Friday, August 12, 2022

How to minimize distractions when working from home

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Shreya Christina
Shreya has been with for 3 years, writing copy for client websites, blog posts, EDMs and other mediums to engage readers and encourage action. By collaborating with clients, our SEO manager and the wider team, Shreya seeks to understand an audience before creating memorable, persuasive copy.

I have been working from home for almost 15 years. I also have ADHD. And many streaming subscriptions. And a Playstation. And hundreds of books. And a partner who sometimes works from home and who is also aware of the presence of the aforementioned streaming subscriptions, PlayStation and books.

The thing is, my house is full of distractions. Yours probably is too. Maybe different distractions than mine, but still. And, like many workers, you may have taken a pandemic to discover that it can be difficult to avoid these distractions when working from home. (The work itself is a distraction if you’re not careful: the continuous pings from emails and Slacks can make you feel like you’re working all the time but never really getting anything done.)

Of course, there are productivity and project management apps. But Todoist isn’t going to help you resist TikTok’s siren call, and Trello isn’t going to catch with the dog. At some point, you can only control your distraction by controlling yourself.

Accept your distractibility

The first step to reducing distractions when working from home is to accept that you are distracted because people can be distracted. It is part of your nature. And that’s okay.

Take, for example, someone who keeps slacking off because he pressed the snooze button on his alarm clock nine times before finally getting up. Seasoned sleepers know that one way to overcome this is to hold the alarm clock a few feet from the bed – forcing the potential oversleeper to get out of bed and walk across the room to hit the snooze button every time the alarm goes off . At some point it becomes calmer to just stay awake.

You can do the same with distraction — by distracting yourself from your distraction when you inevitably succumb to it (if not beforehand).

Let’s say your weakness is television, and you know that if you decide to “take a short break” in front of the TV, there’s a chance you’ll still be on the couch three hours later.

If you can’t resist your Vizio’s siren call, prepare for, if not success, minimal failure. Don’t risk getting sucked into a binge-worthy hour-long drama with eight episodes to go – and if you do, don’t wait to back off until the end of an episode, when you’re probably most desperate to see what happens next. Instead, wear something simple that quickly moves in and out of a story. A children’s cartoon divided into six-minute episodes. A documentary series that only takes five minutes to explain how baseball gloves are made before moving on to medical electrodes. A daytime talk show that settles questions about a child’s paternity or a lover’s fidelity between commercials for mesothelioma lawyers. Something that quickly gets you ready to move on to something new.

Or let’s say your weakness is a particular phone app. You could take advantage of some sort of barrier to get sucked into it. My editor Nathan tells me he’s had success logging out of, or outright uninstalling, addictive apps when he’s on a deadline. Personally, I sometimes leave my phone in the next room. (The phone is for it after all) mine convenience, not that of others.

Set daily limits

But let’s say you don’t want to go that far, either because you have the kind of job that requires you to have or use your phone a lot, or because you have a bad case of nomophobia. You can set daily time limits for individual apps in Android and iOS.

On Android

Tap the graph to set your timers

Set app timer page

Choose your app and set your timer.

  • Go to Settings > Digital Wellbeing & Parental Controls
  • Tap the graph
  • Tap Set timer next to the app you want to restrict
  • Select the time limit you want to set, then tap set

In iOS

Screen Time Page iOS

Screen Time allows you to set limits.

Choose screen time apps view

Choose which apps you want to restrict.

  • Go to Settings > Screen Time
  • Make sure Screen Time is turned on
  • Go to App Limits
  • Tap Add limit
  • Select app categories or individual apps to restrict
  • Tap Next one
  • Select the time limit you want to set (Optional: you can tap adjust days to set time limits for specific days)
  • Tap To add

(Oh, and don’t forget to turn off push notifications.)

If you live with someone who is sufficiently nice and understanding (especially if they also work from home), try the buddy system. Know each other’s bad habits. If either of you catches the other “stuck” in some distraction, gently call them to the other’s attention in an effort to get them out. A simple “Hey. You’re stuck. Breaking free” can work wonders if you’re both determined to do better.

To be clear, the goal isn’t to avoid out-of-work at all costs. The goal is to control distraction. Sometimes that means indenting.

plan everything

Years ago, when I was recovering from a car accident, my occupational therapist told me not only to take regular breaks when I was working from home, but also to scheme those breaks in my calendar — and to hold on to them as religiously as if it were a work visit or a deadline. Ditto for household chores, walks outside, and just about anything that wasn’t “work.” Even food had to be in the calendar.

I smiled and nodded, ignoring this advice. I continued to struggle.

Finally, I admitted: scheduling things like laundry, snacks, and exercise so that I was never more than 55 minutes of uninterrupted (and usually less) work. A typical day on my calendar would have 30- to 55-minute work blocks, punctuated by task breaks, food breaks, exercise breaks, rest breaks, and errands. Every minute during my scheduled workday was accounted for.

Sure enough, my physical condition improved gradually. (By the way, I’m better now.) But there was a curious side effect: I was… way more productive. Scheduling my distractions and other non-work into my day, forcing myself to participate in them as vigorously as any “work” task, made me more efficient and more focused on my work. And sticking to a strict schedule for everyday things like “watching TV” and “doing the laundry” helped me manage my ADHD symptoms — without ever feeling debilitating.

(I also did more laundry.)

It turns out that this is similar to the Pomodoro Technique – a time management method developed in the 1980s, where you work at 25-minute intervals, interrupted by short breaks. And my routine is even more like the 52/17 rule — a Pomodoro variant proposed by the Draugiem Group, creators of the productivity app DeskTime. In 2014, the company reported that the most productive DeskTime users worked for 52 minutes at a time, then pause for 17 minutes, and so on. Their breaks became “more effective” because they would be 100 percent committed to taking a break during those 17-minute allotments — and, by extension, more committed during their 52-minute work.

The takeaway here is that breaks have to happen, so put them on your calendar. Plan, as far as possible, everything during your working day at home. Everything. From that phone call you need to make to your doctor’s office to the time you want to spend playing Fortnite. (And your actual work, of course.)

Ditto to meet the needs of your cohabitants. Roommates, partners, family, pets – everyone you live with will want something from you from time to time. You have to get really good at saying no if you want to minimize distractions (learning to say no is beyond the scope of this article), but there are things you should say yes to. At some point, the kids need to be picked up, the trash needs to be taken out, dinner made/ordered, etc. Plan ahead as much as possible. And if you both work from home, tag team responsibilities (e.g., “I have the toddler shift during the even hours, you take the toddler shift during the odd hours.”)

Also, don’t forget about negative planning. Sometimes distraction is even more unwelcome than usual (such as when you’re on a video call, working on a complex problem, or rushing to finish a project). Just like you would (or at least, should do) with your external colleagues, be communicative. Let the people you live with know in advance that tomorrow from 1:30 PM to 2:30 PM is off limits. Or that if your door is completely closed, you shouldn’t knock.

The corollary of all this is that to avoid distractions while working from home, you should also avoid distractions at work while living from home. Unless you really have the kind of job that requires you to be available 24/7, make sure that when you’re not on time, you’re free too – be it for dinner time, bedtime, family time or alone time. You can’t get the best out of your job if you’re making the least of your life.

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