No matter what you do for a living, there are days when you can run on autopilot, and days when you have to buckle down, focus, and work without distractions. The challenge when working remotely is that we have so many things clamoring for attention that it can be difficult to pay attention to what’s really important and not get pulled away. You probably can’t just eliminate all distractions, but you can manage them.
Set realistic expectations
The first thing to do is take it easy on yourself and set realistic expectations. When people say things like, “I’m just going to lock myself in my room/office for a couple of hours until I’m done,” odds are they’re going to fail. Our brains aren’t made for long periods of focus. In fact, research shows we can only be at peak flow or productivity for between 35 and 45 minutes. After that our brains need a break and we look for other things to do.
If you know you have a lot of work to get done, break the job into smaller tasks that can be completed in short time periods. Professional writers call that “sprinting.” You work like heck for just less than an hour, then take a break and do something else—maybe a bunch of little, mindless tasks that don’t require too much thought—while your grey cells recover.
Have a dedicated work space
Pick a place to work that is, you know, for work. If you’re fortunate to have a dedicated office space at home, take advantage of that. Your workspace should have what you need to get the job done and not much more. This might mean clearing your desktop of clutter. Identify what pulls your focus away from work. If it’s your phone, put it physically out of reach and only check it on breaks. It might be comfy to use a lap desk on the couch, but you’ll find it easier to maintain focus and stick to work if you are in a proper chair, with your keyboard on a flat surface.
If you don’t have a dedicated office space, remove distractions where you are. If you are working in your bedroom or dining room, sit so you are not exposed. Maybe face the wall or a window with your back to the main space.
Turn off non-work related distractions
Shut off apps and notifications that don’t help your work. No matter how dedicated you are, humans are attracted to noise and novelty. When something pings, beeps or boop-boops, our brains automatically want to know what happened and if it is more interesting than what we’re currently doing. Many of us like to think we are so indispensable that it would be unprofessional to not be available to our boss, colleagues or customers within seconds (unless that’s literally your job). The truth is, finishing the task at hand and giving it the appropriate care it demands will result in better, more satisfying work.
Share your schedule
Tell the people who share your space what your schedule is. People who aren’t used to working remotely, or have jobs with flexible hours often don’t realize that just because you are physically present doesn’t mean you are available to them. Be clear on when you can be interrupted, and when you absolutely can’t be disturbed. A simple system like closing the office door when you’re focusing and opening it when you’re less busy will help people get used to respecting time you really need to focus on important work. Build time in your day when you can interact with them. It is like taking a coffee break to chat with a colleague at work. It might also force you to actually take breaks and eat lunch somewhere other than your desks. Not all distractions are unwelcome or make you unproductive.
This means you should also coordinate your work with your colleagues elsewhere, like in the office. Use status updates, shared calendars and “do not disturb,” and plan for activities that require communication with your peers so these conversations are planned, and don’t interrupt your work.
Busy is not the same as productive
Remember that being productive is different than being busy. It’s nice to get tasks checked off your to-do list. In fact, it’s vital to your energy level and self-confidence. Focusing on tasks, though, can mean doing a lot of busy work that leaves bigger, long-term projects on the back burner. We can find ourselves so busy doing tasks that deadlines for much more important work sneak up on us. Productivity is not how much work you get done in a day, it’s how much of the right work got done in the right way.
Some of us are more easily distracted than others. Learn when you are most productive and time your work accordingly.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager
Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in Management-Issues.com.
Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership. Wayne and Kevin’s follow-up book, The Long-Distance Teammate, offers a roadmap for success not just for leaders, but for everyone making the transition to working remotely.
The latest book from Wayne and Kevin shows leaders how to design a team culture that has a one-team mindset and gets great results under hybrid-work conditions. You can order The Long-Distance Team: Designing Your Team for Everyone’s Success now.