With so many people currently working from home, it is more important than ever that we use that time efficiently. Recently Nir Eyal, author of Hooked, shared a great infographic from the Silicon Valley Insiders blog by Dan Brodovich. As I have now been running a high performing team for almost a year while working from home, many of the insights reinforced lessons I have learned (sometimes the hard way). The key is to minimize and manage distractions, using four steps, and turning them into positives.
Master internal triggers
The first step is to become proactive rather than reactive. To master internal triggers, you first need to understand what drives you. According to Eyal and Brodovich, most people are driven by a desire to avoid discomfort and pain. Thus, you are likely to focus on a task that allows you to avoid a problem situation, rather than dealing with the more important problem.
The situation you avoid might be uncomfortable or put you in conflict with someone you have trouble working, so you sub-optimize by spending your time on something else. Rather than working on your sales strategy for the next quarter with the VP of Sales, who you personally do not get along with, you might end up working on your expense report to avoid having to deal with the VP. Not having a sales strategy has a much bigger impact on your company than getting your expense report submitted does.
To deal with this type of situation, you need to look externally for potential emotional discomfort, then write it down acknowledging the trigger and look at why you are tempted to do something else. This process is similar to an alcoholic addressing their problem by first acknowledging there is a problem.
Then, you need to change the task to make it more enjoyable or interesting. In the Sales example, you can gamify yourself by placing an internal bet that you avoid conflict and get the plan done in 48 hours. Then the activity becomes winning your internal bet rather than dealing with a tough process. If it is a boring task that you are avoiding because of the boredom, you can make it more interesting by introducing variability or discovery as part of the process (a book-keeping task where you are trying to find the biggest cost driver).
Finally, you should look inward and realize you do not have infinite willpower. Accept that you have to manage yourself and treat yourself like you would treat a friend facing similar challenges.
Make time for what needs to get done
The second step is to plan and time box your day so you focus on the activities you want to focus on, rather than get distracted. For me, this step is the most important. I use Google calendar to schedule almost all of my day, from the calls and meetings I feel are important, to time to work on projects I need to get done and even lunch and other personal activities. With a robust calendar, it becomes clear if a distraction is actually a distraction and what it is taking you away from accomplishing.
Brodovich also stresses that it is important to “schedule time for yourself first so you can be in the best shape for other commitments.” He points out you should focus on how you allocate your time, not the end result (the results will come from good allocation). Given that many of us are not only currently working at home but in a lockdown or quarantine environment, you need to schedule physical activity and entertainment diversions to maintain your health and well-being.
It is also important to value and thus allocate time to relationships. You need to start with your family, the people you love. While working from home is often thought of as a boost to work-life balance, you can easily be drawn into spending 20 hours a day on Slack and see less of your family than when you worked at an office and spent time with them after you got home. Similarly, you need to value your relationships at work, be it colleagues, your team or your boss, as high or higher than the specific tasks you are working on. When working in an office, you naturally gravitate to working together for the common good, when working from home this natural collaboration needs to be replaced by proactively ensuring you are helping the company in the best way possible. Brodovich suggests, “make time for alignment with stakeholders at work to inform about your tasks and schedule to avoid work-related distractions. Sync as frequently as your schedule changes or on a weekly basis.” The key is to schedule these relationships as part of your day, both the personal time and strengthening the bonds with your colleagues.
Limit external triggers
The next step is to “hack back” external triggers, reduce external triggers that distract you from your scheduled tasks. There are many of these that we can manage:
- E-mail. Limit the time you spend on email by sending fewer messages and writing short emails. Every message you send leads to a series of additional emails, so stopping early not only saves the time of one message but potentially tens of messages. Some tricks are only responding to emails during certain hours, delaying when your message is sent and creating labels to prioritize when you need to respond to an email.
- Group chat. I love Brodovich’s suggestion to “treat chat like a sauna – it is unhealthy to stay too long.” As with email, schedule time each day to review and comment in chats and only invite those relevant to a conversation into a chat channel.
- Meetings. Working from home is the best opportunity to rationalize your meeting schedule, a subject near and dear to my heart. Start by gently declining invitations to meetings that are not important to your work and where you do not add much value. A good test is if you will spend more time at the meeting checking your email or chats (another problem, see above), you probably do not need to be in the meeting in the first place. Also, make sure you only invite people to meetings who are needed, either for their participation or to help their work. Meetings are not the time to be nice or show someone you are thinking of them, instead respect people’s time and make sure it is the best use of it. Finally, create an agenda for any meeting to ensure everyone is prepared and they themselves can decide if it is valuable.
- Your mobile devices. Do I really need to stress how your phone or iPad can be a distraction? You can limit the distraction by deleting apps you no longer need, putting apps you know are distracting on a device that you will not use while working from home and managing notifications.
- Your computer desktop. You will find that you suffer less distractions if you remove clutter from your desktop and shut off all non-essential notifications.
- Articles. Click bating is a lot more powerful than you realize and you will often go down a rabbit hole of spending too much time on articles that do not improve your work. Brodovich suggests not reading articles on your web browser but instead saving interesting content for your mobile device (so you can review it when you are not working) as well as listening to articles and podcasts when you are out and about (maybe not as easy if you are stuck home due to Covid19).
- Feeds. Another area to reduce distractions is hacking back feeds. Brodovich points out that feeds are built to distract you. It is how Facebook and Twitter have become incredibly valuable companies. Change the settings (or move the apps) to disable these feeds.
Prevent distractions with pre-commitments and pacts
The final step to improving efficiency while working from home is to use pacts or commitments in advance to inhibit distractions. While we have to focus on social distancing, see if you can work in conjunction with a colleague or friend so you can pressure each other to stay on task. You can also use tech to keep you from distractions (some suggestions in the post include Forest, Focusmate and SelfControl.
Related, you can use price pacts to ensure you stay focused. These are deals with yourself that you will donate or give someone else $X if you do not stay on task. You need to ensure the chosen task is a short term goal or achievement for this tactic to work.
Finally, you should develop a self-identity that connects with your self-image of not being distractible. Brodovich suggests that you “call yourself indistractable’ to identify yourself with one and therefore behave like one….Share your commitment with others so that you can get external confirmation of your new identity”
Working from home is a great opportunity
While many are working from home given the challenges everyone is facing, we all need to make the most of this time. By following these steps, you can remain efficient and productive, even potentially improving on the work you have been doing in a traditional office.
- With the huge increase in people working from home, now is the time to look at best practices so you make the most of this time and remain as efficient and productive as you were in the office, and the best way to do this is stay focused.
- You should understand yourself and create a robust schedule for your day, that includes both work and personal activities. Not only will this allow you to focus on what you know you should do but also it will make clear the cost of distractions.
- You should also minimize distractions by critically reducing time spent on and with emails, group chats, social media feeds, online articles and your mobile devices.