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How to Focus When Working Remotely

One of the most popular reasons as to why people end up deciding to not work remotely is that they fear not being able to focus well enough on their work. This is incredibly ironic, of course, considering how distracting an office environment can be, but it doesn’t go without reason, as working remotely comes with its own focus challenges.

Here are some tips to help you focus when working remotely from myself, as well as from fellow X-Teamers Josh Johnston, Kamil Ogorek and Ash White.

Work on things you enjoy

Obviously this isn’t always an option with every job you do, but it doesn’t mean you should always depend on your job to deliver rewarding work (let’s be realistic, right?). I absolutely love what I do, but there are days when it’s the last thing I’d like to be doing! So I make sure to spend a couple hours working on a side project to boost my energy, spirit, attitude, workflow, etc. Those 2 hours on a side project I love are enough to get me back to putting in the focused time that my actual work deserves.

  • If you’re not working on what you really enjoy doing, try to find that thing, or ask your boss, or your project manager or your CTO. I’m totally aware that there are the times when you just have to “do your job”, but if you’ll keep working on something you don’t enjoy doing, you’ll burnout and lose heart, your attitude, enthusiasm for work and you won’t be able to focus on anything. – Kamil Ogorek

Block out distractions

Certainly one of the most obvious tips is to cut down on distractions. You have much more control over this compared to an office environment, but it can still be a challenge if you aren’t disciplining yourself. Remember: there’s no “boss” to come around and make sure you’re focusing by creeping over your shoulder, so it’s up to you to create that discipline within your environment.

  • I like listening to music while I work but sometimes it can be distracting (especially if I’m enjoying it too much).  A tool I use all the time when I really want to block out distractions is http://asoftmurmur.com/.  It works beautifully offline as well, so it’s always a good option if you’re out and about where bandwidth is sparse. – Josh Johnston

  • Plan your working hours in advance. Create a few “work slots” that you’ll use to work in a calm environment, focused on things you actually have to get done. During those slots, you completely remove any kind of notifications, Twitter, Facebook, turn off all applications other than your editor, terminal and browser. Oh, and Spotify! – Kamil Ogorek

  • I not only turn off notifications, but also tend to turn off audio notifications that can take me out of the zone, and instead check emails/chats between tasks (unless of course there’s an emergency like my code caused the production server to set itself on fire out of shame). – Ash White

Standing desks aren’t just for hipsters

Ah, the standing desk; just one item among the joked about tech startup furniture set that most “real” developers try to avoid.

But let’s be honest, as hipster as they may be, standing desks are incredibly helpful for regaining focus. And you don’t even have to invest in an actual standing desk; you could get a StandStand to put on any table, or my favorite when I’m traveling and in a hotel, put a small trash can on top of a desk or ironing board, and bingo, you have a standing desk.

It doesn’t matter how “ghetto” it looks, as long as it keeps you standing for an hour every now and then throughout your work slots, you’ll be amazed at the results. Just give it a try.

  • It’ll take you a while, maybe week or two to get used to a standing desk. But once you start using it, you won’t go back. It helps you focus, it’s healthy, you burn more calories, you’re more energetic and it helps you develop strong core muscles so you won’t have any issues with rounded back or any back pain in future (one of the most common problems for “desk workers”). – Kamil Ogorek

  • I enjoy my standing desk (where I’m typing these words) and it definitely helps to feel more energetic, especially in cerebral tasks.  I try to go running a few times a week, and for me remote-working means being able to live further out of the city and a short walk to a great swimming beach. – Josh Johnston

Maintain your physical & mental health

Standing desks certainly help maintain your physical and mental health, but there are plenty of other ways to keep healthy. Taking advantage of your freedom and going exercising in the middle of a workday is a huge plus, as is being able to make the time to eat healthier because you’re not rushing in the morning or eating fast food every day at the office because you’re always low on time.

Go outside for walks, change up your scenery, and have a big stash of fruit to pick from throughout the day. And although this may sound like a crazy tip, someone once told me to always kick in the healthy activities right before you finish a creative task so that by the time you come back to it, you’ll have an even better perspective to finish it with (sounds like a horrible idea, but works really well actually).

Just take advantage of the flexibility and freedom you have with time and use it as a way to give yourself more energy and focus in your work than ever before.

  • Start working out. Find a sport you enjoy doing and go for it 3 or even more times a week. It’ll help you with everything, just like the standing desk. You’ll be healthier, stronger, more focused and more energetic. And it’s fun! – Kamil Ogorek

  • Exercise helps with physical as well as mental health. My routine (when I can make myself stick to it) is to run 3 times per week and lift weights 2 times per week. For me this works well as a stress reliever. – Ash White

Find your spots

It’s important to have at least 5 different spots around town that you like to work from. My list consists of the library (which is beautiful here in San Diego as pictured above), a series of cafes, and for that Friday afternoon work session, yep, a Happy Hour spot.

If you keep your scenery the same every day, you will very quickly go insane, and that’s a promise. Just don’t be the guy who goes to the same Starbucks every day and uses their WiFi for 8 hours (no one likes that guy).

  • I find it very useful to have multiple places that are comfortable to work. At my home, I have a few places I regularly use, both inside and outside. Within a short walk are a couple of good cafes and a library.  I use this to help with making context-shifts. For example, in the space of a couple of hours I might have a meeting, followed by planning / writing emails, and finally work on some code. Each one of these tasks involves a very different mental state, and by changing your environment (even just walking from one room to another) I find I can more easily clear my head before launching into the next thing. – Josh Johnston

Cut out focused blocks of time

It’s a common frustration that there are only 24 hours in the day, and I know this feeling all too well.  When things are busy, it can be tempting to try to fill as many of them as possible with work, but this isn’t sustainable long-term.  And not just that — the numbers can be deceiving.  

Wouldn’t you be better off having 4 hours of intense focus, than 12 hours of fudding around from one thing to the next?  I’ve been working with this in mind for a while, and feeling a vast improvement.

It means deliberately planning each day so that I can use my most focused times to do the most important things.  

And I often use the timer on my phone so that I can focus for 30 minute blocks and tell myself “no checking emails / slack for the next 30 minutes“.  

Loosely inspired by The Pomodoro Technique.

– Josh Johnston

What other advice do you find helpful for focusing as a remote worker? Let us know in the comments!

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