Working from home was already challenging before recent events. Add the stress of childcare and online school, and even top performers can find themselves struggling to stay positive and work productively at home.
But working from home is also an opportunity to start new healthy habits. Check out our strategies to help keep your brain engaged and active when working from home.
1. Clear your workspace
Our offices typically had a dedicated area for everything we needed to complete our work. Once we sat down (or stood) at our desks, our minds understood it was time to get down to business.
At home, you may have set up your laptop wherever you happened to have space. Now, not only is your brain missing the signal that it’s time to work, but you may also be surrounded by distractions of home life and personal time.
Those who already had a home office aren’t exempt. This may have been where we paid bills, caught up with the news, wrote letters, or escaped the couch—getting some work in on the weekends might have been a small part of the room’s role.
To give concentration a fighting chance, reset your workspace. First, identify what you need to complete your duties. Just your laptop and phone, or do you need a planner, a notebook, and your favorite pens? If you had a picture of your family, pet or favorite vacation landscape on your work desk, include that, too.
Then, clear away items that have nothing to do with work. Stack bills, envelopes and newspapers and put them in a drawer or in another room, and throw away or file old receipts.
Do the same if you’re working at your coffee table or dining room table. Before you start each day, your work surface should be completely clear. When you set down your laptop and other items and have a seat, your mind will send the signal: it’s time to focus.
2. Turn off sound notifications
In the office, colleagues drop in unannounced to connect on a project or say hello, but this feels much more distracting through a team chat platform.
In the office, we actually had to get up and move to talk to a colleague outside of our office. With online platforms like Microsoft Teams, Slack or Zoom, people send chats anytime about anything with very little effort.
Finishing work through interruptions takes more effort, frustration and stress, making it harder to focus when working from home. Protect your concentration by turning off sound alerts in the settings of your work email and instant messaging platforms, as well as banner notifications. If you notice that even the visual notifications are distracting you, set up your document to take up the entire screen.
If you often receive urgent notifications from a colleague or supervisor, let them know you’ll be checking on your instant messages every 25 minutes so you can focus on your current project. They can always call you through these same channels if an especially time-sensitive issue comes up.
You can also block off time in your email calendar, so people won’t expect a response right away. These boundaries are critical to help you focus while working from home.
3. Slice a “tomato”
Checking messages every 25 minutes or so is intentional. Francesco Cirillo developed a time-management technique he named after his tomato-shaped kitchen timer: a pomodoro in Italian.
In this strategy for focus and concentration, you create a to-do list for your tasks and set a timer for 25 minutes. During this time, you’ll work without distraction on the one task at hand. When the timer goes off, check the task off your list and enjoy a short break of three to four minutes. If you complete your task before the time is up, review and reflect on your work or organize your next list of tasks.
When you’ve completed four of these tasks, take a longer break of 15-30 minutes. This technique allows you to dive into distraction-free work for short bursts of time and come back refreshed. Plus, it rewards your brain for focusing.
If your children are at home doing remote learning, see if you can time your 25-minute bursts with their classes and check in on them when the timer goes off. This length of time is great for art projects or a children’s TV show if your child is too young for school.
And don’t be too hard on yourself if a kid emergency arises when you’re in the middle of a tomato. Come back to the task when you’re done and make sure to take that short break—you’ve earned it.
4. Make breaks tech-free
We’re glued to our screens more than ever before. Often, breaks are when we catch up with the news, scroll through social media, or attempt to de-stress with a game on our phones.
All of that makes it harder to concentrate. We need frequent breaks from all screens, to not only protect our eyes from strain but also our bodies from poor posture and stiff shoulders. Here are some ideas for quick, restful breaks without picking up your phone:
- Stretch your lower back or practice some yoga poses
- Stand and take slow, deep breaths
- Take a walk around your yard or people-watch through a window
- Grab a hug from your child or partner
- Play a quick game with your pet
If you feel more relaxed when there’s less on your to-do list, load or unload the dishwasher, put laundry in the dryer, or wipe down countertops. The important thing is to give your mind and body a break from the screens.
5. Eat well
Certain nutrients help support brain health: omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins and antioxidants. Make an effort to select more brain-healthy foods, including blueberries and broccoli that are rich in antioxidants, or healthy fats in the form of avocados and nuts.
You can also help complement your diet and support your healthy body and brain with supplements. Neuriva supplements work to help fuel the five important indicators of brain health.*
To help your focus while working from home, step away from your laptop while eating meals or snacks. This helps you eat mindfully while keeping your office area solely for work.
Stress can impact parts of the brain that deal with regulating emotions and memory. This takes a toll on how effectively you work. De-stress with activities you like and find support in your loved ones and colleagues, but don’t get stuck in a rut. Tackling a new skill—anything from baking to origami or jigsaw puzzles—is one way to keep your brain sharp while also preventing you from being glued to a screen.
Meditation is another great way to clear the stressors from your mind. Good beginning meditation exercises will simply have you focus on being present, paying attention to your breathing, and listening to what your body is telling you. Find an app to help you ease into the practice.
7. Rest up
Sleep is important to support brain function. Depriving ourselves of sleep disrupts the brain cells’ ability to communicate with each other.
Practicing good sleep hygiene is even more important now. Finish coffee and other caffeinated drinks no later than early afternoon, and limit your screen time as the evening winds down. Simple meditation exercises at bedtime can also help calm racing thoughts, and a cool bedroom helps us fall asleep.
8. Keep moving
Exercise can increase levels of brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which helps support cognitive function. And numerous studies suggest the positive effects of nature on health, so spend time outside at least once a day if you can.
And you don’t have to be a cardio master to reap health benefits. Try to fit in a 20-minute walk before starting your work in the morning, or take a walk after logging off to help you mentally mark the end of your day.
9. Stay connected
Even though interruptions throughout the day can break your focus, there is value in scheduled time to connect. Socializing will help keep you—and your brain—feeling healthier and happier, and help you avoid feelings of isolation while raising morale and productivity. Plan a virtual coffee chat or happy hour to catch up with colleagues.
And if you can, keep your camera off. You’re not imagining that you’re more exhausted at the end of the virtual workday—Zoom fatigue is real. Video conversations are more draining than in-person meetings typically are. So it’s okay to catch up with your coworkers, but don’t feel pressured to turn on your camera.
10. Be gentle with yourself
We’re living through a stressful time, our work and social lives have been turned upside-down, and we’re coping with issues many of us never had to before. No one is an expert at doing this, yet here you are, still working and getting things done despite it all.
Taking a bit longer to finish projects doesn’t mean you’re doing badly, and beating yourself up isn’t going to help get the job done. It can help to keep a journal of the things you’ve done well each day. Take a moment to reflect on the positives each day to help put the stress you’re dealing with into perspective. Pat yourself on the back for the wins, and see if there’s a lesson to be learned in the losses.
We hope these tips help you find balance and focus when working from home.
*This statement has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.