Distractions at work have been a constant for a very, very long time. Before the pandemic, if you asked people where they went to “really” get work done they rarely mentioned their cubicle. But a little over a year ago, all of that flipped. Suddenly, those rare few who were still working from an office were isolated enough to actually focus. And the rest of us were working from home—or living at work—and fighting off a brand-new set of distractions we’d never prepared for.
Now, we’re dealing with distractions that may even seem noble. We’re dealing with kids who want our attention or a spouse or a partner who wants our time. And we’re dealing with new temptations. That quick load of laundry steals away our time and inevitably turns into a series of random household chores dreamed up by a subconscious mind that really doesn’t want to go back to writing emails.
So, in this article, we’ll outline the ways that home-based workers can limit home-based distractions. You probably can’t eliminate them entirely—just like you couldn’t eliminate distractions at the office—but you can take steps to minimize the opportunities and reduce the temptation.
Set A Schedule
The first strategy you need to limit distractions when working remotely is to set a schedule. Set your own business hours. That doesn’t mean you need to go back to eight hours a day, five days a week. But it does mean that you need to commit to a regular schedule just like you had in the office. In addition to setting that schedule, make sure you communicate to the people you work with and the people you work around (the ones also known as your family and friends).
Not having a set schedule for work leaves you at the mercy of other people’s schedules. And that goes both for work and for home life. Without a schedule, it will be way too easy to dip back into your inbox while watching a movie with family and not realize you’re working until the credits start rolling. Without a schedule, it will be way too easy for family or friends to ask for a “quick” favor “since you’re home” that ends up keeping you from work for several unplanned hours. But it’s also way too easy to avoid those scenarios just by setting a schedule and sticking to it.
Batch Your Tasks
The second strategy you need to limit distractions when working remotely is to batch your tasks. In some ways, this strategy goes along with the first strategy since batching your tasks means deciding in advance to commit a block time to specific tasks. In practice, it means setting the times of the day (or even the days of the week) that you do specific tasks. That way, you start your day with a plan and don’t end your day with the realization that all you did was respond to email and attend virtual meetings.
At a minimum, divide your day between “proactive” and “reactive” work. Proactive work is the deeper, focused work that creates value or solves a problem. Reactive work is the work you do usually in response to someone else’s request. It may help them get work done (and may empty your inbox) but it rarely gets you closer to your personal objectives. Reactive work feels productive, even though it’s not. And because it feels that way it’s too tempting to spend the day doing it. Unless you get paid to delete emails, make sure you’ve got blocks of time on your schedule to actually work on what you get paid to do.
Build Work/Life Boundaries
The third strategy you need to limit distractions when working remotely is to build work/life boundaries. Those are the boundaries we used to have before the pandemic (or maybe even longer ago) to help us determine when we were in work mode and when we weren’t. Our commute, which used to be a source of frustration for so many, actually had a beneficial purpose in acting as a physical boundary or a transition ritual for us. And now, a year into their work-from-home lives, many people are re-creating their commutes with a walk around the block before work or some other new ritual.
For others, it might be different sections of the house or even different devices for work tasks and personal tasks. Those little boundaries, those little pieces of friction between work and life spheres go a long way toward eliminating some of the distractions when one sphere is trying to remind you about itself while you’re trying to focus on the other sphere. Build that friction in and you will be a whole lot more successful limiting some of those extraneous distractions.
Build People Boundaries
The final strategy you need to limit distractions when working remotely is to build people boundaries. All the work/life boundaries in the world won’t help very much if the people around you don’t respect them. In the past, the hardest people boundaries to build for many of us was the after-hours boundary that blocked work colleagues (especially managers) from communicating after work—or at least blocked us from seeing the communication. But now, many of us struggle with the opposite: “how to you block out the people you live with so you can focus on work?”
The thing to remember is that building these boundaries isn’t about being rude to people. Instead, it’s about making sure you can be present with the people you’re present with. You’re a better team player when you can focus on the people you work with, but you’re also a better spouse or parent when you can fully focus on the people you live with. It’s not about hiding from people; it’s about being present with them when you can.
And that’s really the goal with all of these strategies and the reason to limit distractions. You can’t eliminate them. Most of the distractions in your life are things you need in your life. You just need to focus on them at some other time in your day. It’s not about avoiding those tasks; it’s about doing them at the appropriate time—the time that helps you do your best work ever, and live your best life ever.
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