Taking Work Home

How to Stay Productive Outside the Office

It’s 2014, and thanks to mobile phones, laptop computers and the Internet, more and more of us are moving outside the traditional workplace. Whether you’re a full-time remote worker or someone who just takes things home from the office now and again, you may find it challenging to stay productive. After all, home is supposed to be a place of rest, not work.

That said, millions of people are working from home every day, and most of them find ways to be productive. Here’s their secret.

It’s work. On any other work day, you need to get up at a reasonable hour and get ready. People who work at home, by and large, don’t roll out of bed in their pajamas, shuffle off to the computer and type up a storm while snacking on nachos. The successful ones bathe, groom themselves, put on their work clothes, eat breakfast and go through all the other motions of their daily routines. There’s no better way to get mentally prepared.

That also means you need to block off time. There’s a reason most bosses don’t let their employees work whatever hours they want, and it’s not (just) that they can’t keep the building open 24/7. When there are no physical walls keeping you in the office, it’s even more important to organize your time with a fixed agenda. Otherwise, you’ll fall prey to distractions and time-wasters, and you’ll look back at your day and wonder why nothing got done.

Once you’ve fixed your working hours, shut the door to your office – and don’t open it for anything short of the house burning down. You wouldn’t take personal calls and entertain visitors at the company office, so don’t do it in your home office, either. Make sure your friends and family know that you’re at work and can’t be disturbed.

Speaking of shutting the door, do your best to separate business from pleasure. When possible, that means having a designated space where you only go for work activities. If you can afford a second computer (or have one provided by your employer), have one machine that you use only for work. If you need to use the same computer for both work and recreation, set up separate accounts. Make sure your “work” account has the websites you need for business bookmarked and the programs you use for work purposes accessible, and keep your games, entertainment sites and social media far away.

This may mean you need to outsource. If you’re a parent, you know it’s impossible to get anything done with a kid tugging on your sleeve. Hire a babysitter. Likewise, you can’t get much done in the way of cleaning and organizing while you’re working, so get a professional cleaning service to help. The extra money you make with your increased productivity will more than offset the cost, and as a bonus, you can write off cleaning your home office as a business expense.

Finally, when you’re done with work, stop working. The upside of working at home is that you’re always at home; the downside is that you’re always at work. If you press on until it’s time for bed (or later), you’ll burn yourself out. Set time aside to spend with your family, play games, go to the gym or just relax. It’s worth it.

800 Words on Confirmation Bias

Consider these three scenarios:

  • An investor decides to try a brand-new strategy trading contracts in the futures market. After five straight winning trades, he declares he’s found the key to success.
  • A schoolteacher is convinced that a particular student is going to struggle with a new unit. The next day, she asks the student two especially difficult questions; when the student answers them incorrectly, she decides that he really is struggling and makes a note to give him extra help.
  • A scientific researcher forms a hypothesis and designs an experiment to prove it. After a few trials that are consistent with her prediction, she concludes that her theory was indeed correct and tries to publish her findings.

In each case, someone fell prey to confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is simply the human tendency to focus on evidence that corroborates, or confirms, a prior assumption or belief. It’s an understandable mistake. It’s also potentially destructive.

Mental Explanations for Confirmation Bias

Psychologists are confident that confirmation bias exists – after all, it’s been an observed phenomenon for thousands of years – but they’re still divided on its cause. Some believe it’s just wishful thinking, a natural tendency to look on the bright side and favor pleasant rather than unpleasant thoughts. We subconsciously discard information that is somehow unfavorable and focus on the things we’d prefer to be true.

A related explanation focuses on the availability heuristic, a mental shortcut that causes us to only use the information that’s immediately at hand to judge a situation. Since facts that meet our original expectations are easier to recall, we give them much more weight in our thinking.

One more economic explanation focuses on cost-benefit analysis. Some psychologists theorize that instead of seeking truth, the brain is naturally wired to avoid costly errors. Since accepting a false hypothesis is often less damaging than rejecting a true hypothesis, the theory goes, we seek out information that confirms rather than challenges our hypotheses.

Regardless of the cause, confirmation bias is insidious. It affects everyone’s thinking to some extent, and even when we’re aware it exists, it can be tough to shake.

The Dangers of Confirmation Bias

Let’s return to our first example. Under normal circumstances, a rational investor would realize that it’s unwise to make a trading decision based on just five trades – that could just be a lucky streak. Because he was expecting his strategy to work, however, this investor ends up giving undue weight to a small sample size. He might decide to implement his new strategy too aggressively and end up losing money.

Our second example, the schoolteacher, is also guilty of using a small sample size. In this case, however, the teacher is doing something particularly problematic: specifically looking for information that confirms her bias. By asking difficult questions, she consciously or unconsciously sets up the student to fail.

In the third example, our scientist has committed a grave error by failing to seek out falsifying as well as confirming evidence. In addition to trying to show her hypothesis to be correct, she ought to have designed an experiment that would challenge her initial assumption.

Confirmation bias can be even more subtle. Often, people who do seek out alternative explanations or opinions go in with the mindset that they’ll just prove the other side wrong. That leads to selective listening: focusing on the flaws in the opposing argument without considering the strengths.

Dealing with Confirmation Bias

It’s practically impossible to shake off confirmation bias entirely, but there are ways to cope. One method is to seek out objective measurements. Data that can be interpreted subjectively is naturally prone to bias. Numbers are not.

Second, use a larger sample size whenever possible. The less information you have, the more likely you are to rely on your assumptions and biases to fill in the gaps. Bringing more information to light, especially from multiple sources, limits the power of confirmation bias.

Third, explicitly seek out dissenting opinions and approach with a fair mind. Again, there’s no way to keep confirmation bias from creeping in at all, but trying to consider the other side’s views as calmly and rationally as possible will help.

Fourth, avoid making decisions when at emotional extremes. This is a good mantra in general, but it’s relevant particularly to confirmation bias. Assumptions are usually rooted in emotion, not fact, and they have more power when we’re especially happy or especially unhappy.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, don’t make decisions alone. Bringing in multiple people with multiple assumptions tends to negate the power of each individual assumption. As long as every member of the group doesn’t have the same expectation, the members’ respective biases will effectively cancel each other out.

As great as it would be to go into situations perfectly objectively, with no preconceived notions, the human mind just doesn’t work that way. Confirmation bias is always a concern, but by proactively recognizing its influence, it’s possible to limit its impact.