‘I Work From Home and Can’t Focus’

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

Dear Boss,

I graduated in 2018 and began a job where officially I’m a freelancer but in reality 99 percent of my work comes from one person. I record my hours and bill my client for them, and we have an unofficial agreement that I will make myself available to work X number of hours daily for him, and in return he provides me with pretty steady work, and there’s almost always the option to add hours if I have the time and want to make the extra money. Generally, this arrangement has worked out well. He’s a great guy to work for, flexible, respectful, considerate, and he pays a very generous hourly rate.

However, I find it impossible to focus while working from home anymore. Honestly, I was never great at it, but I used to have more time available (I’ve since become a mom to several young kids, though I do have child care while I’m working). I feel like a lazy slob who doesn’t have the basic self-discipline to sit down and work and, worse, ungrateful, because so much about my job is ideal, especially as a mom — the flexibility, in particular. The thing is, I’m not generally lazy. I know how to work hard, have done so in the past, and continue to do so in other areas of my life. But I find it impossible to focus on work during the hours I set aside for it. I try to be very honest in reporting my hours, and if I get distracted and end up browsing the web, I always pause my clock. This means I end up not having enough reportable hours, my boss keeps pressuring me to work more because of my unofficial commitment to set aside a certain number of hours for him, and I’m not earning as much as I need to be — and could be.

I’ve tried to make this work. I shared with my boss that I was finding the work-from-home setup very distracting and difficult. He was sympathetic, but his whole team is remote; there is no office to bring me into. He agreed to up my hourly pay so I could find a shared workspace to join, but I haven’t been able to find anything remotely suitable where I live.

Am I being a lazy slacker who should get it together, realize how lucky I am to have such a good job, and somehow develop more self-discipline? Or can it be that some people are just not cut out for remote work and I should really be looking for a different job in an office setting, even though it will mean less flexibility and probably a slightly lower hourly rate?

Yes, some people are not cut out for remote work, meaning that they either dislike it or find it challenging to be productive when they’re not in an office. It’s possible you’re one of them. That can change over time too; maybe you were well suited to remote work previously, but having kids has made it harder. That wouldn’t be a failing, and in recognizing it about yourself, you could arrange your life in ways that better suit you.

However, it’s also possible that you’re just burned out — maybe not with this job specifically (although maybe with that too) but with an overwhelming amount of responsibilities generally, particularly since you had kids. We all need a certain amount of zoning-out time where our brains can just relax, and if you’re not getting enough of it, it’s possible your brain is forcibly claiming it during work hours because that’s the only time it can.

As you consider whether this could apply to you, look up “revenge bedtime procrastination,” where people put off going to bed because their brains insist on carving out “me time” for leisure and relaxation, even at the expense of sleep. I think you could be having the non-bedtime version of that: Your brain needs to recharge, and it’s going to take the time it needs to do it, whether you want that or not. If you were working in an office where people could see you, you still might find yourself procrastinating for the same reason. That said, there are other people around in the office, making it harder to fully give into those impulses.

If that theory sounds like it could be correct, can you look for ways to give your brain the leisure time it wants without obliterating your workday? For example, could you regularly set aside one hour at the start, middle, or end of your day to browse the web or otherwise be unproductive? It’s possible that if your brain sees that it’s reliably getting downtime, it will let you work the rest of the time. (Obviously, if that cuts into your work schedule, that’s not ideal. But it sounds like losing an hour a day would be an improvement for you, so if it works, consider it a victory.)

It also wouldn’t hurt to look at non-remote positions and see what your options are, particularly in terms of pay and flexibility. Right now, you’re assuming you won’t be able to find anything that measures up to your current job, but who knows what you’ll discover once you really look. Applying for other jobs is zero commitment, but it will give you more data that you can use to assess your options. If none of the positions you find are as appealing as your current setup, that might help motivate you to impose more discipline on your work hours so that you don’t have to make that trade.

There’s no shame in struggling with this. You’re not a lazy slacker and you’re not ungrateful. You have less time available now that you have kids, but your brain still has the same need to relax and recharge. It might be that the changes in your life mean that remote work doesn’t fit you as well as it used to, but it’s not a moral flaw on your part, it’s an evolution in how you need to manage your life.

Find even more career advice from Alison Green on her website, Ask a Manager. Got a question for her? Email (and read our submission terms here).

‘I Work From Home and Can’t Focus’