How to Maximize Productivity While Working from HomeNone By Steve Calechman
The coronavirus pandemic has forced all of us to reshuffle our lives. Travel plans have been cancelled, gym memberships have been put on hold, and work may be happening within feet of our bed. Sure, the commute got a lot less hectic; but, doing the actual work can seem a lot harder without the structure and stimuli of the workplace environment. “Work is associated with work and home is associated with home. It’s hard to motivate yourself when you’re surrounded by home stuff and not work stuff,” says Art Markman, Ph.D., professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Bring Your Brain to Work.
It’s enough of an adjustment in an ideal state, but unfortunately, we no longer have the luxury of an ideal state. We have concerns about family. Our kids are home and need to keep up with their schoolwork or stay occupied in some other way. Our pets need care, and our partners are also trying to work. There are multiple pulls that can easily impede productivity.
Making work-from-home, well, work, requires flexibility. Part of pulling it off successfully is creating a productive space for yourself, and part of it is being realistic. What also helps in this continually changing situation is being patient and remembering that “there is a learning curve and to give yourself time to make the adjustment,” says Johnna Capitano, Ph.D., assistant professor of management at West Chester University. After that, consider trying these practical steps.
For most of us, establishing a routine can provide structure and help us more easily transition from house mode to work mode. Harlan Coben, creator of The Stranger on Netflix and author of the just-released The Boy from the Woods, suggests treating the start of your day as if you’re going to your job. “Wake up at your normal time, shave, put on real clothes,” he says.
Follow that by creating a designated workspace. If it can’t be a home office, use a bed, closet, corner of the kitchen table, anything that is yours; and, preferably, something that has a door, or even a curtain, which allows you to close it off at the end of the day.
Couple those actions with small daily rituals. Take a walk around the outside of your house, leaving by the front door and coming in through the back. Have your morning cup of tea and, when you set it down on your desk, the day begins. “There’s no limit to what you can do. With all the stress we’re experiencing, don’t be limited by the poverty of imagination,” says Kathleen Christensen, Ph.D., program director of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and former professor of psychology.
Figure Out Your Work Style
While it’s helpful to establish boundaries and routines, “there are no set rules,” Christensen says. You need to see what works, then adjust. Designating set office hours is usually among the first suggestions for people new to working from home. While that’s helpful for the emotional well‑being and efficiency of some, there’s no hard-and-fast rule for everyone, Capitano says. Her research shows that people who are good at multitasking do fine without strict distinctions. They’re integrators—they can quickly become adept at putting dinner into the oven while answering emails—and, for them, working from home might be less difficult. If you’re new to working from home, first check in with how you best operate. There’s no need to force something that may be unnecessary for you. “As long as you get to what you want and need to, you’ll be productive,” she says.
It’s easy to feel stuck, particularly with the limitations that social distancing places on us. Coben says that he changes things up by moving to a different part of the room to work or by switching chairs. Sometimes, he goes into a corner with pen and paper to avoid computer distractions. He’ll also alternate from his desktop computer to his laptop, or dictate or type into his iPhone, all to find different sensations. Even buying a new notebook is enough to fire him up. “It’s the fresh start to the peanut butter jar,” he says.
Use Technology to Generate Atmosphere
Markman suggests getting on Skype with a few colleagues and keeping it on in the background. You can ask questions or collaborate, but even on mute, being on Skype may create an environment that can help keep you on task—especially if you’re having problems staying focused. “If you feel like slacking off, someone else is watching,” he says. Zoom, WhatsApp and FaceTime can link you together for work, but it doesn’t need to stop there. If you’re used to checking in every day with someone, or if your morning involves a group coffee, you can replicate those gatherings over video, as well. “Rituals anchor us in a community,” Christensen says.
Keep the Kids Occupied
Remember, your kids are adjusting, as well, and because you’re home, they’ll want your attention. Since your partner likely also has to work, Capitano recommends alternating work-kid shifts; and, at the end of the day, checking in about what tomorrow looks like. To keep kids from distracting you when you need to concentrate, plan blocks of time to spend with them throughout the day, and let them know, “At 11 a.m., I’ll be down to play.” For younger children, put it in a measurement they can grasp, such as, “In two of your shows, I’ll be done.” It might not take immediately, but with consistency, they can pick up on the fact that when you’re working, you need to work. Closing your door can help reinforce that message; putting a sign up furthers it when necessary, she says.
Adjust Your Expectations
In these turbulent times, working from home will not always go smoothly. There will be inefficiency, and simple tasks will take longer. Be upfront with colleagues and supervisors about your situation, but realize that everyone is facing the same challenges. The antidote is being realistic and kind to yourself. To-do lists are good, but make sure they include achievable nonwork tasks (for example: play board game with the kids) as well as work tasks (for example: finish two pages of the report) and be sure to also include breaks. “Pick items that can be crossed off at the end of the day,” says Christensen. “In times like this, when there are so many competing demands, it’s nice to feel like we’ve accomplished something.”
Lastly, it’s easy to romanticize what happened in the office, but, says Christensen, “don’t idealize that everyone was productive every minute and every second—they weren’t.” This creates a false standard and undue stress. This isn’t to offer an excuse, just a reminder that you need to give yourself the time and space to figure out what works, especially since this new work reality may be with us for a while. As Christensen puts it: “This is a marathon, not a sprint.”
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