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Working from home? Here’s 5 ways to stay focussed in the new normal

Even if your country manages to come out of the coronavirus restrictions within the next few weeks or months, the legacy of this crisis will live with us for years to come.

Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash

This is a marathon, not a sprint, we all need to look after our mental health in the long term and aim to be as productive as is reasonable under these conditions.

Here are some tools that may help.

The biggest issue of the moment is how you and your team adjust to the new ‘normal’ way of working, and how you manage your focus and attention.

Everybody’s different, right? Some of your teammates will love the opportunity to work from home. They prefer working on their own and love the freedom from distractions and the ability to focus that working from home provides.

Meanwhile, other people find remote working desperately lonely. When much of your social interaction comes from work colleagues, and you can’t see any of them, isolation can be quite alarming.

Whichever group your colleagues fall into, plenty of people have been wondering if they’re doing their job properly and feeling anxious about that.

This may be because they have less time as they’re looking after their kids, or because they can’t concentrate because they’re anxious or keep getting distracted.

So here are some tips for staying focussed and positive whilst working from home to use and share with your team.

1. Make sure your workspace is well defined

First of all, make sure your space is clear and organised. It’s hard to focus if your desk is messy or covered in coffee cups, food wrappers, or papers. A tidy workspace makes it easier to be productive, find the things you need, and finish tasks.

Try to create a dedicated workspace that’s separate from your living space. Where such luxury is impossible, introduce some ritual to the start and end of your work time. Take a few minutes to turn your space into a workspace. Rearrange the furniture, set up your equipment, make a tea or coffee in your work mug. Put on your work clothes. At the end of the day, log off, put away your laptop or put a cover over your computer. Tidy your work stuff away, reset the room. Perhaps transition by going for a walk.

Turns out there may be a benefit to the daily commute.

It’s important to have boundaries. Families can impose this on you. Even so, it’s all too easy to carry on or return to work for too long in the evening.

Where boundaries are fluid, try to make them fixed. Stop work at the agreed time, go and do something else. We need rest, downtime: more than just work in our lives

2. Let go of what you can’t control

We all have to adapt to what the reality is. We cannot change the fact this situation is happening.

So the best strategy is to control what you can control, accept what you can’t, and influence what you can where it’s appropriate.

And then you can make the best of what you’ve got.

For example, you can’t change the fact that your colleagues might have children at home. But you can adapt to it.

You can be flexible and be generous when other people are unable to contribute as much as you can.

You can not feel guilty when you can’t contribute as much as usual.

You can reduce media consumption if it’s making you feel bad. (Just don’t look at it.)

You can influence things by making sure that you redistribute the work so that the most important things get covered.

You can influence things by agreeing with your team that there are things you are not going to do — because you no longer have the capacity to do them — and put them on the back burner instead.

On the flip side, you cannot influence the restrictions. So accept that. You cannot influence queues at supermarkets, but you can get your neighbours to go shopping if you’re isolated, or you can go and help your neighbours if they need it.

You can control your personal budget. Or at least reduce your outgoings wherever you can, if you are concerned about finances. You can investigate mortgage holidays or speak to your landlord.

So let go of all of the ideas about what you should be doing. Instead, focus on what you can influence and what you can control.

This is based on Stephen Covey’s Circles of Influence — we have a tool for it which is a great way to host this kind of conversation with your team.

If you’d like to explore this further, have a look at our post on Circles of influence for a free worksheet you can use. (We also run remote team workshops on this — details here.)

3. If you’re distracted and can’t focus — try this

This is a great tip if you need to get focussed and you can’t: the Pomodoro technique.

This is a time management tool developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. Originally designed for students, it’s very effective for any kind of work. You break your work down into short periods separated by breaks. Each period is known as a Pomodoro, from the Italian for ‘tomato’, after the tomato-shaped timer that Cirillo used as a student.

There are 4 steps:

  1. Decide on the task
  2. Use a timer to get focused on your work, especially the work you are avoiding!
  3. Set the timer for 25 mins — this is the optimum time to use your focused brain (prefrontal cortex) which is where you do all your conscious thinking. It tires easily and pushing on can mean you start making mistakes.
  4. After 25 minutes, take a short break to refresh, and then get back at it.

You can use shorter timed periods if you really hate or are bored by the task eg Moyra on our team has a 10-minute family tidy. “It’s very effective,” she says.

Using a timer means you can really focus because you don’t have to worry about the time passing.

How to use the Technique:

  1. Work for 25 mins
  2. Take a 5 min break (time all your breaks)
  3. Work for 25 mins
  4. Take a 5 min break
  5. Work for 25 mins
  6. Take a longer break

4. Use your calendar to structure your day

Most people need structure to give them a sense of control. The best way to create structure in your day is by using your calendar.

The best practice for using your calendar is to:

  • write very clear defined tasks
  • structure your day into short chunks that you can move around when things don’t go as planned. It’s a way of managing expectations — yours and others.

So how do you structure your day?

As a manager, when you’re thinking about creating a structure that works for you, your family and your day, at the moment that might mean that you are only available for three hours a day instead of seven or eight.

(Don’t feel guilty, remember, you have to accept the reality of where you’re at — it takes a village to raise a child, they’re all our responsibility.)

Good practice is to build this into your calendar, and let other people see when you’re available (make sure your calendar is shared with your team).

The flip side of that is to encourage your team to put in their calendars when they’re available too.

This is one of the ways you can control what you can control. You cannot control what other people do, but you can influence them.

So make sure you use your calendar to create clarity and structure in your work, and how you communicate and encourage your team to do the same.

5. Slow it down

Remember this is a marathon, not a sprint. There’s a wonderful blog post by assistant professor Aisha Ahmad, University of Toronto for more on this. My favourite quote: If you start off running too fast and try to pretend that everything can carry on as normal, you’ll be vomiting on your shoes within the first five miles.

If you’re feeling a rising sense of nausea over all of this, slow it down and focus on what you can do.

Stay well.

Originally published at on May 12, 2020.



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