaks)

Once you free your physical space of distractions, try to segment your day into periods for different projects.

Think back to your high school schedule; you had 45 minutes for math, followed by 45 minutes of English, then history, etc.

Classes were divided by minutes-long passing periods, giving you a built-in break. We can think of breaking up our workday in much the same fashion.

"The idea is to allow one a sufficient amount of time to concentrate on a particular project to be productive. Every time one switches from one task to the next, there is a time cost to starting the new task, and additional time costs in terms of figuring out where one left off, and then focusing on the new information," says Gitelman.

If you take breaks throughout the day, make sure they are productive (i.e. not scrolling through social media). Gazzaley and Rosen suggest:

• Exercising

• Getting outside

• Reading a fiction book

• Laughing

• Talking to someone in person or on the phone

• Daydreaming, journaling or coloring

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