How to Stay Focused, Effective and Stress-Free

Until recently I was going in to the office to work Monday to Friday, 9 to 5. But over the past few months for a variety of reasons, I’ve slowly cut back my in-office time and now I pretty much only work from home. There are a lot of benefits to this, such as working in my pajamas, making hot lunches and more time with my wife — who also works from home. There are also a lot of challenges including household distractions, a flexibility that leads to procrastination, and household chores and errands somehow manage to take up more of the day than they used to.

While working from home should feel a lot less stressful, sometimes I actually find myself stressing over not being productive enough. So I recently decided it was time to start a new regime of focus and productivity. Here are the steps I’ve taken, which have so far proven very effective. While I used these steps to be more productive working from home, they can all be adapted to the office.

Clearing My Desktops (Both Physical and Virtual)

Between components of in-progress projects, to-do lists, books I’m reading, reference materials, gadgets and a variety of other items, both my computer desktop and my physical desktop were chaotic. I started to realize that there was little chance of me staying focused with so many things to distract my attention. This clutter also acted as a constant reminder of all the other things I need to do, making me stressed and anxious. It was time for a change.

I cleared my desk of all but the most essential items, and removed the files and folders off of my desktop. I now have a clear working space, and have only two folders on my desktop: one for to-do lists, and one for works in progress. I feel much calmer already.

Power Hours

With so many other things to work on, think about, and be distracted by, I decided to start using power hours. I turn off my email, phone, and any other distractors, close any programs or windows not related to what I’m going to work on and set a timer for one hour. I then stay focused on one task until either it is complete, or the hour is through. Once the timer goes off I am free to take a short break, though often I’m on such a roll by that point that I stay focused for some time after the timer runs out. During these short breaks, I check my email and voicemail, then I allow myself a few minutes of guilt-free distraction. Snacks, coffee, bathroom breaks, etc. all wait until this time. Then I do it again. I’m getting way more done because of it.

New Morning Routine

When I was an office-dweller, my morning routine went like this: shower, make coffee, make my lunch, check email, read any interesting items from my RSS feed, work on personal projects if time permitted, then walk to work. This was effective because arriving at the office for a set time meant that I couldn’t spend too long on unproductive tasks, and the walk to work got me ready to focus on work. When I started working from home, those unproductive tasks started bleeding into work time, and I felt unfocused and unproductive when I started working.

Here is my new routine: make coffee, check email and RSS feed (which is much shorter because I’ve removed most of my subscriptions), read a book (something I enjoy – keep the dry, challenging stuff for another time), shower, stretch while focusing on having a productive day, then begin work. This separates my work time from my play time and I start to work feeling calm and focused.

Learning to Refocus

There is a lot you can do to minimize distractions, but inevitably they will happen throughout the day. The tough part is refocusing afterward. When I’m feeling scattered and finding it hard to get back into the groove, I sit still for a moment and take some deep breaths while picturing myself being very focused and productive. If I’m still having trouble, I have some music on hand that helps calm me, and a book that I can read passages from if I’m still struggling (in my case it’s the Tao Te Ching, but anything that inspires you or helps you focus will work).

A Place for Working

Separating work time from play time was easier when I worked in an office. Once I started working from home, the desk I sat at to surf the internet was the same as the one I worked at, and it became hard to separate the two. It used to be that when I thought of something I wanted to look up on the internet while I was working, I made a note, and looked it up when I got home. While working from home I get in the bad habit of looking them up right away.

Now, I when it is time to use the computer for fun, I bring my laptop into another room. My desk is for working, so I only do work there. This has helped me stay on task because I leave the distractions for once I’ve left my desk.

If you are an office dweller, you can often adapt this technique. Rather than checking your personal email or Facebook or whatever from your computer on your desk (it’s okay, you can admit that you do it), go into the lunchroom and use the wi-fi on your iPhone, Blackberry, or other mobile device (if you have one). This not only separates your work space from your play space, but the fact that it’s less convenient to send emails or post status updates from your phone will help you leave the less pressing things until you get home.

What do you do to stay focused and productive? We’d like to hear your tips and ideas!

(Image courtesy of helgabj under a Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution generic license.)

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Mark is a graphic designer and audio engineer from Canada. He is the editor of Some Design Blog and the author of the soon to be published Encyclopedia of Home Recording.


  1. Gary on the 29th December

    Very helpful post!
    It summarises my mornings down to a tee. As I type this I’m sat here at 1030, surrounded by clutter, yet to make a start on work.

    Time to get myself in gear eh!

  2. Kevin Gainey on the 29th December

    Great tips! I’ve implemented many of these over the years working from home. The biggest one for me was using a timer. I use the Pomodoro Technique which has the added benefit of improving my estimation for how long something will take. Thanks for posting.

  3. TrafficColeman on the 29th December

    I monitor my time doing a number of task. Staying on task and not diong random stuff online that don’t make you more productive is incredibly bad news….set and time limit and stick to it.

    “Black Seo Guy “Signing Off

  4. Bryce Christiansen on the 29th December

    Thanks for the great advice you give here. I’m sure many people around this time of year are feeling the same way about focus.

    One thing that I do to stay focused is to have a list with me of both the day, week, and long term tasks/goals. That way as soon as I finish a task I can see what else needs to get done. Distractions are less likely to overcome work priorities.

    As far as working at home, I too have that opportunity. The way I look at it is that working at home is a privilege. If I want to keep that privilege I need to make sure productivity at home is as high or higher than productivity in the office.

  5. Matt Clark on the 29th December

    Great post, I to have found that it is important that you have a solid DMO, (Daily Method of Operation) this allows me to focus and know that I am accomplishing things that move me forward! Thanks for sharing.

  6. Bryan Thompson on the 30th December

    Mark, I really enjoyed this post. I particularly love the Power Hours part. Something so simple yet most of us don’t think about it. To actually shut down the distractions (phone, email, text messages, etc.) and set a timer to hone in deep for a project to get the most quality out of a short amount of time. Brilliant. Thanks for sharing this!

  7. Linen Tablecloths on the 31st December

    The depression we are in has made it almost impossible to stay stress free at work. Your company has been laying off people left and right.Acknowledging stress is the first step in lessening its impact. Many of us spend so much time in a stressed state, we have forgotten what it feels like to be fully relaxed and alert. Being stressed out feels normal.

  8. Daquan Wright on the 2nd January

    To be honest it’s so easy to get sidetracked at your home. It’s easier for me if I DON’T surf the web and keep the clutter to a minimum on my desk. You have to focus and that means removing anything that is breaking your focus. It’s hard to do too many things at one time, so focus on a goal and solve them one by one.

  9. BumbyScott on the 2nd January

    Thank you for the reminder that I need to set aside the ‘ Focus ‘ time. Being a blogger, I find that a great percentage of my work time is devoted to reading other authors in my niche and I have no time or desire to focus on my own work. I know from experience that the the time rule does in fact work.
    Thanks again.
    Always, Bumby

  10. Dot Moran on the 4th January

    Thanks you for some excellent ideas to start off the new year. I like to keep my big desk diary open and I note down the times I start and finish on every different thing I do during the day. Then at the end of the day I can review the productivity versus other things I have done and it makes me very aware of what I have achieved – or not!

  11. Marie on the 5th August

    I didn’t realize that working at home can still cause stress until I read this. However, I do agree with all your tips since stress at work is one of the biggest tasks workers face almost every day. Having helpful ideas on how to combat stress is very effective and sometimes, we just need some push to realize what needs to be done.

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