Distractions when Working from Home

November 23, 2021

How do you manage and reduce distractions when working from home? This post we present a few techniques to reframe distractions and how to accept them.

Most companies and organisations nowadays agree that adapting to the new hybrid and distributed working models requires meaningful change.

Not only do companies have to adapt, but so do people. Working from home comes with a very different set of distractions to a more traditional office setting. In fact it is one of the most common struggle people who are finding themselves working from home are facing.

We have been working in a fully distributed manner for over 10 years at Clearword and wanted to break down a few of the misconceptions around distractions, and provide some ideas on how to address them. We also want to provide a way to shift your mindset about distractions, and how to handle them more positively.

Distractions Happen

Let's make this clear, distractions happen. In an office, someone walking by and discussing about their project is a distraction. It is related to the company, but it doesn't make it any less distracting.

Something to understand before we start looking at how to reduce distraction is its relation to mental health. High amounts of attention distractions have shown to lead to higher stress, lower productivity and bad mood. Secondly, distracting someone for 30 seconds has a much higher impact that you may think. So think twice before you purposely distract someone.

For instance, you get interrupted, the true cost of distractions is approximately equal to the length of distraction + 23 minutes and 15 seconds. If you distract someone for 30 seconds, their attention and focus is distracted really for 23 minutes and 25 seconds.

actual length of distraction + 23 minutes and 15 seconds = the true cost of a single distraction

Actual length of distraction + 23 minutes and 15 seconds = the True cost of a single distraction

Enemies of Working from Home

We usually say the two enemies of working from home are the "Fridge" and the "Bed". But in reality it goes much further than that. Without a system of prioritisation and accountability in place, most people are likely to naturally get distracted constantly and will find it hard to work remotely.

Anything from your personal hobbies, deliveries, doorbells, kids, pets, household appliances, etc can all be a great sources of distraction, leading to a lack of motivation. Some consider those factors the "enemies" of remote work and virtual home offices. We think it's different.

Just like we believe strongly meetings are disjointed and frustrating because they were never meant to be like this, working from home has a similar problem. We can't take outdated "in-office" working practices and transpose them into our home, and expect them to work.

To work efficiently from home, you will need to develop your own techniques to stay motivated, learn how to unplug after work, and during the day, more importantly, develop your own system for personal prioritisation and accountability.

The number one enemy of working from home is a lack of ruthless personal prioritisation system

Personal Prioritisation System

The first thing to understand when working from home is that you will get distracted. Your job is to figure out how you can do stretches of work, and then allow yourself to be distracted. Change the way you see work.

Before starting to look into the various time management techniques, let's start with the basics.

  1. Setup a todo list. You can use Trello, Notion, Todoist, etc
  2. Prioritize what is urgent and important (top 2, 3)
  3. Do NOT multitask
  4. Group high-attention activities together
  5. Eliminate distractions, for shorter amounts of time

Using a Todo List

The "todo" list is a double-edge sword, from destroying your motivation, to making you believe you're not doing anything, it is also an incredible source of information if you maintain it and pay attention to it.

Some of us use todo lists slightly differently than most people. Instead of constantly looking at a deflatingly large list of todos, we only look at it twice a day. The first time in the morning, and the second at the end of the day.

Tip: As you look at your big todo list in the morning, write down the 2-3 most important tasks on a piece of paper which you keep with you. Then close your large todo list. Throughout the day, try to not look up the big todo list, but only look at the most important tasks you wrote down on a piece of paper. When the day is over, load up your todo list, and remove/update the parts you've completed. This technique will trick your brain into complete tasks instead of worrying about the ever-growing list of todos you can't finish.

Once you have your list, we're going to apply the following matrix to the items in the list.

Eisenhower Decision Principle
Eisenhower Decision Principle

In the discipline of time-management, this is known as the Eisenhower principle, and its sole purpose is to help you prioritise and work smarter, not harder.

What are Your Top Priorities?

Every morning, we recommend taking 10-15 minutes to look and update your todo list. Once you've updated it, and have classified it using the matrix defined above, pick the top 2 or 3 priorities you want to work on.

Once you have them, write them down on paper. And close your todo list.

Your goal is to declutter your organisational mind and really highly focus on a few tasks. By doing that, you will learn to celebrate small victories, and you will start feeling and realising that you are more productive than you think.

Do Not Multitask

This is tricky especially since we have phones and emails and slack and etc etc. Once you've picked your top priorities, we like to say turn off everything else and really focus on JUST doing that task.

If the task takes too long from the beginning, you will have to learn how to break it down into smaller tasks. Another important point will be establishing boundaries with your colleagues.

Working from home does not mean being always 100% on and reachable. Sometimes you just need to turn off notifications and messages for a bit and do the work. It is your responsibility to communicate clearly with your colleagues that you will not be reachable and the reasons why.

High-Attention Activities

We also recommend trying to group high-attention activities together. For instance meetings are extremely high bandwidth for our brains (If we are paying attention), and they can be quite tiring. Responding to emails in batch can also require a lot of our attention.

We recommend setting up "blocks" of time during the day to try and group those activities together so they don't bleed into other tasks you may want to achieve.

Some companies go as far as setting up "no meeting Fridays" which is in sort, a way to group high-attention activities and make sure some days are free from them. For us, we prefer establishing our meeting cadence, and having everyone's expectations managed.

Allow Yourself To be Distracted

This is hard to swallow for many "traditional managers" who are used to the office management style. Unfortunately as we explained above, being distracted is only natural and a part of working remotely.

Accepting that distractions are a fact of life are important. Instead of trying to eliminate them altogether, try and reduce them and then lean into them purposely.

☝️ Turn off your phone, disable notifications on your computer, sit for 30 minutes and just work with headphones. After that 30 minutes, take a 10-15 minutes break, and just do things around the house (I did that twice when writing this article. 1) emptied the dishwasher, 2) cleaned my computer desk).

Understanding distraction and procrastination is quite important and really valuable in figuring out how you can more effectively work from home. If you're interested, have a look at "Stop Procrastinating".

There are many time management techniques and Dan Silvestre writes really eloquently about them, we strongly recommend having a look at some of his posts.