If you’re new to working from home, you’re probably discovering that the distractions are constant.
Sure, you had people randomly approaching your desk to inquire about things in the office and other such nuisances, but you knew that with your boss watching, you had to snap back to it quickly and at least appear to be working.
At home, there’s no such motivator. It’s just you, the television and a bag of Doritos — who’s gonna know? And when you miss your first deadline and don’t get paid by your client, you’ll realize that it doesn’t matter whether anyone else knows or not. You need to be your own motivator and stick to the task.
There are two sets of people that you need to defend against: yourself, and other people. It’s not just the lack of oversight that can make the home more distracting. It’s other people. If you have a family or roommates, they’ll find the novelty of your presence a great thing. They’ll interrupt you all day. You’ve got to put an end to it somewhere.
After seven years of working from home, I like to think I’ve got a system that works. I know that I’m less easily distracted in my home office than in any corporate office in the world. But it’s only by training yourself like one of Pavlov’s dogs and training those around you with the threat of severe consequences that you’ll be able to work like this too.
Use Your Door as a Signal System
Over the years, the use of my door as a signalling system for members of my family has proved much more efficient than using a sign and allows me to balance family and work much better than a blanket “If I’m in my office, leave me alone” system.
Your office always has a door, and that makes it the easiest tool to use in teaching those you live with when you can be interrupted and when you absolutely cannot be interrupted.
My system is simple: if it’s closed all the way, leave me alone — unless one of the kids is dying or the house is on fire. If it’s half-closed, interrupt me for important things — for instance, if my wife needs my card to go get some groceries — but not for anything trivial. And if its open, it means it doesn’t really matter. I’m catching up on industry news or taking a break and I don’t care if one of the kids wants to come in for a game of Angry Birds.
Set your boundaries and enforce them. Someone comes in for a pointless chat while the door is half-closed? Use a flamethrower or whatever it takes to dissuade future infringements.
Headphones: Signal & Moodsetter
If your office is in a more public place such as in the corner of the lounge room — perhaps you haven’t moved to a place that can accomodate your work-from-home lifestyle yet — headphones can serve as a good replacement for door signals. Put them on to indicate to the rest of the world that you’re not up for interruptions.
But even if you have an office, many people find that using headphones whenever they need to concentrate eventually evokes a Pavlovian reaction. It puts them in the mental state to work: not to fluff around on YouTube or pretend that all that Twitter chat time is “marketing”. The more little rituals like this you associate with work, the more triggers you have to induce a productive mood.
Music Keeps Your Pace Up
Since you’ve got headphones on anyway, put some music through them. The rhythm that’s present in all but the most experimental of tunes serves to set a pace to your work, and the majority of people find that they get more done with tunes rolling than they do to a backdrop of silence.
Some have suggested that lyrical music is too distracting and that soothing tunes work best. I personally don’t buy it — music with a strong rhythm is the most output-inducing in my experience — but if relaxation music works for you, by all means listen to it.
Just don’t listen to hip-hop — spoken words register differently to sung words and our brain is trained to focus on the sound of another human talking. Plus, I did say you should play music.
Productive Distractions Are Still Distractions
Need to get those dishes in the dishwasher before you start work? Need to tidy your desk? Stop kidding yourself. You’re trying to delay the work, and the number of dishes in the sink don’t make a bit of a difference to your ability to focus.
It’s the greatest temptation of the home worker: using housework and busywork to escape from the real work. Even when we say we’re not going to do it, we end up doing it without realizing. You need to commit to noticing when you’re distracting yourself with things that seem urgent or productive but really aren’t and get yourself back on track.
Cultivate Focus with Technological Crutches
Apps like Vitamin-R for the Mac are particularly useful: essentially, it puts a timer on your next task and tells you to get it done before it hits zero. When we feel as though we’re on a clock, we’re less likely to pay any attention to the distractions that come our way. The deadline is the ultimate motivator. Internally-set deadlines — telling yourself to get something done by a certain time even though its well before the real deadline — are more prone to failure, but when the computer is screaming at you to hurry up, the technique is effective.
Develop a Work Ethic
A lot of criticism of productivity advice suggests that the advice is porn for the weak-willed. To an extent, it is, but there are also a lot of tools that are helpful to the weak-willed in that toolbox. The point of productivity crutches is to redirect your mind to the work while you have a weak work ethic until that mental muscle becomes exercised enough that you don’t need the gimmicks.
As far as advice that teaches you to avoid distractions — excluding distractions forced on you by others — treat it as a training dumbbell to get you to a point where you’re focused naturally.