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.
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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