“It could be that the purpose of your life is only to serve as a warning to others.”
– Despair calendar quote
Today I am going to get some work done. I am because yesterday, to be honest, was not that productive. It started with the best intentions. Without a commute, I was at my computer by 7:30 a.m., earlier than my usual start time at the office. Pleased with my head start, I rewarded myself with a read through my news feeds.
I use a news aggregator to collect all my science, sports, local interest, photography and project management articles and announcements in one place. Most items I just scan in the aggregator platform, only clicking into the full articles for relevant or exciting topics.
Before I knew it, it is 8:40. Crap, there goes my early start…time to buckle down. Reading and replying to emails takes me to my first phone meeting. It is slow and lumbering, but mercifully finishes 10 minutes before the one hour allotted. I go and have a coffee with my wife.
The coffee was good, so was the toast and chocolate cookie. When I return, I have more emails, but I get through them and open up my “real” work. Having three monitors now is fantastic, but my new monitor has a higher resolution than the others so when I drag documents to it the text is too small. Maybe I should just set it to the same resolution as the other two? Thirty minutes later, I have all three monitors running updated video drivers at the same resolution and a fancy new screen saver that flows across all three monitors…sweet. But now my mouse is acting up.
It probably just needs a new battery. There should be one in this drawer. Wow, we need a good clear-out. None of this junk is used anymore; I am going to make a pile of things to keep and a pile of things to throw away. Hey look, an old digital camera…I wonder, what is on the memory card?
That was an excerpt from my life five years ago when I first started working from home. It was ridiculous; I hardly got any work done. It was actually far worse than that because I had made the switch to work from home in part to live more simply. The idea was to spend more time with my family and enjoy the outdoors in the mountain town we had just moved to. So in addition to endless in-office distractions, I would also take two- to three-hour breaks to go trail running or mountain biking. As a result, I achieved almost nothing.
If you are struggling to get work done from home, do not feel bad. I am confident my procrastination, short attention span, and penchant for anything but work were as bad as it gets. Yet, now I am more productive than ever.
Last year I consulted at several organizations, taught training courses, wrote a book and 40 articles for ProjectManagement.com, developed courseware, presented at numerous conferences and—according to the GPS tracking website Strava—still managed to fit in 460 hours of mountain biking and running.
So, if you are having difficulty focusing while working from home, I think I can help. I know it is difficult with children to help home-school and more significant problems like a global pandemic, but what worked for me will likely work for you too, if you are ready to try it.
I was so frustrated at my lack of focus and inability to get work done that I treated researching the cause and solution as a project. I discovered my work hygiene was to blame. I created new habits, saw the results and now get my work done early. It was not comfortable, but better than the feeling I had of repeatedly achieving practically nothing all day.
Lose the distractions
Prolific writer Jon Morrow, tells us: “There is no such thing as focus. There is only an absence of distraction.” So, when we remove the distractions, there is nothing else to do but work. The trouble is that distractions come from many sources.
1. Close the door– I used to have an office off the kitchen. It was great for relaxed conversations, efficient for grabbing a quick coffee—also a nightmare for distractions. I moved my office downstairs and now close the door when I am working. The closed door means I am working. I do not want a coffee; I do not want to see a funny cat video. (I probably do, but I will not; instead, I am working.) Every hour I will come out, be friendly and chat, but when the door is closed, please no interruptions. It sounds harsh, but is nothing compared to what happens behind that closed door; things get much stricter.
2. Personal Pomodoro– When I do not have meetings, I work on a task for 45 minutes out of an hour. Then spend 15 minutes checking and responding to email, being social with the family, getting snacks and drinks, moving about, etc. For those 45 minutes, I eliminate rather than try to avoid distractions. So for me, this means no cellphone, no email, no internet, no music, no drinks, no snacks, nothing. Only the task and a countdown timer to tell me how much longer to work.
People with more self-control or better multi-tasking skills may not need to be so extreme, but I do. Fidget toys, squeezy balls, paper airplanes—anything that is more fun than a keyboard is banished.
The original Pomodoro technique uses a 25-minute mechanical timer. I tried that followed by a five-minute break two times per hour—but kept overrunning my five-minute breaks. So, I switched to 45 minutes focus, 15 minutes for interruptions and everything else.
This ratio works for me, but something different might work better for you. The timing is less critical than being brutal and obsessive about the elimination of all distractions. After actually working for 45 minutes, I am happy to open my door, chat, mess about with my son, or whatever; now I am no longer anxious about underachieving. (I like the electronic Time Timer because it is quiet and the ticking of mechanical timers seemed enough to distract me too.)
3. Start Earlier– By going to bed earlier and getting up earlier, I gain an hour of quiet time in the mornings before everyone else gets up. I no longer waste it reading news feeds, I plan or complete an extra 45-minute work period while there are few distractions.
I check my calendar, plan when I will do my 45-minute chunks based around the meetings I have and readjust to do say a 20-minute session if I have only a 30-minute time slot.
4. Evolve– My original plan was to be very strict with the no distractions rule until I caught up on my backlog of work. Then I might reintroduce having my phone with me so that I could reply to text messages, or maybe the radio on, or a collaboration website open.
However, my productivity went up so much that I would hate to lose it again. Finally, I get to finish work earlier and get more free time. I just wish I’d discovered 30 years ago how easily I am distracted, how poorly I multi-task and the actual cost of task-switching. For me at least, they are significant.
Different Strokes for Different Folks
Your work-from-home situation is different from mine. Your schedule, personal distractions and options for isolation will be unique. However, I expect you can relate to some of the challenges I encountered when I started working from home five years ago. I hope some of the approaches I adopted to solve my productivity problems will help you, too.