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Productivity tips for working from home so you can get stuff done

Tired of being distracted when trying to do work from your own home? Our data-backed tips and exercises will help you stay focused.

February 21, 2019 by Lauren Cochran

“I work from home,” you say.

It’s just four words, but in those four words, people hear so much more.

What they tend to hear is:

“I work 10 minutes a day and wear pajamas 24/7 between binging Netflix and eating chocolate. Somehow, I’ve convinced people I’m a professional.”

If you work from home, you’re probably thinking the same thing I am.

That sounds nice.

Nothing could be further from the truth, but it sounds nice.

No, the reality of working from home is more akin to staring down 26 open browser tabs, desperately trying to prioritize work, shifting between tasks, convincing kids (human or furry) that you need to work, and losing hours to creating productivity-boosting Spotify playlists.

Fortunately, it’s not a foregone conclusion.

It’s possible to work from home and be productive.

It can even be simple.

Before we dig into how to direct and optimize your attention, though, let’s take a peek at what’s actually happening in the brain when we’re paying attention (or not, as it were).

Attention is a limited resource and process

First, an obvious but necessary caveat: I’m not a brain scientist.

It was my second-choice career, but I’m more like a brain advocate. I’ve read the greatest hits and I own a few of the t-shirts, but no one is asking me to perform a craniotomy.

With that covered, we need to break down the term “attention.”

In the common tongue, it’s something we’re actively doing.

But by scientific definition, attention is as much about what we’re actively aware of doing as well as unaware of doing.

Attention is a culmination of processes that lets you filter out information irrelevant to your current goal and hone in on what you’re trying to do -- no aspect of it is effortless, though we’re usually unaware of the behind-the-scenes mechanics.

Specifically, we’re not consciously aware of the filtering process, which is referred to as cognitive inhibition.

It’s easiest to demonstrate this concept visually, so let’s run through a quick exercise.

Open up our online courses article page in another tab and come back to this sentence.

Now, do me a favor. I’m looking for an article that talks about writing. Could you find that for me, please?

You found it within a split second, right? It felt effortless. All you had to was look for the right data.

At least, that’s what it seemed like.

In reality, you were using one of the two types of attention, top-down attention, to filter out data via inhibition based on the task I gave you and pre-existing knowledge.

How you arrived at the answer likely varied -- maybe you disregarded the round emoji because you knew none of them are used to convey writing, or perhaps you looked at the text -- but it was still as much about disregarding stimuli as it was about identifying it.

So although you weren’t consciously aware of it, your brain’s behind-the-scenes action was more like this:

But that exercise was easy, right?

OK, let’s makes things a little trickier.

Name the color of the words you see below.  Any order will do -- top-down or across is fine.

Now look again.

Were you reading the text or looking at the color?

The text, right?

Known as the Stroop effect, this is one of the more classic tests used to demonstrate the limits of top-down processing and our attention allocation.

Your brain can’t physically process all of the information you’re receiving at the same time, so it prioritizes and defaults to automatic behaviors like reading to conserve resources.

That’s the theory, anyway.

And I’ve got bad news -- the second type of attention, called bottom-up attention wherein we perceive only the data processed through our senses, is just as limited because it’s unconsciously directed.

You can’t suppress it and you can’t control it.

Let me prove it. (There’s a point to this, I promise.)

Look at the “O” in the bottom left corner of this image before looking at anything else.

You looked at the pink “O” in the top row first, didn’t you?

It’s reflexive: you noticed the pink “O” because it didn’t blend into the background and despite your efforts to narrow in on the bottom left, your attention was drawn to the incongruity first.

This reflexive attention was a useful trait when we had to survive in forests and run from toothy things that wanted to eat us. It’s somewhat less desirable when we’re trying to get work done amidst distractions.

But, OK, you’ve indulged me long enough. There was a point to me running you through those exercises:

To demonstrate that attention is, indeed, a finite resource and limited process. It’s easy to disrupt and you can only spend so much of it at a given time.

If you want to make use of this precious resource, you have to be as vigilant as you are methodical about cutting down on distractions.

So now that I’ve got your attention -- pun intended -- let’s get to those tips about making the most of your attention and keeping your focus when you work from home.

4 tips to stay on task when working from home

#1. Don’t multitask -- you aren’t built for it.

There’s this cultural perception that everything we do should be accomplishing multiple goals at once.

Answering a customer email? You should be uploading videos and listening to a webinar simultaneously to make the most use of your time. Cooking dinner? If you’re not tuned into the latest podcast, you’re wasting a valuable hour.

Heck, we even have fidget spinners so we can make being distracted a multitasking process.

Unfortunately, you’re not being more productive when you multitask.

If anything, you’re making your goals harder to reach.

There’s a wide breadth of research indicating that the human brain wasn’t built for heavy-duty task-switching. When we try to make it work, our error rate and duration goes up.

A little multitasking won’t hurt -- sorting laundry while you’re watching the latest Marvel series is fine -- but trying to handle complex tasks like what I described above simultaneously has one universal result:

None of those tasks are done as well as they could be, nor as efficiently, because of the cognitive burden of task-switching.

So stop trying to do it all and take it one task at a time. Your work will improve and take less time. It really is that simple.

#2. Create hallowed ground (aka, office space)

Remember the exercise we did to demonstrate bottom-up attention and how we said you can’t suppress it? Consider that in the context of trying to work from your couch.

If something is playing on the TV, your ability to focus is all-but-shot. Why? It’s because of these pesky cells in the eye called rod cells.

They’re the overwhelming majority of photoreceptor cells in your eyes, in fact: you have about 92 million of them.

Concentrated around the outside of your central vision field, rods don’t perceive color -- that’s what cones do -- but they’re excellent for tracking motion and sensitive to flickering effects.

All of which is to say that the majority of the photoreceptor cells in your eyes work against your attention span in an environment with perceived movement, whether it’s on a screen or not.

And that translates to your attention -- alongside your productivity -- waning as a result of the combined effects of reflexive focus and cells that are designed to pick up on distractions.

Again, it was and is a great characteristic for survivability -- it’s less ideal, however, for getting work done while the TV plays, the cat tries to eat the blinds, and your kids are conducting lego warfare on a massive scale.

The only way to work around it is to create a space that limits these distractions. If you have the room for an office with a door, enforce it as your workspace.

If you don’t or aren’t in a position to have a closed door, even adding a room divider to block the motion from your visual field can help cut down on distractions and strengthen your focus.

You can pick up some inexpensive dividers at most online marketplaces like Amazon. It’s a small investment that yields great returns for your attention span.

Bottom line:

Whether you run your own business or have a job that lets you work from home, Your workspace, wherever it is, needs to be treated as hallowed ground.

Set boundaries with yourself and the people around you -- when you’re behind that screen or closed door, you’re at work. If it’s not an emergency, it’s not a distraction that’s permitted in your workspace.

(Signs with bold letters and red font help, I find.)

#3. Give yourself breaks to boost your productivity

Look, I get it.

It sounds like a paradox.

“Want to be more productive? Stop being productive altogether.”

But it’s true. Taking breaks from long stretches of work improves your engagement (which lifts your productivity) with your tasks and relieves stress.

Those positive effects compound, as well, helping you avoid one of the most devastating widowmakers to productivity -- burnout -- by encouraging mood management.

All you need is a timer and a little help from the “Pomodoro Technique.”

Here’s how it works: you set a timer for 25 minutes, do your work -- without multitasking and in your hallowed workspace -- until it goes off. Once it’s up, you stop for five minutes.

After you’ve gone through four cycles, it’s recommended that you take a longer break. The key thing to remember here is that it needs to be a clean break from work.

When the timer goes off, don’t keep tweaking the copy because you’re not sure about that last comma. Don’t pick up your phone to answer more emails.

Genuinely take those little windows as moments of reprieve. Ideally, you’ll want to stand up and take a small walk around the house during these breaks.

Why? Because staying hunched over at your desk for hours at a time puts you at increased risk for a variety of health problems, including blood clots and all-cause mortality.

Fortunately, the Pomodoro technique provides the perfect system for making sure you move around and focus more on your work.

It’s a win-win.

As is sorting your priorities correctly so those 25-minute increments go to what matters most.

#4. Differentiate important and urgent

I bet you have at least half a dozen urgent things to get done today.

Maybe twice as many important tasks wait for you, too.

But there’s only one set of tasks you really need to be focused on accomplishing: those that fall into both the urgent and important category.

They’re not the same thing, and if you’re treating them like they are, you’re overburdening your to-do list (which is probably leading to overwhelmed procrastination).

Separating them is surprisingly pretty straightforward. All you need to do is create an Eisenhower Matrix, pictured below, and start listing your tasks in the relevant categories.

How does the Eisenhower matrix and differentiating between urgent and important tasks help you be more productive?

It conserves your ever-dwindling resources -- time and attention -- by highlighting tasks that can be planned for, delegated to an assistant, or eliminated altogether.

Efficiently completing a to-do-list in which 80% of it is unnecessary isn’t being productive: if anything, I’d wager that it’s more of a symptom of perfectionism gone awry.

Think about it -- what else could you have accomplished with 80% of your time freed up?

  • You could’ve gotten a jump on your planning for the tasks that are important but not yet urgent.
  • You might have spent time reading skills-development books. Reading makes your brain more efficient, which in turn improves your overall productivity.
  • Or, you could’ve taken a few minutes to practice mindfulness and meditation -- whichever way or method works best for you -- something that neuroscientists believe improves attention, creativity, and positive moods.

You get the idea, hopefully.

A well-done and focused task isn’t productive if it wasn’t necessary in the first place, so spare your already stretched attention span by setting important and urgent apart.

It is, ironically, urgent unto itself.

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Attention is a scarce resource, so spend it wisely

Focusing when you work from home can feel like an Olympian challenge.

There’s always something else to balance on top of your work -- family, education, entertainment -- and with few systems in place to keep you productive, staying on task for any extended duration becomes harder and harder.

But there are steps you can take to make the battle easier for you.

Here’s the recap:

  • Attention is as much about what you’re actively doing as it is about what you’re actively ignoring.
  • There are two types of attention -- top-down and bottom-up -- and you only have control over the first.
  • Attention is easy to trip up in the brain. There are too many stimuli for you to process at once, so your brain takes shortcuts to save on attentional resources. Unfortunately, those shortcuts don’t always bode well for performance.
  • Don’t believe me? Run a Stroop test on yourself or someone else. Even knowing what the effect causes, you’ll still default to reading the words and not naming the colors.
  • The most critical tip for staying productive is to stop multitasking. Humans aren’t built to handle complex multitasking -- tasks take longer and are more error-prone when we try.
  • Do you know what humans are built for, though? Tracking motion. The majority of your photoreceptors, rod cells, are sensitive to motion, which means trying to juggle work on top of watching TV or movement is nigh impossible. You need designated workspace.
  • You also need breaks. Taking breaks from your work keeps your engagement level higher and improves your overall creativity. The Pomodoro technique is a great system for this.
  • As an added bonus, use your breaks to get up and move around for a few minutes. It’ll improve your physical health and reduce your risk factor for a variety of illnesses.
  • There is a difference between urgent and important, and it’s a necessary difference to designate when you’re tackling tasks.
  • Use the Eisenhower matrix to sort your tasks between urgency and importance. Remember, an efficiently-done task that serves no purpose is an inefficient use of time.

The gist of becoming more productive isn’t to try doing more in the same amount of time.

Instead, it’s to apply your attention consciously and mindfully to one thing at a time in a controlled space without overwhelming yourself.

It may seem daunting, but the alternative -- not being productive at all because you’re paralyzed with stress and under-performing -- is doubly so, I think.