How to be a productive in an open plan office

This is a guest post written by Nous House Sydney member – Matt Cowdroy, a Productivity Ninja from Think Productive.

Matt’s professional background spans 20 years of commercial roles in marketing, sales and finance, giving him insights into the experiences of today’s knowledge worker. He is passionate about productivity and helping organisations get more done, with less stress. In this blog post, he’s given us practical ways into how we can be a “Productivity Ninja” whilst working in an open plan office.

How to get “stuff” done in an open plan office

The open plan office has been a growing trend in business with innovators like Google, eBay and Facebook spruiking their open plan styles.  Some of the benefits hoped for include increased communication, transparency and information flow.  In addition to the benefits, there are also some downsides such as a high level of distractions, which make it difficult to focus.

To get “stuff” done in an open plan environment, think about being a Productivity Ninja.   Here are some Ninja tips based on some characteristics of the Productivity Ninja:


Ruthlessness is about having boundaries.  It’s our ability to protect our time and attention, focusing only on the things that have the greatest impact.  This is about saying ‘no’ to ourselves as much as it is about saying ‘no’ to others.  Our “Monkey Mind” wants to be distracted. It wants to jump around and have some fun.

The office environment is full of competing distractions; we need to be ruthless about what’s important.

Some simple ways to be ruthless:

  1. Write your top three priorities for the day on a post it note. Get these done before doing anything else.
  2. Switch your email off-line for chunks of time to prevent distraction. Remember, your inbox is full of other people’s priorities not your own.
  3. Have a team agreement for some “Productivity Ninja” time. Do not disturb each other during that time. E.g. between 10am and 11am.


Mindfulness is about having the awareness to know where our attention is and also being able to direct it.  This self-awareness can reduce our tendency to react unnecessarily to external influences.

Here is a simple practice to strengthen mindfulness.  This can be done at your desk:

  1. Place both feet flat on the floor, feel grounded through the feet and connect to the present moment.
  2. Take 3 slow deep breaths in and out and listen to the sound of your breath.
  3. Take a few more natural breaths and feel the tension release from your body.

Using your breath like this connects you with your body and reduces the fight and flight reaction.  This will create space to allow you to think clearly.

Stealth and camouflage

There are times when working alone, away from the limelight, might be more productive.  Think about the local café, meeting rooms, board room or other quiet places you may be able to use.  You may need to create some space in your day for this.

Some easy ways to be stealth are:

  1. Book meetings with yourself in your calendar. Use a code word that the team recognises and supports. Especially if other people have access to your calendar.
  2. Screen your calls and only answer the phone if the call is likely to be more important than what you are currently working on.
  3. Disconnect from the Wi-Fi. You will be amazed at your ability to focus just by knowing that you are “unplugged”.

Zen-like calm

Zen-like calm is an ability to remain focused and not be stressed by everything on your task list.  Trusting your systems and having good boundaries is a great way to be able to begin finding this mental and emotional space.   The mindfulness exercise above is a great starting place to feel relaxed and more centred.

Great decision making comes from the ability to create the time and space to think rationally and intelligently about the issue at hand. Decisions made during periods of panic and likely to be the ones we want to forget about.

Be Human, not a Superhero

To be a Productivity Ninja, you don’t have to be a superhero. Superheroes only exist in the movies. Aiming for perfection is often the quickest way to get stuck. The important thing is to realise that you don’t have to be perfect.  If you are finding distractions and having trouble concentrating you may need to change your focus, your environment, or move to a different seat or office.

If all else fails, buy a good set of noise cancelling headphones and listen to your favourite music (or nothing at all)…just be careful…tapping your feet and singing can be a bit distracting to those around you.

For more details visit or get in touch with Matt Cowdroy.