As many people around the world are isolating at home to help protect our communities, a new challenge arises on Monday. We have work to do but our minds may feel understandably distracted.
Whether you are an experienced work-from-home contractor trying to stay focused amidst the stress of breaking news updates, or an office employee suddenly faced with the challenge of concentrating in a home environment full of distractions, here are 9 different ways to boost your productivity today. Bonus tips are included for parents who will also have kids at home during school closures. *Note: this is not a list of methods to try all at once, but try two or three that interest you.
1. Work in a Designated, Decluttered Work Space
We polled experienced remote staff who replied that it is too easy to get distracted if they can see dirty dishes in the kitchen, laundry on the bedroom floor, or mail and papers cluttering the desk around you. Take 5-10 minutes to declutter your workspace, get the tools you need, and intentionally create a clean focus space. Ideally, this would not be in your bedroom to not blur the lines of workspace and rest space.
If you have a spouse, partner, or roommate also working from home, don’t make the mistake of trying to share an office. Productivity expert David Allen says “Don’t share space! It is imperative that you have your own workspace […] too many couples I’ve worked with have tried to work out of a single desk at home, and it always makes light-years of difference when they expand to two workstations.”
Where is a place in your home where you can minimize sights and sounds that can distract you from your important work at hand?
2. Use Focus Music to Boost Concentration
My favorite focus music is an app called Brain.FM or you can ask Alexa to “Play Study Music” or have a good long YouTube track open in the background. This usually works best with headphones to help you really feel in the zone.
3. Try the Pomodoro Method (aka Use a Timer and Scheduled Breaks)
The Pomodoro Technique was invented by author and consultant Francesco Cirillo. He wrote an entire book that basically advises breaking your work into 25-minute sessions, with a 5-minute break in between. Then repeat repeat repeat, until you have earned a longer break. It is helpful to break your work into manageable blocks, with the promise that you aren’t sprinting for hours on end. Many readers of The Pomodoro Technique claim to feel more relaxed and accomplished after a day using this timed method rather than diving in without a plan.
The word Pomodoro means “Tomato” in Italian. The author originally used a kitchen timer shaped like a tomato to complete his timed plan. Instead of buying a timer, this free app “Focus Keeper“ provides the same time structure.
4. Still Shower and Get Fully Dressed
One easy mistake new remote workers make is to think of working from home as a relaxing casual day. They roll out of bed and get to work in their pajamas and topknot, but this can inhibit you from fully transitioning to the focus of an actual workday. Being clean and fully dressed causes you to think and act more professionally, and be more alert and focused. Some even swear by putting on shoes to feel as if they are truly at the office.
Remember, even when we have the luxury or necessity of working from home, the point of working is to make money to support yourself and your family, especially in times of uncertainty. Physically get yourself together and put your best foot forward, it will show in your work.
5. Plan a Healthy Daily Schedule, Including Consistent Sleep and Fresh Air
It is easy to talk about maximizing productivity but at the same time forgetting that we are human beings that need to take care of ourselves first. We cannot perform our best if we do not feel our best.
A consistent sleep schedule helps you avoid fatigue and maintain your health. Decide what time you will go to bed and wake up consistently throughout the week.
Taking a break to get outside for some fresh air during the day, even a 10-minute walk around your neighborhood with no screens in sight will help you stay refreshed and avoid burn out, boredom, and fatigue.
Being kind to your body and mind will pay off.
6. Mindfully Take a Break From The News
As you sit down at your designated workspace, take a minute to collect your thoughts. Recognize that while the world might seem crazy right now, we need to focus on what is within our control this morning. It can be tempting to keep our phones nearby to check for breaking news updates and social media posts every 15 minutes. Remind yourself that the news will be there in 2 hours at the end of your focus session. If you don’t need to make calls on your mobile, consider placing it in the next room to minimize distractions. When you do take a break to check for updates, set a time limit for 10 minutes to avoid going down the internet rabbit hole.
7. Limit Coffee to Avoid the Caffeine Monkey Mind
In Buddhism, it is said that we have a “Monkey Mind”, with our attention divided in so many different directions that our minds jump from thought to thought like a monkey swinging from tree to tree. Intentionally calming and focusing the monkey mind makes you calmer and more efficient, yet it takes practice. One hindrance to calming that monkey is drinking too much caffeine. One or two cups throughout the morning can be a comforting routine, but much more than that can significantly decrease your focus. If you crave a pick-me-up in the afternoon, try substituting coffee with herbal peppermint tea or ice water with citrus.
8. Focus on one Next Action at a Time
If you are feeling paralyzed and overwhelmed given current work and life situations, try to break down your work into simple Next Actions. Rather than thinking “Gosh, I need to finish XYZ project today,” ask yourself “What is the very next action I need to do to move this project forward?” By breaking down larger tasks into bite-sized next actions and focusing on just one step at a time, you’ll get more done by the end of the day and feel better about your progress.
9. Enlist an Accountability Buddy
If you still feel like this sudden shift to working in a room by yourself is going to be difficult to stay on track, enlist a virtual coworker or friend to be your accountability buddy. Start the day by sharing your goals, plans, and timeline with each other, and check-in throughout the day with your progress.
If you don’t have someone who would be a good fit, you can even hire a coach or contractor to fill this accountability role. As a busy mom and business owner, I recently had a week where I needed some assistance focusing. I hired strategist Lucy Kelleher as an accountability partner to help me plan my next steps and keep me motivated to finish the project that same day. Find a person who can fill this role for you if you’re feeling stuck or overwhelmed.
Bonus Tips for Working Parents of School-Aged Children:
This 2020 Coronavirus event is an unprecedented experience for many of us. It is very easy to give advice with the proven tips above as if we live in an idyllic vacuum, but when real life hits and schools across the nation have been closed, working parents and homebound kids are suddenly forced to share time and space in a way that many of us have never had to face. I know thousands of parents are asking ourselves how we are possibly going to manage to keep our jobs and care for our children simultaneously. Here are a few ways you can help your kids feel calm and loved while still keeping up with work.
Be a Calm Example and Set Expectations of Working Together
For elementary-aged children and above, honesty and an attitude of teamwork can go a long way. Sit your children down at the beginning of the day and explain that we’ll be working together today. They will have some educational work to do, and you have some computer work to do. Possibly draft the day’s schedule together so they take active ownership of working together on this new experience. This may not be easy at first, with a bit more screen time added than desired, but this is an extraordinary circumstance that calls for extraordinary measures.
Play on the Floor for 10 Minutes per Hour
The original source is unknown, but I recall learning when my children were just toddlers that if a child receives even 10 minutes of direct play with their parent per hour, they are much better at self-regulating and independent play for the rest of the hour. This is real on-the-floor play. No distracted eyes looking at your phone, no chores disguised as together time, but honest to goodness on the floor, eye contact play between a parent and child. The Child Development Institute states that “Children crave time with parents. It makes them feel special. Parents are encouraged to find time to spend playing with their kids on a regular basis.” Especially in times of uncertainty when children may be overhearing strange news or information, this parental security is calming and critical.
If you are lucky enough to have a spouse or partner also working from home, consider taking shifts so that you can both get work done and alternately play with and supervise the children. Alternating 2-3 hour blocks throughout the day can make this more manageable for everyone. Also, make sure to take time to talk and connect as a couple in the evenings to provide emotional support throughout this trying time.
Don’t Expect to be Superman
It would be impossible to give 100% to your work while simultaneously giving 100% to your children at home and also making your health and sanity a priority. One response from our survey wisely stated, “We cannot be mother, wife, cleaner, laundry doer, playmate, and now homeschool teacher when we are working. So a family meeting with clear expectations is a good place to start. We need to go easy on ourselves too. We often do it all, but for the next 5-8 weeks, we cannot. And that’s OK.” – Carmen, Business Owner and Mother, San Diego, CA