How to tame the Dragon of Distractibility!
Many of us have been working from home, in full or in part, for several weeks. Adjusting to and managing well our new work-from-home lifestyle can be a daunting task to say the least. I of course immediately mastered this on day one, while simultaneously adjusting to my new promotions to roles of middle-school teacher, housecleaner, short-order cook, juvenile probation officer, creative-arts activity director, laundromat attendant, wildlife camp counselor, and AA sponsor (I’m sponsoring myself).
In full candor I am NOT mastering anything right now. While this has been a difficult transition for almost all of us, there are things we can do to improve our focus, productivity, engagement and overall happiness. This applies to many of us now within stay-at-home situations, but also applies as we all begin the transition back into more normal work arrangements.
1. Identify your 3 big daily goals at the outset of each day.
What are the three biggest priorities for the day? Ensure they are a cross between a) what is important and b) what can get done. Then focus on those as best you can, yet also realize you might get pulled off of these goals. They are aspirational, not required.
2. Seek and establish a work “partner” to help maintain accountability.
This partner connects with you at regular intervals (daily, weekly, etc.) to ensure that you both are staying focused on identified top priorities. Knowing that someone is checking on us helps keep us focused on outcomes. This is precisely why workout partners and personal trainers show better physical health outcomes versus self-directed workout regimens.
3. Create a clear workspace and behavioral transitions from Work to Non-Work.
Pick an “office space” and use a startup ritual or process (see below) that sets the tone for the day. Don’t have a designated home office? Turn your dining or kitchen table into your “office”, and then don’t use it for any other purpose while you’re working from home. That is your workspace, and the rest of your home is your non-work space.
I am fortunate to have a home office, but I still get dressed every morning as if I’m going into an external office location with casual dress jeans and a button-down shirt. On days I want to be more casual, I have a black t-shirt that I wear (I know what you’re thinking, but no it’s not a Steve Jobs thing). I literally have 3 of the same dress jeans, and 5 of the same black t-shirts – this is my casual work-from-home uniform. It simplifies my choices at the outset of the day, and it’s comfortable. It becomes my “uniform” and primes my mind for work mode. At the end of my workday, I make it a point to change into other clothes. Thus even my dress marks a clear transition from work to non-work.
4. Limit unnecessary distractions.
Unnecessary distractions are any and all distractions that are not critical to you completing your 3 big daily goals. For me social media is a big distraction. It’s not critical to my daily work but is still important to track occasionally, so I schedule small blocks of time every two hours to “check in” to these portals. I check in for 5 minutes, then check out and get back to my focused priorities for the day. Identify your distractions, and then curb them.
5. Employ daily start-up and shut-down rituals.
Identify a daily startup “ritual”, and then use that as your mental-emotional-physical cue to begin your day. Productivity guru Michael Hyatt describes this akin to a pre-game ritual of top performing athletes,
“The first ritual is the morning ritual. Years ago, I observed that a lot of professional athletes had some kind of ritual they got involved in that would set them up for a game-winning situation, whether it was the things they did right before the game or the things they did in the locker room or the things they did right before, like when the quarterback would take the hike. A certain ritual, a certain set of predetermined actions that set them up to win.” (www.michaelhyatt.com/podcast-four-rituals).
As in sports, setting up a morning work ritual primes us for success. It can be as simple as drinking a large glass of water, taking vitamins, making coffee, and reading at least one news article. Then at the end of the day, do the same to “close down” your day, and mark a clear transition into your non-work or post-work part of the day. At end of day I do a cursory check of emails that came in that day, I move over any critical tasks to tomorrow that I did not complete today and do a quick mental check of my calendar for tomorrow.
These rituals must be customized to your preferences and realities, what works for you given your unique circumstances. Also be mindful that while working from home, with kids or others in the house needing caretaking, your “ideal” morning ritual may have to take a back seat to your “feasible” morning ritual.
6. Share your availability with others in the home.
Share with others your daily schedule and have a method of signaling them when you’re busy and when you can be interrupted. I not only share my daily calendar and routine on the refrigerator for my wife and two children (ages 9 and 12) to see, but I also have an easy signaling system. If my door is open, they can interrupt me. If it is closed, I have a red and a green rainbow loom bracelet (made by my daughter) – red bracelet on the doorknob means “stay away”, green bracelet means “come on in”. Any number of signaling methods can work just as well.
7. Schedule in or take regular work breaks.
When we’re in the office, we have many distractions that allow mini-breaks – using the restroom, the water cooler, and passing a coworker’s cubicle where a brief conversation occurs. These don’t occur organically at home, so we need to work them in ourselves. Take frequent breaks. Try 5 minutes every half hour, or 10 minutes every hour. Most productivity gurus recommend pausing on average 10 minutes per hour. There are some nice smartphone apps that can assist with productivity focus by timing your work session and cueing you to take a break (such as the app VitaminR as just one example). To the extent possible, take your breaks outside your workspace – go sit in another room, change floors of your home, go outside for a walk, or any other change to mix up your scenario and provide a sense of momentarily getting away.
These are just a few suggestions to help maintain focus, yet they work very well when applied consistently and adapted to your work environment and circumstances. They also have the benefit of increasing the chance you’ll move more easily into a smooth productivity flow as you navigate your day.