Concentrating at Home

Image of laptop on picnic table in backyard

Thanks to Covid-19, many people are being asked to work at home. I thought I'd share a few thoughts on how to concentrate at home in the present circumstances.

Some of the concentration challenges at home are obvious. There are clear distractions: Your family and your pets are around, offering constant entertainment. Your kitchen is stocked with your favorite food. There is a constant temptation to check the latest news on the virus or the stock market.

If you want to get work done, you need to decide in advance how you're going to handle the obvious distractions.

For example, my husband and I have an agreement about interrupting each other. We knock on the door and say "Beep." "Beep" means "I'd like to interrupt you. Would that be okay?" It is fine for the other person to say "no," or "we can talk at 12:30 when I get lunch."

Why "Beep"? Because it's contentless. The person, when deep in concentration, can hear it and respond to it with a "no" without breaking his train of thought. In contrast, if I knocked and said, "Could we discuss what to have for dinner tonight?" my husband would have to get out of his thinking context to grasp the meaning of that sentence.

For blocking out the sound of the news, I close my office door and play Rachmaninoff, very quietly. I can't be hearing anything with words and concentrate well at the same time. I need to block it.

To be honest, I haven't totally solved the problem of pets. My cats still interrupt me. But I mitigated the problem by putting in a cat door. It used to be that when I closed the door, my cat Mookie would do his best to open it. Very persistently. Creating a racket. That I could not work through. I'd let him in, then soon thereafter, he'd make a racket to be let out. Now he comes and goes quietly, and usually he just hangs out without interrupting my work.

Little obvious things like this matter. Every distraction sets you back.

Some of the concentration challenges are less obvious and maybe more important. Do you have a designated time and place to work? This matters more than you might think.

Years ago, I read Break Writer's Block Now by Jerrold Mundis, and he recommended that you create a beautiful writing environment, that you use only for writing. This doesn't mean that you dedicate some part of the house to writing, though if you have space, that's great.

It could be (and was for me for many years) that you collect some meaningful art pieces or knicknacks and a scarf, and lay them out in a predefined way on a desk or table at the beginning of your work time. Then you write. Then, when you're done, put them all away.

Jerry pointed out that this helps to remind you that this was working time. You would associate work with this setup. You design it to be beautiful and meaningful environment, for your own pleasure, and symbolically as part of your commitment to the work process.

You can do the same thing, even if you're working on the home computer. Get some scarves, or drawings, or posters, and put them up in a particular way when you are in work mode. Then take them down when you are not. This will also help family members to know when they need to say, "Beep."

I'm also a big believer in keeping standard work times. If you don't have a standard work day, you never finish your work. Breaks take longer than necessary, and you lose your quality relaxation time.

And now we get to the big migilla. The biggest distraction right now concerns the scope of the disaster we face. Are your life savings going to disappear? How many people are going to die? Just how bad is this economic turmoil going to be? And of course, what should you do in response?

First, some reassurance, in case you would appreciate it. If disaster hits you and your family, you will rise to the occasion. Most people do. And particularly the kind of people who self-select to read an article like this do.

But it will be a lot easier to rise to the occasion in an emergency, if you rise to the occasion now to do some thinking beforehand to prepare. This is what Neil Fiore calls "the work of worry."

Instead of just letting all of those scary thoughts float around in your head, distracting you from work, or fun, or life, turn to "thinking on paper." Get them out of your head, where you can look at them and sort out what you are genuinely concerned about and what you might do to mitigate some of the worst case scenarios.

Getting the scary thoughts out onto paper takes a bit of courage, but it pays off right away. You will find that once you have looked at the potential problems, and thought about what you can do to mitigate them, you will feel empowered to take some action for yourself now. And that will build your confidence and quiet those voices.

Finally, if you've never worked at home before, be kind to yourself. It's a new skill to develop. I hope these suggestions will help you make the transition as quickly and seamlessly as possible.

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