Physicians have practiced medicine in a variety of practice settings in the past. Some in rural environments, others in austere conditions on a mountain top in Nepal. The recent pandemic has created even a new practice environment in the field of medicine: our own homes. The idea of working from home (WFH) is not a new concept. It’s been gaining momentum for several decades in other fields but healthcare has been slow to embrace this trend. COVID19 changed that.

There are many benefits of this new practice environment (basically a 0-minute commute, being able to see family/furry friends during the day), but it also has its struggles. This 3-part series is going to tackle the top obstacles of WFH and give you the tools to combat them.

A company called Buffer surveyed 2,300 remote workers and charted their top struggles when working from home. Coming in at #1 was not being able to unplug. Difficulties with collaboration, loneliness, and distractions basically tied for the #2 spot. A study from YouGov mentioned similar challenges and included the struggle to find a proper workspace. So let’s talk about some solutions. This post will focus on setting up your new practice environment to optimize your productivity and increase your focus.

working from home WFH efficiency

Tip 1: Declutter your physical space

What does your WFH workspace look like? Is it pristine or is it filled with old papers, coffee mugs, and clutter? A 2011 study by Princeton University showed us that our brains like order. The study found that a cluttered, disorganized environment impairs your ability to focus and restricts your capacity to process information [1]. The Harvard Business Review discusses the negative effect clutter can have on your stress and anxiety levels. Don’t let your focus be thwarted by old coffee mugs, make sure to set yourself up for success, and at the end of each day clear your desk of any items that aren’t helping you to focus on the task at hand.

WFH clean desk

Tip 2: Declutter your digital space

Many productivity books like Digital Minimalism and Indistractable emphasize that it’s not only your physical space that needs to be free of clutter but your digital one. Think about your last Zoom meeting, was Zoom the only window you had open? Likely not. Each window we have open, each tab on your internet browser, is nagging your brain of things left undone or unexplored. Our brains like to solve problems so these are tasty distractions for it. 

Now let’s take a look at your desktop. How many icons are tempting your brain? Get rid of them. This digital clutter is distracting your brain and causing it to continuously task-switch, which slows your thinking and decreases your productivity. Free your mind to concentrate on what’s important. If you decide to attend a meeting, conference, or any digital event, make sure to be present in both virtual body and mind. Otherwise don’t go.

WFH plant on desk

Tip 3: Put items in your workspace that have been shown to be beneficial

Once we have cleared our physical and digital space of clutter now it’s time to make sure it has the items that we know help us focus. Let’s look at the data. There are obvious aspects of our work environment that increase productivity like natural light or a nice view. If you can find a workspace with any view of nature, this has the ability to reduce your blood pressure and circulation of stress hormones as well as increase your capacity to focus. Get a green plant. Not only can a green plant increase your productivity by 15% [2], but they have also been shown to reduce stress [3] and boost cognition by 26%.

These environmental modifiers sound wonderful, but you might not always have the option of remote working with a gorgeous view. Or do you? Who says it needs to be an “H” in WFH? Make the “H” an “A” for anywhere. Nowadays, you can work from anywhere (WFA) with a hotspot. Is there a place you can go to be closer with family and work from there for a couple of weeks? Maybe rent a VRBO or Airbnb and spend the week working from Tahoe or Cape Cod. You don’t need to travel either. Go to your local park, get out your hotspot, and get to work.

Make some lemonade out of the COVID lemons.

Action items:

  • At the end of each workday, clear your workspace of any clutter. This will allow you to start your next WFH day fresh and increase your ability to focus.
  • Make it a point to have only 1 window on your computer open at a time. Set a goal for no icons on your desktop. Allow your brain to work on one thing at a time (that’s what it’s good at), which is going to make you more productive.
  • Optimize your workspace. Try to set up a space with natural light, a view of nature, and a green plant. If this isn’t possible, switch it up, find a place with a hotspot and WFA.

References:

  1. McMains S, Kastner S. Interactions of top-down and bottom-up mechanisms in human visual cortex. J Neurosci. 2011 Jan 12;31(2):587-97. PMID: 21228167
  2. University of Exeter. “Why plants in the office make us more productive.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 1 September 2014.
  3. ​​Dijkstra K, Pieterse ME, Pruyn A. Stress-reducing effects of indoor plants in the built healthcare environment: the mediating role of perceived attractiveness. Prev Med. 2008 Sep;47(3):279-83. Epub 2008 Jan 26. PMID: 18329704.

As physicians we are managing many different roles in our lives: academician, researcher, clinical provider, spouse, parent, just to name a few. Despite our many roles, the amount of time we have in a day to complete the tasks of each role remains the same: 1,440 minutes. Is how you’re spending your 1,440 minutes in a day the way you want to spend them? By assessing your priorities, practicing time saving tips and being proactive and not reactive you can live the balanced life you’ve dreamt of. There are only 1440 minutes in a day. Are you utilizing them well?

The 1440 Doctor series, originally launched on the Medutopia site, is authored by efficiency guru, Dr. Jennifer Kanapicki.

Jennifer Kanapicki Comer, MD

Jennifer Kanapicki Comer, MD

Author, The 1440 Doctor Series
Associate Residency Director
Associate Professor
Department of Emergency Medicine
Stanford University School of Medicine
Jennifer Kanapicki Comer, MD

@1440doctor

Time management tips for the busy physician. With only 1,440 minutes in a day, teaching people to be their most productive self. @kanapicki @StanfordEMed
Jennifer Kanapicki Comer, MD

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