How to stay focused when you’re working from home

Working from home while distracted
This isn't my desk, but it's a pretty good representation – cat and all.

OK, all you Baby Boomers out there, remember this commercial?

“The traffic! The boss! The baby! The dog!

“That does it: Calgon, take me away!”

The Calgon commercial ended with a woman in a bubble bath, relaxing as she soaked her troubles away. Those words—Calgon, take me away—became the mantra for the overworked and overwhelmed in the late ’70s. Today, they seem more appropriate than ever.

If you’re working from home while social distancing, don’t you sometimes wish you could be Calgon’ed away? Imagine a scenario where you could get your work done without distractions. I know—crazy!

Well, I’m not about to bathe you, but what I can do is give you a few tips from someone who spends every day working from a home office.

Besides having a really comfortable work chair (a necessity), here are some ways to help you stay focused while working from home.

Create a schedule and stick to it.

If you’re temporarily stuck at home, and your schedule is set by your company, this should be reasonably simple. For some, however, that’s not the case. If you’re able to work on a flexible schedule, things can get a little murky. And that can be dangerous (or dangerously fun, however you choose to look at it).

I have a specific work schedule figured out, but it took me three months to do it. Here’s how it rolls: I get up, have my coffee, do a bit of puttering around, make sure I shower and get dressed (vitally important but highly overrated), then I’m at my desk and ready to go by 9 am. I work until either 4 or 5, depending on what’s planned for the evening. I take breaks throughout the day, which I’ll explain later.

My husband knows my schedule. The dogs, not so much. The cats absolutely don’t care. But having that schedule keeps me focused and sane.

If you don’t have to adhere to a specific company-defined schedule, play around with it. If you’re a night owl, maybe you want to schedule yourself to get most of your work done in the evening. If you’re an early bird, go ahead and start at 5 am—who’s gonna judge? Of course, you need to take other family members into consideration here, so get agreement on your schedule and then post it on the door. I’m not kidding. Make it real!

Stay organized and set daily goals.

When you’re working from home, you’d better be organized. I have a monthly calendar and a daily calendar, of course. More importantly, I start each day by writing down a precise list of what I intend to accomplish, then I check off each item as it’s done. I often categorize work for different clients at different times of day; this helps me work on one project at a time and not worry about the other project yet. Ya know, focus.

This all may sound simplistic, but I’ve found that the simpler, the better. It keeps my mind focused on the tasks at hand, and I don’t get so involved in the tools that I stop doing the actual work. (Just another distraction, ya know what I mean?)

That being said, there are plenty of online organizational tools you can use. It really doesn’t matter how you do it, just create a system of organization that works for you, set your daily goals, and you’ll end each workday feeling like you got stuff done.

Set yourself up to avoid distractions.

This is probably the biggest one, and the hardest one for me to stick to. It’s so tempting to “just check that email” or “take a quick look at Facebook,” but it doesn’t really help things because then you have to put your attention back on what you were doing and regain focus.

My suggestion? If you’re on a laptop, close all windows that have nothing to do with your work. Turn off all notifications—social media and otherwise. Tell your family that you’re at work and you don’t expect to hear from them until the workday is done. Not to be harsh, but geez, ya gotta bring in the money, right?

It’s not as easy as it sounds, but once you get in that undistracted frame of mind, it’s a beautiful thing.

I also listen to music on headphones, so I can’t hear anything else going on in the house. I have a few playlists called “relaxing music” or “peaceful music” and even “music for focus.” They’re all instrumental, which is really important for me because I don’t want to be hearing lyrics when I’m trying to write something—too confusing.

Take a look at the things in your life that regularly distract you. Make a list. Tackle each one. You’ll thank yourself when you’ve actually completed your work for the day ahead of schedule.

Take regular breaks.

Studies have shown time and again that taking breaks between bouts of work can actually increase productivity and creativity. Called microbreaks, they not only give your body a rest from sitting at a desk all day, but they also give your brain a bit of a reboot.

Wait, you say, doesn’t that just make it easier to be distracted? Good question, but no. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Adding microbreaks into your daily routine helps give you MORE focus.

As I'm a freelance writer, this is particularly helpful to me. I use the Pomodoro Technique, which is not a nifty way to make marinara. You use a timer to break work down into intervals, separated by short breaks.

Here's how it works: You break your workday into 25-minute chunks separated by five-minute breaks. These intervals are referred to as pomodoros. After four pomodoros, you take a longer break of 15 to 20 minutes.

Why is it called the Pomodoro Technique? Well, this is the timer used by the man who invented it:

I don't actually use a tomato timer, although it's quite adorable. Instead, I have an app on my computer, called focus booster, which I set as soon as I start writing or researching something. It automatically stops after 25 minutes and I take a 5-minute break, then it starts up again. After four times through, it stops completely, and I go take a walk or make a cup of tea.

This has been incredibly helpful for me: I know I’ll be stepping away from the task in 25 minutes, so I can easily stay focused for that long. Plus, I like to reward myself with a little social media scroll on my five-minute break. You never know what exciting news I might have missed!

This isn't everything, but it's a start.

There you have it: A few of my favorite tips for staying productive at home, particularly in a time of utter insanity. I sincerely hope they help!

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