Whether you’ve been working from home for years, or have only recently started remote working, here are five ways that you can improve your focus and beat distraction, particularly if you are forced to be productive in a less than optimal environment.
The recent rise in social-distancing measures means that many more people are working from home. Travel restrictions and event cancellations mean that even those of us who often work remotely, myself included, are working from home more than we usually do. I’m looking ahead to my most extended period without any travel for over 5 years. However, in locations where policies have closed schools (such as here in France), the home-office tranquillity is now under attack from a house full of kids, and even the demands to take on unforeseen home-schooling duties. Even without kids, working from home presents the opportunity for many more distractions relative to other remote working arrangements, such as setting up in a co-working space of café, for example.
While these challenges pale in comparison to the tragic fall-out of the Coronavirus pandemic, I’d like to share some of the ideas that I’ve found helpful to remain productive (and stay sane), when working remotely and more specifically, working from home.
I. Define your ‘one thing’
For the last five years, I’ve started most days with a similar routine. One of the most important parts of this routine is a single question I ask of myself, every morning (even on weekends). “What one thing must I accomplish today?” Fundamentally, I challenge myself to establish my number one priority for the day and set out to structure my day in service of that priority. My inspiration for this approach came from Gary Keller, who co-authored a book called ‘The One Thing’1.
When Keller was interviewed recently, on the Tim Ferriss Show, I was challenged to adjust my question with the following phrasing: “what’s the one thing I can do that’ll make everything else easier or unnecessary”. Asking this question each morning is a powerful way to bring clarity, focus and aid prioritisation, as well as establishing some momentum, by getting on with your ‘one thing’ first thing in the morning.
II. Be aware of the Zeigarnik effect
If you commit to doing one thing and finish it, what does that mean for the million and one other tasks you need to complete? The tendency to remember jobs which remain unfinished better than completed tasks is known as the ‘Zeigarnik effect’, named after the Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik2. While the success of attempts to replicate the Zeigarnik effect in experimental studies have proven mixed, it appears that the phenomenon has some credibility.
It appears that we may be able to leverage the Zeigarnik effect to our benefit during memorisation tasks. Deliberately interrupting ourselves when we are trying to learn something may encourage more repetition of the encoding and recall process, when we return from each interruption. This may strengthen memory formation.
However, if you are trying to focus on your ‘one thing’, the tendency for unfinished tasks to take precedence in your memory can be a source of distraction. My three top-tips to deal with this issue are:
- Take some time to write down your small or half-finished tasks on Sunday evening. I find that this process reduces the tendency for my mind to switch back to the memory of these unfinished jobs, and frees me to focus from the beginning of the working week.
- If possible, try to clear as many short unfinished tasks, such as replying to an e-mail, or paying a bill, at the end of each day. Personally, I find I am generally more distracted anyway, at the end of the day, so this is a good time for small tasks which don’t require too much concentration. This also has the benefit of ‘clearing the cognitive decks’, allowing me to focus more effectively on my one-thing, the next morning.
- Sometimes it can be helpful to spend a couple of hours just getting rid of the small unfinished tasks, even if this means sacrificing some focused time. Be aware that this process can sometimes be an excuse to avoid some challenging work, but other times it is an effective way to increase your ‘focus capacity’ for the work ahead. Even if there is less focussed time left, you may end up getting more done, if you have a ‘clear head’.
III. Protect your most productive hours
Our cognitive performance can vary by around 20% during the average day3. Our predisposition toward ‘morningness’ (feeling that we perform better in the morning), ‘eveningness’ (performing better later in the day), or getting the sense that we are somewhere in the middle, influences how this variation is expressed.
If you’re interested in getting a sense of how strongly you are biased towards morningness or eveningness, I’ve set up a free survey and report generator, based on the ‘Circadian Energy Scale’, which you can try out here.
In an ideal world, we would try to synchronise our most demanding tasks, and the time we needed to be most productive, with our peak period, each day. Working from home may be an opportunity for you to do this, as may be free to set your own schedule. If this is the case, I encourage you to go ahead and try that out. However, working from home can bring a wide range of distractions and competing demands which often accumulate over the course the day, and may prevent you from scheduling your time according to your preferred rhythm.
Consequently, regardless of your chronotype, I encourage you to block two hours, before midday each day, when you schedule your high focus productive work. This way, you maximise your chance to complete the high-priority work, whatever happens later, even if that means working outside of your natural peak period (for evening-types, for example). You may find this previous blog helpful if you’d like to learn more about chronotype and personal rhythms.
IV. Pomodoro your peak time
The Pomodoro technique is a time-management method from the 1980s. You can think of it as interval training for your brain. Work is divided into 25-minute blocks of focus (each called a Pomodoro), followed by a short break of around 5 minutes. After you have ‘stacked’ 3 or 4 blocks of 25-minutes of focus time, you can take a more extended break of 15-30 minutes. I encourage you to try to complete 4 ‘pomodoros’ during your 2 most productive hours, using the 8 steps below, before taking a more extended break.
- Create a note which includes four check-boxes, one for each Pomodoro. Visualise successfully completing all four blocks (success means an uninterrupted block).
- Define your task for each Pomodoro.
- Turn off all notification and alerts on your devices.
- Set a timer to 25 minutes.
- Focus on the first task for 25 minutes.
- At the end of the 25 minutes, put a check-mark in the box for the first Pomodoro (this small achievement should provide a little dopamine hit, and encourage repetition).
- Take a five-minute break.
- Repeat three more times, before taking a longer break (you can find some ideas for the most effective types of micro-break, here)
During your time working from home, you could try to gradually increase the length of each Pomodoro, as your ability to focus improves.
V. Don’t forget to move
Working from home can result in a significant increase in sedentary time. Even if you don’t usually use an active form of commuting, such as cycling or walking, the number of steps we can accumulate, just by getting to and walking around the office, can make a significant contribution to reducing sedentary time.
As described in this blog there seems to be a dose-response association between total sitting time and all-cause mortality4. Basically, the longer you sit, the higher the risk of dying from anything. Also, compared to sitting for long periods, merely standing up or walking around for a short time, even a couple of minutes, can improve cognitive performance5.
Consequently, I encourage you to create a rhythm of regular movement during your remote workdays. During your peak hours, you could walk around during your short inter-Pomodoro breaks and try to break up your day, every hour with a brief walk, even if that means doing laps of the house or apartment, perhaps while you’re on a phone call, for example.
Finally, my bonus tip was inspired by a friend, who challenged me that we should re-brand ‘social distancing’ as ‘physical distancing’. Physically separating ourselves during the pandemic may make sense (depending on which advice you adhere to), but this does not mean that we should socially isolate ourselves. I encourage us all to take the time to make an extra effort to connect with each other, even if it’s digitally, during this time.
I hope that you’ve found these ideas useful. Please let me know how you’re getting on, and feel free to share your own ideas for successful remote work.
- Keller, G. & Papasan, J. (2012) The one thing: the surprisingly simple truth behind extraordinary results. Bard Press. Austin, Texas.
- Zeigarnik (1927): “Das Behalten erledigter und unerledigter Handlungen”. Psychologische Forschung 9, p. 1-85.
- Hines, C. B. (2004) ‘Time-of-Day Effects on Human Performance’, Catholic Education: A Journal of Inquiry and Practice, 7(3), p. 390–413.
- Mullane et al. (2017) Acute effects on cognitive performance following bouts of standing and light-intensity physical activity in a simulated workplace environment. J Sci Med Sport 20(5) p.489–93.
- Diaz, K.M., et al. (2018) Patterns of sedentary behaviour and mortality in U.S. middle-aged and older adults: A national cohort study. Ann Intern Med. 167(7) p.465–75.