Remote Work

How to Stay Focused When You Work From Home

Stylized illustration of a person inside a house with a long to-do list in one hand and a laptop in the other; surrounded by symbols of time management such as clocks

Have you heard about the studies that state working from home offers a major productivity boost, equivalent to one whole extra workday each week? 

You get it—working remotely means you aren’t subjected to the typical in-office distractions. You don’t have to overhear your deskmate’s phone conversations, and you aren’t dealing with people randomly popping by your workspace when you’re zoned in on a project. 

Indeed, increased focus is supposed to be one of the major perks of the work-from-home lifestyle. According to a report from Owl Labs, it’s the reason that 79% of survey respondents cited when explaining their desire to work remotely.

But you have a confession to make: None of this has been your experience so far. You’re pretty new to this whole working from home thing, and so far you’ve found the opposite to be true. It’s been a major struggle to stay focused. 

You have a lengthy to-do list at your side, but you still feel like your mental energy is bouncing all over the place and your attention span has taken a steady nosedive. 

What the heck is your problem? Well, honestly, maybe it’s not you.

Despite the fact that working from home offers a lot of benefits, it can still be tough—particularly when you’re in the thick of the transition. You’re getting used to a new environment and combatting different types of distractions than the ones you’re used to dealing with, and all of that can quickly sabotage your focus.

Don’t panic quite yet. There are plenty of steps you can take to give yourself a kick in the pants, crank through your to-do list, and make this whole work from home thing work for you. 

Below, we’re breaking down three major focus destroyers you’ll come up against, as well as some helpful tips for overcoming each of them. 

Focus destroyer #1: Home distractions keep throwing you off track

Home distractions are a common plight among remote workers. According to Buffer’s 2020 State of Remote Work Report, 12% of respondents said that distractions at home are the biggest struggle they face in working from home.

Your kids keep coming into your office to tell you they’re bored or to ask for more snacks. You can’t resist the temptation to change the laundry loads or unload the dishwasher.

Despite the fact that you’re no longer sidelined by your coworkers or in-office chatter, this whole new breed of distractions has swooped in and completely sabotaged your level of focus. You’re beginning to wonder how you’ll ever get anything done again. 

Tips to overcome this struggle and stay focused: 

  • Set up a designated workspace: If you’re readily accessible and always within earshot, distractions are going to run rampant. That’s why it’s important to set up a specific space where you can work (and ideally shut a door). Maybe you’re lucky enough to have a home office, or perhaps you’ll opt to set up a cheap card table in the corner of your bedroom. You know your space limitations best. The important thing is to find a spot that’s meant specifically for work. It’ll make it way easier to tune out some of those environmental distractions. 
  • Create a work schedule you can stick to: The ability to have a flexible schedule is one of the biggest perks of remote work (yep, it was the most frequently cited benefit in Buffer’s report). You should absolutely take advantage of that wiggle room when you need to. But, on a typical day, you’ll likely benefit from having a set work schedule. When will you start your day? Or take a break for lunch? When will you aim to shut down? Even if your schedule isn’t super rigid, it will give you a clearer idea of when you intend to be working—and you’ll know that’s time when you need to be ignoring other tasks or distractions. 
  • Loop others in on your intended schedule: Working from home inspires visions of working alone, but maybe that’s not the case for you. Perhaps your partner is also working in your same space, or maybe you have kids home from school or daycare. That makes it all the more challenging to dedicate your full attention to your work. Once you’ve ironed out an intended schedule for yourself, make sure you tell others in your shared space when you plan to be working. With that information, they can (hopefully!) be more respectful of when you need quiet time to dominate your to-do list. 

Focus destroyer #2: Motivation is at an all-time low

You roll out of bed, grab a mug of coffee, and head to your desk or makeshift workspace still wearing your trusty sweatpants (hey, you’re in good company—a reported 30% of telecommuters work in their pajamas). 

You know you have a ton to get done today, yet you can’t seem to instill a sense or urgency or light a fire under your own rear end. 

There’s no longer major physical distance between where you work and where you relax, and you’ve found that it’s totally tanked your motivation levels. How can you approach your list of tasks with the same vigor and enthusiasm that you had when you were working in a traditional office? 

Tips to overcome this struggle and stay focused

  • Get yourself dressed and ready: Nobody’s saying that you need to whip out your business casual wardrobe when working from home. However, at least making the effort to brush your teeth and change your clothes (even if you just change into a different pair of sweats) will help you wake yourself up and make the mental transition into “work mode.” One study backs up the idea that how we dress impacts our mood. So at the very least, give it a try and see if it helps. 
  • Use the Pomodoro technique: Regardless of whether you’re working from home or in an office, the whole workday can feel daunting. The end of the day can feel intimidatingly far away, especially when you’re just getting started. This is where the Pomodoro technique comes into play. You work in 25-minute increments, separated by a short break. After you successfully complete four of those time chunks, you treat yourself to a longer break. It makes your day feel far more manageable, and also instills a greater sense of urgency—because it’s human nature to see how much work you can get accomplished in that shorter time block. 
  • Have a designated shut down time: Maybe the fact that your motivation is waning has nothing to do with being lazy. Perhaps you’re just burnt out. When you work from home, your work is always there for you, which makes unplugging a challenge. A staggering 82% of remote professionals admit to dealing with burnout. You likely won’t be ready and raring to tackle your workday if you stayed up answering emails until midnight the night before. So do yourself a favor and set a firm shut down time. That’s when you should log out, abandon your to-do list and spend the rest of the evening relaxing. Hopefully it’ll give your motivation levels a much-needed boost for when you get back to work the next day. 

Focus destroyer #3: Lack of accountability makes it tough to get started

When you were working in a typical office, you knew that your boss or a colleague could walk by at any moment and see what you were doing at your desk. You didn’t want to be caught red-handed scrolling through social media or online shopping.

But now? You have total privacy, and you aren’t worried about your supervisor glancing over your shoulder at your computer monitor. That means you often fall victim to a longer-than-intended YouTube break or endless Twitter scrolling.

Rest assured that you aren’t alone. In fact, remote workers are slightly more likely to procrastinate. One survey found that 37% of remote workers have procrastinated on a task until its deadline, compared to 35% of in-office workers. You feel like the free reign you have over your own workday is making you your own worst enemy. 

Tips to overcome this struggle and stay focused

  • Silence your digital notifications: Even if you’re intent on not giving into digital distractions, all it takes is a little buzz, ding, or red bubble to appear before your best intentions fly out the window. Turn off social media notifications and even your instant message notifications when you really need to zone in on your work. You’ll avoid ripping your own focus away from the task at hand. 
  • Keep your phone in another room: Silencing your notifications can help, but it doesn’t change the fact that we’re all addicted to our phones (for example, the average American checks their phone every 10 minutes). If you know that you can’t resist the siren song of Instagram stories, put your phone in another room—at least for part of your workday. That will give you some uninterrupted time to get your work accomplished, without that pesky distraction perched right next to you. 
  • Install a browser blocker: If you are attracted to YouTube, Facebook, or other time-wasting sites, a browser blocker (like StayFocusd or Freedom) can be a huge help. You can customized the sites that you want to avoid. When you attempt to navigate to them, your access will be blocked and it will serve as a not-so-subtle-reminder to get back to work. 
  • Use a time tracker: Maybe you know that you could get more done, but you aren’t sure how you’re wasting time. Using a time tracker like Toggl gives you helpful insights into how you’re investing your work hours. Look at your reports to get an idea of what time wasters tend to throw your workday off track. Then figure out how you can avoid them moving forward. 

Amp up your focus and show your to-do list who’s boss

From skipping the commute to having total control over the thermostat, working from home offers plenty of perks. However, this type of work environment can present some challenges in terms of maintaining your focus.

Like anything else, if you’re new to remote work, give yourself some time to adjust. It’s a learning process that will involve some trial and error. 

Once you have a better handle on what you think is sabotaging your focus, use some (or even all) of the tips we’ve listed here to knock those items off your to-do list and get more done than you would in a traditional office.
After all, studies show that remote workers are actually more productive. Use these strategies, and soon you’ll be living proof. Good luck!

June 10, 2020