How to handle distractions at home and immerse into deep work?

How to handle distractions at home and immerse into deep work?

While you sit there comfortably in your own home, there is nobody actually checking on whether you’re really working. Nobody will notice when you grab your phone to text a friend, watch funny videos online, or read about Corona-news for the third time that day. Not that taking such a break should be a huge problem, but we all can get carried away by it, especially when nobody’s watching. In fact, our own Habital® Remote data showed that distractions were the most common complaint with a low performance during remote working.

But if you’re a motivated employee, you probably would like to focus and get into “deep-work” during the day from your own home workplace. You still need to immerse yourself into deep-work and handle distractions around you. How can you do this?

Factors that could be improved with low performance according to our Habital® Remote dataset.

Perceptual distractions
As the graph shows above, taking away the distractions is -obviously- the first step to get into deep work. Our data showed that workers who are dissatisfied with their remote workplace perform 22% lower. While we try to focus on our work, there are a lot of potential distractions in our environment. Firstly, we have perceptual distractions in our environment: the area that we directly see, hear, and feel. These stimuli might be kids running around in your eyesight, or you might hear your neighbours who decided that it was a good time to work on their noisy renovation project. Sometimes you can avoid the stimuli and close a door, wear earplugs or change from space. But sometimes you can also influence the stimuli. Ask your kids to go outside, have a little talk with your neighbours, or fix that annoying squeaky door for example. Thus both in the stimuli and in the perceived, we can make changes to reduce distractions. 

Cognitive distractions
Secondly, there are cognitive distractions from our environment beyond our direct perception: when our mind pulls itself away from our work. All the developments in the world have the ability to distract you from your work at hand, like worries about relatives or the economy. However, there are always things happening, the world is a dynamic place, every second there are new articles on your social media feed that could keep you distracted. Sometimes you need to focus on the task at hand and focus (and work) on your worries later, and not try to do both (half) at the same time.

From distractions to stimuli
But (cheesy quote alert…) “distractions are only distractions if you make them a distraction”. You have the power to ignore stimuli like your kids running, the sounds of the neighbours or to ignore your own thoughts wandering towards unrelated topics. It can be difficult to ignore undesired stimuli from our environment, but it’s possible for many stimuli. You just have to consciously acknowledge your drift from the task, accept it, and go back to the task. You can also deeply ask yourself why you are distracted, whether your irritation truly comes from the stimuli, or even whether it might be the case that you want to be distracted to avoid the task at hand. Just try to analyse how these processes flow in your mind. In this sense, deep-work almost becomes like a meditative state.

Understanding yourself
Identifying your stimuli, understanding your own mind and your environment is a strong tool to see what could support you in doing your work better. A while ago, I set-up my own experiment to find out and become consciously aware of the “reasons why I stopped working” (read the blog here) and found that phone buzzes were the main cause for 25% of the time (now my phone is on complete silence, except buzzes for calling). Now, at Measuremen we work with Habital® Remote, an app where you can track your own performance, and identify the factors which bother you. This app can work both for you and for the management of your organisation, who could support you with your needs.

The importance of the task
Feeling focused is also strongly related to the task at hand. We are fond of focusing on interesting things, but if our work isn’t engaging (also a common complaint shown in the graph above) we might get bored or even apathetic, being more prone to undesirable distractions (according to the theory of flow). Our (work) demands need to be proportional to our skills to find the optimum where we feel like being in flow. However, it’s not the case that we can’t focus when we are distracted, we just switch our focus to other things. Focus is more about an internal desire to engage into a particular subject for a (self-chosen) period of time. But it’s also about coming back to the subject after being distracted for a while. Personally, I like to think of focus as a sense of immersion while being immersed into something. Like in water, there is water (the subject) all around you and nothing else. The more you can find in your own underwater world, the deeper you’ll dive. When being immersed into a topic, your thoughts are all related to the topic at hand, and everything in your environment is related to or supports the topic. If you can’t find that, you can always communicate with your manager to get different or more (difficult) tasks to find that right spot of immersion.

Jumping in the swimming pool of immersion
Sometimes it’s difficult to really dive into a topic and immerse yourself in it. You stand on the side of the swimming pool and want to jump in, but somehow you don’t jump. At those moments, it’s easier to check your phone and get consciously distracted, and avoid the deep jump. It is often our semi-automatic behaviour that keeps us out of our deep state. You might recognise those moments where your hand is automatically reaching for your phone while not even knowing what we want to do with it. Or those moments when you reflexively click on a pop-up in your screen, just to avoid or pause a task. Noticing, compensating and correcting your own automatic behaviour consciously is a strong tool to increase your focus and return to your deep work. 

But you can also use it the other way around. If you are consciously not really ready to immerse yourself into deep-work, you can also try to turn off your mind, and just let your body do the work. For example, if you have to write a piece and don’t know where to start, you could try turning off your mind a little, and just start to write gibberish. As long as you start with something, your immersion will follow and will then make it better. This was often the advice from your childhood friends when you stood there at the edge of the swimming pool, hesitant to get up. They all yelled “Just jump!”, you jumped, and it turned out not to be so bad after all. If you want to read and train with this, you can read this blog I wrote.

Want to become aware of your own productivity?
If you want to become aware of and understand your own productivity and the factors affecting it, you can still join our Habital® Remote program. Go to this webpage and download the app!

Other tips:

  • Use the Pomodoro technique
  • Block your activities in your agenda
  • Associate specific hours of the day with deep-work hours
  • Co-work online with a webcam turned on
  • Take active breaks once in a while
  • Be creative in using means that facilitate your needs, don’t just get stuck on your standard programs on your computer (like Word) but think about what you need, like drawing on paper or walk around to think

Written by Justin Timmer – In house researcher