How to stay focused when you work from home

When I was in grade school, I would often daydream. I’d stare out the classroom window and imagine myself running through the sprinklers or going to the beach. Sometimes, my teacher would tap me on the shoulder or call my name (loudly) to get my attention. When I became part of the workforce, I didn’t daydream as much, but there were certainly times when I found it difficult to stay focused while at work.

Now that I primarily work from home, I’ve discovered that while I can be very productive and get things done, my energies can sometimes be directed at the things I shouldn’t be doing. Unwashed laundry can be distracting to me. Dirty dishes in the sink and a carpet that needs vacuuming also can cause my mind to wander. It may be hard to imagine I’d rather clean than do work-work, but chores are things I actually enjoy doing.

So, to help keep my attention where it needs to be, I follow these simple steps:

  1. As much as possible, take care of distractions before working. Since I have the need to clean, I make sure I do it each night before bed. The dishes are washed, the pillows on the sofa are fluffed, all the chairs are pushed under the dining table, everything is put back where it belongs, and the counters are cleared before I go to bed so I won’t think about them the next day while working. If you are distracted by disorder or something that can be completed ahead of time, take care of these items each night before heading to bed.
  2. Work at your best time. I’m a rock star in the morning hours. I often say that I can solve the world’s problems at 6 a.m. While this is an exaggeration, I know that I’m most productive in the early hours of the day. Knowing when you are most productive and clear-headed can go a long way in helping you to focus on your work. For a couple weeks, track what you do over the course of the day and when you get the most stuff done. Then, structure your schedule so you can do the work that requires the greatest amount of focus during the times when you are at your best.
  3. Work at a table or desk. To ensure that I continue working productively over the course of the work day, I need to sit at an organized desk (or table) and in a sturdy chair. My brain equates these two things with work. If I sit on the sofa, I can still get things done, but it’s too comfortalbe and too close to the television (which can be a bright, shiny, HUGE distraction). Work in a place that feels like you should be doing work there.
  4. Keep your to-do list visible. My to-do list is my map for the day. It tells me what to do and when to do it. And, each time I cross something off my list, I’m motivated to keep working. If I don’t have my list in front of me, it would be very easy to start working on something that’s not a priority. It’s a good idea to start each day by reviewing your to-do list or creating one so you start your day with a clear understanding of where you’re going.
  5. Add deadlines to your task list. I’m deadline driven. Without deadlines, I meander in my thoughts and actions. I get a thrill from turning in a project on time and this feeling intensifies when I deliver ahead of schedule. When I begin working on a task or project, I keep due dates at the top of mind by writing them on my to do list. You can also use a calendar, a stop watch, or any other device that will help you to reach goals by specific times.
  6. Keep email notifications turned off. My emails are filtered through Outlook and for a very long time, I used to keep the audible and visual notifications active. This became too distracting as I would often stop to read my messages whenever the little red “new mail” indicator would appear. Since email comes in at random times, it was virtually impossible to work during any time block without interruptions. Now, I check e-mail when on a schedule or whenever I take a break. I know not every job allows for this, but if yours does, turn that notification off when you need to focus.
  7. Have water and healthful snacks close by. The downside of being productive for me is that I forget to eat. To avoid this, I keep a bottle of water and select a few brain-fueling snacks at the start of the workday to nosh on instead of going hungry. Other folks who work from home often find that having an entire pantry of food nearby results in them constantly snacking on whatever is in the house. If this sounds like you, selecting your snacks at the start of the day will keep you from taking excessive breaks to the kitchen.
  8. Take breaks and stretch. When I come back from a quick break, I find that I’m able to think more clearly and sustain my productivity. I pause several times throughout the day, and I also stretch or do a few yoga poses (like standing forward bend). This helps me re-set my mind and body and gets me ready to sit through another working time block. At least once an hour you should move a little to keep you at your best.

Working at home has many rewards but is not without challenges. By thinking through (and testing) the steps that complement your personality and work style, you can create a system that lets you face your challenges, push distractions aside, and maintain focus on important tasks. Those of you who telecommute full time, part time, or even occasionally, what would you add to this list? Share your suggestions in the comments.

27 Comments for “How to stay focused when you work from home”

  1. posted by Katie on

    Great advice! Thanks for sharing!

  2. posted by Another Deb on

    I particularly like #4 about keeping the To-Do list in sight. Right now I am on break from teaching. The mental list I have been keeping for months seems to evaporate in the face of all this unstructured time. However, under the clear blotter mat, I have a list with four of the big goals for the summer and three of them are done!

    I am also very aware of the body clock for my mental efforts. I tend to stay up late with my DH, who is a noght owl, but am at my mental best for that 6-9 AM slot. So, some days I do get up that early and can not only get the desk work going, but start laundry and do several tasks in the cooler part of the day. If I wait until evening to do some of my desk work, I run up against the need to make an appointment or a call, but realize that it is after business hours.

  3. posted by Mike on

    Unfortunately, I have learned through extensive trial and error that attempting to work at home in the presence of spouse and children is a futile endeavor. Even a mindful spouse and well-behaved children will relentlessly, constantly intrude. It’s almost like they’re incapable of not doing so. It’s so pervasive that even when they’re not intruding, your mind trains itself to hold back on any really complex, meaningful work because of the inevitability of intrusion and how difficult it will be to reorient and resume afterward.
    Back when I was single, working at home was easy and the distractions minimal. It’s when you add other human beings to the equation that things go all sideways on ya. ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. posted by E. on

    This isn’t as easy as I thought it would be! Yes, I dress casually and my schedule is basically my own. But this place is far from distraction free. I have a six year old who is home for the summer (no day camp; we tried and he hated it; husband works from home, too). My little guy is actually pretty darn good about entertaining himself when we need him to but sometimes he just talks and talks and talks and talks, largely to me, and I feel so guilty because I am only half-listening (“Uh huh. Yes. That’s great, sweet pea.”). I gently explain that I am working and that we can play later, but still…the whole scene is distracting. I often go to a coffee shop, which is fine. But then I feel guilty (which is nuts…I didn’t feel guilty when I had a job where I worked outside the house!).

  5. posted by danielle on

    I only work from home occasionally, but one thing that I know really helps me is to get up, shower, and get ready for the day as if I were going out of the house. It not only helps wake me up but also avoids embarrassing incidents of answering the door in my pajamas (done it). I’m also able to run errands on my “lunch hour” if I feel like taking a break.

  6. posted by Karyn on

    My “paycheck job” is away from home, but my “heart” job is writing. I find the normal chores of daily living, including preparing healthy meals, can eat up my free time if I’m not careful. Uncluttering one’s space and life can really help towards clearing these kinds of distractions, as does looking for ways to simplify the “daily living” stuff. For example, I try to aim for quick-and-healthy, rather than epic-chef-creation-and-healthy, in my meals. I also find it helpful to spend the few bucks now and then to take a stack of papers (yes, I still use paper for some things, LOL) with me to the local coffeehouse, where there are no distractions other than the scenery and passing pedestrians. ๐Ÿ™‚ If I ever get a portable computer, or even a Kindle Fire on which I can use Evernote, I may eventually make local coffeehouses my “home office”!

  7. posted by Karyn on

    Also, what Danielle said about showering and dressing ASAP = totally agree. ๐Ÿ˜€

  8. posted by priest's wife (@byzcathwife) on

    I didn’t think about adding deadlines to my to-do list- love this!

  9. posted by ToolMonks on

    Great advice. I like the note of having snacks and water nearby. It’s easy to distract yourself with trips for food and water!

  10. posted by [email protected] on

    I’m having a really hard time with this. My “job” is my blog but because it’s not profitable yet, it’s hard to justify all the time spent on it. But in order to make it profitable, I have to spend a lot of time.

    I have an extra room upstairs that I’ve thought about turning into my blog office. I’m not sure if that would be a good thing or if it would drive me crazy to be up there and away from the action.

    By the way, it’s just me, the dog and the cat at home so I really don’t have any excuse. My biggest distraction is ME!

    I’m trying something new this week and that’s setting the timer. I work a while then go do house stuff. Then back to work for a set amount of time, then back to house stuff. Since my blog is about homemaking, I do need to do homemaking in order to get ideas for articles.

    But working at home is definitely a LOT harder than I expected it to be.

  11. posted by Melinda on

    When working from home around my kids and spouse, I let everyone know Mommy has her ear plugs in (35 decibel firing range grade ear plugs). Can I still hear them if they yell or come right next to me? yes. Can I mostly hear my own heartbeat reminding me to keep going? YES! This was a little weird at first, but it allows me to do a lot of focused work, but stay physically near the fam.

  12. posted by Ry on

    I’m a writer who has a paycheque job. I don’t know how well this would work for others, but I find that when I sit down to write, I have a lot of trouble staying off the Internet. I draft most of my work in notebooks, but when I sit down to type everything up, I end up spending hours browsing instead of getting the draft done. Luckily there is a stupid simple solution that I’d love to share with you. I can’t believe it took me so long to figure it out.

    Depending on whether you have a Mac or PC, go to your account settings. Make a new user account. Set blocks for the Internet, games and whatever other distractions you usually have. Allow all the programs and documents that you need to get stuff done – Word, task lists, Excel, whatever. Then, when you turn on your computer in the morning, you will have two accounts – the one you use for fun, and the one you use for work. Then it’s just a matter of disciplining yourself to click that second account and get to it!

    Enjoy. ๐Ÿ™‚ And check out my blog, Solinitae, for other nifty tips and tricks! Thanks to Unclutterer for being such an excellent resource. Cheers!

  13. posted by Zen friend on

    Thanks so much, Erin, for this practical (and teacher-timely) post.

    After a week of accomplishing very little, I saw little alternative to commuting (half an hour round trip) to the closest coffeehouse daily, spending money I couldn’t really spare.

    Maybe there is a better way. (Sitting at a desk in another room, not lying on the sofa? What a concept!)

  14. posted by Jodi on

    Any advice for someone who can’t seem to follow self-imposed deadlines?

    My most productive time to work is when I’m feeling the pressure to meet a deadline. Something about the pressure jump-starts my creative juices. Unfortunately, I never hit “pressure” when there’s still enough time to put the finishing touches on my work, so the quality of my work suffers. However, I have the same lack-of-quality problem not working under pressure).

    I’ve tried self-imposed deadlines, but since I know the REAL deadline isn’t the same as the self-imposed deadline, that never create the pressure I seem to need to be productive.

    It’s not pure procrastination (although there is sometimes an element of that). There have been times I’ve needed to draft a document for something, and I’ll spend hours and hours working on it and never liking what I come up with, then ten minutes before it needs done, I start from scratch and get something that is a better quality than what I had spent hours working on (although it’s still not the best quality I’m reasonably capable of).

    Anyone else have this “need pressure to work” problem? It’s not good for my stress levels (or sleep levels) but I’ve been unable to find a way to jump-start my creative juices without being pushed up against that deadline.

  15. posted by Swapna on

    Hi Erin,

    Thank you for such practical and good advice/ article. I have a question for you – I migrated year back to Australia and am located in small town. I WFH too but it can get extremely lonely when you do not have option of going in regular office with people around. Also having no family or friends around makes it more difficult to have ‘human contact’. Sometimes days go by without me really talking to anyone in person except for my husband. I have regular video/ audio calls with my colleagues and with my family/ friends abroad but this situation is difficult to deal with on everyday basis. Unlike USA, coffee shops in AU don’t have wifi connection and internet in local library is not that great either. Do you have any tips, advice or some practical solutions to deal with this?

    I would really appreciate your response.

    Thanks again for this wonderful blog and your work.

  16. posted by eva on

    @Swapna: I am in a very similar situation to yours (I live in a small country and in the countryside, and my only family is my husband). It can get very lonely. Having pets is very important for me (the dogs force me to get outside every day during light hours and the cats are companions even if they are just sleeping next to where I sit), and in recent years Facebook has also become an important community, especially because a lot of my most active Fb friends share my profession, so they are colleagues in a way. Of course Fb time has to be limited or it will encroach on productivity. I also try to have hobbies that take me out into the outside world: art/craft evening classes and exercise classes at the gym. They (art/craft/fitness) are things I could perfectly well do at home, but it’s nice to get out sometimes. And it’s important for me that they are not work-related. That way, my time alone at home can be super productive, without distractions from colleagues (remember what a great thing that can be!), and then I can socialise at other times (which, being self-employed, doesn’t have to be in the evening – what a bonus!).

    Good luck!

  17. posted by Louisa on

    I don’t call household duties “distractions.” I like the back-and-forth rhythm of working, then taking a break, to, say, wash dishes or hang clothes on the line. I’m a training consultant, and the work I do in my home office is administrative– developing materials and corresponding with clients– in other words, deskwork. Breaking up the deskwork with other activities loosens the mental soil and helps me get creative ideas. A side benefit is I’m more mobile and active. Research shows that many people spend way too much time sitting, and that even if you exercise regularly, it’s healthier to sit less.

  18. posted by [email protected] on

    This is quite interesting as I have kind of the opposite problem. I’ve worked from home for about 7-years, and find it hard to concentrate in an office environment when I have to. Also chores never distract me, in fact I can become so focused on what I am doing I can forget to do things like putting the dinner on etc… because after all being able to fit home-life around work is the beauty of it, that a load of laundry can be washing away whilst you type!

  19. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Swapna and others — This helpful post was written by the insightful Deb. I’ll have her check out the comments and report back!

  20. posted by Deb Lee on

    @Jodi: It sounds like there are times when you work well under pressure and other times when instead of being motivated, you’re feeling stressed. Try working when you’re most alert and consider giving yourself mini-rewards when you meet your deadlines. If you have something to look forward to, that may be motivating enough for you to get it done. Also, procrastination and perfectionism tend to go hand in hand. We delay doing something because we’re waiting for the right moment, usually when we have lots of time, to make it perfect. I sometimes struggle with that, so I remind myself that I’m striving for excellence, not perfection.

    @Swapna: You may want to build in breaks where you go outside and have the opportunity to interact with others. Think about taking your scheduled breaks at a nearby park, run an errand (like going to the bank, dry cleaners, or market), or go to the coffee shop anyway. Since it’s your break time, you wouldn’t have to be working. You might have neighbors who are in a similar situation who would welcome a regular get together as well.

  21. posted by Dora on

    Iโ€™m working from home, writing my PhD thesis. Working at home has never been a problem, I actually concentrate better. To me, the lack of a pressuring external deadline is the worstโ€ฆ

    Here are some strategies I apply:
    – I generally work in 40 minutes blocks, separated by 15 minutes breaks. I need these frequent breaks because I have a lot of psychological resistance towards my PhD work! While Iโ€™m working I do my best to not get distracted. If, for example, I remember something fun I really want to do, I write it down, and then I do it during one of my breaks.
    – After two or three 40 minutes blocks of working time I give myself a bigger break โ€“ it could be watching an episode of a favorite tv show, exercising, dinner with my boyfriend, decluttering, etc.
    – I work in the afternoon and in the evening, and I try to regard these working periods as โ€˜sacredโ€™ โ€“ which means I wonโ€™t schedule other time consuming stuff during this time unless it is very important and thereโ€™s no other alternative.
    – I register the number of hours I work each day, and, in the end of the week I sum it all up. This way I can better assess my working week. Then, if necessary, I define strategies to do better next week.
    – I also have a sewing hobby, which is almost therapeutic and helps me relax. I generally sew when my daily work is completed.

  22. posted by Aviva Goldfarb on

    Such great advice for working at home! The to do list is so key to keeping myself focused. Funny, I never, ever forget to eat. I also drink a lot of tea and a little coffee, so that keeps me getting up and stretching my legs fairly often (you can guess why). If I feel really foggy headed sometimes I’ll do 20 jumping jack to wake up my brain.

  23. posted by Karen (Scotland) on

    Ry, that is superb advice – I may do that for myself. I already did it for my eldest child – youtube is blocked on his regular account but he can log in to the “youtube” account for a limited time per day (he could watch lego clips all day – they are high entertainment to his seven year old brain.)

    It didn’t occur to me to police my own frivolous faffing but I think I’ll set this up.

  24. posted by Swapna on

    @ Erin: Thank you ๐Ÿ™‚

    @Deb: Thanks for your comments and suggestions, I am working on that!

    @Eva: Thank you ๐Ÿ™‚ I totally agree with you about limiting FB time and its kind of getting too ‘superficial’ and boring for me anyway! I would love to join art/ fitness classes too but those classes tend to be much more expensive in this small town. But I am definitely thinking of other options and trying to work on this in positive way. Good luck to you too and thanks again, appreciate it ๐Ÿ™‚

  25. posted by Rachel on

    I’m in a job that primarily involves writing, proof reading and editing contibutions from multiple people in to single cohesive documents. I usually work from home a least a day a week, if not more depending on the current client deadline.
    Like some of the other commenters, I find I work best if I get up and get dressed in the morning as if I was going to go to work (I will usually treat myself to wearing slippers and lighting the fire in winter).
    I set up my laptop at the dining room table, rather than at the desk in my study. The desk in the Study/Office is where I run a small sewing business from, and I associate that space with creating, and the one time I did work, work in there I was very distracted by my sewing machine.
    The TV stays off (at least until about 4:30pm), and I leave my ipad and personal phone in the next room. I can hear it ring, but won’t constantly be checking facebook and twitter.
    I agree with the original poster about the to do list. I have my work one with me, but I also have my personal one with the few house things I want to get done during the day, it might be loads of washing, watering herbs, telephone calls I need to make, or something to prep for dinner. I use the alarm function on my phone and every hour or so I’ll get up and spend 5-10mins doing an item from my personal to do list. I find this provides me with the mental break from the documents I’m reading, but still allows me to get a few things done around the house without feeling like I’m getting distracted from work. ๐Ÿ™‚

  26. posted by Bianca on

    Great article! I found it whilst browsing the internet instead of completing my tasks for today! I’ve promised myself that the minute i submit this comment it’s back to work ๐Ÿ™‚ The comment about getting showered and dressed would never work for me because i’ll use that to procrastinate. I am an early bird so the best way i work is to wake up and think of tasks to be completed or focus on an inspiration and without leaving bed even to wee, grab the computer and get going. For me, even moving to a desk in these creative early hours would also be opportunity to procrastinate:( However, i do find that when i work during the day or in the evening then being at the desk is much more productive.

    I also have similar issues to Jodi of spending hours and hours drafting below par (for me) work only to whip up the masterpiece 10 minutes before the deadline. I’ve started to embrace rather than loathe this trait. The hours spent actually help me figure out what i am dealing with and know the issues this way and that. The final quick write up is a reduction of all the facts and things i’ve been working on. My earlier drafts are always long winded and confusing.

    OK, back to work! Although i know that i’ll come back to this page to check if my post is up yet, re-read it 10 times (smiling and wincing at different parts) and checking if anyone comments on it!!! Ay me!

  27. posted by nicky hale on

    This is really helpful. I am slowly building towards working from home so I will be using your handy tips to help me focus. I am quite easily distracted at work and feel that working from home is definitely the way forward, plus I get to spend all day with my beloved dogs! Thanks for all your tips

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