Avoiding distraction when you work from home

Last updated on 
April 23, 2020

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Working from home is often heralded as the most productive work model going. Free of office noise and colleague interruptions, it seems to follow that your focus and performance will take a miraculous turn. More people are increasingly buying into this narrative, with 79% of a 2019 remote cohort citing “increased productivity/better focus” as a main reason for going remote.

But home working doesn’t make us immune to distraction, and our homes are not necessarily optimal workspaces. While we may have escaped some perennial distractions, remote working comes with its own unique set – the result of over-communication, a lack of clear structure, and the difficulties of mixing personal and private space.

Ultimately, remote workers still need to be vigilant with their attention. Here’s are just a few pointers on avoiding distraction when you work from home.

Working from home distractions

While the majority of research to-date has only investigated workplace distractions in a shared office setting, remote work distraction is very real. Here are some of the most common challenges you’ll encounter as a home worker:

Increased communication
Without the transparency and ease of in-person communication, remote teams tend towards over-communication. While exchanges may become more effective, there will be a ton of them – Slack pings, email notifications, and video calls being the biggest offenders. According to one study, remote workers actually have more meetings than office workers.
New digital noise
Moving all collaboration to shared virtual spaces itself comes with more digital noise. To keep their work visible, home workers effectively have to narrate their work into new digital tools. Collaboration also shifts to a multitude of in-app contextual messages, meaning you’ll get a lot of notifications from apps like Basecamp, Google Docs, Zeplin, Clubhouse, Dropbox and Jira on a daily basis.
An unfocused environment
Your home can lack both the privacy and psychological boundaries offered by purpose-built office space. If you’re sharing it with children – as millions in lockdown currently are – you’ll obviously have one immutable source of distraction; 27% of home workers reported child care to be a huge distraction in one recent survey. Being immediately accessible to family members, it’s easy for them to make entitlements, interrupt you and create noise.
Domestic temptations
Working in a space you are directly responsible for maintaining can have a weird impact on your attention. You may feel the pull of small chores like washing up, laundry and cleaning, and validate dropping your work to do them as “productive” small breaks. Then there’s taking deliveries, walking the dog, taking out the garbage… Working from a domestic space can be surprisingly diverting.
Lack of structure
As a home worker, you are completely responsible for how you organize your time. That flexibility can be extremely refreshing, but having a big mass of unstructured time on your hands quickly becomes overwhelming. Without properly managing your focus, you’ll likely get burned out or procrastinate in the place of taking quality, restorative breaks.
Existential angst
Right now, there’s a lot to think about other than work. In addition to global economic uncertainty and job insecurity, most people currently working from home in lockdown are worrying about relatives and their own health. With no definitive end to the present remote work experiment, it’s easy to feel anxious, stressed and overwhelmed – leading to distraction and disengagement from work itself.

9 tips for avoiding distraction

The confusion, tangents and potential stresses of working from home aren’t insurmountable – they just require you to introduce the right discipline, structure and boundaries. Here are just nine of the strategies our remote workers use to avoid distraction at work.

1. Set rules around communication

Contain daily communication by scheduling a times to check Slack and email – ideally once at the start and end of the day. Keep your contact time-boxed so you don’t get sucked in and schedule it for a “low productivity” point of your day. Try and keep communication as asynchronous as possible, so you can deal with new problems when it suits your schedule.

2. Block notifications

Pings, vibrations, desktop pushes, texts and chat app notifications are designed to capture your attention. Block notifications across your devices when you need to focus, and use your Slack status to signal when you’re not to be disturbed.

3. Know what you’re working towards

Keep the bigger picture achievable by breaking down your daily to-dos. Always have a rough plan for your week, including what you want to achieve. It’s good practice to sketch out tasks and priorities at the end of each work day so you’re ready to jump into the next.

4. Go hard on cyberloafing

The lure of internet browsing and social media is just as strong when you work from home. Set boundaries around your digital procrastination, using anti-distraction apps to limit how long you can spend on certain websites. Automatically tracking all your digital activity is also invaluable for understanding how you distract yourself.  

5. Publicly schedule time for deep work

Commit a 90-minute block of time each day for focusing deeply on a complex work problem. Scheduling your deep work sessions publicly in your calendar helps you stick to them and ensures no one can double book you for a meeting.

6. Batch and automate low-value tasks

Repetitive, menial tasks sap our attention while giving little return. Batch small, low-value tasks together to satisfy them all in one go. Make sure you automate as much of your essential admin as possible – inbox management, time sheet creation and minute taking can all be automated.

7. Schedule meetings for the end of the day

Hold meetings back-to-back at the end of the day to save them from interrupting your daily productive peak. Control when people can book you for meetings and outsource scheduling back-and-forth with the help of a smart meeting scheduler.

8. Create boundaries around your workspace

Choose a designated working space in your home (ideally in a separate room with a door), and ask family members to respect your space. Explain when you will and won’t be available, using a signalling system to let people know when you really can’t be interrupted. Find more tips for working from home with kids here.  

9. Make personal devices inaccessible

If you can’t turn your phone off, keep it face down or leave it in a separate room while you’re working. Fight the urge to check it by using a motivational focus app like Forest.

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