More people than ever are now working from home – and as many are discovering, it has its pitfalls as well as its perks. While it’s great to enjoy access to your own kitchen and wearing whatever you want, there are also new distractions to be found in the comfort of your home. Removed from your colleagues and managers, you’re also individually responsible for sustaining your own motivation – something that can be hard to master, at least initially.
Having worked remotely for six years before Coronavirus made it fashionable, here at Memory we’ve developed a few winning strategies for staying on-track. Here are just eight ways we stay focused when working from home.
1. Minimize digital distractions
When your entire work life exists in a virtual space, digital interruption becomes your biggest challenge to simply getting stuff done. While most people are aware of the lure of social media and web browsing, many don’t realize the disruptive potential of digital work tools themselves. Staying connected while working from home shouldn’t mean being constantly bombarded with Slack pings, email notifications or work app comments every 5 minutes. Nor should it mean dropping what you’re doing to reply to a message or serially refreshing your inbox.
Without boundaries, our digital tools can make it impossible to do any productive deep work and introduce stress, frustration and anxiety into our day. To stay protected, at Memory we use anti-distraction apps to minimize notification noise and stay present on what’s actually important.
Breaks help sustain productivity – but only if we take the right kind of break. Many of us “accidentally” spend 20 minutes scrolling social media or reading the news, and then decide to count it as a break. But it’s not a real break – a clear break. Clear breaks are intentional. They’re a chance to step away from your screen, seek meaningful human connection, and allow your brain to relax. Taking the wrong kind of break can risk introducing new stresses into your day, especially when they involve starting a task you can’t complete.
Thread clear deep breaks throughout your day, where you physically step away from your workspace. This can really be anything – making a drink or snack, going for a walk, listening to music, reading a short article or chapter, and doing 15 minutes of yoga all count. It’s all about giving your brain space to recharge without removing you from your flow.
3. Structure time for deep work
It isn’t enough just to minimize distractions; if you want to really get stuck into some productive deep work, you need to prioritize and create space for it. So plan in time for regular deep work sessions. This will heavily depend on your schedule and commitments, but ideally you should aim for at least three hours of uninterrupted deep work a day. Deep work sessions should be around 60-90 minutes long, allowing you to work on one complex problem or important piece of work.
You can gradually increase session lengths, to hone your ability to maintain your focus for longer stretches of time. Just make sure each session has a clear goal, so you know how well you performed at the end of it. This should be specific and easy to calculate – like writing 1,000 words – so you’re able to measure the quality of your deep work.
Monotony and routine can quickly kill your drive in any work situation, but when you work from home with no colleagues around, you can feel it even more keenly – as if you’re working in a vacuum. Luckily, there’s a simple way to manage this long-term: regularly inject fresh ideas and novelty into your day. A change or scene or habit acts like a mini refresher for your brain, and can help stimulate new thinking patterns.
This can be as simple as working from different locations in your home – e.g. sitting at the kitchen table to reply to emails, moving to a desk for deep work, and sitting on the sofa for video calls. It could also involve planning a different lunch break activity for each day – from baking or reading, to meditation or a walk. Scheduling in regular remote social activities can also support this, since bonding and staying connected are essential parts of the job.
5. Outsource low-value tasks
Few things sap your productive energy quite like menial “shallow tasks”. Almost everyone has them: they are the low-value, low-reward tasks that help keep our progress visible, accountable and organized. They require little cognitive effort and are usually easy to replicate – think replying to emails, invoicing, filling out forms, logging time sheets, updating task progress, arranging meetings and pulling reports.
Since shallow work is often linked to essential business admin, we can’t always remove it. But we can use smart tools to reduce the time and effort they require from us – often automating the majority of the slog. Here are just a few automatic solutions which dramatically reduce the time you spend on low-value tasks.
If you’re really struggling to stay focused, use a healthy time pressure to help you buckle down. Productivity timers are great for this – making you work against the clock to stay disciplined and on-task. They force us to be accountable for each minute that passes, and unwittingly help structure our day into manageable chunks of work and rest. Beyond simply forcing discipline, a good productivity timer can also provide insight into how you work, helping you refine and improve your processes to become more effective in the long-term.
We’ve already mentioned the importance of taking clear breaks, but on top of these it’s a good idea to take regular “microbreaks” throughout the day. These are quick breaks of around two minutes or so, just to stretch or get a glass of water, which according to science can help reboot your brain and allow you to do deeper work for longer. Never work for more than 90 minutes without a break; if you’re in a flow state, a quick microbreak won’t hurt it.
8. Sketch out tasks for tomorrow at the end of each day
When you’ve finished your last task of the day, resist the urge to pack up right away. Instead, take a few minutes to plan tomorrow’s work and sketch out a schedule for the day. That way you can prioritize what’s important while it’s still fresh in your mind, and the next morning can jump straight in, knowing what your daily goals are. It can also prepare you for any early-morning meetings you’d forgotten about, so you don’t get a rude awakening from your phone the next day, 10 minutes before the meeting is due to start. This small act has the added bonus of being a particularly effective “shutdown routine” – signalling the end of your working day and helping you psychologically transition into personal time.