Working from home sounds great…until you have to do it on a consistent basis. The fact of the matter is that working from home has a different set of advantages and disadvantages that some people may find difficult to navigate while trying to be productive.
I worked from home for five years in a demanding field with strict deadlines and challenging goals. This work from home period prepared me for what most of us are facing now – COVID-19 quarantine. So I wanted to take this opportunity to share with you some of the lessons I have learned in my five years of working from home and how I was able to remain productive.
Specify a Work Space
You need to set aside a specific work environment in your home. Ideally, this could be a spare room where you can have a desk, a computer, and a door. The door acts as a partition to help your mind transition from “being at home” mode to “work” mode. Once you cross the door threshold, you tell your mind “I’m here to work”. It also gives you the ability to shut the door so that other family members know you are working and not to disturb you (unless that family member is your puppy…they should always be allowed to disturb you, lol).
If you don’t have a spare bedroom, any area that you can designate as a workspace will do. The only caveat to this, try to keep the work area away from your bedroom. There’s a lot of reasons for this but it boils down to training your mind to disassociate work and life (more on this later). If you work from your bedroom, your mind will find it hard to associate your bedroom as a place of rest which research shows can even affect your ability to sleep.
Create a Checklist of Needed Accomplishments
One of the hardest things about working from home is what I call “Mental Meandering”. You know you have things to do, and you may even know how to do them…you just don’t know where to start. Start by creating a checklist of things to do. This will give you a strict guide that will help mitigate your tendency to allow your mind to meander while it tries to figure out what to do next. You can waste so much time trying to determine the next thing to do. Make your checklist at the end of your workday. Set aside 10 to 15 minutes and during that time identify goals for the next day. Also, take the time to arrange these tasks in order of priority. For example, if something has a deadline or is time sensitive, put these at the top of your to-do checklist. Consider printing the list and placing it in a location where you can easily see it.
Power Work Sessions
Things become easier to do when you brake them up into manageable pieces. It’s similar with work. Working from home can seem like a monolithic work period where your full 8+ hours are due collectively. This can be different in an office environment because events such as flash meetings, impromptu conversations with co-workers, sudden events, etc. can help break the monotonous integrity of the work block.
Manage your home working hours by breaking them into Power Work Sessions. Set aside two hours where your focus will ONLY be on work-related items. Remove all distractions and do not allow yourself to dwell on anything other than what is required of you from work. It helps if you set a timer for two hours (yes, seriously). After those two hours have passed take the next 15 minutes to not think about work. Do not even look at your computer (yes, seriously). Go outside, read a book, take a power nap, do anything that will unwind your mind. After those 15 minutes are up, begin your next two hour period. Then give yourself lunch (for an hour). After lunch, repeat the process.
Power Sessions are most effective when paired with your checklist. Try to accomplish one to three of the goals you’ve outlined on your checklist within one power session. Of course, this depends on the complexity of the goal(s). If you have a combination of fairly simple goals, maybe you can shoot for the completion of five or more goals within a power session. However, if it’s a goal that will require your utmost attention and is highly complex, maybe one power session for that goal is needed….maybe two.
You can play around with the times. Some people like to do three-hour sessions with 30 minutes rests. Some like to break up the sessions into one hour. Personally, I’ve found that two hours gives me enough time to get goals accomplished while not completely burning me out. But you do what works for you.
When setting goals for the day it’s important to make them realistic and manageable. If you notice that a certain goal is complex and is comprised of many parts, it will be easier for you to break this goal into a series of manageable goals that you can accomplish throughout the day. It’s not realistic to have the completion of a complex task as one of your goals on the checklist. The goal will become daunting to act as one goal amongst many others that you hope to complete in one day. By breaking large complex goals into smaller more manageable goals you allow yourself the ability to better manage daunting tasks which will enable you to stay motivated and productive.
TIP: If you know you are going to have a large complex goal, set aside one workday to complete it. This will free up other days for less complex and routine goals.
Working from home reduces your ability to come into contact with people. Some of you may think you’ll enjoy this, and for a short while you just might. However, humans are designed to be in a community. We need people. Some of us need more human interaction than others but at some point, we all need to interact with each other. Do not underestimate the need for human interaction. One of the hardest parts of working from home for me was the lack of human interaction. This is a surprising statement given the fact that I’m an introvert. After an extended period of working from home, I found that my ability to relate to people was diminishing. It was becoming harder to think of complex solutions while introducing a human variable. This is crucial because most of what we do (no matter what we do) involves some type of service for people.
However, more than just an understanding of how our products meet the needs of people, research has shown that we require a certain amount of human interaction in order to be healthy. It helps not just our minds but our physical well being as well. So be sure to incorporate some level of human interaction in your working from home routine (not during power sessions unless the power session involves the completion of a meeting). During your 15 minute breaks, consider zooming a friend or interact with some of your family members. Of course, our current COVID-19 situation makes it unadvisable to go out and interact with people outside your home. Nevertheless, use tools such as Zoom and Office Team to engage with someone else other than yourself. It’s important.
NOTE: Facebook does not count. You need real-time facial social interaction.
It’s tempting to become sedentary while working from home. Gone are the opportunities to walk down the hall to ask a question of a co-worker. Gone are the necessary visits to a project that needs your analysis. Gone are customers who demand a meeting you with in another location thus forcing you to move out of your office. Working from home can be a sedentary death trap. Research shows that one of the worst things we can do for our health is to sit down for extended amounts of time. Do not let yourself become sedentary. Use your 15-minute breaks to move and walk around. You can also incorporate things like sitting on a stability ball, or typing while standing. Anything to keep you from sitting or not moving for longer than two hours! This will help your energy levels and will help keep you healthy.
Establish Work/Home Balance
This last point is huge! However, it’s at the end of this list because it’s something that encompasses everything I have just mentioned. DO NOT (and I repeat) DO NOT blend your work and your life. When you enter into your work space…work. However, when your work day is over, and you exit your work space….do not go back in. Do not bring your laptop to the living room. If something was not completed, add it to the goals for the next day and move on. If you are tempted to check your work e-mail…don’t. It’s not healthy to integrate work with your complete day. There needs to be a distinct boundary between work time and YOU time. This will protect YOU from burnout and will allow you to rest. Consequently, this will make you more productive and will allow you to push harder towards meeting your goals effectively and to the best of your abilities.
The problem with not distinctly separating work and life is that you fail to tell your mind to “shut off”. As a result, you allow yourself to be in some level of work mode consistently, even if you don’t realize it. It’s like a battery that is slowly drained by a small electrical source that you just can’t find. Eventually, the battery is going to run out of juice. DON’T RUN OUT OF JUICE! Take care of yourself. Rest. Enjoy your family, your puppy, your hobby. Then, when it’s time to work, you’ll be ready, alert, and able.
This list is by no means exhaustive but detail some of the things that have helped me be productive while working from home.
Stay safe, and here’s to one day hugging without the fear of putting people in danger.