Maintaining Focus

Getting things done, in a world of distractions.

Working from home has a whole host of benefits; the lack of a commute, the ability to self-schedule, the peace and quiet. It’s basically a dream job for any writer. And yet, working from home does pose challenges of its own. The peace and quiet can turn into deafening silence. The self-scheduling can quite quickly turn into the perfect storm for procrastination. And the lack of anyone looking over your shoulder can turn your Netflix queue and Facebook feed into a siren song.

I have a confession to make: I’m easily distracted. In the course of writing this guidebook, I guarantee several minutes will have been spent gazing out the window and wondering what life would be like if we were required to scuttle sideways, crab-style. Would we drive differently? What would the blueprints of our homes look like? I’ll then spend time reading about the evolution of eyestalks on Wikipedia. I’ll also check my various social media feeds and blog rolls a thousand times.

In the outdated model of cubicles and offices, one may be able to get away with this character flaw. But in the new model of remote work the focus is squarely where it should be: on the actual work. Rather than being paid for occupying a space in an office building and putting in face time in meetings, what you produce becomes your measuring stick. You are what you do.

Luckily, the human brain has remarkable plasticity. It’s a very trainable organ. We are not doomed with the habits and traits we’ve formed. With a little effort and a few tools in my utility belt, I’ve been able to shift my routine into some semblance of efficient productivity. Here are three habits I’ve found useful:

Set boundaries: When the lines between home and work blur, it’s easy to let one slowly encroach on the other. One of the best things about working from home is being able to knock errands out throughout the day; throw a load of laundry in the wash in the morning, make a quick run to the bank, etc. But it becomes all too easy to sit at my computer and suddenly decide I need to reorganize my closet or give a family member a ride to a doctor’s appointment. After all, I can work anytime!

It’s important to set boundaries to keep work and home separate. Have a place in your home set aside for work. Set office hours, even if they’re not the standard 9-to-5 hours. Let your friends and family know that, yes, you work from home, but that means you actually have to work from home.  It’s not a free pass to get to all the things around the house you’ve always been meaning to get done.

Setting boundaries will have a dual impact. One: it’ll keep you in “work mode” and focused on the task at hand. Two: It’ll keep your work from taking over your family life. When you live where you work, it’s so easy to hop on your laptop every free moment until you’re on the clock 24/7. Setting boundaries makes it easy to shut it down and get some family—or just renewal—time.

Quit distracting yourself: Working in an office is a study in interruptions. While personally, I love the social aspect of getting to work side-by-side with my co-workers, I end up working in fits and spurts between spontaneous conversations and impromptu meetings. This is common amongst regular office workers. Once I started working from home, I suddenly had vast, long stretches of uninterrupted time. Sounds like heaven, right? Like a veritable bastion of productivity.

I completely underestimated by ability to self-interrupt. In this era of smartphone notifications, 3-minute YouTube videos, and constantly updating blogrolls, it has become nearly impossible to focus on one thing for longer than ten minutes at a time. I’d sit down with the firm intention of spending the next two to three hours typing out something eloquent and concise, and ten minutes find myself watching my fifth TED Talk. Long story short, my brain was hardwired for distractions and in an environment where there wasn’t any, it was happy to provide them. There’s an actual term for it: “popcorn brain.” Basically, our brains have become so used to being able to multi-task, we’ve lost the ability to unitask.

While you can’t learn to rest your attention on a task for hours at a time overnight, practicing for minutes at a time can slowly build your tolerance. The trick is to set a timer. Start small, with about ten to fifteen minutes, and use that time to do nothing but the task at hand. Ignore any emails, chats, or Twitter notifications. Silence your phone. Resist the urge to see if that person replied to your comment on Facebook. Work on your task until you hear the timer. It’s only fifteen minutes but if you’re anything like me that first time will feel like an eternity. Gradually, it’ll get easier and easier until you find that quarter of an hour flying by. Once you’ve completed a short block of time, take a small break. After about four of these, take a longer break. You’ll soon discover yourself becoming more and more efficient at tasks in general.

List your goals: Without a manager or co-worker peering over your shoulder at what you’re doing, there’s no longer anyone keeping track of how much work you’re actually performing throughout the day. While the trust implied by this autonomy can be a confidence boost, it can also be overwhelming if you’re not great at self-managing. So give yourself accountability.

List out your goals for the year, month, week, day. There are many great task managers out there, with new ones cropping up daily. Even just a simple text document or—if you like it old school—index cards or a legal pad will do wonders. Start each day looking over your list and highlight the daily tasks you’d like to complete and the weekly goal you’ll be working towards.

More importantly, keep track of what you’ve done. Don’t underestimate that little ego boost that comes from reviewing your accomplishments. Even just noting small things can go miles towards making you feel productive, and that feeling will beget more productivity. And if your accomplishments seem a little on the lean side, use that as a tool to figure out the weak spots in your time management and better prioritize the following day.

Working from home—or from a coffee shop or on a park bench—feeds creativity, stimulates ideas, and allows you to work with your natural rhythms. It can, however, have its own set of obstacles. Some structure is still needed to ensure work gets done. Hopefully, you’ll find these three tips a good substitute for those cubicle walls.

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