Tell me this has never happened to you: You were hyper-focused, and you finish up an important project. Then you decide to check your phone or social media as a quick mental break. 30 minutes later, you’ve gone down the internet rabbit hole and you realize you’ve just wasted a huge chunk of time. In the amount of time you spent following meaningless links, you could have gone through your inbox, provided some feedback to another team member, started another project.
If this happens every now and again it’s not that big a deal—if your schedule is flexible, you can tack on time to the end of the day to make up for lost time. The problem happens when this kind of slacking off happens repeatedly and it affects your performance. Believe me, I understand the temptations of social media! But there are ways to keep temptation at bay.
This is perhaps the best way to make sure you don’t waste time on sites that neither help your work nor your well-being. A great example is StayFocusd, a Chrome extension that monitors your time spent on a list of sites that you designate. You can include news sites, social media, or any other site that you find yourself using when you “need a break.” And speaking of…
Away from the computer. Instead of spending a “mental break minute” in front of the computer, take it by going for a short walk or accomplishing some non-screen task.
Make sure that at the start of each day, establish a list of things you have to accomplish. These should be measurable and should result in a product or other demonstration of goal completion. This way you can easily measure your progress. Examples include:
Within each larger goal, there might be smaller incremental goals. To get a handle on all these different tasks and subtasks, you might want to look into using a project or task management tool, like Asana. Want more tips? Visit this post on goal setting.
There are lots of tools that you can use to manually track time on tasks, like Harvest or the Hours time tracking app. There are apps that track how much time you spend on different apps on your computer, e.g. RescueTime. My favorite tool for tracking time is a simple spreadsheet that measures how much time is left in your workday and how long your tasks will take. Using a tool like this requires that you estimate the amount of time a certain task will take you—this can be an extremely challenging concept for many people, not just remote workers. That’s why keeping track of your time is so helpful—it gives you data points to go by, instead of just estimates.
Distractions can often happen when we you are disconnected from others. Check in with a team member, client, or business acquaintance to talk through any relevant roadblocks. When you see what others are doing, it can help you stay motivated. Additionally, when you keep others updated on your progress, that helps hold you accountable. It also has the added bonus of keeping you from feeling isolated from others, which is extremely common in remote work.
Many recommend the pomodoro technique, which is focusing for 25 minutes and giving yourself 5 minutes of a break. Whatever format you choose, be consistent and track how many chunks (or tomatoes, if you’re using the pomodoro method) you complete in a day.
Transitioning from a sitting to a standing desk can make all the difference in how focused and alert you are during the day. Plus, sitting for long periods of time is not great for your health. You don’t even have to stand the entire day you’re working—just stand more, and sit less.
Sometimes friends and family members of remote workers don’t fully comprehend what that means. They may stop over, call during the day, or invite you out to lunch or other event. This can be extremely distracting, especially if you oblige them every time they interrupt you. Working at home does not mean that you are fully available to others’ needs. You do have more flexibility, but your first obligation during working hours (whether those are set by your employer or yourself) is to get your work done. Make sure to explain this to your friends and family, and then follow through. Say no to invitations or interruptions that interfere with your work.
This one is key! I am a neat-ish person, not a neat-freak, but not a total slob, either. And thank goodness! I would never get any work done if I were obsessed with being neat. I keep my workspace generally tidy, but make sure to only get any cleaning done during time that I’m not working. Tidying and cleaning are tasks that can really suck up your time, and they’re very common procrastination tactics. You know that school-age saying that your room is never cleaner than the day before an exam? The same is true for work.
Staying focused is a challenge in any environment, but working at home (or in a coffee shop, or on the road…) presents its own unique challenges because you can see and feel obligations from multiple directions. And some may think it’s easier to be off -task at home.
Perhaps the most important first step you can do is to be pay attention to the times you do lose focus, and take note of any common trends. Once you've diagnosed where you most commonly lose focus, take the appropriate steps to minimize the chances of that kind of situation arising again. You’ll never be perfect, but you can be more focused and productive. It’s just a question of identifying and adjusting to the areas where you need improvement.