How to focus on work in a remote setting

How many times have you seen a meme poke fun at the concept of remote work? While they abound, one of my all-time favorite sketches (OK, not technically a meme) was performed by the dynamic duo of Fred and Carrie from Portlandia.

In the sketch, Fred is mercilessly interrupted by the cable guy. As he says, gavel in hand, “We have the right to work from home in peace without interruptions.” Ultimately, there’s quite a bit of truth to the storyline they perform so adeptly (and to the cast’s closing chant of “My home is my office, to interrupt is lawless”).

People who work on their computers — which is, coincidentally, the majority of the remote workforce — get distracted once every ten and a half minutes. When you consider that it takes, on average, 23 minutes to return to the original task at hand after getting distracted, digital-based productivity begins to look quite grim.

The silver lining to this gray cloud of attention hijacking is that there’s a plethora of apps, services, and resources to help remote workers stay focused, organized, and productive. But the first step, before diving into an internet rabbit hole of work-from-home hacks, is to do a little bit of good old-fashioned introspection.

“To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom.”

Socrates likely couldn’t have foreseen the rising tide of virtual work, but his age-old advice is as relevant in this modern setting as any. Because remote workers are exceedingly susceptible to distractions, it’s imperative that we spend some intentional time thinking about how to set up our workday habits to fit our individual personalities and needs.

This means

  • Learning your hourly rhythms. If you have a slump after lunch, plan to take a walk to get re-energized. If you’re more productive in the morning, be mindful of scheduling your most mentally grueling tasks in the early hours. Workdays are not cookie-cutter — take the liberty to slice and dice your day so that it fits your personal productivity needs.
  • Establishing a worthy workspace. While it may be easy to flop down on the couch in your sweatpants and decide it’s your new office, curating the space where you work is essential to your productivity and state of mind. As a remote worker, taking the time to thoughtfully choose the right setup is a worthy investment of your time. Check out this list of 13 home office upgrades for inspiration.
  • Enlisting apps and services to safeguard your focus. There’s no excuse to waste time on social media/Reddit/YouTube/online shopping when there are a handful of third-party apps and browser extensions that can outright block those sites. There’s also no excuse to use always-on, distraction-heavy teamwork apps like Slack when more mindful team communication options exist. Though it may sound extreme, being somewhat militant with your time and attention will pay off in spades. Consider Do Not Disturb mode your attention span’s new bodyguard.

Treat lost productivity as a sunk cost

Distractions happen to even the most vigilant of remote workers. You receive what seems to be an innocent, unoffending message from your daughter’s daycare and — bam! — 20 minutes later you’re knee-deep in an article on why tourists are now banned from wearing flip-flops at Cinque Terre (definitely not speaking from personal experience here 😬🤭).

You have two options: either wallow in your unproductivity by falling further into the topic of inappropriate travel footwear, or simply close the browser tab and move on.

It can be tempting to think that once you’ve fallen off the wagon, you should just stay there. But it’s far more effective to consider a lapse in attention as a sunk cost. It happened, it’s over, it’s time to get back on the wagon. The best course of action in this scenario is to select a simple, quick task to complete and start building momentum from there. Before you know it, you’ll be back on track and powering through your to-do list.

Eat the frog (gross name, effective concept)

If you feel highly prone to distraction — especially as the hours of the day crawl on — this is a useful productivity method to add to your arsenal. Eat the frog is a concept that Mark Twain coined by saying, “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning, and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” There’s a heck of a lot of truth to that statement.

Select one task to begin your day with and focus 100 percent on that item until it’s complete. You’ll get your most important, intimidating, anxiety-inducing task (aka your frog) done while your energy is still high.

Use brain breaks to rejuvenate

If you tried to do bicep curls for eight hours straight, it’s likely you’d need a break now and then. And while the brain is not technically a muscle, it behaves in a similar manner. If you demand high cognitive performance for hours on end, the organ’s potency is undoubtedly going to wane.

As any good personal trainer would advise, you need to give your muscles (or in this case, your organ) a break in order to obtain effective results. Go for a walk, do some chores, run a handful errands, flow through a few sun salutations — whatever it takes to relax and rejuvenate your brain.

As we all know, the flexibility of remote work is one of its most attractive advantages. Don’t be afraid to maximize that flexibility to create a routine that works for you.


Staying focused while working remotely has many unique challenges. There’s no right answer or secret sauce to being an incredibly productive person. There are just small, deliberate steps you take every day to get to a place that makes you feel good about what you’ve accomplished and completely guiltless when you unplug for the night.

Hopefully this video and post have shared some useful advice that will help you make the most of your remote situation, whether you’re in a coworking space in Bali or working from the lovely comfort of your mint green home office.

Brenna Loury is the Head of Marketing at Doist, the company behind Todoist and Twist. She stays (mostly) focused while working remotely from Seattle.

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