Has your home also become your office due to the pandemic? Keep reading to learn how to stay productive, sane, and healthy during these disruptive and difficult times.
Well, this is weird.
In the midst of this pandemic, many people who are lucky enough to be able to work remotely are transitioning to working from home. And while we should feel grateful if our jobs don’t require us to put ourselves, our families, and others at risk by physically going to work during this time, that doesn’t mean that this disruptive transition is easy.
At the best of times, transitioning to working from home comes with a learning curve. On the surface, it seems like it will be super chill and awesome, but there are challenges too. Some people find it very difficult to focus on work in a home setting, while others find themselves working more and working longer, to the detriment of their family or their health.
Couple that with our new reality of a constantly evolving, stressful, life-changing situation, and my goodness. If you are getting anything done, you are a beacon of strength and I applaud you (and if you are a parent of young children, you are literally a superhero). But if you’re anything like me, anxiety-ridden and procrastination-prone, shit is really hard and we need some help.
I don’t know what your job used to look like. Maybe you worked at a desk, so your new reality isn’t all that different. Or, perhaps your job was a little more physically active or interactive, and now you’re making a pretty big adjustment to virtual and solitary work. But either way, some aspect of your typical routine has changed and that’s really tough. So, today I’m sharing with you some best practices for working from home that I’ve learned in the last several months, as well as some new things I’m putting into place to help me continue on as our world is turned upside down.
1 | Write down your schedule the night before
Productivity 101: If it’s not on your schedule, it doesn’t exist. Take five minutes every evening (or at the end of the work day) to identify what you need to do the next day. In our current reality, those to-do’s are somewhat narrower in scope than they were last month. If your schedule used to be bursting at the seams with work meetings, errands, appointments, activities, and events, you may be tempted to ignore your planner now that most of your daily activities will occur at home. But don’t!
You likely still have projects, deadlines, conference calls, and deliverables, so schedule what you plan to work on each day. If you are procrastination-prone, try a technique called time blocking to schedule when you will do your most important tasks each day. With so many distractions in our homes and online, starting each day with a targeted game plan will help keep you on track.
2 | Start an intentional morning practice
Although we’re keeping our distance from everyone who doesn’t live with us, we are suddenly spending way more time with those who do. Whether it’s your significant other, roommates, or children, you are likely not getting much alone time these days. But for our sanity, it’s crucial that we give ourselves time to be alone (yes, even you extroverts!).
Waking up earlier than the other people in your home gives you quiet time to yourself, during which you can do a myriad of nurturing activities. You can establish a morning practice that involves journaling, meditating, and doing yoga. Or you can just make yourself a latte and read a good book without interruption. If you’re a morning person, you can get some creative work done while everyone else slumbers. You could also go for a walk or a jog to get some stimulating fresh air.
This practice will not only help you stay centered and sane, but it will give you a feeling of control that is so lacking in times of uncertainty. Also, most of us aren’t used to being around our housemates 24/7. While some tension and arguing is probably normal and inevitable, taking care of yourself by giving yourself some privacy goes a long way toward lessening feelings of hostility toward others.
3 | Dress for success
While it’s super fun to stay in your pj’s all day during the holidays or on a snow day, it’s probably not a sustainable choice for a situation that’s going to last a long time. I’m not saying you need to do your hair and makeup every morning (I sure don’t!), but I am saying that changing your clothes can help your productivity.
Showering or just brushing your hair and changing out of your pajamas helps your brain transition out of lazy/sleepy mode and into work mode. You don’t have to get fancy; my “work clothes” consist of joggers or yoga pants, tank tops, and certain sweaters. It’s not an outfit I would wear out of the house, but it’s also not something I sleep in. And even though it’s comfy as hell, I always change into pj’s or (other) loungewear at the end of the day, just like I would if I were wearing slacks and heels to work. There are some women who do choose to style their hair, do their makeup, and put on “real” clothes, even if they plan to stay home all day, just because it makes them feel good. Do whatever works for you, but I promise you’ll feel more awake and motivated if you change out of the pjs.
4 | Create a “work zone” with environmental cues
If you have the option, I highly recommend having a separate work space in your home. Our brains are all about associations, so you may find it challenging to get into “work mode” from your bed or couch. If you have a home office, now’s the time to put it to the test. Get rid of any distracting clutter, and find a system for managing things like bills and receipts that inevitably end up on a seldom-used desk. Treat it like you would your office desk, and try to only work from there.
If you don’t have an office, spare bedroom, or other separate area where you can set up a designated work zone, there are other things you can do to help create “work mode”. Light a scented candle or use an essential oil diffuser every time you start working. Again, our brains love associations, and scent creates particularly strong associations in our brain. So pick a scent you like, and use the same scent only when you work. Eventually, your brain will associate that particular scent with working. I use this trick (Peppermint & Eucalyptus is my jam), and it definitely helps me get into work mode.
5 | Establish boundaries
Caveat: I do not have children, so I can’t speak to the how’s of using this technique with kiddos. Adults, on the other hand, are generally capable of understanding the concept of needing uninterrupted time to work, but you have to ask for what you need. Talk to the other adults in your home, and ask them to please not interrupt you between certain hours every weekday so you can get your most important work done during this time. If your work is less structured or predictable, you can make a sign to hang on your office door or the back of your computer that says “I’m working now, go away” (but you should probably word it more nicely).
This applies beyond the people in your house. Establish hours when you are not available for phone calls, text messages, or emails. Depending on your job, you may just be able to set your phone to “do not disturb” for a couple of hours, then respond to any messages at your discretion. If you need to respond to some calls or texts as they come in, you can screen your incoming alerts and only accept the necessary ones in the moment, then follow up with the others later. As for email, so many productivity experts recommend turning off email notifications entirely and only checking your email a few times a day.
This also goes for phone notifications. For the love of god, you do not need phone notifications from games, social media, or really anything else. It takes 23 minutes (!) to get back on task after an interruption, and every time your phone pings to inform you that Sharon liked your Facebook comment, you start the clock. If possible, leave your phone in the other room for a period of time while you’re working. It will feel very weird at first, but once you’re used to it, it is so freeing.
6 | Create a consistent workday routine
If you’re used to going into an office at the same time every morning and leaving around the same time every evening, the complete lack of external structure you experience working from home can either decimate your productivity or consume your life. No matter your personality, keeping a routine is essential for work-life balance and your mental health.
For the workaholics:
Without the inconvenient commute or distracting coworkers, some people are insanely productive — often to the point of not taking breaks throughout the day, losing track of time and working late into the evening, or never mentally “clocking out”. This level of intensity is unsustainable, will eventually lead to burn out, and is pretty unfair to your family too. If this sounds like you, set alarms for yourself to get up and stretch every hour, take an actual lunch break, and observe a quittin’ time in the afternoon or early evening, after which you don’t check email or make work calls.
For the procrastinators and easily-distracted:
But if you’re more like me, the lack of structure will wreck your productivity. It’s so easy to feel like you have plenty of time, so you justify doing non-work related things during work hours. Then you’re stressed out because you’re behind schedule and feel like you’re constantly playing catch up. And this is especially tough if the work you do is itself unstructured or creative in nature. When faced with an unpleasant task that doesn’t have a looming deadline, it’s so easy to find something else to do when you’re at home with an endless task list and no external accountability. At the office, there’s more social pressure to stay on task (or at least stay at your desk pretending to work). But at home, there’s an endless supply of distractions, many of which feel “productive”.
If this sounds like you, creating some discipline around work is essential. Be at your desk by a certain time each morning, and use timers to limit your breaks to 10-15 minutes at a time. Know your distraction triggers (be it TV, social media, or laundry), and make a rule that you only do those things during non-work hours (mine are podcasts and cleaning). Observe a quittin’ time each evening, after which you can engage in your distraction triggers without guilt or pressure.
7 | Create a system for housework
Housework feels more urgent when you’re surrounded by it. If you’re used to escaping to an office every day, suddenly trying to work amidst piles of laundry and unpaid bills can make concentrating on work feel impossible. And with the flexibility of working from home, you may be tempted to juggle work and home tasks throughout the day. While this is definitely possible, in my own experience as a procrastinator, it’s really easy to spend more time on housework than you intended, which then requires you to work later into the evening to get your work tasks done.
To overcome this dilemma, keep track of your recurring chores and schedule them throughout your week. Cleaning haphazardly is a huge time waster, so putting a housekeeping system in place will enable you to tackle housework efficiently and strategically. This, in turn, helps you focus on actual work during your work hours.
8 | Take care of your body
Most gyms are closed, grocery stores are battlegrounds, and your house is now your office (and, you might be thinking, your prison). Physical fitness doesn’t seem like a huge priority right now as the world collectively goes into survival mode. But it’s more important now than ever.
- Regular, moderate exercise boosts your immune system and your mental health.
- Eating healthy has a measurable impact on your energy levels, your mood, and your immune system.
- Sleeping is the most important thing ever, and for everything.
So get some form of physical activity daily, via a fitness app, walking or running outside, or doing yoga in your living room. Make an intentional grocery list, prioritizing whole, unprocessed foods (if you didn’t have time to cook before, now’s your chance to brush up in the kitchen), and take a real lunch break: eat away from your desk, and don’t look at work for 30 minutes or an hour while you eat. Practice good sleep hygiene, including avoiding working in your bedroom if possible, removing electronics from the bedroom, shutting off technology an hour before bedtime, and not drinking alcohol or eating a few hours before you hit the hay.
9 | Make mental health a priority
Y’all, this is not a great time to be anxious or depressed. Not that it’s ever a *great* time, but right now, even the most optimistic among us are freaked out. So if you’re coming into this situation with pre-existing anxiety or depression, you especially need to be on the offensive.
If you already see a therapist, they’re probably offering Telepsych appointments. Use them. If you haven’t been in therapy but you really need it now, check out services like Betterhelp. Know that it’s not only okay to feel your feelings, but that it’s necessary. You cannot suppress or ignore feelings indefinitely without really negative health consequences. So allow yourself to feel and process as you need to.
Maybe therapy isn’t your style, and you’d rather manage your feelings on your own.
- Try, or get back into, meditation. There’s a million apps to help guide you (I like Insight Timer).
- Practice deep breathing throughout the day (the benefits of deep breathing are insane).
- Get out of the house (if you can) and walk in nature, which has beneficial effects on our mental health too.
There’s a fine line between being informed on a constantly changing situation and becoming obsessed with the doom. If you’re finding it hard to turn off the news, commit to only looking at it twice a day, and set a timer when you do so you don’t end up down the Coronavirus rabbit hole.
Finally, if you’re feeling isolated, connect with people. Use Facetime, Skype, or Zoom to interact with your loved ones face to face. And try reframing how you think of this time. Simply changing the words we use can have a huge impact on how we feel about a situation.
10 | Give yourself grace
As I type this, I feel like a huge hypocrite. To be clear, I have used every tactic on this list. When I began working at home last year, it took me a long time to learn to be productive in this completely new context. My unhelpful procrastination habits that characterized every exam week in college basically became my everyday reality. It took months, but I did establish routines, habits, environmental cues, and systems that help me be productive and consistent while working at home.
But over the last two weeks, it’s all gone to shit. Those routines, systems, and habits that I fought to establish have disappeared from my daily life. I’m sleeping late, forgoing my morning practice, barely working, stress-eating jelly beans and boxed mac-and-cheese, and inundating myself with all things Covid. So in full transparency, I wrote this article not only to help you guys, but to help myself.
If you’ve read any of my previous articles, you know I’m a huge nerd for human behavior research. So I know all the things I should be doing. But right now, I feel lost, confused, and scared. I’m willing to bet you do too. Beating ourselves up for not being productive, sticking to our routines, or engaging in healthy behavior will not help us change course. Self-bullying is counterproductive at best and self-destructive at worst.
So in this time of mass uncertainty, it needs to be okay to not always be the best versions of ourselves. We need time and space to process and feel the negative feelings. Our world is going to be in turmoil for a long time. Our lives are going to be disrupted indefinitely. The only thing we can do is take it one day at a time, to do the best we can as much as possible. But also to forgive ourselves — and others — when “doing” feels impossible.