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5 Tips for Working from Home When Your Head and Heart Are Distracted

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I spent the first six months of 2017 living in the hospital while my 5-year-old son, Ari, waited for, received, and rejected a heart transplant. During that time I’d spend my nights an hour away from him with our 3-year-old daughter and 6-month-old son. Each morning I’d fight Boston traffic to spend my days with Ari on the 8th floor at Boston Children’s Hospital.

Never before had my head been so distracted and my heart so heavy, so taxed. We faced incredible uncertainty. Would my son get a heart? How long would he (and we) live full-time at the hospital waiting? Would he die while he waited? Would he survive after he received his heart?

Being torn away from my young children each day. Managing the multiple-times-a-day shifts in Ari’s care plan. Trying to keep him safe and healthy enough to receive a heart. It was all hell.

At the same time, my husband and I had to continue to work to keep our business going. It would have been the worst possible time for it to fail and for us to lose our health insurance.

On the bright side, I could work from the hospital. But could I work at the hospital? Constant beeps, dings, and people. A never ending stream of doctors and updates. My heart torn apart every single day when I heard, “Mommy, please don’t go. Stay with me.” each morning from our daughter Lexi, and each night from Ari.

The anxiety, the uncertainty, the not knowing how long this would go on, were debilitating.

This is exactly how millions of people across the world feel today, right now.

I‘m on the other side of it in a way. Along my journey, I’ve dealt with great grief and great loss as Ari ultimately passed away in July 2017. I’ve dealt with a scary health risk and had a terrible loss just as people (including us, once again) are facing now.

And everyone is worried about their jobs and financial safety. We understand that too. While we fought to keep our business alive, in a stroke of devastating luck, we lost our home to mold damage in early 2017 in a way that insurance did not cover. So much piled on it was surreal.

Just like everyone faces today.

Of necessity, somehow I learned how to be productive, and how to focus and how to get a ton done even in the most challenging circumstances. It took me years to figure it out, but I did.

With the current situation in the world, I’ve been thrown back into my feelings of the long hospital days. I can remember the smells, the distraction, the heaviness in my heart.

I’m also reminded of my journey to learn how to focus, achieve, and actually feel good in spite of these extraordinary challenges. In fact, during this time of working in the hospital, my husband Mike and I experimented with dozens of habits and hacks to help us focus. We found that many of the productivity tips out there simply didn’t work for us. So we created our own and a system started to emerge.

To validate the system, we conducted a major study and analyzed over 5,000 professionals to find out what drives productivity. That’s when The 9 Habits of Extreme Productivity was born.

These last few months, I’ve been doubling down on a few of the habits and hacks. These are specific tactics to help you focus and tune into your work, while you tune everything else out.

Here are five tips that have helped me to stay focused and get a massive amount of work done in the midst of crisis.

1. Put your GIA first. What are the most important things you need to get done today? Write them down. Then move the most important one to the top of the list. Star it. Bold it. Make it stand out. As you get started with your day, begin with that activity. This is what we call your Greatest Impact Activity (GIA).

When you start your day with your GIA, even if you get sidetracked for the rest of the day, you will feel good knowing that you accomplished your most important task.

2. Calendar your TIME. Once you know what you want to get done, block off time in your calendar to do those things. Everything you do can be boiled down into 4 categories of TIME:

a. Treasured time: Time you hold dear.

b. Investment time: Time that generates outsized return.

c. Mandatory time: Time for tasks you feel you must do.

d. Empty time: Time you waste.

Calendar your Investment and Treasured time. Once you’ve identified your GIA, block off the first hour or two in the morning to work on it. Need to juggle working from home with homeschooling your children? Block off an hour in the afternoon for your GIA when you know they’ll be watching a show or reading quietly.

Self care is of the utmost importance right now as well. Calendar your Treasured time to ensure you’re doing something each day for yourself. Whether it be a 30-minute walk to get outside, time to meditate, or time to call a friend…put it in your calendar. When you calendar your time you’re much more likely to follow through and do it.

3. Say “3…2…1…Go!” When your calendar notifications for your Treasured and Investment activities pop up, don’t ignore them. Use the new Jedi mind trick! Say to yourself, “3…2…1…Go!” and start on that activity immediately.

Many of us are guilty of snoozing notifications to just…finish that news story, respond to that email, or answer a co-workers question. Don’t do it. Stop your mind from stopping you and get started on your designated Investment activity immediately.

4. Sprint into the Zone. You’ve identified your Investment and Treasured activities, put them in your calendar, and got started. Then, buzz. Ding. News alert! Text message. Slack message. New email. Inner voice thought 1: I need to defrost the chicken for dinner tonight. Inner voice thought 2: I really should call my parents, I’m worried about them and we haven’t spoken in a few days. Inner voice thought 3: I wonder if the grocery store has any toilet paper….

You need to block out distractions from the external world, and your internal voice. The most effective way I’ve learned to do this is through TIME Sprinting. Sprinting is a technique where you work obsessively on one planned task only for 20 to 90 minutes with a visual stopwatch on, counting up.

When you get distracted during a sprint, write the distraction down so it’s captured, and keep sprinting. The most important thing to keep in mind when sprinting is to NOT task switch. Hear your phone buzz? Don’t pick it up. News alert? Tell yourself you’ll check it after your sprint. Slack message? They can wait 20 minutes. Inner voice thought…write it down. And if all of that doesn’t work, and you end up switching tasks during a sprint…

5. Say “3…2…1…Stop!” Stop yourself from doing a less important activity (or anything you want to stop) with this simple hack. Say, “3…2…1…Stop!” I use this hack every day at least a dozen times. I practice self-compassion, knowing that I’m going to get distracted. I’m extra mindful of how I’m spending my TIME and when I need to get back to a treasured or investment activity, I stop what I’m doing and jump back in. “Dude, stop” is actually the phrase I’ve adopted.

In these uncertain times when my head and my heart are hurting, I’ve doubled down on these productivity hacks. I’ve become hyper-focused. It’s not only allowed me to stay productive during an uncertain time, but also given me clarity on what’s important to me and brain space to focus on something other than the crisis happening around me.

I’ve been more deliberate with how I spend my time and I’m constantly reminding myself to stay present. By doing this, it’s allowed me to at least feel good about a few things right now—and given all that’s going on in the world, that’s saying a lot.

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