Setting the Context for Productivity

Like many people now, I work at home but unlike the vast amount of workers that made this change in the last few months I've been doing it for 10 years. As I've read many of the articles about tips for working from home they all seem idealized to the point of non-viability.

Yes it's great to write 1 - 3 things down in a day and focus on those things. At least it's great for a YouTube creator that doesn't have a boss or clients asking for something new every few minutes.

Go find solitude you say, and I try to tell my kids to stay out of my office because it's not dance party time. I say that and then 3-year-old tears come into play and I feel like a terrible father. Or maybe kids are having that dance party in the kitchen and my office below the kitchen is all laughter and thumping feet.

At the same time you hear people saying that it's okay not to be productive. We're in a crazy time that's not normal so if you can't get stuff done, don't sweat it. Totally sounds great, but if I don't get things done for clients I don't get paid and then my kids have to live in a fridge box instead of playing with it as a toy.

I could also tell you to get up early because that works for me, but it doesn't really work for my wife. She would much rather stay up later and sleep in than get up early. Unfortunately for her kids don't really allow that to happen since I'm up working with the sun and someone needs to wrangle the three animals.

So instead of telling you what works for me and you trying in vain to mimic my suggestions let's talk about some overall principles you can use to try and stay focused during your day.

Do Focused Work First

In When, Daniel Pink showed that regardless of whether we're morning people or night people we have the most focus in the few hours after we get up. So my morning starts at 0445 and your morning starts at 1000, either one works as long as we both head to focus on the most important things when we have the most mental capacity.

After those first few hours when we all have the most focus, we have a dip when concentration becomes hard. I use this to answer a few emails and do tasks that require less of me mentally. Then I head out on a walk or a run, or do something that doesn't require a screen in front of me because using screens means you're not taking a break.

Then you have a few hours where you can focus again, but it won't be as good as your initial burst. Use that to focus again. Then end your day with other things that don't require focus and creativity, like clearing through your email pile.

Schedule Stuff

Knowing that when you do things is important you should be doing your best to schedule your tasks the night before. At least in big blocks. I may not know what a particular client has for me, but I do know that their work generally takes a good amount of focus so I schedule it into a time when I should be able to focus.

I like to plan my week on Friday, but even if you can't look that far ahead then plan it the night before. Not in the morning when you're going to be easily distracted into other things, but the night before. That way you give yourself the best chance at getting something done before the day throws it's random crap at you.

Cut the Notifications You Can

Notifications and alerts are the bane of productiveness. If you're in the most productive hours of your day and you continually have your focus pulled to other things you're wasting lots of brain power to context switching.

I'm super lucky in that none of my work really requires me to be instantly available all the time. Oh sure yesterday a client had an issue with their site and they needed me to look at it right away. They didn't turn to Slack or email, they picked up their phone and called me. I answered, got a report, filed a bug in our system and fixed the problem. Then I got back to the rest of the work I was doing for them without issues.

I run most of my devices without notifications. Since we're all stuck at home right now I even just leave my phone in my office 99% of the time. I'm lucky that I can do that.

If you've got a job, say in support, and need to simply be there to answer emails and then get some work done between support duties, talk to the boss about blocking out a bit of time some days of the week to be productive with the tasks that aren't directly support. You're going to be able to push your other tasks further faster if you get that bit of time to focus right away. Then spend the rest of your day looking at the things that crop up.

Create a Context that Means Work To You

All of this is really about creating a context for being productive because context is key. My kid is walking around asking me questions right now which makes it harder to get a full sentence out. In the 20 minutes before she visited I banged out 1000 words but I've struggled through the last 100 for almost 10 minutes because my context changed[^See The End of Average and Atomic Habits for how important changing contexts can be to making change in your life].

So take some time and evaluate the context you have around you. What steps can you take within those limits to reduce your distractions and improve your focus? Make those changes so that you can have the most productive work area that's possible.

And for God's sake just lock the doors on the kids because they're distraction machines that are going to break even the best planned day into fragments of unproductiveness. Yes it's fun, but man kids can be the worst. Or maybe steal a parenting tip from me, turn the camera on and record them dancing because kids love that stuff. Then delete it all because you just got 60 minutes of 4K footage of dancing and you have no idea what to do with the 100th hour of dance parties.