It doesn’t matter how focused you are, working from your remote office likely entails more than a few distractions. For each of us those distractions will be different (I just had to break my morning’s work to move my goat to a new patch of grass; […]

phoneIt doesn’t matter how focused you are, working from your remote office likely entails more than a few distractions. For each of us those distractions will be different (I just had to break my morning’s work to move my goat to a new patch of grass; you may not have to cram this particular commitment into your schedule). And, truth be told, they’re not always unwelcome.

But interruptions can add up. Before you know it, the distractions can eat up a good chunk of your day — not exactly a productivity boon. So here I’ve listed what I see as being the most common external distractions that interrupt my day, and provided a few possible ways to make them, well, less distracting. I know that if I can keep these distractions in check, I’m on my way to maintaining good focus through my day.

1. The Phone

Personally, I hate talking on the phone, so I’m pretty good about not being distracted by calls. But I realize I may be in the minority here. You may not be able to divert all your calls to voicemail when you’re trying to concentrate; you may not even want to. But it can help your productivity, for example, to answer work calls only — unless you’re on a break. Let any non-work calls go to voicemail while you’re working.

If you’re frequently called by colleagues when you’re in the middle of something, you might also consider screening your work calls. Let them go to voicemail, and when you next have a moment, check them to get an idea of what’s happening. You may find that more than a few calls are not urgent, or don’t actually require discussion — perhaps your colleague simply called to ask you to send them something. I cut down a lot of unnecessary interruptions this way.

2. Email and IM

Email’s bad enough, but for me, IM is worse. For some reason, almost every time a colleague IMs me, I’m in the middle of a task and am very hesitant to break the flow.

Obviously, you can use your IM status to indicate if you have time to chat with others, but email’s not so easy. Yes, you can close email down until it suits you to review your messages, but we can’t always afford to be “offline.” If you’re in a role that involves some time-critical tasks, you may well need to keep email open at all times.

If you’re in this boat, there are still a few tricks you can use to minimize the impact of email on your workflow. Consider turning off new mail alerts and extending the time that elapses between each new mail check. This way, you can check your email periodically when it suits you, rather than being interrupted every time someone in the office sends an email about clearing out the fridge in the tea room.

Another technique is to focus first and foremost on the emails that are sent directly to you, rather those were you’re included in the “cc:” field. One of my colleagues set her email to display the different groups of messages in different colors, so she knew which ones to attend to without having to open them all. Perhaps you’ll scan emails in which your name appears in the “To:” field as soon as they arrive, and leave the others for reading once you’ve finished what you’re doing. Again, these small changes can make a big difference to the number of interruptions your face every day.

3. The Front Door

Whether it’s your local Greenpeace door-knocker, the UPS delivery person, or your neighbor, visitors can be a big distraction — especially in terms of the time they can take up. If you’re lucky, you might be able to pretend not to be home whenever it suits you, but my workspace is within clear view of the door, so it’s pretty hard for me to ignore visitors. If I had a lot of visitors, though, I’d consider rearranging the space so that I could simply avoid answering the door when I was busy.

If I receive an unexpected visit, and I’m in the middle of something, I usually tell the visitor I’m about to be called for a meeting, since saying “I’m really busy” doesn’t usually discourage my visitors. If it’s a neighbor, I’ll tell them I’ll give them a call later. If you’re firm about this, and do it every time your neighbor comes over, they’ll soon get the message that you’re not available during work hours.

4. Family

Like visitors, family members should ideally be able to understand and respect the constraints on your availability during your working hours. You might be able to reinforce the idea by closing the door to your workspace at those times when you don’t want to be disturbed. Don’t have a door on your home office? Consider using some other signal, like sticking a printed “STOP” sign to the wall near your desk, or the fridge, or wherever your family members are likely to see it as they’re on their way to interrupt you.

If you work well to music, perhaps your family will agree not to interrupt you when they hear music playing, or see you working with your headphones on. One of my friends actually wears earmuffs to block out external noise when she’s trying to focus — a clear sign that she’s trying to concentrate and doesn’t want to be interrupted.

5. Household Interruptions

Many remote workers enjoy the fact that while they’re working from home they can use mini breaks to hang the washing out, brush the dog or load the dishwasher. But some days, these distractions can become serious productivity drains.

When you’re at home, it’s all too easy to think, “Oh, I can fit in a quick trip to the store to pick up milk and bread” but it’s important to recognize that every one of these small tasks takes valuable time from your day — and it’s not quality time out from work, it’s time in which you’re doing chores.

I think the trick is not to agree to too much in the first place, and to leave as much as you can to be done after work hours — as most on-site workers do. Alternatively, you might decide that one or two very small tasks — like packing or unpacking the dishwasher — can be fit into your working day, but that larger tasks like running errands are off-limits during work time.

If for some reason you have a lot of household-related tasks to complete during your day, plan for them. Perhaps you’ll actually dedicate time to do them in your calendar, so they don’t creep into the rest of your day. You may also start your day earlier so you can get everything done.

Of course, if you’re struggling to fit everything in, avoid those household tasks altogether — get your priorities straight at the start of the day or week, and stay focused on them.

These are the major interruptions that assail me as I try to get through each work day — other than my goat, of course. What interrupts you, and how do you make sure it doesn’t take too much time out of your day?

  1. I’ve only been working from home for a few months but one of the things that has worked for me is to use little household chores as breaks throughout the day, a chance to stretch my legs and get away from the computer for a few minutes. Every morning I make a list of the things I need to do for work and as I cross things off, I take a short break from work and get little things done around my home.

  2. I’ve been trying so hard to teach people the meaning of the “Busy” status one may set on IM. I must be a poor teacher. This is the idea that I am trying to convey: when your IM buddy’s status is set to “Busy,” do not send him or her any messages.

    Any recommendations on how to make this simpler to understand?

    1. Melanie, I feel your pain! One solution I can think of is to log out of IM when you really need to focus.

      Alternatively, just ignore messages that come through while you’re status is set to “Busy”. To me this is roughly akin to letting your calls go to voicemail — you can always come back to them later, when you’re not so busy.

  3. For me, the home office offers far more productivity than my office at the business. However my neighbors don’t grasp the fact that I work 8 – 5. They always call to ask me if they can borrow a cup of flour.
    I just stopped answering the home phone and that took care of that.

  4. Phone is not a issue for me too, the only problem i face is due to Household interruptions.

  5. Those are excellent recommendations on how to beat the focus blues. Working on a home business takes a lot of beating in the form of interruptions whether they come from inside you or externally like those household interruptions as phone calls and such.

    Evelyn Guzman
    http://www.homebusinesssteps.com (If you want to visit, just click but if it doesn’t work, copy and paste it onto your browser.)

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  9. [...] As web workers, we’re fortunate in that we typically don’t work in regular office. But we’re still subject to interruptions, and as such can also use tools and careful scheduling to reduce their frequency and boost productivity. Rather than an update meeting, for example, try using an app to keep your colleagues in the loop. Interruptions jolt you out of “the zone,” so if meetings or conference calls are absolutely required, scheduling them back-to-back will reduce the number of interruptions to your working day. WWD’s “Productivity Superstar” columnist Karen posted some great tips for reducing distractions in “7 Ways to Find Your Focus,” and for those working from home, complete with distractions like having to answer the doorbell and dealing with family members, Georgina provided “5 Focus Killers…and How to Beat Them.” [...]


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