Working From Home, Part 2: How To Focus

Read Part 1: The New Normal

This is Part 2 of my ongoing series designed to help people in COVID-quarantine adjust to working from home. 

The #1 question I’ve been asked over my 10 years of working from home is, “How do you stay focused?”

The truth is, it’s hard. I can’t say I’ve totally figured it out. I’m going to be honest, working in the same room (or even the same building) as your refrigerator and your snack supply is not conducive to focus or healthy living. While you might have just chuckled reading that, it’s not a joke. There are many articles out there about “how to focus when working from home,” but they are typically selling some software solution or tool. Those can help, but they ignore the core issues. I’m going to explain those core issues and how to solve them.

There are so many distractions when you work from home. Nobody is watching over your shoulder making sure you are productive – you have free reign of the place. At first, it feels empowering. But after a while, it can become extremely stressful and depressing when you realize that it’s not like working in an office – focus does not come naturally.

Our brains aren’t wired to work from home. It’s not natural to us – at least not yet. Our brains are used to a separation between the work and “play” areas. It is accustomed to flipping that switch when you walk out the door in the morning and flipping it back when you walk back in at night. It can be hard to make the adjustment – especially if you are now suddenly being forced to work from home while quarantined with the rest of your (very noisy) family.

So, let’s fix the problem. There is no mountain that hasn’t been climbed. I’ve been working from home for 10 years – how do I do it? At first, it was difficult. Now, it’s easy – even natural. I don’t mind the idea of working in an office environment, but now that I’ve adjusted to working from home, I would hate to have to give up the many perks that come with the lifestyle. Here are 5 REAL ways to focus when working from home:

  1. Isolate yourself. There are multiple ways to do this. If you have the option, close yourself off in a separate room while you are working. If you ever transition to not-work, leave the room. This will help your brain adjust by giving it an alternative work space where it can flip that switch and be productive. You are wired to see work and life as two separate existences. Creating a separate space within your home will help you adjust to that transition. If this is not an option for you, there are other ways to isolate yourself – the best way I’ve found is to use noise canceling headphones and fill your ears with background noise – music, white noise, or even a TV show. I like to play TV shows that I’ve watched 10 times already (most of those times doing this same thing) on a separate monitor or computer. I have no need to pay attention because I already know everything that’s going to happen, but it provides a constant background chatter of real people having conversations. Growing up in a large family, I have a hard time focusing in silent environments, so this one works well for me. Only do this if you won’t get distracted by it, though.
  2. Communicate. You need to sit down with your entire family and have a productive conversation about boundaries during work hours. Everyone needs to have clear and well-understood regulations about when they can and can’t interact with you. Setting these boundaries won’t work 100%, but even if it cuts out 50% of your distractions during the day, that will be a huge improvement. Make sure you explain to your spouse and especially your kids that you aren’t trying to avoid them, and that you love them and that you would be spending time with them if you could. In my opinion, it is important to clearly articulate to your children (of any age) the reason that you are working from home now, and why it is important that you are not disturbed (you have to work so you can pay the bills).
  3. Have a regular schedule. Some of you are still required to work regular business hours, while some of you are not. My recommendation is to force yourself to work regular business hours even if you have the option not to. Your brain is already wired to be productive during those hours, and this is not the time to start changing things.
  4. Keep your routine. To continue on my point above, it is very important that you keep to your previously established routine. If you drink coffee at 7:30 every morning – do that. If you leave the house at 7:45 and arrive at work at 8 – walk into your dedicated space at 7:45 and spend 15 minutes listening to a podcast or whatever you do on your commute. This will help your brain flip that switch into productivity mode and be ready to focus at 8.
  5. Dress for work. This is one that most people never think about. 90% of the jokes that my family and friends crack about me working from home are along the lines of “You work from home? Man, I wish I didn’t have to wear pants to work.” If you’ve been sent home to work remotely from quarantine, this may be one thing you are looking forward to. Don’t. Just like I’ve explained above, it is important to follow your existing routine. Wear exactly what you would wear to work. I spend a lot of time on video conference calls, so I wear a company polo to work every day. But on top of that, I typically wear jeans, socks, and an undershirt – just like if I was going to work for the day. Now that my brain is permanently wired to work from home, it isn’t a terribly big deal if I do without a belt or shoes some days (on some rare occasions I’ll even go crazy and wear pajama pants), but my productivity is always significantly improved if I take the time to fully prepare for work before I clock in. That means everything – a shower, beard trim, tooth brush, and all of my clothes – down to my socks, shoes, and belt. It helps me get into an awake and productive mindset and properly prepare for my day.

 

Here are 5 additional things that I personally do to help myself focus:

  • Use an electric sit/stand desk. I try to stand for at least an hour each day while I’m working, especially during video calls.
  • Taking 5 minute breaks about every hour.
  • Working with a co-worker on a project over video chat when possible (when I find my focus wandering).
  • Working extra in the early morning or late at night to knock out tasks while nobody else is online or awake to distract me.
  • Getting rid of all unhealthy snacks from the house and only keeping healthy, fresh food in the fridge. (This one may not be practical during a quarantine or if you have kids)

 

Well, there you go. Hopefully this article has been helpful. I’m not selling anything, just sharing what I’ve learned while working from home for the past decade. The key thing I’ve learned is to focus on the core issues and not waste time and energy on all of the many “productivity tools” out there. Once you’ve got the essentials down, these things can help you become more productive. But they won’t ever help you restore your baseline office productivity – you have to do that by working with how your brain is already wired and sticking to your existing routines.

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