How to hack your concentration when you’re working from home

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The pandemic has taken over every aspect of our lives. Now many of us are working from home distractions are always within easy reach. With that, and the constant deluge of worrying news, it’s little wonder that many of us are feeling unable to focus when we’re meant to be working. Whether it’s the creeping dread of infection, or working just a few feet from our soft beds, our minds seem to be perpetually wandering. So what can we do about it?
First off, you aren’t imagining it – your focus will have been affected by the pandemic. An ongoing UCL study found that anxiety and stress have fluctuated above normal averages. This could be having a severe effect on your concentration. “Some level of anxiety can mean you don’t sleep well,” says Marco Sandrini, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Roehampton. “Then there can also be financial worries, or the mind may wander and you’re not able to focus.”

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Anxiety eats into the cognitive resources we use for concentrating, says Alan Redman, an organisational psychologist at Birkbeck, University of London, as well as being an active distraction, pulling your thoughts away from the task at hand. That people are dreaming more is also a sign that they are more stressed, as well as an indicator they may not be sleeping as restfully as they should. “We’re all under a bigger cognitive load,” says Redman. “And on top of that – holidays are weird and difficult to do this year, and going out and enjoying yourself is hard and difficult. These are all outlets where we’d normally recover resources to work with. It’s just a perfect storm.”
This cognitive load is building all the time – we might think of our brain as a computer, with tons of tasks whirring away under the surface and a limited number of resources to achieve them. “Multitasking is a familiar phrase, and it’s supposedly something we’re all supposed to be aspiring to as employees,” says Redman. “In actual fact, we’re just not very good at it at all. We all have different degrees of tolerance or load that we can accommodate. If you want to get some work done productively, it’s about being sensitive to not exceeding this cognitive load.”
The key, he explains, is to try and focus on one task at a time – a goal you may think you are achieving, but probably aren’t. Switch off notifications, switch off apps, and if you’re lucky enough to have a room of one’s own, close the door. Procrastination is another thing to watch out for, explains Jess Baker, a business psychologist and women’s leadership coach. We often procrastinate when feeling overwhelmed. The key is to break complicated tasks down into manageable chunks that you can tackle and move forward.
A famous technique you might try to help with this is The Pomodoro Technique, named after the tomato-shaped timer its inventor Francesco Cirillotomato used to demonstrate it. It breaks down large tasks into short timed intervals – work for 25 minutes on a task non-stop then take a break for five minutes – a pomodoro. After four pomodoros, take an extended break of about 15-30 minutes.

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Another useful technique is to stay in tune the times of the day that you, personally, are most productive. It’s helpful to think here about the age-old question – are you a morning or evening person? In our “peak” periods, which Redman explains last between 60 and 90 minutes, we are sharp and focused. In our “troughs” we are the opposite – our brain goes into “screensaver mode”, drifting and daydreaming, and baulking at the tasks that seemed simple before.
The point is to diagnose these periods, says Baker. Save hard tasks for peaks, easy tasks for troughs, or simply take a break. “For example, my head is clearest between 6.30 and 10.30 am, and less clear between 3.30 to 5.30 pm – I just want to be sociable,” she says. “So I book my coaching calls and any team meetings that I might need with my clients at that point, but any quiet admin focus time I know needs to go on in the morning.” It’s about knowing when you are most energetic and using this time to maximum effect – so time those periods of productivity to learn your preferences. If you have back to back video meetings, try and carve out ten to 15-minute breaks to let your brain reset – you can’t keep operating in work mode non-stop.
It’s also essential to enforce the distinction that the pandemic has broken down for many of us – the gap between work and home. Try to contain work within the working day, even if you’re working from home. “There’s a lot of research on this and around wellbeing, it’s simply not good for you to be running in work mode 24/7,” says Redman. “You’ve got to put up firewalls between modes of performance, work and not work – it’s about finding that off switch.”
Apply the same rules you apply to your workplace to your workspace at home – keep your desk clutter-free to clear the mind, for instance. Baker recommends “the one-touch admin process” – touching a thing one time and either filing it or throwing it away. Work away from distractions like a TV, and let in lots of natural light, but don’t let the light glare in your face and give you headaches – and, if you can, take frequent walks to clear the mind. Also, commit to seeing family and friends at a specific time of the day, even if it’s online, and keep to it – this will stop work slowly infringing on your leisure time. Put your laptop away in the evenings, so that you signal to yourself and everyone in your house that you are switching out of work mode.

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Above all, try to look after yourself. “Are you leaving your desk? Are you sleeping well enough? Are you getting the rest you need?” says Baker. “Look after your mental health by looking after your physical health.”
Will Bedingfield is a staff writer for WIRED. He tweets from @WillBedingfield
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