If the ongoing work-from-home experiment had a tagline, this quote—erroneously attributed to Abe Lincoln—would be it: “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the ax.” So, what do you say we sharpen that (metaphorical) ax of yours and learn how to focus while working from home?
Here are some of the questions we answer in this article:
- 🤯 Why is it so difficult to concentrate at home?
- 🪓 What are some of the most common focus killers?
- 🧘♀️ How can mindfulness help you overcome them?
- 📈 What are the benefits of mindfulness meditation?
- 🌊 Why is the state of “flow” and how to achieve it?
💡 Before you begin… This article is part of our series on minimalism in a remote workplace. Check our other guides when you’re done here:
- ☝️ Minimalism in a Digital Remote World
- 🌱 Balance and Tranquility: Beat Distractions at Home
- 🏡 Designing a Minimalist Home Office in 6 Easy Steps
- 🧰 5 Benefits of Minimalist To-Do List Apps
Table of Contents
🤯 Here’s Why You Can’t Focus at Home
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Poor Work Schedule
Are you an early bird or a night owl?
Do you know when you’re the most productive?
Do you have a daily ritual of recurring tasks to stay on track?
It turns out, the way you set your schedule may be affecting your ability to focus while working from home.
According to Daniel Pink, the author of a New York Times bestseller When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, the best time to tackle concentration-intensive, analytical work is during what’s called a “Peak.”
For early risers, the Peak usually occurs in the morning and is followed by an afternoon “Trough”—best for admin work—and evening “Recovery” when we excel in creative pursuits. If you’re a night owl, the order is reversed.(1)
“So, what if I don’t have a fixed schedule?”
If you notoriously ignore your natural inclinations and follow an erratic, unpredictable schedule, you fail to capitalize on your most productive moments. And that means you can’t focus on the work that really matters, when it matters.
Home/Virtual Office Distractions
There’s a reason why some of the world’s greatest minds prefer to work in seclusion. Writers like Thoreau, Hemingway, and Twain all penned some of their best works barricaded in remote retreats, far from civilization and pesky distractions.
Unfortunately, most of us telecommuters aren’t so lucky.
Kids playing tag, family members asking for another “favor,” or friends dropping by with a social call—the modern “home office” isn’t the most focus-friendly environment.
And it only gets worse:
- 🛠 Hardware/software issues
- 🐌 Slow internet connection
- 🧹 Mounting household chores
- 🙇 Poor workplace ergonomics
Should we continue? And if that wasn’t enough, your distributed team is bound to hack your attention even further:
- ⏰ Long, unproductive video meetings
- 🟢 The expectation to stay connected 24/7
- 💬 Misuse of sync vs. sync communication
- 🌗 Not observing time-zones differences
- 📥 Unsolicited emails and calls
It doesn’t matter how disciplined you are. Even if you filter out most of the home/office distractions, the trickle that gets through can effectively kill your focus.
Prolonged Home-Office Isolation
Sounds crazy, right? After all, is there better nourishment for deep focus than a blissful time alone, far from the office chatter and nosy co-workers?
The thing is, you can only defy the social animal in you for so long.
When you don’t have the organic, micro-distractions—watercooler chit-chat, coffee breaks, talkative co-workers—you’re bound to invite other, more intrusive companions:
- 💭 Racing thoughts and anxiety
- 🖱️ Aimless web browsing
- 🌋 Doom scrolling (negative news)
- 👥 Compulsive social media use
Should we add that none of these activities encourage a deep, intensive focus on the real work? As Cal Newport explains in his interview for Daily Stoic:
“This hardness is especially manifest during those periods of downtime when you’re alone with your thoughts. People avoid these confrontations through constant, low-quality digital distraction much in the way that people of another era might have dealt with these difficulties with heavy drinking.”(2)
Of course, those false companions don’t only chip away your concentration. They also affect the way you feel about yourself and your work. When you have too much time to think, you can easily fall into the limbo of doubt and self-criticism.
🧠 3 Tips to Improve Focus While Working From Home
“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”Bruce Lee
1. Embrace Mindfulness
As cheesy as this may sound, meditation and mindfulness are one of the most effective ways to regain laser-sharp focus while working from home.
According to the American Psychological Association(3), mindfulness practices help:
- ✋ Suppress distractions
- 🏃♀️ Fends off racing thoughts
- 🧠 Improve working memory
- 🙉 Boost emotional resilience
So, what’s mindfulness anyway? 🤔
In simple terms, mindfulness is a state of absolute focus on a task, thought, action, object… you get the idea. It’s total immersion in the singular, to the point where everything else is pushed to the margin of your perception.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, a renowned expert on meditation and founder of the Center for Mindfulness (CFM), defines mindfulness as “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally.”(4)
Jon Kabat-Zinn’s talk on mindfulness at Google.
While mindfulness is a complex, multi-layered concept, you can become more aware of your work and improve your focus by following these simple steps:
- ⛅️ Plan your day in advance. Dedicate each evening to plan your next day. Decide on the three most important tasks and write them down.
- ⏳ Block time. Anchor your obligations in space and time. Estimate the duration based on previous projects and put the tasks on your calendar.
- 📭 Remove distractions. Clean up your home office and enable Do Not Disturb mode on your phone. Make sure nothing interferes with your work.
- 🌊 Get under the surface. Take a moment to deconstruct and deeply understand each task. Can you break it down into smaller steps? What makes it easy/difficult?
- 🤹♂️ Don’t multitask! Multitasking is a myth so stop trying. Instead, prioritize work and tackle the most difficult and challenging bits first.
- ✍️ Get into journaling. Whenever you feel stuck or start walking in circles, take a step back and write down your thoughts. Use this template for some ideas.
2. Practice Mindfulness Meditation
In a 2016 book Tools of Titans, Tim Ferris, author and the creator of a record-smashing podcast The Tim Ferriss Show, asked some of the world’s most successful people about their daily habits.
It turns out that 80% of the interviewees—including the “Governator” Arnold Schwarzenegger and writer Maria Popova—mentioned meditation as one of the driving factors behind their success.(5)
While the benefits of meditation are not easily measurable, Mayo Clinic suggests it may positively affect physical and mental health as well as work performance:
- 💡 Boosts creativity
- 🔎 Improves concentration
- 👋 Increases self-awareness
- 💤 Alleviates sleep disorders
- ♥️ Helps manage health conditions
You can think of meditation as a maintenance program for mindfulness. It’ll help you prime yourself for the day and gain fully clarity and focus while working from home.
Here’s a simple recipe:
- 🍼 Start small. Set aside a couple of minutes each day. You can meditate in the morning, before work, or in the evening. Consistency matters more than timing.
- 👌 Get comfortable. Sit on a chair, pillow, carpet, bed, or on the floor. Whatever works for you. Rest your hands on your knees and relax.
- 📻 Tune in. Start tuning in to the rhythm of your breath. Notice how the air enters and exits your body with each inhalation and exhalation. Close your eyes.
- 💨 Continue breathing. Slowly tune out your surroundings. If your mind starts to wander, bring your attention back to your breath. Let thoughts come and go.
- ⚡️ Reboot to life. After a few minutes, move your focus from the breath to physical sensations and your surroundings. Gently open your eyes.
Of course, mindfulness meditation takes consistent practice. While you may not discover your life’s purpose after the first session, you will slow down for a moment and start noticing the things that usually escape your attention.
And that’s a solid start.
If you want to make meditation a part of your daily routine, test-run apps like Waking Up, Headspace, or Calm that come with narrated guided meditation sessions.
3. Build up a Creative Flow
“The idea is that flowing water never goes stale, so just keep on flowing.”Bruce Lee
Have you ever been so absorbed by a task that you stopped noticing the passing of time? If so, you experienced what’s known as the state of “flow.”
The concept of flow became a subject of intensive research in the 1970s, most notably by psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Jeanne Nakamura.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s TED talk on Flow (2004)
In a 1996 interview with Wired, Csikszentmihalyi described the state of flow as:
“Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”(6)
When you enter a state of flow, you:
- 🔬 Immerse in a singular activity
- 🎭 Detach from the troubles of life
- 👉 Gain a clear sense of purpose and direction
- 📈 Expect a positive outcome of the activity
- 🔁 Are motivated by the activity itself
- ⌛️ Stop noticing the passing of time
According to Nakamura and Csikszentmihalyi(7), achieving a state of flow is only possible when the following conditions are met:
- 🎯 A clear set of goals. Avoid ambiguity. Make sure to break complex tasks into incremental steps so you always know what to do next.
- 🏋️♀️ Difficulty/skills match. Work should be mildly challenging. Make it too easy and you’ll get bored. If you set the bar too high, you’ll quickly get discouraged.
- 📊 Instant feedback. You need to “see” the progress you’re making. You can elicit instant feedback by using to-do lists or completing sets of instructions.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s model of Flow via Wikipedia
Bonus Tip: Use a Pomodoro Timer
Created by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s, the Pomodoro Technique breaks work sessions into intensive, 25-minute sprints. It’s a perfect solution if you’re notoriously distracted and can’t focus long enough to build up the flow.
Here’s how it works:
- Set up a timer for 25 minutes
- Work on a single task without stopping
- When the time’s up, take a 5-minute break
- After completing 4 cycles, rest for 15-30 minutes
Tackling tasks in short, productive bursts will make work more challenging and fun. The self-imposed deadlines will also make you less likely to procrastinate. Once your focus improves, you can experiment a bit and make your Pomodoro sessions longer.
And that’s it! 👌
Figuring out how to focus while working from home takes time and dedication. Not only will you have to overcome external obstacles but also learn how to make peace with your greatest enemy—your unproductive and easily distracted self.
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