16 Ways to Stay Focused When You’re Working from Home
Working from home. Telecommuting. Remoting in. Whatever you call it, powering up the laptop to tackle tasks from your couch, dining table, or home office is becoming the new normal.
While it sounds like a homebody’s dream — stand-up meetings in sweatpants, anyone? — it’s not always easy to set your own schedule. Whether you’re self-employed and launching a small business website or a former office worker who’s transitioning to at-home work — you’ll want to avoid getting sucked into doing a load of laundry, taking the dog out for a long walk, or falling into a Netflix void.
When there’s no one looking over your shoulder, it’s easy to get off course.
“Without the watchful eye of a supervisor or clear expectations on your time, you are often left feeling aimless and easily distracted,” says Lauren LeMunyan, owner and executive coach at The SpitFire Coach. “Laundry, snacking, and reality television catch your eye and suck your energy if you don’t watch it closely.”
While it’s fine to have a cheat day now and then, it’s not okay to let that build up over time. That’s why having a work schedule — and sticking to it — is crucial.
“Working at home brings business and personal aspects of life together under one roof,” says Ellen Williams, founder of The Data Chick. “As a result, it is easy to get distracted when trying to complete business tasks until you are able to separate business and personal. It takes time to get serious about work at home if you’ve never done it before. Working at home is an exercise in learning about yourself. It’s a mindset, so I don’t believe there are any hard and fast rules for success.”
Follow these 16 tips to stay focused when you’re working from home.
1. Have a dedicated workspace.
Whether you have a sprawling home office or a nook in your kitchen, it’s important to have a dedicated office. Even urban dwellers with limited square footage should carve out a spot that’s just for work.
“A dedicated workspace is the most important element,” says Peter Vandendriesse, founder and CEO of Guestboard.co. “It’s easy to sit with a laptop on your couch, but your posture and ergonomics won’t be right, and it’s often in close proximity to a TV, which is an obvious distraction. I also prefer to have a double monitor setup (which increases my productivity), so having a desk is an easy choice to make. Much like your bed should be reserved for sleeping, your workspace should be for working.”
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2. Stay off social media.
Is there any rabbit hole more tempting than social media? A quick scroll on Instagram can turn into a major time suck, but there are ways to avoid temptation.
“One of my favorite productivity hacks comes with the help of an app called Stay Focusd,” says New York City-based tech entrepreneur Lori Cheek, founder and CEO of Cheekd. “When working from home, Facebook and Twitter can be a major distraction. StayFocusd helps avoid these distractions by restricting the amount of time you can spend on them. The Google Chrome extension lets you set specific time restrictions on certain websites with a 10-minute default option. Once your time has been used up, the sites you have selected to block can’t be accessed for the remainder of the day.”
3. Dress for success.
While there’s no need for a three-piece suit or a pencil skirt and heels when you’re not leaving your home, there’s a happy medium for getting dressed in the morning.
“It’s all a part of having a business mindset and daily ritual,” says Andre Fasciola, president and CEO of Matcha Kari. “We are creatures of habit, and it’s vital to have good habits. Sure, sitting in your pajamas will be comfortable, but can you really be in a professional mindset with PJs on? It’s not really about how you look that’s important; it’s about setting a professional mindset.”
Wear what’s comfortable for you. But having a morning routine — meaning brushing your teeth and changing out of your pajamas — is crucial, even if you’re just switching to yoga pants.
4. Set boundaries.
It’s a common misconception that remote work means you’re hardly working. When a friend invites you for a mid-afternoon movie break or a long lunch, it can be tough to get across that you have to put in your hours, too.
“Most people don’t realize you work from home unless you tell them,” LeMunyan says. “By saying when you’re available rather than waiting for people to tell you when they can meet, you’re in the driver seat of your time. Working from home isn’t a disadvantage, so don’t make excuses for it. You are available when you’re available whether you’re in the office or not. Remember you have to train people how to treat you and your work time.”
5. Avoid procrastination.
If you think it’s tempting to procrastinate at the office, it’s even worse at home, where there are more distractions.
“It’s easy to put things off to later in the day or first thing tomorrow morning because you are not bound by office hours,” Williams says. “However, this causes stress as you can easily push yourself tight against a deadline, and if something unexpected happens — like your internet goes down, you get sick, or a family member gets sick — you could miss the deadline, which may have grave consequences for your business.”
6. Save household chores for later.
It’s tempting to run the dishwasher while you work or take a break to vacuum, but doing so can interrupt your flow and focus.
“Just like everything else, set aside a certain amount of time each day to do this — do not casually mix it into your routine if you are a very tidy person,” Vandendriesse says. “I had trouble with chores taking over my day in the beginning. Now, I do maybe 10 straight minutes of chores in the morning and 10 minutes in the evening.”
7. Create a schedule.
Your calendar should work the way you do. That means if you’re a Type A and love to have every minute planned, go ahead and fill up your day, even penciling in break times. If you’re more of a to-do list follower, write up a game plan and cross things off as you go.
“For example, I like spending the first 15 minutes of my day creating a priority list for the day, then I go through emails to see how that list may be impacted,” LeMunyan says. “I then look at my top priorities and schedule them in where they fit best and allow for 15-minute breaks in between.”
If you prefer to go with the flow, there’s no need to over-schedule yourself — but have an idea of what you want to accomplish each day to make sure you stay on task. And regardless of your style, make sure the way your day is scheduled is a reflection of your natural energy.
“Why are you scheduling conference calls at the end of the day when you’re trying to close up projects?” LeMunyan says. “If you feel creative in the morning, block out that time to brainstorm and knock [out] critical tasks. If your work requires hours of focused time, I recommend stacking your meetings before lunchtime then using that critical meal to shift into your project and task time. By consistently blocking out this time, you train others to respect your time and productivity — and they’ll notice and appreciate the results!”
8. Take a gym break.
Scheduling a sweat session into your workday is a good idea as long as you plan it right.
“Your physical health is more at risk than you realize when working from home,” Vandendriesse says. “Even those who sit in an office cubicle still tend to walk a mile or so throughout the day, to their car, out to lunch, and so on. I’ve found that signing up for certain fitness classes makes it much easier to stick to a schedule, as the classes begin at a set time. This is much harder to procrastinate or flake on, as opposed to loosely visiting the gym to go on the treadmill.”
Plus, taking an exercise break provides a brain boost. Instead of reaching for a cup of coffee, a workout can get those endorphins flowing and deliver a natural burst of energy.
9. Automate as much as you can.
Technology makes a great administrative assistant! “Schedule alerts for important tasks and appointments, build email rules to filter out unimportant messages during business hours, use software that finds mistakes in your code or content for you, set up customer automatic billing, pre-schedule emails and social media posts, and use different ringtones for different people so you know when you don’t have to answer your phone,” Williams suggests.
10. Find your focus zone.
“After running my startup for over eight years, I’ve tried working from just about everywhere in New York City: a handful of co-working spaces, a members-only club called The Soho House, coffee shops, and even sometimes at a bar,” Cheek says. “The place I’ve found I have the most focus is at home at my kitchen table. As soon as I settle in, I organize my workspace — having a clean workspace helps me focus and feel structured. Next, I settle in with a cup of coffee and try to relax for 15 minutes before diving into the grind. Then, I prioritize my day’s to-do list and map out the rest of my day. I find a great Spotify channel, put on imaginary blinders, and buckle down for hours on end.”
“I also save so much time in the day working from home because I never have to get ready, commute, and leave for coffee or lunch because they’re always at arm’s reach. There’s always reliable WiFi, and no one is around to distract me.”
11. Know when to clock out.
“The most common mistake is thinking that by working at home you have more time to work and better work-life balance,” Williams says. “Work is work, regardless of where you do and how much you love it. It needs to get done. And, you also need a personal life. When you don’t actually have a physical barrier between the two, such as a geographical distance between your office and home, it can be easy to work lots of hours, leaving less downtime for family and friends.”
It can be tempting to squeeze in something after dinner or on a Sunday afternoon, but when it feels like you’re working all the time, that can quickly lead to burnout. That’s why you should stick to a predetermined set of work hours and maximize your workdays so that you can enjoy your time off and feel refreshed and ready to clock back in on Monday morning.
“Creating a ritual that separates your workday from your off time can be an important distinction between the two,” Fasciola says. “I like to wash my hands and face as soon as I walk out of my office. Psychologists say this simple act serves as a powerful metaphor of ‘cleaning the slate’ and helps us mentally wipe away doubts and misgivings.”
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12. Make human contact.
It’s natural to miss the watercooler chatter that’s typical for a regular workplace. Working alone from home can leave you feeling a bit lonely.
“Make sure you schedule social time during the day,” LeMunyan says. “Reaching out to at least one to three people a day will help you feel connected in an otherwise isolated environment.”
13. Enjoy breaks.
Figuring out when to take a break and for how long can be tricky. If you take too many, it can feel like you’re getting off track, but too few can actually be counterproductive, since you may be exhausted mid-way through your day.
One that everyone should be taking? A lunch break.
You might think it’s more productive to chow down on your sandwich in front of your computer to plow through more work, but taking a proper lunch break, especially when you work from home, is crucial. It’s not just about fueling up with food — your brain needs a break, too. And studies have shown that when you’re more mindful during meals, you’ll enjoy them more and feel more satisfied.
“Sometimes working at home can be too comfortable,” Williams says. “It’s easy when working on a computer for a couple hours to feel like a couple minutes. This isn’t healthy. Breaks are important in order to stretch and get the blood circulating.”
It’s best to figure out what works for you and schedule breaks accordingly, but find a balance and let yourself take a moment when you need to.
“Sometimes you have to give in to your distractions,” Williams says. “If you start daydreaming and have to keep bringing yourself back to the task at hand, or your kids want your attention and you keep sending them away, it’s time for a break. Daydream a little — it may spark some creativity — and give your kids some attention. Don’t battle. In almost every case, you can spare a few minutes in exchange for greater focus. Breaks are also beneficial when you get stuck on a problem, such as code that isn’t working right, data that doesn’t seem to make sense or writing content that just isn’t flowing. Get up, hydrate, have a snack, play a quick game, and just think about something else for a few minutes. When you return to your desk you may see something that you didn’t see before.”
14. Get face time with your colleagues.
Even those who work from home solo still sometimes have a team, and interacting with them as much as possible is key.
“It’s important to be as communicative with them as you would be if you worked physically in an office together,” Vandendriesse says. “Give constant check-ins as to what you’re working on and what you’ve achieved. Without seeing you in person, it’s easy for others to form an opinion that you’re not doing much, when in reality you’re probably more organized and productive than you’ve ever been before. Give them transparency into your new, awesome work life.”
15. Get the right tools for the job.
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16. Have a long-term plan.
Ticking items off your to-do list is a major component of working from home, but you have to think big picture too. When you work solo and from home, it’s easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day, but you should always have your overall business plan in mind.
“You have to know what your end goal is so that you can craft a plan to achieve your goals,” Fasciola says. “I spend a lot of time speaking with new business owners and all too often I hear about these great ideas but no plan to achieve them. Ideas are great, but without actionable steps, you’re just spinning your wheels and not going anywhere. Once you have an actionable plan, break down your yearly, quarterly, weekly and daily goals. Once you break your mission into actionable steps and bit size pieces, you’ll feel less overwhelmed and more motivated. Sufficient motivation + task = productivity.”
What are some of *your* favorite ways to stay focused while working remotely? Social distancing doesn’t mean we can’t talk shop. Let’s swap work-from-home tips on Twitter.