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How to Stay Focused When You’re Working from Home

Working from home seems like a dream situation:  no morning commute, no stuffy attire, just roll out of bed and shuffle over to your workspace, stopping at the coffee pot on the way, right?  It seems so simple: work from 9 to 5 just as if you were heading to an office, except easier. 

But no, actually, it’s not so simple.  When you’re in your living space, there is an endless stream of little tasks that only take a few minutes to do — empty the dishwasher, start a load of laundry, brush the cat…  And if you have traditionally had responsibilities at home that were prioritized over your career, the temptation can be strong to keep up with everything even as you are taking on full-time work. You have to find ways to let go of those expectations, and allow yourself the space to focus on your work. 

When I first started working from home, I had to develop strategies around this, because it wasn’t easy for me.  I had to change my headspace, and set boundaries on housework so that it didn’t encroach on my work time. What really made a difference to me was creating a schedule for when things do get done in the home, so I didn’t feel like I was neglecting them when I focused on other work. 

Basically, it comes down to this: keep a list of things that distract you, and find ways to remove those distractions. 

Personally, I need to have my home exceptionally tidy in order to stay focused.  I set time aside in the morning and evening to clean up, so at my start time I’m ready to work.  What sort of conditions do you need in order to focus best?  Quiet, music, food? Note what works for you, and give yourself those things. 

Distracted by pets?  Figure out ways to carefully and thoughtfully put your animal friends in a separate space, whether it’s a different room or doggy daycare.  Alternatively, consider engaging a dog walker or a trusted neighborhood kid to play with your pets on a regular basis while you work.

Boundaries can be hard to keep up, especially for women.  Even with a supportive spouse, it’s hard to stop feeling obligated to take care of tasks.  And sometimes neighbors, family and friends call on you to do extra tasks because you’re at home and it seems relatively easy for you to pick up packages, walk the dog, give someone a ride to the airport, and so on.  But each little disruption can cost you a lot of time and productivity when you have to transition in and out of work mode to leave the house, interact with other people, and/or focus on different tasks. Let them know if it’s disruptive, and that you understand how they’d think it would be easy.  Practice saying something like, “I can see how it seems like I’d be able to do that because I’m at home, but because of the way my work is conducted I’m not able to do that. Thank you for understanding.” 

The more you understand your mental space, social expectations, and your own socialized expectations of yourself, the better you’ll be able to separate yourself from these distractions.  So if it’s the norm in your neighborhood to mow your lawn once a week, you’ll need a strategy for dealing with the times that it rains all weekend yet you have deadlines to meet and can’t spend your Monday doing yard work. 

That said, there can be a benefit to taking a twenty minute break to pull weeds when you’re stuck on a document; just make sure it’s a conscious choice to take a break rather than giving in to a nagging feeling that you have to tend to non-work chores.

Good boundaries are also needed to guard against the flip side of having a home office: working too much, not knowing how or when to stop, and simply not being able to turn it off. 

  • If at all possible, do not put your computer in your bedroom, as that just tempts you to keep thinking at all hours of the day and night.  
  • If you can, close the door to your home office.  Resist the temptation to return after you’ve left for the day.  Instead, choose to start fresh in the morning.
  • To help yourself disengage at the end of the day, do a  “brain dump”: on a white board, write out notes on what your brain is still spinning on, so that you can leave it and come back to it the next day. 

When I first began hiring employees, I learned about California labor laws, and specifically about the minimum breaks you’re required to provide. It was pretty eye-opening to realize that on many days, I wasn’t treating myself to the minimum standard required by law.  At times I would forget to take breaks. For an 8 hour work day, the law requires two 10 minute breaks with no responsibilities, and a 30 minute eating period!! For stay-at-home parents I know taking breaks can be challenging, but see if you can find safe ways to get these moments to rest. It can make a big difference in your day!

Finally, if you are feeling isolated because of working from home, reach out to people in your building or neighborhood and schedule lunch dates — even if you’re just alternating dining room tables and eating your brown bag of leftovers. Taking a break for some social interaction can be refreshing, preparing you to dive back into productive time afterwards. 

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