Remote Working and the Problem of Motivation

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This article examines the existential issue of working from home — how to focus, and how to fill the hours.

In February and March I published two articles on remote working:

A Potential AI Solution to Flexi-time and Remote Working — written pre-Covid, and discussing how AI can best allocate remote working and flexi-time to employees based on their personality profiles

Flexi-time and Remote Working: Part II — written post-Covid and discussing the probable impact on remote working and flexi-time practices globally.

This article follows on from those two, while also standing alone.

The Standard Solution

When Covid first broke there was a plethora of articles online about how best to work from home. Many of these provided a solution which just boiled down to ‘pretend you are at work’. They suggested building a small, internal office space, wearing a suit and basically pretending that nothing was wrong.

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Most of these articles struck me as somewhat misguided, at the very least. The effect of pretending to be in the office, while at home, is only to emphasize the fact that you are not, in fact, in the office. Far from helping, it adds to the general stress and existential malaise that an huge global lock-in can trigger in the domestic mind.

A better approach, in my experience, is to adjust to the reality of the situation. That reality will clearly be different for different people. Some will have more room at home than others. Some will have children, some will not. Whatever the situation, however, it is a matter of adapting to it, and quite literally, working around it. This takes a little time and a little practice, but once you have found your flow, you can become more productive and begin, finally, to forget that you are even at home at all.

The Better Approach

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There are two problems that need to be solved at work in the new normal:

  1. How do I fill the hours?
  2. How do I focus?

If we can find good answers to these questions, then we are well on our way to cracking the secret of productivity while working from home.

How Do I Fill The Hours?

Time can seem overwhelming, and this can be doubly so when faced with a large task or project from work. On top of this there are the usual home distractions of family and domestic issues that can break time up and make it seem almost impossible that anything will truly be done.

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When faced with anything overwhelming, it is best to break it down into small pieces and deal with those. The same is true of time. Find an app that allows you to schedule each day by the hour, then fill in those hours. Now, instead of focusing on the day, you can focus on the hour. And it doesn’t really matter what you have scheduled for that hour because … it is only an hour.

When doing this it is best to bear the following mind:

  1. Try and shuffle tasks so every hour is different. It’s possible to repeat longer tasks in every second hour, but if you do it in strictly sequential hours then basically, an hour has just turned into three and the purpose is defeated.
  2. Don’t worry about finishing anything in under an hour. If you don’t finish it, just note where you are an allocate it to another hour. Similarly, if you finish in under an hour, take a break and enjoy the rest of that free time as you wish.
  3. External stuff, such as meetings etc… just has to be done. If you end up with spare half hour, then take a break and focus on the next hour.
  4. Include some reward hours in each day. You honestly probably won’t need that many once you get going, but it’s nice to have them, even if, in the end, they’re only an hour.

Once you start doing this, and sticking to it, life quickly becomes a matter of hours. Some are better than others, but each and everyone of them is only an hour. This much easier to handle, less overwhelming, and feels a lot more productive because filling an hour is simple.

How Do I Focus?

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Everyone knows the feeling of getting into a mental flow. It’s when the mind is purely focused on the task in hand. Distractions, in this state, can be time killers. So how can we train ourselves to focus properly while working on hourly tasks? Once again, technology comes to the rescue.

The Foci wearable tracks breathing patterns and records the associated mental state into an application on your phone or tablet. Associated mental states are:

Calm — blue icon

Focused — light yellow icon

Deep Focused — dark yellow icon

Tired — purple icon

Stressed — red icon

Distracted — grey icon

The device clips onto trousers or skirt and sits near the stomach while you are working. Subtle changes in breathing are measured by an AI system and recorded every few minutes, so you can see, hour by hour, how focused you were on any particular task

This gives an objective record of how focused you were over any particular day. It also provides a simple metric to work against, when trying to fill each hour with as much focused concentration as possible. One learns, over time, what increases focus and what decreases it. One thing I have learned, for example, is that is surprisingly easy to refocus on some tasks, even when distracted.

Summary

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Some readers may recoil at these ideas, feeling that they impose a tyranny of scheduling and monitoring that will render lives joyless. This very much depends on attitude and situation. If productivity, organisation and improvement are high priorities then this is a system worth trying. Since the focus is hourly, it does not feel like an imposition — exactly because no task is rendered overwhelming when it is broken down. Adding variety to the hours ensures that a day is kept interesting.

Taken together, breaking days into hours, and tightly measuring mental states and deep focus, provides a simple, objective method for increasing productivity and handling different tasks while working at home. Done right, time is always filled with interest.

Frank invents, codes, tests and deploys new cloud initiatives in the digital health sector.