It's time to do something when you're having difficulty focusing and it begins to affect the quality of your work, your productivity or both.
In a quiet, reflective moment – obviously, out of the workplace – it behooves you to ask yourself the source of your focus problem. The beauty of this tack is that no one but you has to know the answer; you can keep it to yourself. But once you honestly determine the source, you can take some proactive steps to regain your focus and your workplace rhythm.
If it's you:
Begin every day with a to-do list. Time management experts have long touted the benefits of taking five or 10 minutes to plan what you “must” do, what you “should” do and what you “could” do in the course of a day. With a list “staring” at you, you're more likely to stay on-task.
Schedule blocks of time to answer emails and return phone calls. Many people feel tethered to their computer or phone all day long – locked in a constant state of “respond” while work gets wedged in between interruptions. Upend this time-killing habit by devoting one block of time in the morning and perhaps two blocks in the afternoon (and no more) to answering emails and phone calls. Your work should come into clearer focus as a result.
Cut large projects down to size. It's easy to lose (or struggle for) focus when a project is large and contains many interlocking, moving parts or involves multiple people. This is a prime time to tame it by looking for opportunities to break it into manageable chunks, either by function, deadline or department.
Force yourself to take short breaks. Don't worry about losing your focus. When you take a 10- or 15-minute breather, you'll return re-energized and probably regain it.
If it's your coworkers:
Get plugged in. Pick a remedy that won't cause your coworkers to lose their focus. Headphones are an obvious choice, even though some people might say they exude a “Don't bug me” message (which is probably close to your intention anyway). A radio or white noise machine can help muffle noises while providing a soothing effect at the same time.
Remove yourself occasionally from the hub of activity. Don't worry about being accused of being “antisocial” by your coworkers; your boss will probably commend your determination. Moving to a quiet place in the building for an hour or two could supply a shot of oil to your wheels.
Consider altering your work schedule. Arrive earlier, leave later or work from home – all with the approval of the boss, of course. Offer to put measures in place so that if you're not “transparent,” you're at least fully accountable.