How to Concentrate When You're Working at Home

Tips for concentrating and focusing on work.

Posted Mar 18, 2020

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Many of us are attempting to work from home, perhaps with kids jumping around. If you're struggling to concentrate, here are some tips:

1. Understand the evolved basis of why it's hard to concentrate when facing threat and uncertainty.

Anxiety and uncertainty make us feel on edge. They're states of high alert. If you think in evolutionary terms, being able to easily redirect our attention away from the threat and deeply focus on other topics and tasks would not have been helpful for our survival. Therefore, under conditions of threat and uncertainty, we're wired to find it hard to redirect our attention and get absorbed thinking about safe topics (e.g., read a fun novel or a dense document for work). 

In evolutionary terms, your on-edge, hyper-alert feelings and your distracted cognitive state are a feature, not a bug.

2. Recognize that you're missing the cues that help you concentrate.

I work from home all the time. Therefore, I have routines of working that help trigger my ability to concentrate. My brain knows that me sitting in bed and opening my computer means I'm about to do a couple of hours of writing and/or reading studies.

If you typically work in an office, the routines and cues you have at work that signal to your brain that you will be starting a session of concentrated work (like taking the elevator up to your office) aren't there. This is another factor that is likely to be making it hard for you to concentrate and focus on work. 

3. Consider not attempting to work at 100 percent. Sixty percent might be more realistic.

Some of your cognitive and emotional resources right now are being utilized coping with the fact that we're all facing a pandemic. It's quite unrealistic to think that the equation will look like this:

You at 100%, minus whatever cognitive and emotional resources you're using coping with coronavirus = you're still at 100%.

People in emergency response roles may be able to operate at close to 100% because they're conditioned and trained for this, and because they're directly focused on immediate needs. If you're doing knowledge work unrelated to the crisis, your caveperson brain is probably pretty confused about why you're asking it to carry on as if nothing is happening.

Pick your own number for what you expect your functional capacity to be, but don’t pick 100%.

4. Try easing into work with some admin tasks rather than attempting your hardest work first.

If I'm having a hard time settling down to concentrate on hard work, especially if I've been avoiding it, I often find the easiest way is to use straightforward tasks to help settle me into it. If you're having a hard time concentrating, try easy, straightforward tasks for 30 to 60 minutes first. 

5. Don't try to predict whether you'll have a productive work session.

I've learned from tracking my productivity that the state of mind I start my work in doesn't determine how my session of work goes. If I'm feeling anxious or vulnerable, it usually just takes me a bit longer to find my rhythm but I'm still just as likely to do good work. If you can get started with your deep work, then your conditioned cues associated with being in a concentrating state (as opposed to those that kick it off) will tend to take over. It might take 15 to 30 minutes after you start deep work to feel like it's going well. This is similar to how, if you go for a run when you’re not feeling like it, you’re likely to start feeling good after a few minutes.

For instance, if you write reports for your job and you've written hundreds of them, then once you get into the flow, your brain knows what order you typically write the different sections in, etc., and that conditioning will take over. 

6. Give yourself a good recovery period after working.

If you've successfully concentrated on deep work for a couple of hours, give yourself some good recovery. If you have kids at home, your recovery may need to be with your children. For instance, one of my recovery routines is to draw with my child once a day. We usually cut a picture from a magazine for inspiration. We've also been practicing camping with a tent in the backyard, complete with marshmallows etc. Other options are things like jigsaw puzzles or baking. Don't think you need to escape your kids to relax. Try creative activities with them.

This 20-minute restorative yoga routine is one of my go-to's for when I need heavy-duty recovery. Restorative yoga is quite different from exercise-orientated yoga. It's basically supported lying down. Sometimes my kid will do it with me. Sometimes she'll jump on me while I'm trying to do it!

7. Don't watch or read news for hours and hours each day.

Since coronavirus is a fast-moving story, it's understandable that you might want to be watching or reading coverage of it for a couple of hours a day. However, watching and reading 3, 4, 5, or 7 hours a day, as some people are, is excessive. 

Excessive news exposure will not help you concentrate on work.

8. Ignore messages that you should use your time at home to be hyper-productive.

If you'd like to do some projects while you're at home, that's fine. If you'd like to read some books you've been trying to get around to forever, that's fine. If you'd like to declutter your linen cupboard, that's fine: Do what helps you. However, don't put unnecessary pressure on yourself to get things done beyond what you have to, if that does not feel helpful. 

Sometimes it's more useful to resist messages that the solution to any crisis (personal or communal) is to be hyperproductive. 

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