Research Tips for Working From Home for Optimal Productivity

Kevin Indig
Kevin Indig  |  August 9, 2019

Working from home is as much a perk as it is a challenge. It can increase productivity or kill it. And the one thing it basically comes down to is: distractions. Luckily, research gives us a good idea about how to avoid distractions and unlock maximal productivity when working from home.

I recently asked my Twitter followers “What is the biggest problem with working from home?” and got over 115 responses - many of which I didn’t expect. I categorized each Tweet into four groups:

  1. Loneliness/isolation: people are missing spontaneous collaboration/ideation, and human interaction.
  2. Distractions: people are tempted to watch Netflix, do chores/groceries, eat, or spend time with their family.
  3. Structure: people have a hard time with discipline, motivation, separation of work life from personal life, and doing too much or too little work.
  4. Office perks: people are missing snacks, coffee, and other perks.

To be clear, not everybody deals with the same issues. Some people thrive when working from home, others despise it. And not every problem mentioned demands a research-driven solution. Feeling lonely, for example, can be solved by working out of co-working spaces or cafes, spending time with friends or family before and after work, or doing some type of group activity.

By far the biggest for home workers is focus. It’s really hard to stay focused when everything around you is a distraction. The fridge looks like something new might have magically found its way in, so why not open it for the tenth time for the day? Your kids are home during summertime and want to play. Your spouse wants to talk. Or you’re just by yourself and suddenly doing something else seems really attractive (laundry, dishes, Netflix).

Now, before we jump into the solution part, let me preface that there is no magic pill you can take or app you can install on your phone to make being a remote employee easier. You’ll have to put in the work. But, to make it easier for you, I dug into eight research studies to find out how to maximize productivity when working from home.

Focus = managing attention

First, know that it’s never going to be perfect - and it doesn’t have to be. Just like Mike Tyson had to barf from nervousness before every fight, you’re not going to turn into a work-bashing zen-monk every day.

And that’s fine.

The goal is to know how you work best and how to manage attention, even though our brains are wired to be distracted.

We adapted to lose focus in order to see dangers coming, back when we were foraging in the wild. What helped us survive 10,000 years ago is now something we have to learn to manage.

Notifications and distractions are waiting behind every corner. A productivity study from McKinsey in 2012 found that knowledge workers spend 28h each week on meetings, emails, and searching for information. So, don’t judge yourself for losing focus from time to time.

Create a non-interruptive work environment

Distractions are costly. In a paper named “The cost of not paying attention,” Jonathan Spira and Joshua Feintuch found that the United States loses $588 billion per year from interruptions at the workplace. And that study was conducted in 2005, a year after Facebook was founded and five years before Instagram. If I had to guess, I’d say the loss has at least doubled since then, if not tripled.

But money is not the only cost of distractions.

A research paper from Mark et al. from 2008 titled The Cost of Interrupted Work: More Speed and Stress looked at the impact of interruptions. The research team found that contrary to common sense, interruptions do not lower productivity. When interrupted, people compensate and work faster.

So, where’s the problem?

The problem is that all the interruptions come at a price: stress. They impose higher pressure on us because we’re constantly going back and forth between things. Our brain has to switch into a different mode, no matter what type of interruption we encounter. In other words, your environment can make or break your productivity - and your health.

So, what can you do?

Assess your workplace:

Not good

  • Working on the bed or couch
  • Having your phone next to you
  • TV or music running in the background
  • Being surrounded by other people
  • Doing several things at the same time

Good

  • Working at a desk (kitchen table doesn’t count)
  • Keeping your phone in another room
  • Working in a silent room
  • Being alone in the room
  • Focusing on one task

Treat work like work. Your body and mind recognize it! How you set yourself and your environment up makes a big difference. Hunched over on the couch is not a good signal because for your mind it’s like Netflix time. When you sit upright, though, your mind gets into “work mode” easier. Train your brain to switch into “work mode” by building habits that you keep.

Learn how to focus and stay focused on a single task. Keeping your focus does not only make you more productive but also trains your mind to get better at it. We’re inherently distracted (thanks, Mother Nature) and thus need to consciously steer our attention back to the task. But our brain doesn’t want to stay focused, especially on boring tasks. It wants to get a series of dopamine shots from Instagram or Facebook. Resist the urge and it will get easier.

Narrow your view. Literally. I remember how I really wanted to work with two additional monitors in my previous job because I thought it would 10x my productivity (exaggerating a bit here). Two months in, I noticed how I got more done when I was working on my laptop without additional monitors. The additional screens gave me more to look at and less to focus on. Using two monitors can seem productive but if it means that you have more surface for distractions, it can be counter-productive.

Find your capacity

A study by Akerstedt et al. from 2003 named Shift work and disturbed sleep/wakefulnessfound that the biggest issue for shift workers was not that they worked at night but that their sleep-wake pattern wasn’t constant. In other words, as long as you find the work rhythm that works for you and stick with it, you’re good. You don’t have to get up at 6 AM to become a millionaire, despite what all the articles on the Internet are telling you.

Some people work better at night, others in the morning. As long as you can align your optimal work time with your team, it doesn’t matter when you work. The goal of this tip is to help you find out when you work best and how much work you can handle. You need to find out what’s optimal for you and then optimize your schedule accordingly.

There are two ways to structure capacity: by day or by hours. You either have days for complex and easy tasks or you plan to tackle them during certain hours of the day.

Being proactive about your productivity instead of reactive is key. Mind you, not every day or hour has to be super productive. It’s okay to have “non-productive” days, which doesn’t mean you get nothing done. It just means you handle meetings and administrative work, which doesn’t in itself “produce” something. If you know, for example, that you need long chunks of time to handle complex tasks but have a good amount of meetings you need to take, try scheduling them all in one day to give you more space on other days. Or split your work hours into meeting time and maker time. Forge your schedule after your productivity.

Aim to learn how long you can focus and decide whether you’re a morning or evening person. Finding your rhythm is not just knowing when you work best, but also how much focus capacity you have. For example, I learned about myself that I’m the most productive in the morning and can split my day into two halves, separated by a workout. I know that I can get in 2-3 good sprints of work over 4 hours, when uninterrupted, and then need to recharge. That doesn’t always work out, but at least I know what perfect conditions look like. What does it look like for you?

Varying complex and easy tasks can work well for some and not at all for others. Complex tasks are audits or analyses, tasks that take your full mental capacity and focus, or hard problems. Light tasks, on the other hand, are things like answering emails, or repetitive workflows that don’t demand lots of mental capacity. Knowing how much of each you can take over the course of the day and when is very powerful.

Schedule (focus) time

In a famous study by Czerwisnki et al. from 2004 called A Diary Study of Task Switching and Interruptions, 11 knowledge workers tracked their work and interruptions every day for a week. The researchers found, amongst other interesting observations, that knowledge workers often switch between tasks like email, phone calls, and meetings, and that 40% of the time, switching was self-initiated. In concrete terms: if we don’t schedule tasks, we simply bounce between different ones and get less work done.

causes-of-task-switching

(Result from the Czerwinski study: the biggest drivers of task switching are we)

Scheduling dedicated focus time is not going to be perfectly possible all the time, especially when you’re a manager. But you can be creative in how you approach that problem. One modern approach is to prioritize your schedule based on energy, not tasks. Write down when you feel the most productive during the day - measure it - and then look for patterns. A simple spreadsheet is enough. Try to understand the impact of sleep, food, and stress on your body and mind. The key to understanding yourself lies in observing yourself.

Working in sprints is not just for developers. It’s a universal principle that appears in religion (“on the 7th day, he rested”), fitness (“stimulus-recovery-adaption”), and biology (crop rotation). The idea is to rest and recover after an effort, say finishing a complex task. No, I’m not talking about a massive 8-hour Netflix binge after doing your taxes. I’m talking about methods such as the Pomodoro Technique, which has a 45 minute work, 15 minute rest, frequency. Find whatever balance works best for you, whether 30-30 or 55-5, and plan your capacity accordingly.

Plan tasks days or weeks ahead. A nice proverb that goes back to Benjamin Franklin is “Failing to plan is planning to fail”. Your chances to succeed increase with the amount of task planning you do. We have a bunch of task management tools at G2 you can pick from, so you have no excuses. Dedicate whole days and even weeks to a task and you will notice that your mind is at ease as well.

Define work and off-hours to balance your remote work. One challenge of working from home is to distinguish between being “on” and “off.” It goes back to two tips I mentioned above: creating the right environment and finding the right rhythm. Make it clear that you’re working when you’re at your desk or pick a time range, e.g. 9 to 5. The clearer, the better.

Creating a deep work ritual can help you switch into focus mode. The term “deep work” was coined by Cal Newport. It’s the opposite of shallow work:

Deep work is to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task, and shallow work describes activities that are more logistical in nature, that don’t require intense concentration. We just think of work as being any activity that plausibly produces benefit. Once you realize there are different types of work and some types have way bigger returns than others, it completely changes the picture.” (From Cal Newport’s book “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World”)

In the first tip, I mentioned that you can “train your brain to switch into work mode” and a ritual is a perfect trigger for that. For me personally, it’s a nice cup of coffee in the morning with a protein bar. Give me that and I’m immediately switched on! Create your own ritual and it’ll be much easier to get deep work done.

Configure your laptop for productivity

The likelihood that you’re reading this and do most of your work on your laptop (or computer) is close to 100%. The challenge is that the more interesting, entertaining, and distracting stuff is just a click away. You could watch Netflix right now, instead of reading this article.

Well, don’t.

If you’re still here instead of watching Stranger Things 3 (I know, it’s really good), let me help introduce you to a research paper by Gonzalez et al. titledConstant, Constant, Multi-tasking Crazinessfrom 2004, in which the researchers found that knowledge workers spend two minutes on a task on average and then switch to the next one. That’s not a lot of time.

They also found modern work environments (think: computer) are set up for individual events like email or messaging, instead of staying productive within a task. That’s why you need to set your computer up for productivity.

Here’s how:

  1. Turn off all notifications. Yes, all of them. Also Slack, and especially text messages or Whatsapp.
  2. Don’t have your email constantly open in a tab (I’m guilty of this). Only open apps and tabs you need for the task and close or hide all other ones. Staring at a tab with 200 unopened emails causes anxiety.
  3. Block Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks during work hours or at least during the times you need to get complex tasks done. There are several apps out there that will block websites during specific times for you, if you’re tempted.
  4. Remove those shortcuts to distracting sites from your bookmarks toolbar.
  5. Have a list of tasks for the day visible or in reach. It can be on your computer or on paper. This researcher found that work artifacts like post-its make it easier to focus and get work done.
  6. Structure your email inbox for urgent and non-urgent items. I personally manage my inbox with the folders “today,” “this week,” and “this month” to prioritize emails.

Regain focus when it’s lost

I already mentioned the paper “The Cost of Interrupted Work: More Speed and Stress” by Mark et al. and pointed out how interruptions cause stress. But there’s another interesting finding from the study: it takes us about 23 minutes to regain our focus after we’ve been interrupted; 23 minutes! That means a short stint to Instagram is more than a minute lost.

But another study from Waszak et al. from 2002 titled “Task-switching and long-term priming: Role of episodic stimulus–task bindings in task-shift costs” found something interesting in that context: that the cost from switching between tasks is very high, but lower when you get back to the same task after an interruption.

Losing focus is not perfectly avoidable, especially in our digital world. The most productive people don’t beat themselves up over it, they work on regaining their focus.

So, what’s the best way to regain your focus?

Take three deep breaths. Sounds funky, but works. Sometimes we feel overwhelmed by too many tasks and they’re all important. Immense time pressure is normal. Breathing can release some of that stress because our diaphragm is connected to our central nervous system. A paper by Heck et al. titled “Breathing as a Fundamental Rhythm of Brain Function” shows the link between breathing and cognitive abilities.

Write your thoughts down. Another reason for self-interruption is worries. You know how you sometimes think of something completely different you have to do than what you’re working on at the moment? We often fear that we’ll forget the thought if we don’t take care of it right away. But that leads to another interruption and higher switching costs. Instead, write your thoughts down. Once they’re on paper, you can go back to focusing on the task at hand.

Go back to the same task after you’ve lost focus. Don’t start something else, especially a complex task. A study from 2001 by Rubinstein et al. titled ”Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching" found that switching cost is higher when we go from a familiar task to an unfamiliar one.

Conclusion: Being productive when working from home is a matter of planning and preparation

If the studies I listed and cited here show one thing, it’s that working from home is not always easy. Everyone in the knowledge economy struggles with focus and no one is perfect. However, if you succeed at planning and preparing, you’ll likely succeed at being productive. The better you define the “how, what and when” of your work, the fewer distractions you face.

The pinnacle of productivity is “flow,” a term that psychology uses to describe effortless work. It’s also known as “being in the zone”: Time passes without notice, focus is at 100%, and you’re fully immersed in what you’re doing. The concept has existed for thousands of years — in the Buddhist religion, for example — but was coined by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in 1975.

And that’s the last paper I want to leave you with: “The Concept of Flow” by Nakamura and Csíkszentmihályi from 2009. It starts with “What constitutes a good life?” and concludes that flow can reduce anxiety, drives performance like crazy, and overcomes adversity. Now, we don’t have to go as far as saying that working in a Flow state is the key to a good life, but we can say that it maximizes productivity and working from home can really set you up to get in the zone.

If you can build a habit around Flow, you’re golden. That’s the ultimate connection of ideas: forming habits around work and trying to achieve a state of effortlessness. As Neale Martin writes in “Habit: The 95% of Behavior Marketers Ignore”:

Habits emerge from the gradual learning of associations between an action and outcome, and the contexts that have been associated with them. Once the habit is formed, various elements from the context can serve as a cue to activate the behavior, independent of intention and absent of a particular goal… Very often, the conscious mind never gets engaged.

This is part 2 of The G2 Guide to #WFHWeek.
Kevin Indig
Author

Kevin Indig

Kevin is VP of SEO & CONTENT at G2.