Bad work habits can impact focus, productivity and even job tenure. But with the right tools and strategy, you can break and replace them with good ones.
The Covid-19 pandemic changed how work is done, and at the rate things are going, the remote working trend is here to stay. According to a Pew Research survey, only 20% of U.S. workers worked remotely pre-pandemic. Now about 71% are working from home, and 54% want to continue teleworking.
Remote work enables productivity while keeping employees safe, but it can easily lead to distractions that make it difficult to stay on task. Add in the bad work habits we know we shouldn’t be doing, and we’re looking at a remote workforce that’s constantly distracted.
Bad workplace habits to avoid
How you behave in the workplace can profoundly impact your productivity, relationships with colleagues and career advancement. Good workplace habits breed positive experiences, while bad habits erode trust, increase stress levels and can even get you fired from your job.
If we talk about all the bad work habits to avoid, we’re in for a long list. The three below, when left unchecked, can quickly drain focus and energy, two finite resources that are critical for getting things done.
What we think of as multitasking is also known as task switching, or “doing individual actions in rapid succession,” says neuropsychologist Dr. Cynthia Kubu in a Cleveland Clinic piece on why multitasking doesn’t work.
Stanford researchers Kevin Madore and Anthony Wagner, in a paper published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, explain that “multitasking is almost always a misnomer, as the human mind and brain lack the architecture to perform two or more tasks simultaneously.”
In short, our brains are wired to focus on just one task at a time.
While it does appear that multitasking positively affects productivity, as found by Microsoft researchers who analyzed multitasking behavior during remote meetings, the health effects can be detrimental, leading to mental fatigue and loss of attention and engagement.
Working during break periods
When you’re struggling to complete complex projects or meet deadlines, it’s tempting to power through without pausing. But not taking a break or eating lunch at your desk just so you can cross things off your to-do list is more harmful than helpful.
According to a CNBC report on the effects of neglecting lunch breaks, “treating lunch like an afterthought” can negatively affect morale and create an oppressive workplace atmosphere that will cause people to “slow fade” and then eventually quit.
Constantly checking your phone or social media
Research by Statista found that social media and smartphones are the top two distractions among work-from-home employees during the pandemic.
Smartphones have increasingly become essential workplace tools because of the convenience and efficiency they bring, but they can also be addictive. Excessive use can quickly become problematic.
If you’re not careful, a peek at Twitter can turn into an hour of mindless social media browsing. Checking your phone for new emails while doing something else, such as crossing a street or even climbing down the stairs, can result in accidents and physical injury.
The importance of focus
To get things done, you need to focus. Problem-solving, decision-making, reasoning, memory and perception—all forms of thinking, essentially—start with focus.
Completing a financial report requires concentrating on the numbers on a spreadsheet. To create an email newsletter, you have to pay attention to your audience, the message you’re conveying and the product or service you’re offering.
To complete tasks on time, you need to shun distractions and direct all your energy and attention toward completing the work.
How to stay focused at work
If you’re prone to context switching, or bouncing from one task, browser tab or app to another, here are things you can do to stay focused.
Plan your day
Create a to-do list, then sort tasks according to priority (which to tackle first, schedule for another day, delegate or drop altogether). Allocate the appropriate amount of time for each task, depending on how adept you are at it and its level of complexity.
Add contingency time to account for unforeseen circumstances. Also consider blocking off time in your calendar for specific tasks, such as meeting with project managers on Mondays from 8 to 8:30 a.m. or sending and responding to emails from 3 to 4 p.m. every day.
Limit your notifications
If you can’t put your phone away, limit notifications to only the important ones. Mute email pings and unnecessary app alerts. Inform coworkers through Slack’s status and availability feature that you’re in a meeting, “in the zone” or away. Let them know how soon you can respond to messages so they can manage their expectations.
Give your brain time to recharge and your body to refuel, especially when stress starts creeping in. Have a snack, take a walk, play a game, have a conversation with a colleague or call a friend. Unplug from technology if you have to. The goal is to come back energized.
How to improve work habits
Habits are routines, rituals and behaviors you’ve been doing repeatedly for a while. They’ve penetrated your subconscious, so it’s no surprise that changing bad habits is no easy feat. But it can be done.
Identify your bad habits
Do you procrastinate a lot? Check social media during meetings? Can’t say no to colleagues even when the work makes you unhappy? Do a habit check. Track how you’re spending your time for about two weeks using tools like RescueTime or Toggl.
You may find you have several time-wasting, focus-draining bad habits. Changing all of them at once will likely only lead to frustration, so focus on just one at a time. Move on to the next once you’ve achieved the results you want.
Find good substitutes
Bad habits are there for a reason. Maybe you check your emails once you turn on your computer so you don’t feel like you’re missing out. But in return, your attention gets divided and you become overwhelmed, so you end up procrastinating. Instead of checking emails first thing, open a one-hour slot in your calendar dedicated to emails.
Rewards reinforce good performance, so determine the reward system that works for you. Rewards should be on a similar level as the task. Small rewards for small tasks, big rewards for the big ones.
You can even gamify the process using what Hyperfocus and The Productivity Project author Chris Bailey calls the habit points approach. For every good habit you carry out or task you complete, collect points you can later redeem to indulge in certain activities.
Breaking a bad habit is hard if people around you aren’t supportive. If you’re trying to replace junk food with healthier alternatives, let your colleagues or housemates know so they don’t keep bringing you high-fat, high-sugar snacks.
Use tech tools
Tools like Freedom and Forest block certain sites, like various social media, while you’re working. Moment tracks phone usage and bombards you with notifications whenever you exceed your daily limits. Kanban tools like Kanban Flow or Trello help you stay in control of your projects, while Slack allows you to set your status to Do Not Disturb (DND) to let teammates know you’re in focus mode.
Break bad work habits to stay focused
Focus is necessary to get things done, but certain bad habits can undo all good intentions. Identify which workplace habits are sabotaging your success and devise ways to replace them with good ones.