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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.