9 tips for managing distraction when you work from home


Often when I tell people I have been working from home for years, they explain that they could never work from home because they would be too distracted. I get that. You’re at home with all of your stuff, maybe some unfinished projects, a backyard full of weeds and a sink full of dishes. Dogs that bark because someone has the nerve to walk by your house. That can all be a little distracting. I thought I would share some of the things that I have learned over these last 7+ years in case it helps someone who is trying to adopt this lifestyle or is newly self-employed.

First thing I should probably share is that I am an introvert with a capital “I”. With the widespread adoption of open offices, working from home is nearly a requirement for me. A lot of my work is writing and I am someone who needs silence to think, especially about words. There are other reasons I like working from home (no traffic, no makeup application and no shower until I am good and ready), but the main reason is having control over the noise. So the fist piece of advice I would have for someone thinking about working from home is to understand why you want to do it. If it’s purely out of necessity (for example, if you are self-employed and don’t want to spring for an office), and you need some social interaction, you might want to consider a co-working space, making arrangements to work on-site at clients or scheduling some afternoons at coffee shops. Being mindful about why and how to create a work-from-home lifestyle will help you more successfully adopt one.

Now for people like me, who really want/need to work from home, there are still inevitable distractions. Big high five to anyone who can keep from being distracted. If you are one of those people, I should probably ask you if you commonly read blogs in the middle of the day or constantly check email, and if you would consider that a distraction. Hmmm?

Anyway, here are my tips for managing distractions when working from home.

Create a dedicated space

Sometimes I’m cool with work and life blending together, like if I have to read a long document and I decide to do it while I am getting an oil change. But most of the time, I need some separation. I tried working from the couch and ended up being annoyed seeing all my work stuff spread out on the table when I wanted to watch TV. Having some boundaries, whatever kind of boundaries are right for you, is helpful.
I found it a little challenging when I lived in a loft that only had doors on the bathrooms and closets, but even creating some visual separation helps. For a short time, I moved my desk into a huge closet, then into the den (which was still open but tucked behind the kitchen). Anyway, the important part is to have an area, so that when you are working you feel like you are “at work”. And it’s a place you can leave when you are done.

Now that I have rooms with doors, I use them. When the dogs are distracting, I shoo them out of the room and close the door. When I want to pretend like that unmade bed isn’t there, I close the door. I normally wouldn’t promote intentional ignorance, but when what you are ignoring is a needless distraction, it’s totally justified.

Find a schedule that works for you

If you are working a traditional 9-5, this likely won’t work for you. But it’s worth exploring if it could. I’m not a morning person. I’m not staying up late playing video games or anything. I just like waking up when my body wants to and feeling rested. And it takes me a good hour to 90 minutes to feel mentally alert. So the schedule that works best for me is 10-6.

I don’t even think you necessarily need to work an 8 hour day when you are self-employed. You aren’t spending time chatting with co-workers. You know how much you need to get done. If you can get it done in 6, great! You should do that! You’ve created the life many people want. Good for you!

You shouldn’t feel like you have to apologize to anyone for your hours. I think that when you work for a traditional company and start to work from home, you self-consciously assume that everyone else thinks you aren’t working. I carried that mentality into my self-employment. It’s something we have to actively work on getting over. Speaking of which…

Don’t feel guilty about saying no to day plans

You may start to find that your friends think of you as the person who is available to play during the day. I have definitely had to manage this myself. This is a situation where you need to train your friends. And you should not feel guilty about it one bit. Repeat after me: “sorry, I have to work.” You do not need to explain any more. You don’t have to detail how busy you are or that deadline you have coming up. Daytime is (presumably, depending how you worked out your schedule) work time for you too. You’ll probably only have to do this once or twice for your friend to get it.

Same with having a drink at lunch. I don’t know about you, but I can’t do it. If I have a drink and then come home to a quiet house and have to focus on writing something, I will need a nap. Don’t feel guilted into it.

Schedule time off

This seems obvious but every once in a while, I’ll realize that I haven’t scheduled any meaningful time off, where I truly feel disconnected. Last year, I took the whole summer off because I just needed a break after a few years sans vacation time. I realize not everyone can do that, but you probably can take a three day weekend or a half day. If you don’t ever feel refreshed, focus will be hard to come by. And on that note…

Consider meditation

This is a good one and something I have to remind myself to do when I need it. Even if you close your eyes at your desk for five minutes and focus on your breathing, it helps you get centered. For anyone new to meditation, who feels like you struggle with clearing your mind, I can tell you that thoughts will arise during meditation and the goal is to catch them and clear them. The goal is not to eliminate them. So having thoughts bubble up does not mean you are failing at meditation. Noticing them and eliminating them means it’s working.

There are tons of apps for guided meditation, though (no surprise) the silent meditation works best for me. Find something that works for you and when you are feeling super distracted, give yourself five minutes.

Schedule distraction in

I hope I didn’t lose you when I said “meditation”. Not all of these tips will work for everybody.

Another thing that I recommend is accepting that distractions will occur. They happen when you work in an office too. Your brain needs a break sometimes.

When I am planning out a project, I make sure that I have added extra time to my timeline. Some of that extra time will be for unforeseen issues that come up during the project itself (and trust me, you need this). Some of it should be reserved for managing your own business and some just for doing other stuff.

One of the great benefits of working from home, at least for me, is being able to run errands while everyone else is at work. If you haven’t been to Costco in the middle of the work day, you might not know what a freaking glorious thing it can be. I plan these excursions on my calendar so I am sure to balance them out with other work I have going on.

Use tools that help keep you focused

I’m going to recommend two tools that come in handy for me, though something else might work for you. Doesn’t it seem like every time you think “I wish there was a tool for x”, there is one? Here are my two:

1) If there is ambient noise that you find distracting, two solutions I have found are adding white noise (available here) or adding your own ambient noise to drown it out. For the latter, I use an ambient music station on Pandora.

2) This second one is kind of a life-changer for me because it works when all else fails. It’s called Focus Booster, and it’s based on the pomodoro method. On my most harried days, I open the app, set the timer and am able to focus knowing that a little break is on the way. I don’t know how it works (I assume 25 minutes is a natural human attention threshold), but it just does. I also use it to track my time on days when I know I am going to be distracted. I can start and stop the timer to tally my client time for the day.

Have a quick jam session

I often get distracted by housework. Like the laundry hanging over the railing right now or the potting soil I tracked in this weekend. My solution is to set a timer for 30 minutes, put on some tunes and rock out while I do a little housework. The music keeps me going at a fast pace and the timer makes me feel better about doing this and keeps me from getting side-tracked by things that don’t need to be done right now.

After I finish this blog post, I am going to have one of my little jam sessions. Doing them in the first half of the day really works for me.

When all else fails, leave

Listen, if it’s your stuff that is distracting you, get the hell out of there. If a coffee shop is too noisy for you, go to the library.

Just check in with yourself during your workday. Don’t forget to be kind to yourself. We all struggle with our attention. Feel what’s going on in your body and decide if what you need to do to make your work situation productive for you.

And if worse comes to worse (as it occasionally does for me) and you can afford to do it, scrap today and start again tomorrow. Everyone deserves a mulligan now and then.