Photo: Norbert Levajsics
Working from home is a necessity for many of us right now. It’s a critical way to help flatten the curve, for one. It can also have its appeal even during this unprecedented, harrowing crisis that faces us all. But being productive at home even under the best of circumstances — without remote schooling, sick loved ones, relentlessly bad news, and economic turmoil — can be a challenge.
Full disclosure: I have been working remotely since well before COVID-19; many of my colleagues do as well. We’re old pros at this (not really old, but you get the point). But even those who have been doing it for years know productivity is not just a robotic process. Sometimes we need to detach to refocus. Sometimes we need a better chair. So I collected some of the best practices for being productive and staying focused while you work at home. As we weather this pandemic — a sentence who among us ever thought we’d be writing — here are proven tips for boosting your productivity:
1. Recognize these are not normal times.
The stress of great expectations can be crippling to our ability to focus right now. Anxiety is also a known productivity-crusher. My advice: acknowledge these are not ideal conditions to shift your operations to the home office / kitchen / kids’ room. My colleague, Meghan, calls it the “new not normal.” We’re stressed and distracted and overburdened; we may be parenting and caregiving as we’re conference calling. Remembering that we’re all in this together, and there’s a great purpose to it all can be a powerful way to defuse that tension headache brewing as you try to conquer that memo.
2. Go with your flow.
Work with your natural flow of mental, physical, and emotional energy that happens in the course of a day. Everyone’s different. The friction of pushing back against fatigue uses way too much energy, and that’s energy you should be conserving to sit back down. So the next time you feel tired and sleepy, don’t ignore it. Your brain chemistry is saying it’s time to take a break. Like any organism, it can only run high gear for a while. After that, the ratio between potassium and sodium gets out of balance and that’s when you start losing focus.
3. Take better breaks.
It’s not just the act of taking a break that’s key to productivity; it’s also the kind of break we take. You’ve just been facing a screen for three hours and then you decided (wisely) to get up and give yourself ten minutes. Where do you head? LIkely, to another screen. Too many of us turn to our smartphones and check in on social media. But that’s no way to rest our brains. If you take a microbreak from your computer screen, make it a microbreak away from any screen. Go for a walk, stretch, or meditate: even meditating for a few minutes can be extremely effective.
4. Smooth out the distractions.
A professor of Informatics at UC Irvine found that distractions aren’t just momentary little hiccups: they can seriously detract from your ability to concentrate. It can take an average of 25 minutes to regroup after a 30-second jump to check Twitter, for instance. Repeatedly checking inboxes and social media also breaks the all-important flow state of creativity that’s required to successfully complete a complex task. Even taking a few seconds to answer a text can derail your focus and lead to errors. Given the digital array we’re all working on now, it may be hard to ignore the constant flow of communications from your co-workers. But if you have a project you need to attend to, consider signing off — at least for half an hour. You’ll get farther with it, faster.
5. Take a longer break.
Many of us have a crowded household and several needs pulling at us from all directions. It can feel as if you’re moving from conference call to homework table to snack making to the next meeting. Break that seamless feeling by going for longer breaks that take you entirely out of the routine. As well as microbreaks, make sure you get at least one macro break during your workday. A twenty-minute walk can increase the release of endorphins that naturally improve your mood and reduce stress levels. It’s also a great way to clear your head.
6. Track your moods and energy levels.
Knowing how to pace yourself will come with time, but it’s worth it to monitor yourself over the course of a workweek. The goal is not just to work well over the duration, but also to avoid burnout — by not pushing yourself so hard you’re completely depleted. Take an average day (if there is one). Every hour, write down what you do, whether or not you were focused for the whole hour, your mood, and your energy level. Use a 1-10 scale for energy and mood — keep it simple. What interruptions happened, and how long did it take you to get back to working? When did you break to drink or eat? Then, repeat it the next day, and the next. You can also find a time tracker app, though the act of writing something down on paper has the added benefit of getting you off the screen. At the end of a few days or a week, gather the data. See what you’ve got.
From those insights, see what small changes you can make to improve the low mood and low energy times. Might be more breakfast, meditation, a later lunch, a longer walk, more exercise, more water. And look at the high mood and high energy times and see if you can shift your schedule, so the toughest tasks are done at those times. Even minor adjustments can have tremendous results.
Finding our working rhythms in this time of crisis and anxieties isn’t necessarily the first thing that comes to mind. We may be more concerned with where we’re going to go, in a noisy apartment for the next meeting, or getting the Internet to go a little… faster. But what we learn now about our own work habits will last the rest of our careers. And you’ll always remember that during self-quarantine, you found out you’re really not a morning person — and you don’t need caffeine, or just the opposite. Taking care of yourself means taking care of your ability to get your work done, too. I wish you good luck and good workdays!