Figuring out how to manage distractions is one of the biggest challenges of working remotely. These disruptions come in many forms -- like a weak WiFi connection, less than optimal work spaces, disruptive noises during video calls, household obligations (managing children’s online lesson plans, meal prep, pet care) etc.
How you maintain focus is critical because it impacts productivity, leadership, communication and impressions you make on others (and how you feel and function personally too). Here are 7 tips to manage distractions, maximize productivity and maintain a semblance of normalcy under unusual circumstances.
With part of your living space designated as your “office” (be it a computer desk, living room coffee table or even a folding table in the bedroom), with a few adjustments, you can better define the space to set yourself up for success.
Add an extra lamp so you have good lighting (this is especially important for video calls), have a clear place for coffee and keep an extension cord handy to recharge a phone or laptop if you’re far from an outlet. The goal is to equip yourself with layout and supplies to function effectively in the space, much the way you would in the office you normally operate from.
Keep your work area as neat and work-focused as possible. It's a lot easier to take breaks -- particularly unplanned ones, like responding to immediate needs of kids or pets -- and jump back in where you left off when the designated area is a well-organized, professional space.
Pay attention to your background! Ideally, ensure a solid wall is behind you -- or if you don’t have one, remove a few things before calls (like too many pictures -- especially any that might be inappropriate) to reduce backdrop distractions. If you have to be in your bedroom, make the bed and close closet and bathroom doors beforehand. If people can see your kitchen, make sure counters aren’t a mess. Neatness and tidiness go a long way in making positive impressions.
If using a virtual background for video calls (which isn’t recommended unless you have a strong and stable internet connection), make sure people can see you and that you don’t go in and out of the image (which happens frequently).
Also, if the camera on your computer isn’t at eye level, elevate it (with a stack of books, box, crate etc.) so you can look right into it. While you’re looking into the camera lens, on the other end it will appear like you’re making eye contact, which instantly improves impressions.
If there are others in your household, make sure they understand that you’re still “at work” every day, even though you’re at home. How much interruption is acceptable depends on your responsibilities and schedule, but also your role and involvement with their needs as well. To better manage this, determine together what each person needs to get through the day. Whether that means determining who walks the dog when, makes lunch for the kids etc., this will help reduce distraction and frustration.
It’s also important to remind adults and children alike that if they wouldn’t normally call you at the office to ask where to find the TV remote or their sweatshirt, they shouldn’t start now. Or if they see you on the phone or a video call, remind them to approach quietly (or better yet, wait until you are done) instead of barging in speaking.
People in your household are also likely to have different amounts of free time at their disposal depending on how much they’re working/studying (or not). Suggest to those listening to music or watching tv that they use headphones or watch in another room (if possible). These kinds of distractions can be managed with proactive communication. But at the same time, sharing space for a prolonged period isn’t easy, so be realistic -- with yourself and each other -- about following the ground rules.
Daily check-ins with others in your home (such as at the end of day to plan for tomorrow) are a good way to keep everyone on the same page about respective needs and schedules. This helps in planning calls and video meetings for when it’s quieter and less likely to conflict with others’ needs.
If there’s only one really “good” place for video meetings in your living space and multiple people need it, arrange for who has access and when beforehand instead of last minute. The key to avoiding undue conflict and distraction during video calls is communicating needs ahead of time.
Creating a daily schedule is very helpful for staying focused and productive. As much as possible, mimic what you’d do if you were in the office or when on the road -- it can bring back some “normal” into your day.
If you usually workout before work, then keep that same routine now – even if that workout is something totally different than what you did before (e.g., doing a morning yoga video vs. lifting weights at the gym). If you typically don’t eat at your desk, then don’t eat in your workspace. Endeavor to maintain regular sleep patterns too -- while you might have more time in your day because you’re not commuting, don’t make a habit of binge watching until 2 AM every night.
A schedule can also help you feel better connected while apart too – whether it’s checking in with your team, boss, clients or vendors. These touchpoints and varying whom you speak with each day can help you feel less isolated.
Of course, as great as a well-planned schedule is, expect the unexpected to cause disruptions. Meetings start late because WiFi crashes or prior meetings run over, unanticipated calls arise, a dog won’t stop barking, a grocery delivery arrives etc. We all have these moments, but developing a routine can help you get through the day and regroup after a distraction.
Some people can work through anything, while others need complete quiet to concentrate. Consider your optimal work environment and take steps toward fostering that. If technology-based distractions (text notifications, email alerts, a tv playing etc.) throw off your focus, then minimize them beforehand.
If you often check the latest social media posts of family and friends (many of whom may have extra time on their hands), take a few minutes to scroll through updates before you sit down to work and then close the app or browser tab when you're done. Similarly, shut off the tv, turn your phone face down and close your email entirely or turn off notifications when on video calls. We all want to stay connected, but too many “quick checks” can become a distraction that breaks concentration and negatively impacts efficiency.
If you’re working from an area where appliances like a dishwasher or washing machine can be heard, ask others not to turn them on before asking you or checking with you first. And if you know that your WiFi is slower when everyone in your household is on, make sure people limit themselves to one device at a time when you need optimal speed.
In addition to this being an incredibly stressful time, most of us are on screens much more than normal – both for work and again after work hours to stay connected with friends and family. Distractions like wandering thoughts, difficulty concentrating and losing your place can indicate mental fatigue and that you need a break.
For the sake of your eyes and sanity, be sure to step away from your workspace regularly. If you normally do an afternoon Starbucks run, make a cup of coffee or tea in the kitchen and bring it back to your desk instead. You can also stand up and stretch in another room, take a brisk walk or do deep breathing for a few minutes.
While texting, calling and video chatting with family or friends provides a nice emotional recess, be sure to have times (even if just for a few minutes during the day) where you step away from technology entirely.
And if you have a list of chores and projects, choose one to do as a break to give your mind a rest, like throwing in a load of laundry or sorting through a filing cabinet drawer.
It’s helpful to focus on what we can control, not what we can’t. While expectations have shifted recently for what a typical day is and how much you can get done, with a few small steps, you can better navigate distractions that impact management and productivity and bring some semblance of order to what feels like chaos.