Whether you’re working from home in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic or you’re already a full-time freelancer or on a distributed team, remote work can come with unique challenges. Especially if you’re not used to it, it can be tough to channel the same level of focus that you might have in an office setting. And when you’re suddenly away from the rest of your team, a lack of collaboration and connection can be difficult to navigate.
When there’s no one looking over your shoulder, it’s easy to get off course.
“Without the watchful eye of a supervisor or clear expectations on your time, you are often left feeling aimless and easily distracted,” says Lauren LeMunyan, owner and executive coach at The SpitFire Coach. “Laundry, snacking, and reality television catch your eye and suck your energy if you don’t watch it closely.”
While it’s fine to have a cheat day now and then, it’s not okay to let that build up over time. That’s why having a work schedule — and sticking to it — is crucial.
Here are 15 ways to stay focused while working from home.
1. Have a dedicated workspace.
Whether you have a sprawling home office or a nook in your kitchen, it’s important to have a dedicated office. Even urban dwellers with limited square footage should carve out a spot that’s just for work.
“A dedicated workspace is the most important element,” says Peter Vandendriesse, founder and CEO of Guestboard.co. “It’s easy to sit with a laptop on your couch, but your posture and ergonomics won’t be right, and it’s often in close proximity to a TV, which is an obvious distraction. I also prefer to have a double monitor setup (which increases my productivity), so having a desk is an easy choice to make. Much like your bed should be reserved for sleeping, your workspace should be for working.”
Switch up your working space
“My husband and I work at home together and now that my daughter’s school is closed, she is studying remotely. We each have two areas set up in different ways that we can switch off to when we get bored. All desks are by windows and some include standing desks.”
—Eve Mayer, author and consultant, Carrollton, TX
2. Stay off social media.
Is there any rabbit hole more tempting than social media? A quick scroll on Instagram can turn into a major time suck, but there are ways to avoid temptation.
“One of my favorite productivity hacks comes with the help of an app called Stay Focusd,” says New York City-based tech entrepreneur Lori Cheek, founder and CEO of Cheekd. “When working from home, Facebook and Twitter can be a major distraction. StayFocusd helps avoid these distractions by restricting the amount of time you can spend on them. The Google Chrome extension lets you set specific time restrictions on certain websites with a 10-minute default option. Once your time has been used up, the sites you have selected to block can’t be accessed for the remainder of the day.”
3. Dress for success.
While there’s no need for a three-piece suit or a pencil skirt and heels when you’re not leaving your home, there’s a happy medium for getting dressed in the morning.
“It’s all a part of having a business mindset and daily ritual,” says Andre Fasciola, president and CEO of Matcha Kari. “We are creatures of habit, and it’s vital to have good habits. Sure, sitting in your pajamas will be comfortable, but can you really be in a professional mindset with PJs on? It’s not really about how you look that’s important; it’s about setting a professional mindset.”
Wear what’s comfortable for you. But having a morning routine — meaning brushing your teeth and changing out of your pajamas — is crucial, even if you’re just switching to yoga pants.
4. Set boundaries.
It’s a common misconception that remote work means you’re hardly working. When a friend invites you for a mid-afternoon movie break or a long lunch, it can be tough to get across that you have to put in your hours, too.
“Most people don’t realize you work from home unless you tell them,” LeMunyan says. “By saying when you’re available rather than waiting for people to tell you when they can meet, you’re in the driver seat of your time. Working from home isn’t a disadvantage, so don’t make excuses for it. You are available when you’re available whether you’re in the office or not. Remember you have to train people how to treat you and your work time.
Close non-work-related tabs
I’ve never worked in an office. I’ve had to create my schedule and also train others who have been independent for years. To stay focused, I suggest doing two simple things before you start working in the morning: taking social media apps off your phone, and closing any open tabs on your computer. It’s easy to get distracted by the alerts. You can create a system to check them, but limit your exposure.
Write things down
I make sure to write things down on paper when I’m working from home. When you are working remotely, you will probably spend much more time looking at a screen than when you are in an office. I find that my eyes need regular screen breaks. Plus, nothing beats the satisfaction of scratching an item off of your list! Clicking a checkbox in your online calendar just can’t compete with that.
Tidy up first
I find that my biggest distraction is when the space around me feels untidy. When I work from home, I tidy up as much as possible before bed and take a few minutes in the morning to finish any tidying. Then, I set out my tasks that need to be accomplished for the day and start working. I find this routine really helps my mind stay focused on my work instead of the ‘home things’ that need to get done.
5. Save household chores for later.
It’s tempting to run the dishwasher while you work or take a break to vacuum, but doing so can interrupt your flow and focus.
“Just like everything else, set aside a certain amount of time each day to do this — do not casually mix it into your routine if you are a very tidy person,” Vandendriesse says. “I had trouble with chores taking over my day in the beginning. Now, I do maybe 10 straight minutes of chores in the morning and 10 minutes in the evening.”
6. Create a schedule.
Your calendar should work the way you do. That means if you’re a Type A and love to have every minute planned, go ahead and fill up your day, even penciling in break times. If you’re more of a to-do list follower, write up a game plan and cross things off as you go.
“For example, I like spending the first 15 minutes of my day creating a priority list for the day, then I go through emails to see how that list may be impacted,” LeMunyan says. “I then look at my top priorities and schedule them in where they fit best and allow for 15-minute breaks in between.”
Assign timeslots to your tasks
“When writing a to-do item in my calendar, I assign the item a certain amount of time. When you are working at home alone, the time can really run away from you! I find it helpful to assign blocks of specific time to your tasks.”
—Lauren Brownstein, philanthropy consultant, Bethesda, MD
Set an alarm for 25-minute work intervals
“To stay healthy and productive when working from home, I schedule breaks into my workday by setting an alarm for 25 minutes any time I get in front of my computer. I focus on work for those 25 minute and ignore other distractions. When the alarm goes off, I get up and take a break to stretch, move, reset my posture, and check my phone before getting back to work.”
—Megan Nolan, yoga instructor and personal trainer, Maui, HI
Schedule at least one call or meeting
“I tend to be extremely productive on the days I work remotely, but that being said, it can come with a feeling of isolation. I make sure that I have at least one call or meeting scheduled for the days I work remotely, and have conversations on G-chat so the workflow can progress at an appropriate rate. Taking these steps allows me to stay focused and feel connected to my team.”
—Kaleen Skersies, real estate development, Seattle, WA
7. Take a gym break.
Scheduling a sweat session into your workday is a good idea as long as you plan it right.
“Your physical health is more at risk than you realize when working from home,” Vandendriesse says. “Even those who sit in an office cubicle still tend to walk a mile or so throughout the day, to their car, out to lunch, and so on. I’ve found that signing up for certain fitness classes makes it much easier to stick to a schedule, as the classes begin at a set time. This is much harder to procrastinate or flake on, as opposed to loosely visiting the gym to go on the treadmill.”
Plus, taking an exercise break provides a brain boost. Instead of reaching for a cup of coffee, a workout can get those endorphins flowing and deliver a natural burst of energy.
8. Automate as much as you can.
Technology makes a great administrative assistant! “Schedule alerts for important tasks and appointments, build email rules to filter out unimportant messages during business hours, use software that finds mistakes in your code or content for you, set up customer automatic billing, pre-schedule emails and social media posts, and use different ringtones for different people so you know when you don’t have to answer your phone,” Williams suggests.
9. Find your focus zone.
“After running my startup for over eight years, I’ve tried working from just about everywhere in New York City: a handful of co-working spaces, a members-only club called The Soho House, coffee shops, and even sometimes at a bar,” Cheek says. “The place I’ve found I have the most focus is at home at my kitchen table. As soon as I settle in, I organize my workspace — having a clean workspace helps me focus and feel structured. Next, I settle in with a cup of coffee and try to relax for 15 minutes before diving into the grind. Then, I prioritize my day’s to-do list and map out the rest of my day. I find a great Spotify channel, put on imaginary blinders, and buckle down for hours on end.”
“I also save so much time in the day working from home because I never have to get ready, commute, and leave for coffee or lunch because they’re always at arm’s reach. There’s always reliable WiFi, and no one is around to distract me.”
The Focus Toolkit
Here’s a toolbox full of resources that will help you do it successfully.
Distractions are infinitely easier to deal with if you remove them in advance. I highly recommend using a distraction blocker to do so, especially if your work requires using an internet-connected computer.
- Freedom – this is the distraction blocker that I use personally. It blocks websites and apps on my computer perfectly. I can either start a timed focus session (my go-to) or set up pre-scheduled blocks during each day. I also recommend their Pause extension, which forces you to wait a few seconds before accessing a distracting website (even if you’re not running a block session on Freedom).
- Cold Turkey – another full-featured website and distraction blocker.
- SelfControl – free, Mac OS-only
- FocalFilter – free, Windows-only.
Your brain will resist a task less when you commit to working for a specific, doable amount of time. A focus timer can help with this. In addition to tracking the time you’re working, it also provides you with an external commitment device. Compared to simply committing to “working for 25 minutes” mentally, using a timer is much more effective at keeping you on task. Here are a few tools you can use for this purpose.
- Be Focused – the timer app I typically use these days. It lives in my Mac toolbar, and it doesn’t require my phone or the internet. This lets me disconnect the internet if needed, and to keep my phone in another room while I’m working.
- Tomato Timer – free, online focus timer.
- Tide – my favorite mobile focus timer app. Also helps with meditation and sleep, and includes lots of ambient soundscapes. There’s also a Chrome extension.
Music and Sounds for Focused Work
Sometimes I work in silence; for instance, I don’t listen to anything when I read in the mornings. At other times, however, I like to listen to something while I work. This is especially true if I’m in a noisy environment – in which case I’ll also be using my noise-cancelling headphones (here’s a cheaper alternative – both affiliate links). Here are a few resources for finding great work music and sounds.
- Sunday Study – my Spotify playlist, chock-full of carefully chosen tracks for focused work. Also available on Apple Music.
- The Ultimate Study Music Playlist – the YouTube version of my study playlist
- Brain.fm – music specifically designed for focused work. I’m listening to one of their Focus mixes as I type this.
- Ambient-Mixer – tons of user-created ambient mixes, such as Ravenclaw Common Room.
- Noisli – a tool that lets you build your own mixes of ambient sounds. Also includes a built-in focus timer and a distraction-free text editor.
Accountability and Commitment Devices
If you find that you’re unable to work to your full potential through sheer self-discipline, give one of these tools a try.
- Beeminder – a “hard” commitment device, meaning there’s an actual consequence for failure. Beeminder tracks your goals in multiple ways, and with lots of integrations – including Zapier and IFTTT, which enable basically anything to be tracked. If you fail them, you get charged real money. Each failure ups the amount of money you’ll lose.
- stickK – works in a similar way to Beeminder, but it’s a bit less driven by hard data and app integrations. However, it does offer additional forms of accountability; when you set up a goal, you can set someone as your coach. Once done, that person will get email updates about your progress – or lack thereof.
- Habitica – one of my habit trackers you’ll find out here in these wild interwebs. This one is my favorite, as it turns habit tracking into a video game. You can even party up with other players and go on quests. When you’re on a quest, failing to do your habits will cause not only you to take damage, but your party members as well
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10. Know when to clock out.
“The most common mistake is thinking that by working at home you have more time to work and better work-life balance,” Williams says. “Work is work, regardless of where you do and how much you love it. It needs to get done. And, you also need a personal life. When you don’t actually have a physical barrier between the two, such as a geographical distance between your office and home, it can be easy to work lots of hours, leaving less downtime for family and friends.”
It can be tempting to squeeze in something after dinner or on a Sunday afternoon, but when it feels like you’re working all the time, that can quickly lead to burnout. That’s why you should stick to a predetermined set of work hours and maximize your workdays so that you can enjoy your time off and feel refreshed and ready to clock back in on Monday morning.
“Creating a ritual that separates your workday from your off time can be an important distinction between the two,” Fasciola says. “I like to wash my hands and face as soon as I walk out of my office. Psychologists say this simple act serves as a powerful metaphor of ‘cleaning the slate’ and helps us mentally wipe away doubts and misgivings.”
11. Make human contact.
It’s natural to miss the watercooler chatter that’s typical for a regular workplace. Working alone from home can leave you feeling a bit lonely.
“Make sure you schedule social time during the day,” LeMunyan says. “Reaching out to at least one to three people a day will help you feel connected in an otherwise isolated environment.”
12. Enjoy breaks.
Figuring out when to take a break and for how long can be tricky. If you take too many, it can feel like you’re getting off track, but too few can actually be counterproductive, since you may be exhausted mid-way through your day.
One that everyone should be taking? A lunch break.
You might think it’s more productive to chow down on your sandwich in front of your computer to plow through more work, but taking a proper lunch break, especially when you work from home, is crucial. It’s not just about fueling up with food — your brain needs a break, too. And studies have shown that when you’re more mindful during meals, you’ll enjoy them more and feel more satisfied.
“Sometimes working at home can be too comfortable,” Williams says. “It’s easy when working on a computer for a couple hours to feel like a couple minutes. This isn’t healthy. Breaks are important in order to stretch and get the blood circulating.”
It’s best to figure out what works for you and schedule breaks accordingly, but find a balance and let yourself take a moment when you need to.
“Sometimes you have to give in to your distractions,” Williams says. “If you start daydreaming and have to keep bringing yourself back to the task at hand, or your kids want your attention and you keep sending them away, it’s time for a break. Daydream a little — it may spark some creativity — and give your kids some attention. Don’t battle. In almost every case, you can spare a few minutes in exchange for greater focus. Breaks are also beneficial when you get stuck on a problem, such as code that isn’t working right, data that doesn’t seem to make sense or writing content that just isn’t flowing. Get up, hydrate, have a snack, play a quick game, and just think about something else for a few minutes. When you return to your desk you may see something that you didn’t see before.”
13. Get face time with your colleagues.
Even those who work from home solo still sometimes have a team, and interacting with them as much as possible is key.
“It’s important to be as communicative with them as you would be if you worked physically in an office together,” Vandendriesse says. “Give constant check-ins as to what you’re working on and what you’ve achieved. Without seeing you in person, it’s easy for others to form an opinion that you’re not doing much, when in reality you’re probably more organized and productive than you’ve ever been before. Give them transparency into your new, awesome work life.”
Stay connected to teammates
“Working from home can be lonely, and having no colleagues or teammates to talk to can be emotionally exhausting. I make an effort to sync up with the team every day on video calls or over the phone. The daily syncs and occasional jokes help me stay connected and not lose my mind. Talking regularly to other humans is important for our productivity!”
—Priyamvada S., founder and CEO, Amsterdam, Netherlands
14. Get the right tools for the job.
No matter how organized your day is or how comfy your home office is, nothing can make a bigger difference with productivity than having the right tools to do so. Just like having the right desk and high-speed Wi-Fi makes work go smoothly, so does choosing the right hosting package when you run your own website from home. DreamHost has options for every type of site to make that part of your job as seamless as possible
15. Have a long-term plan.
Ticking items off your to-do list is a major component of working from home, but you have to think big picture too. When you work solo and from home, it’s easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day, but you should always have your overall business plan in mind.
General Focus Tips
Here are a few quick tips, which come from my many years of research and experimentation with productivity:
- Set a strong intention before you sit down to work. I recommend starting your day by writing out a small number (no more than three) of meaningful tasks you intend to accomplish.
- Put your phone in another room, and turn on Do Not Disturb. Seriously.
- If you catch yourself in a distraction loop, use a timer to get back to work. Setting an actual timer is very, very helpful.
- Take care of as many potential distractions as you can in advance. It’s infinitely easier to deal with distractions before they actually start tempting you.
There aren’t more resources here. Stop indulging in productivity porn and get to work.
Do you have a go-to tip that helps you focus when working from home? Share it with us in the comments!
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