How to minimize distractions when you work from home
I’ve been working from home for close to 15 years. I also have ADHD. And a lot of streaming subscriptions. And a PlayStation. And hundreds of books. And a partner who also sometimes works from home and is equally aware of the presence of said streaming subscriptions, PlayStation, and books.
The point is that my home is full of distractions. Yours probably is, too. Maybe different distractions from mine, but distractions nonetheless. And, like many workers, it may have taken you a pandemic to discover that it can be hard to avoid these distractions when working from home. (Work itself provides plenty of distractions already, if you’re not careful— the continuous pings of emails and Slacks can make you feel like you’re working all the time but never actually getting anything done.)
Sure, there are productivity and project management apps. But Todoist isn’t going to help you resist the siren call of TikTok, and Trello isn’t going to play catch with the dog. At a certain point, you can only manage your distractions by managing yourself.
Accept your distractibility
The first step to mitigating distractions when working from home is to accept that you become distracted because humans are distractible. It is part of your nature. And that’s okay.
Take, for instance, someone who keeps oversleeping because they hit the snooze button on their alarm nine times before finally getting up. Seasoned oversleepers know that one way to overcome this is to keep the alarm clock several feet from the bed — requiring the would-be oversleeper to get out of bed and walk across the room to hit the snooze button each time the alarm goes off. At a certain point, it becomes more restful to just stay awake.
You can do the same thing with distractions — by setting yourself up to be distracted from your distractions when you inevitably succumb to them (if not beforehand).
Let’s say that your weakness is television, and you know if you decide to “take a quick break” in front of the TV, it’s an even-money shot that you’ll still be on the couch three hours later.
If you can’t resist the siren call of your Vizio, then set yourself up for, if not success, minimal failure. Don’t risk getting sucked into a binge-worthy hour-long drama with eight episodes to go — and if you do, don’t wait to pull out until the end of an episode, when you’ll probably be at your most desperate to see what happens next. Instead, put on something simple that gets in and out of a story fast. A kids’ cartoon that’s separated into six-minute installments. A documentary series that takes only five minutes to explain how baseball gloves are made before moving on to medical electrodes. A daytime talk show that settles questions of a child’s paternity or a lover’s fidelity between commercials for mesothelioma lawyers. Something that will quickly leave you ready to move on to something new.
Or let’s say your weakness is a particular phone app. You might benefit from some kind of barrier to getting sucked into it. My editor Nathan tells me that he’s had success logging out of, or outright deleting, addictive apps if he’s on deadline. Personally, I like to leave my phone in the next room sometimes. (After all, the phone is there for my convenience, not other people’s.
Set daily limits
But let’s say you don’t want to go quite that far, either because you have the kind of job that requires you to frequently have or be using your phone or because you’ve got a bad case of nomophobia. You can set daily time limits for individual apps in Android and iOS.
- Go to Settings > Digital Wellbeing & parental controls
- Tap the chart
- Tap Set timer next to the app you want to limit
- Select the time limit you want to set, then tap Set
- Go to Settings > Screen Time
- Make sure Screen Time is turned on
- Go to App Limits
- Tap Add Limit
- Select app categories or individual apps that you want to limit
- Tap Next
- Select the time limit you want to set (Optional: You can tap Customize Days to set time limits for specific days)
- Tap Add
(Oh, and don’t forget to disable push notifications.)
If you live with someone sufficiently kind and understanding (and especially if they work from home, too), try the buddy system. Know each other’s bad habits. Then, if one of you catches the other “stuck” in some distraction, gently call it to the other’s attention in a bid to snap them out of it. A simple “Hey. You’re stuck. Get unstuck” can work wonders if you’re both committed to doing better.
To be clear, the goal isn’t to avoid non-work at all costs. The goal is to manage distractions. Sometimes, that means leaning in.
While recovering from a car accident years ago, my occupational therapist told me not only to take frequent breaks as I worked from home but also to schedule those breaks on my calendar — and to stick to them as religiously as if they were a work call or a deadline. Ditto for household chores, walks outside, and just about anything else that wasn’t “work.” Even eating had to go in the calendar.
I smiled and nodded and ignored this advice. I continued to struggle.
Finally, I gave in — scheduling things like laundry, snacks, and exercise such that I was never working for more than 55 uninterrupted minutes (and usually less). A typical day in my calendar would have 30- to 55-minute work blocks punctuated by chore breaks, food breaks, exercise breaks, rest breaks, and errands. Every minute during my scheduled workday was accounted for.
And sure enough, my physical condition gradually improved. (I’m better now, by the way.) But there was a curious side effect: I was way more productive. Scheduling my distractions and my other non-work into my day, compelling myself to engage in them as forcefully as I would any “work” task, made me more efficient at and more focused on my work. And sticking to a strict schedule for mundanities like “watch TV” and “do laundry” helped me manage my ADHD symptoms — without it ever feeling grueling.
(I also got more laundry done.)
It turns out this resembles the Pomodoro Technique — a time-management method developed in the 1980s, whereby you work in 25-minute intervals punctuated by short breaks. And my routine even more closely resembles the 52/17 rule — a Pomodoro variation proposed by the Draugiem Group, makers of the productivity app DeskTime. In 2014, the company reported finding that DeskTime’s most productive users would work for 52 minutes at a time, then break for 17 minutes, and so on. Their breaks became more “effective” because they would be 100 percent dedicated to taking a break during those 17-minute allotments — and, by extension, more dedicated during their 52 minutes of work.
The takeaway here is that breaks need to happen, so put them on your calendar. To the extent practicable, schedule everything during your work-from-home workday. Everything. From that phone call you need to make to your doctor’s office to the time you’d like to spend playing Fortnite. (And, of course, your actual work.)
Ditto for meeting the needs of your cohabitants. Roommates, partners, family, pets — anyone you live with is going to want something from you from time to time. You’ll need to get really good at saying no if you want to minimize distractions (learning to say no goes beyond the scope of this article), but there are things you’re going to have to say yes to. At some point, the kids will need to be picked up, the trash will need to go out, dinner will have to be made / ordered, etc. Schedule as much as you can in advance. And if you both work from home, tag-team responsibilities (e.g., “I’ll take toddler duty during the even hours, you take toddler duty during the odd hours.”)
Also, don’t forget negative scheduling. Sometimes, distractions are even more unwelcome than usual (such as when you’re on a video call, working on a complicated problem, or rushing to get a project finished). Just as you would do (or, at least, should do) with your remote coworkers, be communicative. Let those you live with know in advance that 1:30-2:30PM tomorrow is off-limits. Or that if your door is all the way closed, don’t come a-knockin’.
The corollary of all of this is that, to avoid distractions while working from home, you also have to avoid work distractions while living from home. Unless you truly have the kind of job where you have to be available 24/7, make sure that when you’re off the clock, you’re off the clock — whether for dinnertime, bedtime, family time, or alone time. You can’t make the most of your work if you’re making the least of your life.