Working from home during the pandemic creates a completely different set of challenges than what you’d encounter in the office, which may leave you feeling frustrated that you’re not as creative or productive as usual. Instead of berating yourself, you can take steps to be more mindful. Becoming more aware of your thoughts and being more consciously present in the moment may help you shift to a healthier mindset, which may help you accomplish tasks and feel more at ease with your work-from-home situation.
“The enemy here isn’t the distraction or the being distracted,” says Ryan Androsiglio, PhD, a licensed psychologist in New York City whose practice focuses on mindfulness. “It’s the degree to which anyone responds judgmentally or harshly toward themselves when they get distracted or lose focus.”
It’s normal for your mind to wander, but you may feel your focus drifting more often than usual because of the uncertainty of current events, your health status, or your job security. Practicing mindfulness allows you to recognize that your mind has wandered, then direct yourself back to the task at hand.
“Mindfulness is focusing awareness on the present moment without judging ourselves, rehashing the past or worrying about the future,” says Cathleen Swody, PhD, an organizational psychologist based in Connecticut and founding partner of Thrive Leadership. “This learnable skill enables us to pause and deliberately choose how to respond in a situation, rather than getting caught up in an emotionally charged, knee-jerk reaction.”
Some people meditate to help themselves become more mindful. Others incorporate strategies into their days which make it easier for them to focus more effectively, such as setting a daily intention to be more present in the moment or taking regular breaks. Try these ideas:
Begin your morning intentionally. When you start each day with a plan to be present in the moment to the best of your ability, you may be less inclined to get upset with yourself when your mind wanders. A strategy like this may help you focus on your work more effectively.
“Practicing mindfulness does not need to be a long or difficult process,” says Swody. “Carve out a few minutes before starting your workday. As you breathe, focus on inhaling and exhaling. When your mind wanders, let the thoughts go and take another breath.”
Be ready for distractions. It’s inevitable—something will distract you while you’re working, whether it’s a fleeting thought, your partner talking on the phone in the next room, or a bird that flew past your window. When your mind wanders, you have the strength to react without getting upset with yourself.
“A distraction only has the power we give it,” Androsiglio says. “The better able we are to approach the distractions around us as okay, the better we can mitigate those distractions with greater freedom of movement.”
If you encounter the same distractions regularly while working from home, an “if, then” plan may help minimize the impact that the distraction has on you. Figure out three or more practical ways to address the problem, so that you have options to take action in the moment.
For example: “If my roommate talks loudly tomorrow, then I will… purchase a white noise machine from Amazon, switch to a task that doesn’t require as much attention, take a break from working and take a walk, ask her to try to lower her voice between 1 and 2 PM because I have an important call, etc.,” says Swody. “Knowing that you’re prepared for the situation will leave you feeling less frustrated and position you to take positive action to help yourself. You will be more likely to refocus.”
Acknowledge thoughts, then move on. When your mind wanders, don’t follow it down a rabbit hole when you should be doing work, but don’t try to ignore your thoughts, either. “We’re practicing our capacity to notice, observe, and bring curiosity to our experience, no matter what that experience is,” says Androsiglio. “This, generally speaking, over long-term practice, helps us to be more welcoming of moments when we’re distracted, just the same as moments when we’re focused or working productively.”
If you have trouble letting go of ideas as you acknowledge them, create a system that makes it easier to save those thoughts for later. “As worries or distractions pop in your head, jot them in a notebook to review later, not now,” says Swody. “Physically, put them to the side.”
Connect with your feelings. A busy workday can be a nonstop blur of actions and responsibilities, which may make it harder to be mindful. Scheduling short breaks periodically may give you the time that you need to acknowledge your thoughts and emotions.
“Before jumping onto the next Zoom call or starting a new project, pause and spend a few minutes to check in with yourself,” says Swody. “Allow yourself a moment to take several deep breaths before jumping into the next activity. Observe where you feel tension or stress in your body. Take a few more breaths and imagine the tension loosening with each breath. Repeat as necessary.”
Remember to practice self-care. One effective way to take a break is to go for a walk or practice yoga. If you can’t seem to fit exercise into your work-from-home schedule, devote your former commuting time to getting in some physical activity. Being active can help you be a better worker.
“Stress reduction and attention restoration go hand-in-hand,” says Swody. “Exercise distracts our minds from work, improves how we view ourselves, and generates neurotransmitters with antidepressant qualities. [And] exercise activities help employees mentally distance from work, gain perspective, and re-engage with renewed attention.”