We’re nearing a year since the mass exodus from office working to working from home, which for many was a new frontier. For some, working from home was a productivity boon, eliminating commute time and minimizing office distractions such as noisy open office spaces and drive-by meetings. For others, working from home proved more difficult if they thrived on collaborative interaction with others or found themselves being a full-time worker as well as a full-time teacher for children doing remote learning.
But now, as the novelty wears off and the virtual meetings drag on, the pull toward distraction can grow stronger. In a report by the Economist Intelligence Unit called “In Search of Lost Focus: The Engine of Distributed Work,” some of the top work-from-home distractions were the temptation to relax at 28%, household-related chores at 25%, and the need to respond to immediate demands from others such as family, roommates, and pets at 22%.
The truth is that our brains weren’t designed to constantly focus. The office environment organically supports that reality with natural breaks as you walk in between meetings, informal chats between colleagues. Besides, there’s a physical separation between the place where you do most of your work and where you do most of your “life.” When you are at work, the emphasis is largely on your job. And when you are at home, it is time to relax, take care of personal items, and interact with family and friends.
If you’re finding yourself getting distracted as the coronavirus drags on and fatigue intensifies, these strategies can help you to regain your focus and your productive spark.
Make time for relaxation
In my work as a time management coach, I’ve seen that people who get tempted into relaxation activities during the day—for instance, chatting with friends, reading articles, or doing other nonwork activities in between meetings—are usually also feeling like they’re “working all the time.” From the time that they wake up until the time they go to bed, they have a vague feeling that they should be working, and they dip in and out of work throughout the day.
To increase your motivation to make the most of your time between meetings, as well as distancing yourself from doing personal activities, treat your workdays as you would if you were going to the office. Set a certain start time and an end time. Then, give yourself permission to enjoy guilt-free relaxation before and after those times. Also during the day, have breaks similar to the lengths of time you would take breaks if you were in the office. For example, maybe you take 30 minutes to an hour to eat lunch and catch up with a friend or to go on a walk. You may also take short times intermittently through the day to stretch your legs or get a cup of coffee. I recommend you prioritize breaks, even when you’re working from home. However, these breaks should look and feel like ones you would take at the office.
Another step I take to distinguish relaxation time from focus time is I get more dressed-up during my work hours, then transition to more comfy, lounge clothes when I’ve officially wrapped my workday. Similarly, I work from my home office while I’m working, and then once I’m “off,” I transition to the living room couch if I have personal things to do on my computer.
Knowing you’ll have clear time for relaxation helps motivate you not to sneak it in throughout the day. And subtle cues of when you’re on and off the clock help you stay in sync.
Designate chore hours
Before, when most people went to the office, it wasn’t quite as disruptive if you left your home in disarray. You saw the dishes in the sink for a moment, just as you were heading out the door. That basket overflowing with laundry left your mind as soon as you started toward the workplace.
But now that you’re within the confines of your home very often, you see those dirty dishes in the sink frequently. Likely, you also add to the pile, as you busily tackle work responsibilities. So, you’re making your home more messy—and you’re noticing this mess more and feel a more powerful pull to handle these chores. To help avoid the siren song of tidying up, do your housework in the hours before and after your work time.
For example as someone who has worked from home for over 15 years, one of my long-standing practices is to have my home in order, such as making my bed, putting all wayward clothes in the laundry basket, and loading dishes in the dishwasher before I start work. This way, as I focus on work, I’m not constantly having the sight of a mess nagging at me. After dinner, I wash all the pots and pans used while cooking before I move on for the rest of the evening. I plan in times to do things such as clean the kitchen, scrub down the bathroom, or take out the trash so that I’m not displeased with the state of these rooms; otherwise, I might suddenly feel compelled to deep clean.
The one time where doing daytime chores could be an advantage for your productivity is if you really need a mental break. This applies particularly if you have a brief, concrete task, such as folding a basket of laundry. Doing this chore in five minutes or less—and then going back to work—can give you an opportunity to both clear your head and get something done around the house.
Carve out personal time
If you’re working from home and find yourself taking on the roles of cook, teacher, cleaner, IT support, dog walker, or counselor, among other responsibilities while working, it may be time to do some proactive work to manage these reactive activities.
If all the people in your household are mostly adults or older children, talk with them to establish what you can take on and what they can handle on their own.
Furthermore, touch base the night before your workday to ensure everyone’s concerns are addressed around schedules, technology, and individual responsibilities. If certain family members can make their own lunch, load and unload their own laundry, and address cleaning up part of the house, bring up these shifts in chores. To clarify everything, you can create a rotational schedule.
Keep in mind, you will be able to prepare for most areas of your nonwork life in advance, but there will be times, if you have small children and pets at home, during which you need to help immediately.
Finally, for other tasks that take longer but are not true emergencies, set boundaries around when you are available for longer conversations or to help with bigger items before or after your work hours. As much as you plan, some unavoidable needs will arise. However, by taking a proactive approach and setting the appropriate boundaries, you can minimize the amount of time you lose to distractions during your workday.
The main idea when beating household distractions is to act like you’re working from your office. You’ll find you’re able to get more done during the day and more thoroughly enjoy your relaxing time, especially without a computer and messy house calling out to you.