How To Stay Productive While Working From Home
“To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time.”
COVID-19 has forced many of us into working remotely for the first time. That is, if you still have a job or a business.
Many businesses scrambled to put processes in place, not necessarily because they wanted to or are comfortable with their employees telecommuting, but because they had no other choice.
This solved one problem—how to stay open—and created several more:
How to track performance
How to meet virtually and get things done
How to hold employees and management accountable
And for everyone:
How to stay focused and productive working from home, especially when there are other people and/or pets around.
So, for some of us, one stressor was cured—you kept your job. And at the same time, several new stressors appeared as we tried to adjust to new working environments and expectations without a lot of time for training and preparation.
In the next few weeks, I’ll address these challenges as well as some specific tips for folks who already work from home but aren’t used to having others around.
And we’ll also look at what to do if you’ve lost your job and are now home looking for work, needing to stay productive and focused.
For everyone, there are some basic and immediate things that should be done to ensure that you stay as productive as possible working from home.
Even if you think you’ve got this down by now, these suggestions may help you increase productivity and improve your focus.
CLAIM YOUR SPACE
It may sound silly at this point to insist that you establish a consistent place to work from that feels predictable, but there’s a lot of value in doing this.
If you’re sharing space with other people like partners or children or even pets, going to a particular part of your home when it’s time to work creates patterns for you and for them.
It’s great that you can work from bed, or the couch, or sitting in front of the fridge deciding what to make for lunch while on a conference call, but these options should be in addition to having a dedicated “home” for work.
Ideally that space should be quiet or quieter, where there are not a lot of visual distractions and where you can stay organized during and after work.
The last thing you need is to have your paperwork mixed up with your personal bills, kids’ drawings or birthday cards from Aunt Grace.
It doesn’t have to be an entire room, but even a corner of a room that can be undisturbed helps.
If you had an office that you went to, try to set up your space the same way. That may include a plant or two and some photos of your family.
Even if the people in the photos are in the same room, this subconsciously creates boundaries, and bridges your behavioral expectations.
Your body will remember that when you’re in this environment, your time is meant to be productive and focused.
And returning to a level of production that is equal or greater than you had while working at an office will feel familiar.
When creating this new work space, be sure to consider the #1 Time Thief—interruptions.
Did you know it takes an average of 23 minutes to recover from one interruption?
Be mindful of where you claim space and your expectations of your family so you don’t put yourself someplace that makes it easy to interrupt you.
Even if you established house rules when this first began, as you refine your working space, it’s worth revisiting that conversation so everyone’s boundaries and expectations are completely spelled out.
I know lots of parents (and partners) who will say, “if you’re not bleeding, it can wait”.
I appreciate the allure of flexibility when it comes to interacting with others in your space, and even if you live alone as I do, it can be seductive to wander around “feeling free”.
And I’m not suggesting being so rigid that you are unpleasant to yourself or those around you.
But it’s very easy to create bad habits and label them as being flexible or fluid or spontaneous, when you’re really just telling one of your 200 Lies and undermining your ability to stay focused.
CREATE A MORNING ROUTINE
Just setting a time to sit down and start working is not often enough to get you there on time.
And again, the uncharted nature of everyone being together can feel like a bonus – you can have your cake and eat it too, even for breakfast!
But everyone craves predictability, even if you like variety.
So the novelty of “the day can be anything we want it to be” soon interferes with “I need to get some shit done”.
And the dissonance and stress of trying to be unstructured when you actually have responsibilities messes with your body and your mind.
Very few of us can juggle spontaneity and deadlines in the same headspace.
So if you haven’t yet done this, create a routine that leads up to your dedicated work time.
This involves setting your alarm for the same time, eating breakfast, working out and pouring that cup of coffee in the same order at the same time everyday.
Each of these steps will help guide you into your “work mindset.”
And if you’ve already figured this out, why not see if there’s a way you can hack your morning routine to launch your day even better?
SET DAILY GOALS + USE YOUR CALENDAR
Staying on track with the distractions that are at home can be tough.
It is so easy to lose focus when you hear the kids fighting, or you’re hungry, or you see an unfinished weekend project out of the corner of your eye begging to be completed.
A to-do list is a great place to start but it isn’t a time management tool. That’s your calendar.
So by all means write down what you want to get done during the day, and even the week.
Then head to your calendar and make discrete appointments with yourself to actually get those things done.
This step makes all the difference in keeping you organized, productive and focused.
And it takes all the guesswork out of when you will do something, so even if your eyes and mind are occasionally drawn elsewhere, it’s easy to return to your calendar and keep yourself on track.
You’ll get the yummy satisfied feeling of checking things off your list as you add them to your calendar.
But the problem with to-do lists is that they are not quantified.
So they just set you up for lost time.
It’s too easy to look at a task and think you can knock it out if you haven’t actually budgeted adequate time to do it.
And then you end up talking garbage to yourself about your inability to finish things on time. But the truth is you never established the amount of time it would take to do something.
Can you see the faulty logic there?
And how that sets you up for failure?
The beauty in driving your day from your calendar is two-fold:
1) You learn how long things actually take
2) Now your attention is on the block of time and not a particular outcome.
You will always be able to achieve a math-based goal—meaning working on something for, say, 45 minutes.
When the timer goes off, you will have achieved the task—which was to work uninterrupted for 45 minutes.
If instead you thought, “I’m going to finish the third-quarter report”, how will you know when you’ve finished? Is it page count? Specific elements and modules that needed to be included? What about allowing for review and revisions?
It becomes very hard to nail down an exact amount of time needed to finish something that isn’t math-based.
This article is another example.
I didn’t budget time to write it thinking I would complete it within 1 hour. I simply budgeted 1 hour to get as far as I could.
When that block of time was finished, I looked at my calendar and scheduled 2 more 1-hour blocks of time because I know that I can typically write an article in 2-3 hours.
If I finish early, I can pivot to another task. And if I don’t, I’m not upset or negatively surprised.
This also frees up bandwidth so you’re not trying to remember what you need to do now and next since you just have to read the calendar. It’s spelled out for you.
All that energy can now be focused on the task itself instead of the task plus all the things that are waiting for you after the task.
When you’re creating your list, use it to dump everything out without worrying about prioritizing. That will come next.
First, just get it all down on paper so you can stop worrying or thinking about it.
Either way, the goal is to free you up from relying on your memory alone—so that nothing falls through the cracks.
CREATE A SCHEDULE, THEN BEND IT
Just like using your calendar above, this doesn’t mean you become a robot.
That’s just bullshit.
You don’t need to plan out your every move, everyday.
You do need to have enough clarity on what you need to do by when so you can color within the lines.
And then color outside them when you choose to.
Just avoiding the lines altogether denies you the benefit of the lines AND the freedom to go beyond them when you want.
Using a schedule as a guidepost requires you to think more abstractly AND with greater focus.
And of course, your coworkers do need to know when you are available to collaborate and communicate with them. You can’t just leave that up to chance or inspiration.
So, with both your home life and your work life, you need to consider when you must show up and for what, and when just showing up ready for whatever is the better choice.
With everything topsy-turvy right now, it’s also helpful to be fluid.
Which again doesn’t mean the absence of a plan.
So if your significant other needs a break from the kids at night, can you step in? Do you need to let any coworkers know that you’ll be busy?
And that applies the other way around, too.
If you have an important project due and you need all night to work on it, having it in your calendar/schedule will show your family that anything they need from you will have to be done before or after your dedicated work time.
Along with all of this is including scheduled breaks.
This is especially important if you are self-employed.
Using your timer to force you to stop working is a great way to interrupt the … “just one more thing …” mentality.
It’s great to be so committed and in love with your work that you COULD do it all day.
It’s also really easy to burn yourself out BY doing it all day without breaks.
And one of your 200 Lies may be that you didn’t need a break yesterday so you don’t need one today.
Just because you skipped a break and stayed focused and productive yesterday, doesn’t mean that that should be the new normal.
Pushing yourself too hard on a good day isn’t a great idea—during a pandemic it’s a recipe for disaster.
TAKE A DAY OFF AS NEEDED
Just because you work and rest in the same place doesn’t mean that you don’t need to stop every once in a while and focus on your needs ENTIRELY. This applies ten fold when you are sick.
You wouldn’t take a paid sick day and sit at home and work anyway so why do it just because you didn’t commute to the office today?
Likewise actual days off.
Again just because you love your work doesn’t mean that you should never take a break.
We’ve instituted Sundays off here and Saturdays as well, unless there’s no other day we can host an event online or see a private client.
But most of the time, we can arrange our working hours to line up with clients’ schedules so everyone gets some time away … not just them!
COMMUNICATION IS KEY
Don’t take working from home as an opportunity to answer only when asked.
And don’t assume that everyone knows you’ve just put your head down and are busy working away.
Keep your supervisors and colleagues up to date with where you are on projects and work in general.
Share both your concerns and solutions and they will not only appreciate your proactive measures for keeping the company moving forward, but they will feel more confident in your dedication and momentum while working from home.
Create a plan with clear expectations on when and how you will check in and how you will communicate updates on projects and tasks.
Here at AMI, we avoid email for internal communication and I encourage you to do the same.
We use Slack but/and there are many other alternatives. The only thing that matters is getting you OUT of your inbox for company correspondence.
Also, if you would normally walk into a colleague’s office to update them, pick up your phone and give them a quick call. It gives the same sense of immediacy, voice to voice real time contact and is likely a welcomed break from the current isolation.
How you choose to communicate will undoubtedly evolve as everyone adjusts and figures out what does and doesn’t work for them.
While learning each other all over again may be frustrating, remember you can always take a deep breath, pause, and reassure yourself that it’s all okay as long as you remain open and flexible.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Things have always been uncertain because that is the very nature of life—it’s just that this pandemic has brought that into sharp focus and we may not like what we see.
But looking away has never brought any of us closer to a workable solution—it’s just delayed the inevitable.
Paying attention to how we feel, how we talk to ourselves and how we set up our spaces and manage our time give us control over the things we actually can control.
Stressing out over things beyond your control doesn’t gain you control—it just justifies your feeling stressed.
So make different choices whenever you can.
Find a way to set up a functional, appropriately isolated space to work from.
Establish routines and feel empowered to shift them whenever it serves you as long as it DOES serve you and isn’t just a knee jerk reaction to feeling powerless.
Pay attention to how you work, when you work, when you disappear, and when you return and start to focus again.
Rest as needed.
Communicate thoroughly and often without oversharing or taking hostages.
Seek out ways to improve your attention and productivity given the lack of a commute.
The more thoughtful you can be, the more likely you will be to NOT get swept up in panic, fear or frantically trying to control something beyond your control.
Put your pencils away.
Have compassion for yourself and for everyone else.
We all have different lives and unique challenges when it comes to integrating work and home, even when we are forced to mash them together to survive this moment.
Offer what you can when you can.
And walk in grace with every step.