Professionals across the U.S. suddenly began working remotely amid stay-at-home orders due to COVID-19, but remote work is far from new. Before the pandemic, working remotely was already the norm for millions of Americans. In just the past five years, internet users significantly increased searches for remote jobs. Remote-based companies — like Zapier and Automattic — set the stage years ago by leading and developing remote work culture: capitalizing on the latest technologies, offering perks (like free lunches and all-inclusive annual retreats), and encouraging intimate human connection despite working in varying time zones. If the concept doesn’t already sound like nirvana: Buffer even offers a special stipend for employees who prefer working in coffee shops.
There’s a growing group of professionals that also contributes to the growth of the remote movement — independent workers. Data collected in 2019 reveals that about 57 million Americans work as freelancers. Many experts predicted that the future of work is from any time, anywhere. It appears they were correct. These truly are remarkable times.
Remote work takes practice, though. It’s a skill to be mastered — a goal to be achieved. It requires time, patience, and diligence. But the main ingredient in successful remote work? Focus.
Why is it so important to be focused while working remotely?
It doesn’t matter how smart and talented you are — without focus, your productivity suffers. This means projects are left incomplete. Deadlines are pushed back. You’re at risk of getting in trouble with your boss or injuring your reputation. When you’re a freelancer, you’re not getting paid for products that aren’t finished or services that are never delivered. All because you couldn’t focus and get the work done. It’s that simple.
This is a delicate issue — of course — because focus is not free. On the contrary, focus is difficult to obtain, and even more challenging to keep. In a digital world, distractions are waiting for you in your literal pocket.
Think about a regular day at the office. You grab coffee on the way to the train station, listen to your favorite podcast during the ride in, and, as you walk toward your building entrance, you silently affirm to yourself that today is going to be a productive day. As soon as you’re settled, though, your phone rings. It’s your boss: “I need caffeine. Let’s go downstairs and grab a cup. We can talk about the proposal for tomorrow.” You finally get back to your desk an hour later and need an extra 15 minutes to wind down and adjust. You finally begin tackling your to-do list but have trouble staying on-task while your cubicle neighbors discuss the latest episode of The Bachelor.
While working from home is proven to increase the potential for higher productivity, the risks for distraction remain very similar. The impromptu meeting with your boss could easily be replaced with a Zoom chat. The reality television analysis with your co-workers could just as easily be transferred from cubicles to Slack. Noisy children or the bustle of a coffee shop are often the largest culprits when working on-the-go, but external noise isn’t always the offending factor. It’s also common to find yourself tied up in social media or toggling between multiple in-depth texting conversations.
Loss of focus and productivity is born from a constant cycle of distraction and recovery. By the end of the entire eight-hour workday, you may only complete one or two hours of truly productive work.
How to find your focus and increase productivity as a remote worker?
There are a variety of tips, tricks, and techniques that help you get (and stay) focused as a remote worker. Reaching and maintaining focus requires a collaboration of various tools, mindsets, and methodologies. Everyone functions and processes differently, so finding your sweet spot will call for a few runs of trial and error.
Here are five tips for achieving focus when working remotely.
1. Establish a schedule and routine, and stick to it.
The term “flexibility” can be a bit misleading because friends and family members automatically assume working remotely means you have an abundance of free time. Setting and maintaining a regular schedule and routine removes the mystery of what you’re up to all day and sends the message to those around you that you take your work very seriously. Set aside time that is specifically dedicated to output and refrain from filling entire days with strategy, planning, and meetings. We all have days that just don’t go as planned, but this should be an exception to your routine.
2. Identify distractions and avoid them.
Identifying common distractions is a great start to avoiding them. Be mindful of your feelings and surroundings. If you notice internal anxiety or agitation, it might be because a group of chatty friends just got together for coffee and decided to sit near your table. Recognizing this distraction (and the impact it has on you) allows you to push for a solution, such as using a noise blocker or relocating altogether. Similarly, if you realize you’re unable to fully ignore messages on your devices, either mute your notifications or close apps entirely. The idea is to set yourself up for success, and this starts with identifying what kicks you off course.
3. Use remote work tools and resources.
Working at home or on-the-go means you’ll inherently lack some of the resources you’d typically access within an office setting. There are several tools and resources to implement, though, to ensure you avoid conflicts and miscommunications. Utilizing proper technology allows you to overcome common long-distance roadblocks.
Chat: Apps like Slack and WhatsApp feature text communication and organization so you don’t flood your email. The beautiful thing about Slack, in particular, is that creating new channels is a breeze. When a side discussion grows larger than expected, jump over to a new channel and continue the conversation — or save it for another time — without derailing the original topic. These apps also make it possible to hold asynchronous meetings, which comes in handy when working across various time zones.
Video conferencing: It goes without saying, the development of apps such as Zoom and Google Chat changed the way we manage remote meetings. Virtual teams maintain the value of face-to-face interaction with powerful communications APIs available to us today. Meetings are enhanced even further when you use white-board and mind-mapping software, and recording sessions for absent attendees is seamless. Note-taking apps like Evernote and Google Keep maximize meeting times by making it easy to track takeaways and follow-up items, leaving no time wasted.
Time tracking: It’s incredible what you accomplish when you’re trying to make the most of every second with time tracking. But time tracking isn’t just a focus technique, it’s also required for certain roles, especially when working remotely. If you’re freelancing, time tracking apps — like Tyme and Toggl — automate the relationship between documentation and invoicing. Instead of manually coordinating tracked time with multiple projects and reconciling everything when you move to invoicing, time tracking software makes it as simple as hitting “start” and “stop.” Time worked is instantly categorized to the right projects and billable hours and rates are calculated. This gives you more uninterrupted time to focus on your work, rather than administrative functions.
Project management: Creating lists is a valuable technique that will never fade. But projects easily become too entangled for the average to-do list. Project management tools like Trello and Airtable navigate project complexities like tasks, status, contributors, attachments, and links. Project management tools also improve collaboration and make it easier to work together in real-time.
Privacy and noise reduction: Working on-the-go is harvesting ground for noise and security concerns. Headphones supply some relief to the noise problem, but they’re still distracting for many people and don’t address privacy issues.
4. Proactively stay connected.
Nonverbal communication is absent in remote teams, but technology affords mechanisms to make up for the loss of natural human connection. Good morning waves are translated as emoji waves in Slack. Instead of a silent thumbs up during a client call, send a private message: “way to go on that point!” If you start feeling isolated from your boss or coworkers, don’t wait more than a day to reach out and connect with someone. If needed, schedule recurring meetings. It’s easy to break away from the pack. What’s of most importance is that you recover quickly and get back on track. Take the initiative and suggest a check-in meeting with your boss or provide a Friday recap of the projects you completed for the week. It also helps to keep in touch with a remote buddy throughout the day to stay encouraged and motivated.
5. Accept remote work as a developing skill.
At the end of the day, cut yourself some slack. Everything, including working on-the-go, has a learning curve when you’re just getting started. Also, new tools and tricks will continue to develop as technology advances. Moving from a traditional office to working remotely is a colossal transition. If you’re used to highly stimulating environments where you’re constantly putting out fires and working long hours in a noisy office, being at home in a calm environment can trigger burnout. When this happens, don’t wait to reach out for help.
Keep your balance when remote.
Becoming a successful remote worker is an engaging journey that requires practice and patience. Finding your balance and maintaining self-care is also essential. Take regular breaks and periodically remove yourself from your regular environment. Eat vitamin-rich foods and drink plenty of water. Stretch your body throughout the day and find time to exercise. Finding the balance between wellness and the demands of work will make you a remote work expert in no time.