Early in 2020, once we got past the initial shock of how much life would need to change, many of us probably had images in our minds of what this new remote work life might look like. Those fantasies of sleeping in, fuzzy slippers, and luxurious lunches at home, no doubt, faded quickly as the reality of working remotely, especially for the first time, set in. Unknown to many of us in the office-setting working world, well before the global pandemic, studies had found that remote workers were more vulnerable to challenges related to loneliness, organization, collaboration, time management, and boundary setting than the general population. Couple those inherent issues with the challenges that accompany living and working in a pandemic, and most of us have found ourselves in a perfect storm of remote work challenges.
Contrary to initial expectations, many of us are still working remotely, at least part of the time, and will likely continue to do so well into the future, if not indefinitely. While we undoubtedly have made it work thus far into the pandemic, the systems that we cobbled together with an urgency to adapt in a crisis are unlikely to have been strategically designed and/or implemented to maximize our focus, productivity, and well-being while working from home. Given the indefinite status of working from home, the scientifically verified inherent challenges of remote work, and our obvious need to continue to function and preferably thrive as we move on with our lives, it is critical that we thoughtfully set ourselves up for success in remote work.
To truly make a meaningful, effective, and sustainable impact on our remote work habits, an impact that will generate the well-being and productivity improvements that we desperately need, we must approach the problem using science-based tools and techniques that address both internal and external challenges.
What is within our visual space also occupies our mental space.
Our physical environments and routines have a lot of influence over our minds. In pre-pandemic times, when I spent most of my waking hours inside of law firms, first as a practicing attorney and later as a consultant and coach, I would regularly encounter the horizontal space problem. Essentially, office after office I entered would have almost all the horizontal space covered in papers, files, magazines, journals, you name it. Even the most fancy-pants offices and law firms had their own horizontal space problems. All the papers, files, journals, etc. taking up residence on horizontal spaces were a source of significant distraction to their human office companions, even if those companions didn’t realize it. Working remotely has only exacerbated the problem.
Best practices tell us that we need to have in front of us only what we are working on in order to maximize productivity and reduce stress.
Whether it’s files on our desk in the office or unfolded laundry on the other side of the room at home, our visual space can help or hinder our well-being and productivity. Essentially, every time our brains see something unrelated to what we are working on, they automatically think about what that thing is, what the rules associated with the thing are, and what it is that we need to do in relation to it. For lawyers, that is usually a long list of things that need to get done. While this may only take nanoseconds, it functions as a micro stressor in the brain that accumulates over time with each additional micro stressor. Moreover, once you get focused back on what you were supposed to be working on, your brain is not able to just automatically pick back up where it left off. Instead, it must go through the very same process of identifying what you are working on, what rules are associated with it, and what you were doing with it, resulting in another micro stressor and more time lost.
RECOMMENDATION: clear your desk and sightline of any task that is not related to the matter you are working on, including your computer desktop and notifications.
Use mental triggers to trick your brain into ‘work mode’
We are not all that different from Pavlov’s dogs. A quick refresher: Pavlov was a late 19th century Russian physiologist who established the concept of classical conditioning, a learned behavior in which a stimulus triggers a behavior. In a nutshell, Pavlov rang a bell each time he fed his dogs. Naturally, the dogs salivated at the sight and smell of the food. Eventually, the dogs salivated at the sound of the bell even though they could not smell or see any food. Thus, the bell sound, the stimulus, eventually triggered the behavior, salivation.
While our goal may not be to get you to salivate when your emails pings, we can benefit from the same basic scientific principal. Our human brains are also triggered by stimuli in our surroundings, often without us even realizing it. Our commutes to the office and settling in at our desks used to get our brains into work mode. Having lost that inherent stimuli when we hurriedly transitioned to remote work, it is imperative that we create it in order to more efficiently ease our brains into the level of focus and attention to detail required of our work as lawyers.
RECOMMENDATION: create a brief and easy-to-execute ritual to begin your workday. All it takes is the same short series of events repeated numerous times. It may be as simple as pouring coffee in your favorite mug, playing classical music, and sitting down in the same spot to open your computer for the day. Commit to doing this ritual as you begin every workday for at least week, and you will begin to establish a connection in your brain between that specific series of events and your ‘work mode.’
While adaptations of our external behaviors are effective and easy to implement, internal shifts are critical for sustainable change. Without the stimuli of being in an office setting, we are more vulnerable to mindset mistakes that both hinder our overall well-being and negatively impact our ability to create high-quality work product and submit it in a timely manner.
Mindset mistakes are essentially our ingrained survival mechanisms being applied in unhelpful ways. Whereas focusing in on anything that could pose a threat helped us survive way back when our species was constantly exposed to predators and the elements, focusing in on the few things that ‘went wrong’ in modern day to the exclusion of also seeing everything that went right is more harmful than helpful when it comes to our focus, productivity, and well-being. As such, it is imperative that we be aware of what kinds of mindset mistakes we could be making. The more aware we are, the more control we have over them and how they impact our ability to perform and feel well. Check out this quick eight question quiz to learn more about mindset mistakes and which mindset mistake might be sabotaging you the most.
While remote work may not have turned out to be what we fantasized, there is a lot that we can do to set ourselves up for success. We can start by maximizing our environments and establishing quick and easy routines to support our focus and productivity and minimize stress. We can then take it to the next level by looking at our own mindsets for barriers to our focus and well-being. These recommendations may just be scratching the surface as there is a lot of brain and behavioral science that we can use to our advantage, but they are a good place to start, and you can start today.
Learn more in our on-demand webinar, The Healthy Remote Lawyer.
Content published on the U.S. Legal Support blog is reviewed by professionals in the legal and litigation support services field to help ensure accurate information.