My biggest productivity wins didn’t come from simulating open-office accountability; they came from building mental momentum.
A Dozen Years of Battling Distractions
I’ve worked remotely for a dozen years and my biggest challenge throughout this time has been battling distractions. My schedule is flexible, so technically it’s ok for me to write science fiction in the morning before clocking in, or to clock out in the middle of the day to analyze the music theory behind Lorde’s Yellow Flicker Beat. And, given the many interests that constantly swirl in my head, this sort of thing happened regularly for a while. But I quickly discovered that if I gave in to distractions during the workday, I had to make up the hours in the evening. This cut into the time I could spend making progress on hobby projects, and worse, it cut into time with my family.
I also struggle with my share of on-the-clock distractions—these are work-related, but only to a degree. Developing software does require “lifelong learning,” but that’s not quite the same as spending hours reading reddit threads or researching interesting topics related to the bug I should be fixing.
When I’m plowing through easy tasks and interacting a lot with coworkers, things aren’t so hard. But if it’s been hours since I interacted with a human and I’m facing a difficult task, the distractions can be harder to resist. Not long ago, in the middle of a particularly bad day (I had lost two and a half hours to distractions that morning, and the few hours I had clocked hadn’t been very productive), I wrote this in my journal:
“If I can’t beat my lack of self-control frequently enough… if I can’t figure out how to beat it… then I need to quit my [remote] job and commute to whatever local company will have me.”
But I didn’t want to lose the benefits of remote work, so I started researching and experimenting, hoping I could find a way to consistently beat distractions and be highly productive.
Simulating Open-Office Accountability
Much of my early thinking and experimenting was focused on reproducing the accountability naturally found in an open office, or supplementing with other forms of accountability. Here are a few of the things I tried:
- Schedule Pair Programming Sessions: Working on something with a co-worker over a voice call and screen-share would focus my attention and keep me zeroed in on the task at hand. In the end, I found that while pair-programming got me going in the morning, my productivity suffered afterwards because pairing tends to be draining. It’s worth doing occasionally, but I don’t think it’s the most effective route to daily productivity.
- Install a Web Content Blocker: Since many of my distractions are online, I installed the “Simple Blocker” Chrome extension which allowed me to blacklist distracting sites (without requiring, as too many extensions do, access to “read and change all your data on the websites you visit”). This helped a little, to provide a speed-bump or a reminder, but once I discovered the work-arounds (like looking things up on a different device), I found myself wrestling with the same bad habits.
- Broadcast Daily Goals: One practice our team started years ago was to send an “In” email at the beginning of the day with a list of what you hoped to get done and an “Out” email at the end of the day with what you did get done. This did boost my productivity toward the end of the day, when I realized that if I didn’t get cracking I would have to send an email with precious few “done” items on it. But it didn’t provide the kind of deep, day-long productivity that I needed.
How My Brain Works
While the above tactics did help, they weren’t overwhelmingly successful. Some days I was very productive, but other days I still struggled heavily with distractions, and most days were somewhere in between.
What really turned the corner for me was learning more about how the brain works. It was then that I discovered many of my habits were running at cross-purposes with some neurobiological principles: limited willpower, mental momentum and distraction addiction.
- Limited Willpower: The human brain has a limited amount of “willpower,” which is represented physically by oxygenated glucose. This is the fuel used by the prefrontal cortex and the striatum when switching between tasks or resisting distractions.
"You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it. Your will, in other words, is not a manifestation of your character that you can deploy without limit; it's instead like a muscle that tires."
— Deep Work, by Cal Newport
Willpower decreases over the course of the day due to diminishing oxygenated glucose. However, mentally restorative activities like light exercise, taking a nap, or simply letting the mind wander can replenish it.
- Mental Momentum: Our brains are wired for sticking to a single task for big, focused chunks of time; when we do so, our brain’s daydreaming network and general connectivity is improved and when we don’t, our oxygenated glucose is consumed rapidly. Perhaps this is an oversimplification, but I think of my mind like a freight train pulling heavily-loaded cars: it takes some up-front effort to get it going in the right direction, but once it is, it’s hard to stop it or to change directions.
- Distraction Addiction: Flipping quickly between trivial administrative tasks (email, Slack, etc) releases dopamine in the same way that new and interesting distractions do. The brain becomes addicted to this, which makes it even more tempting to pursue distractions and harder to start a task that requires mental energy:
"Multitasking creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop, effectively rewarding the brain for losing focus and for constantly searching for external stimulation. To make matters worse, the prefrontal cortex has a novelty bias, meaning that its attention can be easily hijacked by something new...
We answer the phone, look up something on the Internet, check our e-mail, send an SMS, and each of these things tweaks the novelty-seeking, reward-seeking centers of the brain, causing a burst of endogenous opioids (no wonder it feels so good!), all to the detriment of our staying on task. It is the ultimate empty-caloried brain candy."
— The Organized Mind, by Daniel Levitin
Understanding more about the mechanics of willpower, momentum and distractions made it clear to me why I could still get derailed from work and why my previous efforts to address this hadn’t been as effective as I had hoped.
More Effective Tactics
As I’ve been learning more about how my brain works, I’ve been trying different tactics to work with it instead of against it. Here are the ones that have proved most effective so far:
- Attack the Hardest Task First: I used to order my tasks from easiest to hardest, in order to knock out the quick chores first. Sometimes this worked out ok, but it didn’t build much mental momentum and left me susceptible to distractions. Now I start with the hardest task. Sometimes it’s literally the most difficult thing on my list, like working on a big new software feature, but other times it is something that is psychologically difficult, something I typically procrastinate or have a mental block about, like writing software tests.
I was surprised by how effective this tactic is. I think there are a few reasons for this: For one thing, like a keystone habit, it builds confidence and reinforces the belief that I can do hard things, that I can take charge of my day and be highly productive. Also, it makes subsequent tasks seem easy and fun by comparison. But I think the most important reason is that it gives my brain the right momentum at the beginning of the day in a way that small, easy tasks don’t.
- Work First: On occasion I would use my early mornings to put in some hours on a hobby project, writing fiction or rehearsing a talk for an upcoming youth group meeting. I would plan to transition to work at 9am, but often that didn’t happen—and sometimes when it did, I would still be distracted soon afterwards, as my brain returned to what it had been working on. I was effectively building mental momentum in the wrong direction, making it more difficult to get mental traction at work when I made the switch.
Now, to the extent possible, I clock in early in the morning to get my mental momentum going in work-related directions. I’ll still take advantage of my flexible work hours to help get the kids ready for school and to drive my oldest son to a before-school tech club once a week, but I am careful to not get my brain started on a hobby project or a favorite interest before work.
- Write it Down for Later: My bad work habits usually begin when I experience the subtle cringing and reluctance when faced with the need to expend mental energy diving deep into a task. It’s not much, but it’s enough for my mind to wander down more comfortable or fun paths. Then a new idea pops into my head, usually something that I’d like to google or brainstorm or experiment with in some way.
Duhigg’s habit retraining flowchart says that the first step is to identify the “cue." To be honest, I’m not sure if the cue is that feeling of laziness when confronted with a difficult task, or the fear of forgetting the idea and missing it, or the feeling of curiosity that makes me want to pursue the idea. Regardless, when it happens, I now open the Notes app on my phone and write it down (under the appropriate “google,” “brainstorm” or “music” headings), attempt to mentally “leave it there” and start my work task. Maybe that’s not a strong enough reward and I’ll have to think of something better, but for now, it makes me happy to know that I beat the bad habit and got to work instead.
- Take a Power Nap: If I’m starting to feel tired after lunch, I’ll take a 15-30 minute power nap. This eats up some time when I could be working, but it’s worth it because it makes the afternoon more productive by restoring the energy to fight distractions. In The Organized Mind, Daniel Levitin states that “a ten-minute nap can be equivalent to an extra hour and a half of sleep at night.”
- Write Goals Daily: Jotting down my goals each morning has been helpful, as this keeps them in the front of my mind and helps me set my priorities as I plan my day. The one thing I have to be careful about is to not get sucked into a full brainstorming session, reevaluating what my goals should be and why. That can be valuable on occasion, but it isn’t the best way to start my day (see Attack the Hardest Task First).
I hope some of the above ideas and tactics will prove helpful to you. Feel free to try them out and adapt them to fit your needs and preferences. Remember, tactics are one thing but persistent habits are what make real change, so be patient and give each tactic a fair chance to do its work. Let us know your remote-work productivity findings in the comments below.
I wish you success in battling distractions and striving for consistent high productivity. May you enjoy all the benefits remote work has to offer.
Photo by Bethany Legg