Remote working is here to stay. Coronavirus forced full-time home working for millions across the world. Smart employers are now rapidly extracting the learning from this historic experiment to create a longer-term hybrid model.
There is a strong movement towards providing flexible options to enable people to design their own office vs home balance. A team of US and European academics has replaced the 5-day week with what they call a “3-2-2” week. This is three days at the office, two days working from home, and two days dedicated to family and friends.
Whatever the eventual solution, business leaders are placing a bet: more flexibility will deliver a win-win for organizations and staff. They are hoping to combine greater freedom and a more pleasurable relationship with work, while delivering the same, or even better, performance.
But, there’s a stumbling block for unwary employees stepping into this brave new world. Remote work leaves you with no externally-imposed structure for a day. No visual cues from fellow office workers about what to do next. Greater liberty can mean it’s easier to get distracted by social media, news reports, household chores, partners, housemates, or kids.
The ability to focus – to pay conscious, absorbed attention for extended periods – is becoming increasingly rare. As a result, it’s more valuable. Here are three science-supported habits to help you side-step distractions that siphon productivity.
The ability to focus is increasingly rare.
getty Habit 1: Find Your Flow
Just as sports stars train to run faster for the moments that count, remote workers can organize their agenda to think more effectively when they need to. Athletes also know they can achieve better results for the same training effort if they apply that exertion at the correct time of day. This is true for the brain as well as the body.
Research into human circadian rhythms shows there are three cognitive performance zones in a day.
Zone 1: Peak Performance (high productivity, focus, and creativity).
Zone 2: The Valley (recovery time).
Zone 3: Rebound (lower than peak, but good enough for admin tasks).
Everyone has these three zones arranged in their pattern. The key: work out when your zones occur. Psychologists call the peak performance zone a ‘flow’ state. In flow, you are so profoundly immersed in an activity that time flies. Athletes call it being “in the zone.” According to a decade-long study conducted by McKinsey, you can be up to five times more productive in these deeply engaged periods.
Flow is valuable for anyone needing to think creatively. Research by LinkedIn and others shows this is a crucial capability to build your career in a fast-changing world. It’s vital not to waste the time needed to make it happen.
By trial and error, I’ve found I’m an early bird. My peak performance zone occurs between 7 am and 10 am. As a result, I schedule cognitively challenging tasks, such as writing, in the morning. I avoid looking at my email during these precious minutes. I slot less demanding work, like scheduling and emails, after lunch or in the late afternoon. Re-designing your working day in sympathy with your unique daily rhythms hugely boosts overall performance.
Habit 2: Never Multitask
It’s fashionable to believe, with the aid of digital technology, we can do two or more things at once. This is nonsense. Trying to multitask hinders productivity because of the time you waste switching between tasks. Researchers at the University of London found that constant emailing and text-messaging reduces mental capability by up to 15 IQ points, a similar effect to missing a night’s sleep or smoking a joint. If you were a poker player, multitasking is like stacking the cards against yourself.
This is particularly detrimental when attempting complex, creative work. Researchers find it takes an average of twenty-five minutes to recover from an interruption and re-enter the flow state. However, our modern lives are disrupted on average every eleven minutes (bleaker survey results say it’s only 3 minutes).
This might mean you never catch up with shallow tasks, let alone find time for deeper thinking. Albert Einstein famously squeezed in his explorations of relativity around his job as a patent clerk in Bern in Switzerland. Would we have had his insights if he’d also been wrangling an Instagram account and juggling endless emails? Just because you can log in anywhere, anytime, doesn’t mean you should.
Habit 3: Don’t Try To Fight Distraction, Remove It
Our digital devices make the acceleration towards remote work possible. Ironic then, they are also distracting us on an industrial scale. While labor-saving apps make us more productive, their proximity to personalized social media feeds and ‘always-on’ work emails make deep thinking more difficult to achieve. As the neuroscientist and author Friederike Fabritius, observes: “Your brain is a distraction-detection device, and your e-mail program or smartphone is a novelty-generating machine.”
Using your iron will to resist digital temptation may feel like the right thing to do. It’s counterproductive. Our self-control is a finite resource. Use it too much and it runs out. Far better to eliminate distraction than to fight a losing battle as your willpower evaporates.
First step: corral your work communications. This involves identifying the segments of your day you will, and won’t, reply. Aim to check your inbox three times per day, at moments you choose. For the rest of the time, turn off notifications, and log out of your email platform.
Second step: take control of the relationship with your smartphone, rather than the other way round. During a workday, this means turning it off from time to time. If that’s not possible, at least put it out of sight. One study suggests even glimpsing your phone out of the corner of your eye diminishes brainpower. Bear in mind, this corrosive effect continues when you are trying to relax with friends and family. This is why it’s a great habit, at a predetermined time each evening, to leave your device in another room.
In the long run, to curb the shiny allure of social media, ask a simple question: “What is the benefit of investing my time on this app?” Write down the services you use and then pose that question for each app in turn. If the benefits are not immediately clear, delete the app for a month and see what happens. Only download it again if you genuinely miss it.
Remote work will become a permanent facet of a 21st-century career. Our devices will continue to implore us to “Do It All”. This is not just a stressful challenge, it’s a mathematical impossibility. We have become finite human beings, attempting to hold back an infinite digital deluge.
As homework normalizes, a gap will grow between those who can manage self-directed time and those whose focus is smashed into jagged shards. These three simple hacks will help you stay on the right side of the divide. As the New York Times columnist David Brooks wisely observed: “Great creative minds think like artists but work like accountants.”
The ability to focus is increasingly rare.