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How to avoid multitasking when you work from home

To begin the process of filtering out distractions, simplify your work space and turn to old-fashioned pen and paper.

How to avoid multitasking when you work from home
[Photo: Sora Sagano/Unsplash]
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At this point, we all know that multitasking is bad for productivity. And certainly the pandemic has upended our work lives. For many people, this spring meant suddenly going from a routine involving going to the office to working, daily, from our homes. Worse yet, we might be sharing that work environment with spouses, partners, children, and roommates. It’s also apparent many people may have never actually taken the time to structure their work from home environment mindfully.

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Given all that, here are three tips to make your work-from-home environment more effective.

It’s never too late to plan

My colleagues at the University of Texas found out suddenly that the university was closed. We had a couple of days to grab things from the office and to start working remotely. Many people had decades worth of books, articles, and research in their offices that were left inaccessible for weeks.

If you didn’t have a dedicated space for working from home before, then you had to carve something out. You might have been lucky enough to have a spare bedroom, but judging from many things I have seen in people’s Zoom backgrounds, lots of people have a makeshift desk set up in their bedrooms, surrounded by piles of paper.

That workspace probably grew up organically as you struggled to get something done in that first week or two. But, shoehorning yourself into a space that was never designed to be an office means you’re probably lacking some of the benefits of smart planning.

You can do that now.

Take a picture of your workspace. For a day or two, pay attention to what you find easy to do and what is difficult. Grab a sheet of paper. Sketch out what you would do if you could start over. Would you put your computer or chair in a different place? Perhaps put your desk along a different wall to get closer to the window (or maybe further from the distractions of staring outside). Are you in a corner of the room where sound bleeds through from other people in the house? Take a few hours and rearrange that workspace. You’re probably going to be working remotely for a while now, so invest some energy in making the space more productive.

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You might also invest in things that will make your work-from-home space more comfortable. A decent desk chair can make it easier to sit. (It is hard to be productive when your back hurts or your foot is falling asleep.) I bought a stand-up desk attachment, so that I can spend part of my day standing rather than sitting.

Less is more

A second thing you need to do is to be realistic about how much work you’re going to get done. If you’re trying to work while also helping young children navigate school from home, you’re just not going to be as productive as you were before. On top of that, this whole situation is stressful. After all, there’s a pandemic going on. And political strife. And civil unrest. Stress makes you less resilient, and so you may have a harder time concentrating.

Rather than trying to chain yourself to your desk with all of the potential distractions around you, organize our to-do list into six categories. First, draw a line down the center of the page top to bottom. On the left, you’re going to put the tasks you have to do that require your best self (or at least as close to that best self as you have available). On the right, list the tasks that require time, but not 110% effort.

Then, divide the page into thirds. The top third are tasks you can do in 5-10 minutes. The middle third are tasks you can do in under a half hour. The bottom third requires sustained effort of more than 30 minutes.

Now, figure out where you can put at least one long time block of work in during the day. Sincerely ask your partner to watch the kids or aim to get up earlier or stay up later in the day. But have at least one period each day when you can knock out something from the bottom third of the page.

After that, when you find yourself with time to concentrate, check the to-do list for something to address before you reflexively open your email (or worse, start doom-scrolling on social media).

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Finally, be kind to yourself. If you don’t check off much from your list on a given day, don’t beat yourself up. Piling more stress on top of what you’re already experiencing isn’t going to make you do your job better.

Go back to basics

One of the hardest things about the work-from-home environment is that there are lots of objects that are also distracting. Your TV is never far away. Your cell phone is a constant source of updates. And there are constantly dishes to wash or laundry to fold.

So, when it comes to trying to get work done, you’re going to have to keep things simple. In particular, consider going back to the old school ways of organizing. Rather than using your phone or computer to check your calendar, get some big sticky notes and hang the on the wall with a daily agenda. Use pads of paper to take notes during your meetings.

The advantage of using physical objects to organize your work is that you can’t click out of a Post-it note to check Twitter; or begin reading over your notes only to get sidetracked by a new message on Slack.

An added bonus is that the work-from-home environment has probably created some Zoom fatigue from staring at screens during long meetings; doing some of your work with actual pens and paper is a nice antidote.

You might actually find yourself looking forward to putting a big sticky note on the wall and outlining a paper that way rather than typing in a document on the computer. Plus, you can still access that document—even if your Wi-Fi goes out.

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Art Markman will be speaking at the Fast Company Innovation Festival on “How to Master Multitasking and Distractions In Our New Work Environment.”