How To Stay Focused While Working From Home
Distractions abound at home. Every professional who has spent any period of time working from home over the last year has had to battle with introducing a working mindset and ethic into an environment unsuited to it.
As a result, deep thinking, or “flow” - a period of intense concentration and deep thought on a certain subject, line of thought, or creative requirement - is increasingly difficult. Deep thinking is essential for leadership, creative thinking, agile business decision making, and day-to-day operations, and is the backbone of what we call “focus”.
Deep thinking leads to “ideas beyond several orders of complexity. More often than not, it is the difference between a job being "doable" and a job being "impossible".” Deep thinking derives understanding from evidence, rather than via instinct or speed, and it allows you to “stay with (a) problem longer”. It is one of the most important signifiers of productive use of time, and the central part of your working focus.
Creating this sort of focused working environment is incredibly difficult at home. Deep thinking - and creating the environment for it to thrive - takes patience, discipline, and the right mixture of environmental control: all typically found in traditional working spaces. The sort of distractions you get at home, the many thousands of ways they can manifest, do not magically disappear once you step into your home office, or pop headphones in as you sit at your work desk in your living room.
The expectation of remote work means workers have to expect a different set of attention- and focus-related issues to rise: families, pets, the lack of peer-group, inbuilt flexibility of working hours, longer working days, the list goes on.
You can build a set of strategies to better focus your own attention, that creates an environment more suited to deep thinking, and that reschedule your day around your own personal balance of focus and downtime.
Manage distractions, maintain focus
You have to build a culture of work within the environment you live in, which means having to be disciplined about distractions. This can, and will, include housemates, family, or children, and you need to be rigorous about how you manage your time.
There are a number of ways you could do this:
- Website blockers on your browser,
- Turning off notifications on your phone,
- Noise-canceling headphones while listening to music,
- Connecting your music and/or headphones to your work computer, thereby focusing your activities on one screen, rather than multiple screens,
- Setting boundaries with friends and family, but creating balanced management of your time. You still need to be able to disconnect from work and enjoy your time with your friends and family, but you need to isolate human-made distractions by applying clear boundaries to your time.
Understand your own working rhythm
- Studies have shown that even the abstract fear of COVID-19 created “disorientation of working schedule(s), fear of being vulnerable to disease, the pressure of maintaining law, and orders during lockdown increased stress level...discontinuation of sleep, the shift of mid-sleep time, increase in depression, plus stress and anxiety” in public service workers.
Basic circadian rhythms have changed as a result of the added stress of changing norms due to the pandemic, so understanding how you work now in this new normal is vital, for example:
- Do you work better in the morning or afternoon?
- Have you isolated the most distracting parts of your home setup and built strategies to cope with them?
- Have you set aside “admin time” and “deep thinking” time?
- Do you diligently keep to focused break times, or do you take smaller mini-breaks throughout the day?
Give yourself a break!
- This is meant literally and figuratively: mindfulness in the age of COVID is challenging, but no one deserves to burn out. Limits to your working schedule and the ability to switch off devices are paramount to maintaining a good work-life balance.
- Focus on one or two changes you can make, such as:
- Taking frequent breaks over one single break,
- Turning off your email notifications in the morning,
- Agreeing with coworkers to have “zoom free” days.
Because you work at home doesn’t mean you should neglect taking time away from the desk.
Whether that’s standing up every hour to walk around the house, or working from a standing desk or from different rooms throughout the day - breaks can help your brain function and increase diffuse thinking.
Focus Vs Diffuse ThinkingProductivity requires focus, but does growth and innovation require diffuse thinking? Embracing diffuse thinking isn’t opening yourself to distraction, in fact, quite the opposite: through more abstract, “train of consciousness” thinking where you let yourself connect the dots between diffuse and distant data points, diffuse thinking becomes another weapon in your arsenal “to train the brain on a topic”.
You can encourage this by:
- Factoring in “away day” like meetings and online calls to step away from subjective workloads and into a more conceptual headspace with your colleagues,
- Listen to your mind and body: no one is expected to work in deep thought 8 hours a day. How you build your schedule (as mentioned above) will go a long way in building “diffuse” thinking spaces and times.
Losing your focus is a normal and expected part of your working day, but giving yourself the time and space to regain that focus and use it effectively is critical in monitoring and improving your home working setup!