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How to master distraction while working from home, experts explain

To stay focused and happy while working from home, psychologists recommend people engage in a few critical behaviors like taking breaks and setting boundaries.

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The mind is a chaotic place. Thousands of thoughts surge daily and billions of neurons fire five to 50 times every second. And now, as the global health crisis sends us indoors, anxious thoughts may be louder and more distracting than ever. We’re in survival mode, with professional and personal life melting together. Focusing at home can feel impossible.

It turns out humans often have trouble getting in the zone during normal life, let alone in times of crisis.

“Regardless of whether it's the pandemic time or not, attention is fragile,” Dr. Ekaterina Denkova, a neuroscientist at the University of Miami, tells Inverse. “It's vulnerable to distraction and constant interruption.”

This week, Inverse explores how to cultivate attention, tame your brain, and find ways to compassionately center yourself. Temporal distancing, exercising, reconfiguring your space, and breaking out of crisis mode can all foster concentration while working from home.

3. Rewire your work cues — Working remotely often means demands for our attention abound from partners, children, or roommates. Add on a layer of existential dread due to global events, and you have the makings of a perfect storm for distraction.

“One big distraction is counterintuitive — it's the absence of the work environment and other people working,” Elizabeth Grace Saunders, a time management expert and contributor to the Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, and Forbes, tells Inverse. “At home, your whole environment is postured toward ‘being off.’"

Saunders says the TV, your dog, the kitchen, the couch, your partner can all be disruptive cues that signal your brain to do anything and everything but work. Designating a workspace can help rewire these work-related signals. Preferably, this is an office, but any chair, table, or corner of your home can serve the same function.

Saunders also recommends sticking to a specific start and stop time for working. That way you don’t delay getting to work in the morning and then work late because "there's nowhere to go anyway," she explains.

2. Train your mind — It’s no secret that many companies and employees are operating in crisis mode. But if you constantly exist in a hypervigilant state, every new email or phone call will hijack your attention and disrupt your productivity.

“When people are under large amounts of stress, they end up operating from the lower part of their brain — the amygdala — instead of from their prefrontal cortex,” Saunders tells me. This reduces the ability to prioritize, focus, and make thoughtful, well-reasoned decisions.

To break this stressful cycle, stop moving at a breakneck speed and slow down, Dr. Denkova advises. Although counterintuitive to the popular principles of so-called “hustle culture,” taking breaks and time to be more intentional will prevent mistakes or lapses in judgment.

Saunders suggests utilizing the Pomodoro technique — 25 minutes “on” and five minutes “off.” This approach has been shown to enhance performance on various tasks. Exercising regularly will also help you recharge and quiet a chaotic mind, and it’s one of the best ways to optimize cognitive function.

Research also shows mindfulness training improves focus. It bolsters attention, specifically during high demand or high-stress intervals when the attention span is “shrinking and suffering from the distraction,” Denkova says.

Mindfulness training can mean a 10-minute mindfulness exercise or meditation in the morning. Or even simpler, taking a moment to drink your coffee away from your computer on the front porch or a balcony.

When every email starts to feel like an emergency, Denkova says it’s a sign you should engage in a little “temporal distancing.”

“Every time you feel stressed, or suffering, or in pain, stop from reacting, which will lead to overreacting,” Denkova says. “Stop, take a breath, and then you can respond to the email or join the meeting.”

These small moments of awareness can last 30 seconds to a minute but can help you maintain a more sustainable pace of productivity. They also help prioritize which demands warrant attention and which can be ignored temporarily.

1. Reimagine expectations — When you work from home, especially if you’re new at it, some distractions may be inevitable and productivity may suffer. Denkova says accepting these new limitations — that you may not be operating at peak performance — is helpful for everyone.

Denkova clarifies that acceptance doesn’t mean shutting down and doing nothing. Rather, accept what you can do in a day, she says.

“Accept that sometimes you'll feel anxious. Accept that you might be vulnerable. And at the same time, accept that you can have a five-minute joyful coffee break and experience that moment off the clock.”

Rather than wishing you were in the office, embrace the reality of the challenges and opportunities working remotely offers.

With these strategies — rewiring signals for focus, employing mindfulness training, exercising, and working with intention — you can master distraction and streamline your days.

And here are two ways managers can support their employees at a distance:

1. Check in regularly by email, instant messenger, or video chat at least a few times each week. Having consistent one-on-one meetings can help ensure employees have what they need and aren't getting lost or overwhelmed, Saunders says. “In an office setting, you could take care of a lot of interaction informally because you noticed something was off or people stopped by your office. But with everything remote, you need to be much more formal.”

2. Be patient, flexible, and respectful, Denkova emphasizes. “We should all accept that we are living in times that are uncertain, and we should respect how people adjust to the new daily life,” she says. If things take a little bit longer than usual, it’s not the end of the world.

What I’m reading this week:

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Strategy is a weekly series from Inverse by Ali Patillo, with insights on improving your life, career, and finances.

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