Staying on Task when Working from Home: Atmosphere, Agenda, and Attention

By: Bethany Whitted

Author

It’s been said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” This well-known proverb applies to the vast amount of freedom working remotely gives us. It’s no secret that choosing when and where we want to work demands much more self-accountability than a non-remote setup. 

Before working remotely, you had to set an alarm, get yourself dressed, drive to work, and work at your office in the presence of your coworkers. You stayed at work typically from 9-5, and then returned home to relax. Working remotely removes the necessity of these rhythms and allows greater flexibility. However, these boundaries around our time and schedule often serve our wellbeing and productivity. If we don’t apply some self-discipline while working remotely, we can end up with counterproductive work habits.  

This is not only bad for your company, which won’t be getting your best work, but also for your own wellbeing. You want to avoid being “always kind of” on the clock. The 9-5 schedule may feel overly rigid, but having a firm boundary between work and relaxing time allows us to fully embrace where we are in each present moment. To have the satisfaction of fully setting aside work and relaxing, we must stay on task during the workday. 

If you are a remote worker, there are “Three A’s” essential to staying on task. These are: Atmosphere, Agenda, and Attention.  

ATMOSPHERE. 

We often underestimate the power our atmosphere holds on our productivity. It’s important to have a workspace that is aesthetically pleasing and free from distraction.  

Your mind forms associations with places. For instance, hopefully your mind associates your bed with sleep. If you work in your bed, you’re more likely to fall asleep while working (or at least be a bit drowsy!). If you make a habit of working in your bed, you might start to associate your bed with work, and have a harder time falling asleep at night. This is why it is so important to have a space exclusively dedicated to work. 

There are several things to keep in mind when setting up your workspace. Sunlight and plants are known to boost morale and productivity. Choose a room with windows and position your desk so that the sunlight isn’t shining in your eyes but is hitting you. Add some plants. Even fake plants are helpful, but if you can manage real plants, they improve the air quality and provide a therapeutic effect.  

Your chair is a big deal. Pick something that is comfortable but doesn’t allow you to sink into it so much that you’re then too relaxed. It’s been said that sitting is the new smoking, so it’s a great idea to have a standing desk option. Rotating back and forth between standing and sitting guards against the health risks associated with desk jobs. 

Other things to think about when setting up your workspace are blue light glasses and a comfortable mouse and keyboard. Blue light glasses protect your retina from potential damage of staring at a screen for long periods of time. Using a laptop keyboard and mouse causes some people aching in their hands and arms. If this is a problem for you, consider investing in a keyboard and mouse that keep your hands from getting too tired.  

Lastly, make it an aesthetic place for you. Paint the walls a color that makes you happy. Add art and pictures. You don’t want this to be a place you hate going to, so take some time to decorate it in a way that inspires you! 

AGENDA. 

Now that you’ve got your workspace set up, it’s time to make an agenda. Before beginning each day, create a realistic to-do list. I recommend that this list be written down and placed somewhere you can see it throughout the day. List your to-dos in order of importance and tackle the most pressing tasks when your brain is at its best. 

It’s key for your own motivation to keep the list manageable. If it’s too much to do in a day, you’ll leave many unchecked boxes which will hurt your morale. If it’s too little to do in a day, you’ll likely let yourself get distracted, taking more time on tasks than necessary or turning on Netflix, which definitely isn’t the goal. 

Compose your to-do list with specific tasks that can be started and completed that day. For instance, instead of “work on financial presentation” try “finish first 8 slides of financial presentation.” When you complete a task, enjoy the satisfaction of checking it off and moving on to the next to-do.  

ATTENTION. 

Your workspace is set up beautifully and your agenda is focused and prioritized. The last (and most difficult) ingredient to a productive remote working day is a committed attention span. Our minds are like a rebellious child. If we let them wander rather than reining them in, we’ll find ourselves at the end of the day with little accomplished. Here’s some tips for disciplining your attention span: 

  1. Keep your phone in another room. Unless you need it for work, it’s best to not have your phone anywhere near you.  
  2. Use a timer. Your mind thrives from taking consistent breaks. I recommend starting with 20 minutes of focused work, followed by 5 minutes off, then repeat. As this gets easier, try 25 minutes on and 5 minutes off, then 30 on, five off. During your breaks, don’t look at your phone. Instead, do something off a screen like doodling or stretching. In addition to these short breaks, take a couple 20–30-minute breaks and go for a walk, clean your kitchen, or make a meal. 
  3. Do one thing at a time. This is the most important rule. Multitasking is a myth: your mind can only do one thing at a time. Those who “multitask” are simply switching their attention constantly from one task to another, which is terribly inefficient. Instead, go to your task list and focus exclusively on the task at hand. Keep only the relevant tabs on your computer open. Trudge through the task until it is complete. Then, move on! 

By following these tips on atmosphere, agenda, and attention you’ll be far more productive when working at home. You’ll gain traction in your day rather than feeling sluggish and unmotivated. Focusing is like a muscle – it gets stronger when exercised. Don’t be discouraged or feel guilty if you aren’t doing as well as you’d like. Instead, focus on getting a little better each day, and even with each hour. By setting up an intentional workspace, consistently following an agenda, and gradually increasing your ability to focus, you might find that working comes easier and with more enjoyment. And when 5pm comes, you’ll be able to kick back and fully relax! 

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