4 ways to be productive and avoid distractions when working from home

Working from home during the coronavirus pandemic is proving to be a huge challenge for many employees. With millions of workers working remotely for the first time, many are struggling to manage a workday that now includes distractions like child care, household chores and in-home entertainment options such as TV and radio.  

Roughly 32% of employees say watching TV is a top distraction when working remotely, followed by 27% who say child care is a huge distraction, according to a new survey released by Glassdoor where nearly 1,000 American employees were asked about their top concerns when working from home between March 11 and March 13, 2020.

“I think everybody who’s working from home is dealing with a lot of stress,” organizing and productivity expert Julie Morgenstern tells CNBC Make It. “[It’s easy] to get caught up in the news, to panic, to worry about your relatives who are over 60, or to worry about yourself by wondering, ‘Do I have a scratchy throat?’ There are just so many emotional things.”

To help you stay focused despite the nonstop distractions, Morgenstern, along with productivity expert Laura Vanderkam, offer insight on how morning routines, effective time management and child-care schedules can help you to maximize your work day at home.

1. Implement a self-care morning routine

When working outside of your home, it’s easier to follow a routine that includes waking up, leaving your home and arriving to work at a certain time. “That structure probably kept you focused,” Morgenstern says. “It kept you energized and kept you moving,” which is why she believes that sticking to a morning routine even when you’re working from home could be crucial to your productivity. 

“You should take the first hour or two, depending on what time you get up every morning, for self-care,” she says. She explains that the time you would typically use to commute into work every day can now be used to exercise, journal, meditate or listen to music.

If an hour is not feasible, then Morgenstern says setting aside even 15 to 20 minutes of your morning to do some sort of self-care routine can be helpful. 

Research shows that making time for self-care is key to better managing stressful situations. One study found that taking the time out for physical fitness can help to improve your brain function, including your memory and problem-solving skills, which help you to stay focused throughout the day.

“I highly recommend everybody starts their day with an at-home exercise,” adds Morgenstern. “We’re not getting out of the house, right? So you’ve got to get your blood pumping and this is a form of self-care.”

2. Avoid TV and household chores during the work day

When working from home, not only is it easy to be distracted by the TV in the background, but it’s also easy to be led astray by household chores such as laundry and dirty dishes. Though it may be tempting to get a head start on some of these tasks during the work day, Morgenstern says that quickly switching gears from one area of your life to the next can be a huge productivity killer. 

While many people think they can effectively multitask by watching TV while doing work, or by folding laundry while taking a conference call, research from the University of Southern California shows that multitasking actually leads to a decrease in productivity because it takes your brain extra time to switch mental gears between tasks.  

“Keep the boundaries,” says Morgenstern. “You should do your work during your work day and and only stop for self-care. That’s it. Do not do household chores.”

Self-care, she explains, includes activities like eating lunch, checking in with your family or taking a small break to walk around your neighborhood for fresh air. 

3. Effectively manage how you respond to emails and messages

When working from home, extensive communication with your coworkers is key, since face-to-face interaction is not an option. For many employees, this means that hundreds of emails and Slack messages are often interrupting the work day. 

“One thing you should do is recognize there is a difference between being responsive and instantaneously responsive,” says Vanderkam. “You can be checking messages frequently while still having some time that is free from messages.”

For example, she says, you could make it a point to check your messages for five minutes every half hour. This way, she says, “you have 25 minutes where you are focused and then five minutes for back and forth and then 25 minutes focused” and so on.

To better manage the level of back-and-forth communication over email and messaging apps, Morgenstern suggests talking to your team about having a morning huddle online where everyone gives a quick rundown of what they’re working on for the day. That way, she says, once everyone is looped in on who’s working on what, then you all can set aside time where everyone is able to have focused hours without message interruptions. 

“Or you could say we’re going to be on Slack every two hours,” says Morgenstern, who authored the book “Never Check Email in the Morning.” She suggests synchronizing Slack time with your team so that everyone is on the same page about the hours they should be solely focused on work and the hours they should be sending and responding to messages.

4. Create a schedule for your kids

With millions of parents balancing the demands of work life and child care at home, both Morgenstern and Vanderkam agree that setting a schedule for your kids is key to having a productive work day.

“If your kids are school-age, they can be largely self-directed for at least part of the day,” says Vanderkam, who has had her kids doing online school work between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. ever since their school closed on March 13. As a mom to five kids, ranging in age from infant to 12-year-old, she says that sticking to this morning schedule has been key to getting a lot of work done earlier in the day without interruptions. After lunch, Vanderkam says she sometimes implements “safe screen time” for her older kids so that they can be occupied by their devices while she focuses on finishing the work day.

For parents with younger kids who don’t have school work, Morgenstern suggests planning ahead of time the activities you want to put in place for your children, as well as carving out a set time each day for when you want them to eat lunch and take a nap. This way, she says you will be able to better organize your own focus time for work.

If you’re working from home with your spouse, Vanderkam recommends implementing a rotating schedule could be beneficial to your day, especially if you have a toddler or newborn. This can include one person spending the morning hours powering through their work demands while the other person is caring for the kids. Then, once the afternoon comes, Vanderkam says you can switch roles so that each person is able to dedicate a certain amount of hours solely to their work.

Morgenstern, who was a single mom and now has adult children, says being organized is important for any working parent who is trying to balance the demands of child care alone. “Make a list of every potential distraction,” she says. “Then proactively figure out what you can do to diminish, eliminate or minimize the chance of that distraction happening.”

“It doesn’t have to be perfect. I want to emphasize that,” says Morgenstern, who has previously worked with employees from Amazon and The Oprah Winfrey show to help them organize their workdays. Even an imperfect schedule gives you an idea of what you’re going to do in advance,” she says. “Because if [you’re] making things up as [you] go along, then [you’re] losing half of the day wondering, ‘What do I do now?'”

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