In 2018, Wrike conducted a survey where 68% in the US reported experiencing moderate to high levels of stress on the job. Work can be stressful in a variety of ways but I find that communication overload (notifications, especially!) is the leading culprit. As much as I love that I can check my work email from my phone, I hate that I can get a work email on my phone at all hours of the day.
Anyone else roll their eyes when you’re trying to go to sleep and that notification ding goes off?
Technology has made employees more accessible than ever before. It used to be that if you are not at the office, you aren’t working. Today, work is accessible from anywhere/anytime, and there is barely any separation between professional life and personal life. One of the biggest hurdles to work-life balance is creating mental distance.
In fact, there is one specific aspect of working in the digital age that prevents me from ever truly checking out… You know what I’m talking about… A ring, beep, or chime will have me rushing like a speed racer because I feel obligated to respond in a matter of seconds. Sometimes I even wake up paranoid that I’ve missed an email or a Slack notification. So what is the answer? Here are 5 tips to help you keep your cool when the level of communication becomes overwhelming.
Tip #1: Set Your Notification Preferences
In 2017, an RSNA study on smartphone addiction found that notifications can create an imbalance in your brain, higher levels of anxiety, and cause a pattern called ‘switch cost’: when an interruption, such as a notification, distracts our attention from a task we were working on to view the notification. You take more time to complete the original task, which leads to repetitive behavior, time lost, and inefficiency.
Most apps automatically want you to be more engaged, so they provide notifications for everything. When I joined Hardly, notifications were blowing up my phone all night and during meetings at my other job. I was getting notified for everything! It wasn’t until later I discovered there was a way to only be alerted if a task was assigned to me specifically. When I made that small change, it was like a cold drink of water on a scorching hot day: relief! I was no longer bombarded with flashing lights during the night! If I did hear a ding, I knew it was important and worth my time to stop what I was doing and have a look.
Prevent notifications from interrupting deep work or killing your happy hour vibes. Take the time to adjust your alerts. It makes all the difference for your own mental and emotional wellbeing.
Tip #2: Set Expectations Appropriately
Why do we feel so pressed to keep checking our email and messaging platforms? The key here is to set communication expectations. If your boss, coworkers, and clients know that you will get back to them within a reasonable time frame, they won’t expect an immediate response. Remember, unless you work in the ER, whatever they need is rarely urgent. Most coworkers understand that you do not work 24/7— you need to sleep, eat, and go to the bathroom. However, if you set a precedent of responding immediately every time, they will be disappointed when you do not. Instead, inform others that you will respond to emails within 24-48 hours, and if they have a time-sensitive request they can call your phone directly.
Tip #3: Turn off Social Media Notifications
There are enough pings during the workday; you don’t need to attract even more by having your personal notifications blowing up too! Turning off your social media notifications will help you stay focused on work and allow you to prioritize communication with colleagues rather than feeling like you have to attend to friends too. At first, you might have some FOMO. Eventually, you’ll love the peace and lack of social media harassment.
Tip #4: Limit Your Communication Channels
Every day there are new platforms to manage workflow. Companies get excited about trying them out to increase productivity, streamline project management, and stay abreast of new technological advancements; however, if they are only adding new forms of communication without getting rid of others, it can feel like your inbox is under attack. It is up to you and your team to figure out which communication platforms to narrow down to and what triggers a notification. In addition, don’t forget that phone calls still exist. Oftentimes, it is the email back and forth that becomes overwhelming, which can be avoided by talking on the phone. Just because we are in a digital world, doesn’t mean we can resort to an old-fashion phone call.
Tip #5: Shutdown the Computer and Self-Isolate
Last but not least, the antidote to communication overload is communication detox. Set aside certain times when you are going to completely unplug— no notifications! It is so important to cut off all communication, even if it is only for an hour or two a day. Set up an automatic email response: “I am gone for the day” and turn your phone on silent. With practice, it will feel liberating and you will be able to be truly present away from work.
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Remote work distractions used to be the death of me. Like a little puppy, I could stray off course at the slightest sight or sound of anything remotely interesting. If an ad popped up, I’d click on it. Phone rang? I’d answer it. If I heard a tiny bit of noise outside, I’d run to the window to see what it was. I struggled to get into the same rhythm of productivity at home as I was used to in the office.
There was always another activity distracting me from the task at hand.
When I first transitioned to working from home, I was watching TV constantly, doing household chores during team meetings, and ended up with millions of open tabs— social media, online shopping, and news articles. These habits were like gateway drugs to getting nothing work-related accomplished.
Instead of working a typical 9-5 work day, I was working 12-hours a day because it was taking me so much longer to finish the assigned tasks.
This meant there was no separation between personal and professional time and work was always on my mind. A month later, my inability to focus caused me to miss a concert my boyfriend had planned for date night. I realized if I was going to be a successful remote worker, I needed to learn to remove distractions before I got fired! So, here are my 10 tips to ditch the distractions and enhance your focus to better your productivity.
Day 1: Create a dedicated workspace for remote work
Environment is everything.
If I can see the messy kitchen or busy street, I set myself up for failure. But everyone is different! Gaining an understanding of the type of environment you need to be successful is key. While a private, home office complete with color-coded stick notes, two screens, and a home espresso maker is out of reach for most, we can dedicate an area of our apartment or house as a work zone. In my 650 square-foot apartment, my workspace is my dining room table. It faces away from the television, forces me to sit up straight, and gives me enough space to spread out my tea, laptop, and any books I might need to reference.
Day 2: Create a morning ritual
Our brain works in patterns.
To signal bedtime, most of us brush our teeth, turn off the lights, and set an alarm. By doing these activities every night, our mind and body already know what to expect. To set yourself up for success you have to train your brain to know it is time for work— no distractions allowed. Every morning before work, I drink a cup of hot lemon water, listen to John Mayer, and call my Mom. When the conversation is over, I know it is time to get down to business. As long as my routine isn’t interrupted, I can get into a work groove right away.
Day 3: Create a plan of action
If you don’t know what you are doing, the universe will find something for you to do. In other words, making a schedule at the beginning of the day is crucial to staying focused.
Write down everything you plan to accomplish during the workday and when you plan to execute each task.
Make this fun by writing your schedule on a chalkboard or using an app like ToDoist where task creation and completion are interactive. You know you are an adult when there is nothing more gratifying than crossing items off of a checklist.
Day 4: Get your sillies out
I learned this trick from tutoring kids who struggled with ADHD. Before getting started and about halfway through our session I would have my students stand up and shake their entire body. They could fall on the floor, make funny faces, or run around as long and they were releasing that extra energy all of us have that makes it hard to sit still. Now, the adult version of this could look like working out, taking a walk, or dancing to your favorite song before you sit down to begin remote work. The key here is to set a time limit for the activity so that playtime doesn’t spill into work time.
Day 5: Remove Social Distractions
As embarrassed as I am to admit it, I’m a scroller. I can spend an hour looking at Instagram, watching videos on Youtube and TikTok, and reading posts on Facebook without noticing time has passed. Chamath Palihapitiya, former VP of User Growth at Facebook says that social media leverages the very same neural circuitry used by slot machines and cocaine to keep us engaged. In simple terms, it’s addictive. Even if you have the intention of just checking up on one friend, logging onto social media can derail your entire day.
If stopping remote work distractions “cold turkey” isn’t your thing, try enabling a screen timer to help you become more aware of how much time you are spending on social media and slowly pare down your usage. Or, check out the Hardly app! Hardly helps you customize your notifications across all the apps you already use. Your attention is your choice!
When I made the switch from in-office work to remote work, my natural inclination was to figure out how I could weave dishes, laundry, and vacuuming into my workday. Boy was that a mistake. I found myself spending nearly 50% of my time on household chores and continuously interrupting my workflow to attend to domestic duties.
At the end of the day, I felt more burnt out because I was exhausting myself by burning the candle at both ends.
Day 7: Don’t multi-task
I believe effective multitasking is a myth.
David Burkus, a best-selling author and speaker, finds task switching is more similar to juggling than multitasking in that we are not doing two or more tasks with the same sufficient focus, we are instead going back and forth paying just enough attention to each to not drop the ball. At home, there are even more activities vying for our attention than in the office so it is important to commit to a task, laser in on it, and complete it before moving on to something else. Try enabling the “do not disturb” feature on email and chat platforms to prevent the urge to move from one task to another. Believe us, controlling your alerts helps! We created an app to help you customize the alerts you want to receive at any moment. Check out the Hardly App here.
Day 8: Set micro-goals
Have you ever noticed that you perk up and get a little boost of energy when you accomplish a task? Well, that isn’t a coincidence; it is neurological. Your brain releases a load of dopamine, often known as the “feel good” transmitter when you finish an assignment. James Clear, an author whose theory on the power micro-progress is rooted in Isaac Newton’s laws of motion, preaches that breaking down tasks into small achievable goals leads to higher productivity. In an interview with CBS News, he says
“If you can see yourself getting these small wins, then you have a reason to continue working, and if you start in just a small way, you’re going to want to keep going.”
So, instead of telling yourself to complete an entire client deliverable by the end of the day, just focus on completing one PowerPoint slide in 10 minutes then pat yourself on the back. You’ve conquered your remote work distractions!
Day 9: Use the Pomodoro technique
The Pomodoro technique is a popular time-management method created by Francesco Cirillo. I can confirm it’s a winner. I was able to stay focused and subsequently finish work in about three-fourths the amount of time I thought they would take. Essentially, the goal is to work in timed intervals that are spaced out by short breaks. The technique trains the brain to work in short sprints which ensures you are consistently productive. Set your timer for 25 minutes. For 25-minutes, you cannot let yourself succumb to remote work distractions. When the “Pomodoro” rings, put a check on your paper and take a 5-minute break. After four sets, take a slightly longer break for about 15-30 minutes. Wash and repeat! (So simple, a monkey could do it?)
Day 10: Incentivize yourself
As much as we would all like to consider ourselves to be complex multi-dimensional beings, we are as simple as dogs when it comes to our reward systems. To stay focused throughout the day, treat yourself to a coffee break or your favorite TV show but only after you reach a specific milestone. The anticipation of the reward will keep you on task and keep distractions at bay.
Try all of these tips in one day or introduce each method one at a time for ten consecutive days to improve your level of focus. You can even split the list in half and share it with a friend. Each of you can experiment with one task Monday through Friday and report back which ones worked best for your remote work situation. Remember doing something for 21 days straight creates a habit. We love to hear from our readers, so if you have any focusing tips to add or if you tried these tips, leave your comments below and let us know how it is working for you!
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