How to Overcome Work From Home (WFH) Triggers & Increase Your Productivity
by Qismat Riaz on January 9, 2024
Remote work is now the norm, not the exception. Whether you live with family members or live alone, staying productive is truly challenging, especially if you want to be successful year after year.
There’s quite a bit of scientific literature surrounding humans and productivity (not to be confused with productivity science, which is something else).
These studies and surveys provide a window into new ways to harness the power of the mind and of the environment to achieve more. Without cloning yourself.
Many of us work-from-homers often have that feeling, that if we could only clone ourselves, we could get everything done that we want to. And we could thrive more.
Revisiting your efficiency and optimizing your environment can help you feel less overwhelmed.
In that spirit, here are a few science-based productivity tips that have worked for me and my colleagues. They address each of the most common WFH distractions with a practical solution.
Try these tips out for yourself to see if you can get a little more freedom from brain drain.
Why working from home is a strain on the brain
The human brain is all about associations and stimuli. Let’s say, for example, you’re working from home and you see a pile of dishes. It seems like you can’t resist the urge to start scrubbing.
It’s not your fault– Your brain is hard-wired to react this way.
This is a fantastic presentation I found online by Dr. Sahar Yousef, a Cognitive Neuroscientist from UC Berkeley. It’s called The Science of WFH Productivity & Well-Being (bookmark it!).
In the slideshow, Yousef explains how our brains are wired to make associations based on the stimuli we receive.
It’s all part of our survival mechanisms. For example, if you see dark clouds in the sky, you associate this with rain. Your brain will then react accordingly– Did I pack my umbrella? Is my car parked far away?
When you’re working from home, you’re constantly surrounded by stimuli that speak to some of the most basic survival instincts. Working in the kitchen, you’ll obviously be exposed to food and cooking utensils. Even passively viewing these objects, according to Yousef, can profoundly interrupt your productivity.
Working from home means you're surrounded by home, and thus, home associations. If you have young children, this goes up exponentially.
Even if you’re not technically ‘at home’, the same logic applies. If you’re a digital nomad staying in a hotel or an Airbnb, you will still have environmental triggers related to survival that threaten your productivity.
For remote workers, there are just too many associations at home. This can be true too for digital nomads who have to navigate new spaces.
That’s why the ideal setup for remote work is a private, dedicated workspace. But not everyone has this luxury.
Fortunately, you can still overcome many of the most common WFH distractions by following the science.
The 5 Most Common Remote Work Distractions & How to Overcome Them
Get yourself out of that productivity rut! Identify which distractions below you have to contend with and discover how to overcome them without cloning yourself. Instead, you’ll find out what to do with actionable advice based on science.
P.S. These tips really work!
1. The Phone
Never, never in the history of mankind have we been so attached to an inanimate object. Think about it… A horse? A sword? A car? None of these things throughout human history can compare to the relationship we have with the blessing/curse that is our phone.
This remarkable study by the University of Texas found that the mere presence of a smartphone decreases your cognitive ability by 10%. Even if it’s on silent. Even if it’s turned off.
How to overcome: It’s time to deal with your relationship with your phone.
More than setting alarms, turning your smartphone off, etc, the best piece of advice is to examine this relationship ad nauseam.
The idea is to make a shift in your thinking to your smartphone being an entirely utilitarian object: it’s only there when you need it for something. It’s not a constant companion.
During work hours, keep your phone in another room on silent or turned off. Schedule ‘check-ins’ periodically to view any notifications or important messages during your work breaks. If you need to, select a group of VIPs (i.e. spouse, children, boss) whose messages will reach you on your laptop.
2. Your browser
Immediate access to the internet itself is one of the most powerful distractions we have as remote workers. Simply clicking open a new tab can put you into a new world of whatever you want to see at that moment.
Because access is so easy, this is one of the most difficult distractions any worker who uses a computer must overcome to be more productive.
How to overcome: Mono-tasking & distraction-blocking apps
What I’ve found to be the best solution to defeating the internet’s wide world of triggers is simply mono-tasking. AKA, you only do one thing at a time. This reduces the switching cost, which will keep you more productive, and it can help you from haphazardly opening new tabs.
The second idea is distraction-blocking apps. Popular with coders, these will make it impossible for you to engage in internet distractions while you work. Install them on all your devices for foolproof blockage.
3. Other people
The presence of others in and around your workspace may just rival the top two on our list. If you’re a parent, you’ll agree.
It can be extremely difficult not to interact with others, as our connection with them is linked to our survival. A roommate asks a question. A child needs help with something. Whatever the situation, your brain is hardwired to get up from your computer and act on these stimuli because they’re related to the survival of yourself and your family.
How to overcome: Dedicated workspace with sensory barriers or ritual/object
The best way to overcome the distraction of others is to have a dedicated workspace with visual and audio barriers– aka see no evil, hear no evil.
If you can’t make this happen, science has another solution by way of a productivity ritual. You create a new association with your work that triggers you to get started.
For example, Yousef recommends using a sensory trigger to enter focus mode, like a candle a beverage, or a mug. Then, create a trigger to turn it off, such as a slow song. This way, you can more easily transition back into ‘home mode’.
4. Food items
Food is a huge trigger because it’s a direct survival association. This relates to seeing or smelling food itself, as well as items associated with food, like utensils, plates, etc.
Even if you are not hungry, subconsciously, these food-related distractions are flowing through your synapses.
On the flip side, you have to stay nourished to tackle the workday, so it’s a double-edged sword between staying energized and staying productive.
How to overcome: Keep healthy snacks handy and hidden
To maintain productivity, you have to refuel your body with healthy food and drink. At the same time, you don’t want to see or smell these items, as they will distract you while you work.
The solution? Keep healthy snacks accessible, but hidden. This way, you can grab them if you need them, but they won’t interact with your senses as you accomplish your daily tasks.
Keep healthy food for the day in a bag, a drawer, or in a nearby pantry for best results.
Uuuff, this is a tough one for all the clean freaks and type-A personalities of the world. Even if you’re not obsessed with cleanliness, it can feel outright gut-wrenching when you know you have to start working, but you are also aware of a list of chores that need to get done that day.
How to overcome: Sensory barriers and chore chart
The answer to this trigger is twofold. First, remember that what we sense around us greatly affects our mental state. This goes back to the advice of the dedicated workspace with audio and visual barriers. If you can’t see the dirty dishes while you work, you’re less likely to dwell on the subject.
The other fantastic tip is creating a chore chart. This may sound super-type-A, but it does wonders for both individuals and families. Make a list of what needs to be accomplished daily and weekly to keep your home space clean. You can assign these to family members to help you or do them yourself at an opportune time that doesn’t interfere with your work.
Make working from home work for you
As you can see, you can hack your way to higher productivity levels, even in the most distracting of situations. At the end of the day, the two biggies are having a dedicated workspace and dealing with your relationship with your phone. If you can conquer these two areas, you’ll be able to stay productive and stay sane as you work from home.