“At times the whole world seems to be in conspiracy to importune you with emphatic trifles. Friend, client, child, sickness, fear, want, charity, all knock at once at thy closet door and say, — ‘Come out unto us.’ But keep thy state; come not into their confusion. The power men possess to annoy me I give them by a weak curiosity. No man can come near me but through my act.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson
With the current worldwide situation, almost everybody is confined at home with their family, and getting distracted is becoming even more of a problem than it usually is. Some of the standard solutions (like investing in a coworking space or hiring a babysitter) will not work during the pandemic.
Working at the office gives you a structure where you have a specific schedule, a clear understanding of your tasks (well, more or less), and you get no place to hide.
None of that is true at home.
You can work whenever you want, for as much or as little as you want. It’s up to you to organize your schedule and tasks. If you decide to watch TV all day instead, there will be no one looking over your shoulder.
There are also distractions from significant others, housemates, pets — and most importantly, children.
In Buffer’s annual report on the state of remote work (Buffer 2019), 10% of respondents said that getting distracted was their biggest struggle when working from home. I believe that if the survey was conducted at this moment, the percentage would be much higher.
But distraction is a struggle everyone can overcome. Here are some thoughts that could help you get better at focusing when you’re working from home.
#1. You can decide how to respond to distractions.
When you start planning your day, you might say: “I am going to work from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. with absolutely zero distractions.”
Or maybe you’ll schedule a break from noon to 1 p.m., with the understanding that that’s the only time you’ll stop thinking about work.
The plan sounds solid. Here’s what usually happens in reality.
As soon as you get a little distracted or you fall behind on your perfectly planned schedule, your day goes completely off the rails. The next thing you know, you’ve lost hours on social media, you’re texting your friends or checking the news. You fall into a downward spiral and can’t get back on track.
What the Hell
Welcome to one of the biggest threats to your willpower — the “what-the-hell effect.”
It’s just like when you’re on a diet. Things are going great for a while, and then you slip up and eat a piece of cake. Maybe it’s a special occasion or it’s just the mood you’re in.
But once you eat one piece, you’re tempted to give in and say, “Well, there goes my diet for the day! So what the hell, I might as well eat the rest of this pizza and this box of cookies.”
The what-the-hell effect is where you lose a great deal of time and motivation.
Much like in the case of dieting, you may feel a sense of shame around getting distracted. But this isn’t useful and it won’t motivate you to work harder.
Instead, you should take a more flexible approach. Accept that you’re going to get distracted, the same as everyone else does.
A brief distraction doesn’t mean your entire workday is ruined. You still have plenty of work to do. And if you build a buffer zone into your schedule, you won’t even fall behind on your projects.
#2. You deserve (and need) a distraction buffer.
Instead of scheduling your day(s) down to the minute and leaving no room for error, make sure to leave a couple of hours here and there so that you can catch up when you do get off-track.
You’re working from home, so you’re in charge of your own schedule for the most part. Use that to your advantage.
With a flexible daily schedule, it’s easier to keep working after you get distracted.
But you will also feel an increased sense of control over your life. If you acknowledge that distractions happen and you’re able to make up for the lost time, you’ll feel far less stressed. Remember that stress fuels procrastination, and that’s why those unproductive spirals happen in the first place.
#3. You can still optimize your workspace.
Another source of stress and annoyance is when you want to focus but there’s something happening around you and you just can’t.
If the whole family’s home right now, you might find it hard to keep distractions away from your home office. But external distractions are something you can shut out at least partially. Once you get rid of them, it’ll be easier to stay mellow and keep your thoughts on track.
A few ways to make sure your workspace isn’t too distracting:
• Set up some simple rules
Do you share the house with kids? Make sure they treat your space as a sacred “Do Not Disturb” zone.
At my home, when my door is closed, it means nobody comes in unless it’s an emergency. If the door is open, they can come in and chat.
Find some rules that work for your family and stick to them.
• Lead by example
When everyone is stuck at home, respect for personal space is more important than ever. So make sure you practice what you preach — give everyone their privacy, and they will do the same for you.
• Remove any kind of clutter
If possible, remove any potential distractions from your home office: no TV, no games, no entertainment of any kind. Own your space, make it look “professional”.
• Only use your workspace for work.
If you treat your home office like an on-site workspace, it’ll be easier to maintain the barriers between work and life.
So, what do you do if you feel the sudden need to check out the news, read a chapter of a good book, or watch a youtube video?
Let yourself get distracted — but do it in a different part of the house. This will make it harder to say, “what the hell, just one more” once you’re done. After all, your office is waiting for you and it’s time to get back to work.
#4. Enjoy your distractions, then refocus twice as hard.
“All profound distraction opens certain doors. You have to allow yourself to be distracted when you are unable to concentrate.”
― Julio Cortázar
Sometimes it’s just better to just let things happen! Indulge in the pleasures of life.
If you feel like you’re losing focus or the will to power through your day, put on a timer for 30 minutes and go do something you love (play with your kids, walk the dog, prepare a lavish snack…)
But here’s the key. Once you have indulged in the distraction, go back to your computer, refocus, and work EVEN HARDER the rest of the day to make up for it.
There’s something really powerful about being able to trust yourself to buckle down and finish the work after a break.
Don’t miss out on the fun things that crop up from time to time — whether that’s a TV show you’re getting into, a friend you want to call, or an insanely beautiful day you just can’t pass up.
When you’re done, skip the shame and rationalizations. There’s no need to delay work further when you know you’ve got everything under control.
And always remember:
“Do not take life too seriously. You will never get out of it alive. “ — Elbert Hubbard