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Hey, Colleague: My working-from-home 'colleagues' are stressing me out

Hey, Colleague: Practical advice on careers and maintaining a work-life balance.
Anxiety and stress caused by working from home can be heightened with you're also balancing parenting, housework and other tasks.

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Hey, Colleague:

My work-from-home routine is TERRIBLE. Sharing my living space with my working space means I’m constantly checking my emails outside of working hours, starting my days early and working late into the night. On top of that, I find the never-ending laundry I can see out of the corner of my eye and the dishes in the sink are causing me extra anxiety. And don’t get me started on my pets and spouse interrupting me with their needs, too. How do I find an at-home routine that works? (And how do I stop the at-home stressors from making my anxiety worse while you’re at it?) —anonymous

Tell me about it! I’ve heard these horror stories over and over ever since the pandemic started. It’s a challenging task to stay focused while working from home.

It may have been exciting initially, but the stress of a long commute has been replaced by spouses, children, pets and dirty dishes constantly invading your concentration and distracting you from work. Suddenly, we find ourselves taking much longer to complete tasks as the boundaries between work and personal life disappear.

I used to feel terrible about myself when I was not productive. I’ve been working from home for almost seven years, and it’s not always easy, but commuting to and working in an office every day isn’t easy either. The reality is that life is never going to be easy—the grass isn’t always greener on the other side, but the secret to fulfillment is watering what you already have.

Focus on staying focused

Focus has always been a big deal to me because I work in creative roles that require getting into a flow state if I want to produce my best work in the most efficient way possible. Time is money.

According to a study by the University of California Irvine, it takes approximately 23 minutes and 15 seconds for your brain to refocus after getting distracted, task-switching, multitasking, etc.

Every time you get distracted, you lose 20 minutes of radical productivity. Three distractions equate to an hour of productivity lost! Isn’t that mind-boggling? You can still get things done but much slower, not efficiently. Time is our most precious currency because you can never get it back.

Essentially, jumping between tasks kills productivity and focus, which may cause your anxiety. How can you feel accomplished and do your best work if you are scattered between pets, a spouse, 50 open Internet tabs and an ever-growing to-do list?

Here are some ways to stay focused:

Limit distractions. To increase attention span and focus, eliminate all distractions as possible. Use apps to disable notifications. Put your phone in another room. Use noise-cancelling headphones.

Change your environment. If it is safe to do so, occasionally work outside, at a co-working space or coffee shop to change your setting. Personally, changing my environment is the best way to recharge and reset my mind, which helps me focus on my tasks better.

Set Boundaries. Set up a dedicated workspace at home, and discuss scheduling and boundaries with anyone else you live with to eliminate distractions.

Think of focus as a skill. Every time you have the urge to do those dirty dishes you see from the corner of your eye, catch yourself and say this mantra to yourself, “stay focused!”  Be mindful of those urges. I’ve practiced this consistently this last year and have seen incredible results, such as improved social media habits. When I feel the urge to pick up my phone, I say to myself: “stay focused!” Some days I don’t catch myself, but that’s OK. You have to be kind to yourself.

Stay 100% focused. Multitasking and not paying full attention will negatively impact your productivity. Instead, when you give a task your full attention, you will get it done and out of the way faster.

Time blocking. Use the Pomodoro technique or 90-minute time blocks of intense focus (based on our natural and quantifiable ultradian work/rest cycles). Put on a pair of noise-cancelling headphones and a sign on your door or desk: “do not disturb until __{insert time here}__."

Work on a schedule and create a routine. A lack of structure can cause anxiety. Wake up as you normally would, eat, take breaks, and shut your computer down at consistent times. Don’t let work interfere with your personal life, so make sure to consider family time, self-care, and exercise. When introducing new habits into your daily routine, it’s essential to start with small actions performed consistently to make it sustainable. As long as you stay consistent with those actions, you can rewire your brain and turn them into habits you can achieve with little effort.

Practice mindfulness. According to this study, mindfulness means being aware of and observing what is happening in the present moment while staying detached without analyzing or judging. When distractions and annoyances occur at home, practise observing them without labelling the events as ‘good or bad.’ It may be hard at first, but consistent practice will help you master this art form.

Remember to disconnect. Having the lines between your job and personal life blurred, it is crucial to ‘shut down’ because you may find it hard to stop thinking about work even when you are supposed to be “off.” This will only cause stress and anxiety, so it’s crucial to shut down consistently every day.

Play binaural beats. Using music to enhance our brain states is nothing new and has been around for centuries. Low-frequency binaural beats are associated with mental relaxation, and high frequency beats with alertness and concentration. Binaural beats played at a gamma frequency (high-frequency beats) tend to show promise in helping increase focus, cognitive flexibility, attention to detail, divergent thinking, mood and more. You can find binaural beats playlists on your favourite streaming app.

Get outside. Taking in natural scenery decreases anxiety improves attention span, and improves job satisfaction. Get outside as much as you can, go for frequent walks because being outdoors is part of our DNA.

Stop worrying. I know it’s easier said than done but try not to worry about the work that you didn’t finish yesterday because the past is gone and done with. I will give you the most cliché advice ever: stay present. Focus on what you need to do now. Clichés are clichés because they are true, and they work.

Be kind to yourself. It’s OK if some days are not as productive as others. Transitions may take some time to adapt to. Focus on your small habits daily, and it will become easier as long as you stay consistent with them.

Kate Pn writes about mastering a healthy work-life balance by focusing on productivity hacking. Write to her at [email protected].