Ask LH: How Do I Stop My Coworkers From Distracting Me While I’m Trying To Work?

Ask LH: How Do I Stop My Coworkers From Distracting Me While I’m Trying To Work?

Dear Lifehacker, I have a few coworkers that always seem to be at my desk talking to me. Whether I’m in the middle of a task and obviously working or I’m trying to talk on the phone or I’m having lunch or a snack at my desk, these folks keep coming up to socialise. I like them, and our office environment is pretty casual, so I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but how can I make them stop bothering me when I’m trying to work or eat at my desk? Thanks, Not-So-Chatty Kathy

Photo remixed from originals by AVAVA/Shutterstock and lineartestpilot/Shutterstock.

Dear Not-So-Chatty Kathy,

I can’t begin to explain how much I understand where you’re coming from. In my last office job, I had to deal with the same issue — coworkers coming up and hanging over your desk and socialising endlessly, even if you clearly were in the middle of working on something, or had your lunch out, visible, and getting cold on your desk. Thankfully, there are some ways to drive them off without being a jerk, or psyche them into leaving you alone. Here are a few of them.

Wear Headphones or a Headset While Working


One surefire way to make your colleagues think you’re busy or focusing is to wear headphones — preferably a good noise-cancelling pair. When I worked in an office, I couldn’t really focus without music, so wearing a set of earbuds or headphones was important. Some of my colleagues preferred wearing noise-canceling headphones while they worked, even if they just turned on the noise cancellation but didn’t listen to music. Either way, I found that more people will pass your desk and leave you alone without bothering you so you can work or eat if you’re wearing a full set of headphones instead of a pair of tiny earbuds. Wearing headphones makes it more obvious you’re busy, while someone might not notice a pair of earbuds until they’re already at your desk trying to get your attention. If you need help choosing a good set of headphones we have a guide to help you pick a good set for you based on form-factor, style and audio quality.

Similarly, if your company offers headsets for your desk phones, consider getting one and wearing it, even if you’re not on the phone. Your chatty coworkers should know what the phone headset looks like, and as soon as they approach and see you wearing it, they’ll assume you’re on the phone. They may still come up and motion to you, asking if you’re on the phone, but a quick nod in their direction will send them packing so you can get back to work.

If you are wearing headphones or a headset and your chatty colleague wants your attention anyway, take off one ear, or pull out one earbud, not both. It makes it clear that you’re not going to stop listening to your music entirely to speak with them, and sends the message that you expect the conversation to be short. If you do listen to music through your headphones or headset, leave it playing while you speak. If they hear sound coming out of the other earbud or earcup, it’s another sign you expect them to be brief.

Photo by John Manoogian III.

Use Trigger Phrases And Conversation Traps To Get Your Point Across

If headphones don’t do the trick, it’s time to do a little social engineering. Here are a few conversation tricks and phrases you can use to make people either leave you be, or think twice about bothering you again in the future.

  • Make sure chatty colleagues leave with something to do for you. If you’re busy working on a report that’s due in an hour and your coworker demands you give them the time to tell you about X Factor last night, tell them you’re glad they stopped by, and ask them to pick up the slack on something you won’t be able to do until after the report is finished. It’s like being in two places at once. If they leave with work, they’ll think twice about coming back again to chitchat, especially when you’re swamped.
  • Exploit their weakness. This is an old conversation hack, but a good one. Talk about the things you know they know little about, or don’t enjoy discussing. It’s a difficult balance because you said you don’t want to make any enemies, but if your colleague is going on about reality television, talk to them about a documentary you saw. If they go on about their favourite team, talk to them about the team they hate. Odds are they’ll cut the conversation short.
  • Be uninteresting. This is a spin on exploiting their weakness. If your coworker wants to talk sports, make sure to tell them you’re not really intereested in them. If they ask if you saw the game last night, let them know that you didn’t, even if you did. The same applies for other topics of conversation as well. Eventually your chatty coworker won’t want to explain why everything they like is cool to you, and just go find someone they can have a two-sided conversation with.

A little verbal trickery and body language can go a long way towards making your chatty coworker understand that your cubicle isn’t the social haven they thought it would be, and leave you alone.

Move Your Seat


Sometimes there’s little you can do to prevent a colleague from bothering you even if you say all the right things or keep a pair of headphones on your head. In those situations, it might be worth letting your manager know that you have a colleague who keeps bothering you while you’re trying to focus and they’re getting to be a distraction. They’ll probably let you move your desk or cubicle to a new location that hopefully will be less of a problem.

Granted, this only works in offices where you don’t have to be in a specific place, like close to your boss, or near a specific team. In some cases, the chatty coworker will just find you in your new location and come and bother you there. If you have the opportunity to move across a floor, up or down a floor, or somewhere really out of the way for that coworker, or if your problem isn’t so much a single person but that your desk is in a high-traffic area and everyone wants to talk to you, this could be a good option.

In one of my last jobs, my desk was right outside of the only conference room on our floor, and on the walkway to our CIO’s office. That meant that everyone coming in to our area would walk past my desk, and they’d usually stop to say hello. If the conference room was occupied with a late-running meeting when another was supposed to start, the attendees for the late-starting meeting would congregate around my desk until the room was free, and of course they would want to talk. People leaving meetings to answer their phones or chat after a meeting would stand near my desk to talk. It was all distracting, and while I liked talking to people, I eventually had to move my desk because it was getting too distracting. If you’re in a similar situation, your manager should understand — after all, they need you to be productive, and if you can make the case that they wouldn’t be productive there either, it shouldn’t be difficult to convince them to let you find a new seat in a more secluded space.

Photo by Brett Lider.

Start Eating Anyway, Or Find Another Place for Lunch

If the trouble is that your coworkers are bothering you while you’re trying to eat, one great way to make them go away is to start eating anyway. If you need to heat up your food, pick it up and stand up, and just go heat it up. If they follow you, they follow, but they likely won’t follow you all the way to the microwave, talk while you’re heating your food, and then follow you back while you sit and enjoy it. If you have a sandwich, just start to open it and set up your meal while they yammer away at you. When you’re finished, stop for a bit, and look at them. Most people at this point will get the drift that you’ve set out your meal, and you’re waiting for them to leave so you can eat it. If your coworker catches you while you’re eating, don’t stop — after a couple of bites or forkfuls while they’re standing there, they should pick up that you’re busy and leave you alone.

Still, if your colleagues were most people, you wouldn’t have this problem, so it might be worth just telling them that you’re eating, and you’d like to get back to them when you’re finished your meal. Alternatively, it might be time to find another place to eat — maybe somewhere in the building with Wi-Fi so you can take your laptop with you, or your smartphone, and relax while you eat, or even work while you eat if you prefer, just not at your desk. We’re not huge fans of working through lunch anyway — you need the time to relax and recharge — but if you must work or eat at your desk, send your coworker all the right non-verbals that they’re intruding, and if they still don’t get the point, let them know it. Gently, of course.

Be Up-Front And Ask


Of course, all of these options are a bit passive-aggressive, and try to get the point across to your coworker without expressly telling them to go away because you’re busy or eating lunch and want some privacy. You’re relying on non-confrontational methods to get the job done, and while they may work, they’re always less effective than just telling your coworker “Do you mind if I stop by and catch up with you later? I want to finish my lunch,” or “I’m really buried right now. Mind if we chat another time?” If nothing else works, or if everything else here makes you cringe and you just want to deal with it head on, go this route.

Photo by imageegami/Shutterstock.

Remember, being assertive is not the same as being aggressive, and thinking the two are the same will stop you from drawing the boundaries you need in the office to get your work done and stay productive without distractions. You don’t have to be mean or rude to tactfully tell a colleague who just has to tell you how their fantasy football league is doing or what their kid did last night or what they saw on TV the night before to leave you alone while you hunker down on a report that’s due in an hour.

Just smile, get it out in the open, and let them know you don’t mean any offence, but they really should leave you alone so you can focus. You’ll be surprised how many people completely understand — or how many were expecting you to say something, because that’s what they would do if you were at their desk and the situation were reversed. Just be polite and direct, and your coworker will get the message immediately. There’s no guarantee they’ll like it, but you’ll have quiet so you can work or finish your sandwich in peace. Good luck!

Do you have any other tips for dealing with chatty, annoying coworkers who just hang out by your cube talking about things you’re not interested in at all? Share your suggestions for Not-So-Chatty Kathy in the comments below.


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  • Quote disruption as a reason to request a switch to telecommuting. If management have to consider letting you work from home then that should at least highlight the issue starkly enough that they pay attention.
    I program in a call centre environment. I start telecommuting next month and I can not wait.

  • They possibly think you want the interaction so just be polite and tell them you are eating or busy – in the nicest way possible. You won’t become an enemy if you say it nicely and they will respect your space more in future.

  • Sometimes the best thing to do is to stand up and walk away (on an errand). Don’t have anything for people to sit down on (get a visitors chair only if you need one). Also, have an Inbox. If someone has something for you, it goes in the Inbox (not on the keyboard, or chair or somewhere else).

    There are plenty of ways to make sure that you can avoid distraction. Sometimes, the easiest thing is to make time to be distracted. Have a coffee with the interrupter, so that he or she Hass a chance to get things off their chest.

    Good luck 🙂

  • I’ve tried everything, headphones are on every day, my inbox is full, i’m almost literally buried in my work (drafting office, lots of printing A3 drawings), I don’t have the option of moving, I’ve been polite in saying I’m too busy for a chat, I’ve even become aggressive and just blatantly said to shut up. Even others in the office have had a crack at telling him to be less social. My boss is fully aware but is also under workload pressure and doesn’t have to time to do a review.

    When calling my attention it’s usually seeking approval of every step he’s done, no confidence. Otherwise, he call my attention when I’m peaking at my productivity to talk to me about… cheap home theatre systems… and continued to bring that topic up all week, and also repeated every non-work related convo to people all around me.

    The worst part, this guy is loud even when he is not talking, every day he at least sneezes, coughs, clears throat and makes other strange sounds at least once every 2 minutes. When eating it sounds like he’s munching on fucking gravel! When I’m ignoring him he bashes on the cubicle divider which vibrates to shit and distracts everyone.

    My co-worker must have been sent from hell.

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