The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has necessitated work-from-home for many, but the use of remote work had already been increasing for years. Working from home seems like a dream, right? No commute, no distracting office happenings, and you can spend all day in your PJs. But the advantages of remote work can quickly be overshadowed by unforeseen drawbacks.
Those of us who have worked remotely before know that it can be a minefield of distractions and isolation. Work can get procrastinated as kids demand attention (or, let’s be honest, laundry needs to be done and Netflix is crying out to be watched).
Below, we’ll review some best practices for staying productive when you don’t have the structure of an office.
Without normal work hours, your personal routine might suffer, too. Why bother waking up early and showering if no one is going to see you? Why take a lunch break at your normal time when you can eat whenever you want? But these changes can snowball. If you don’t stick to a routine, you may find yourself staying up late to finish work you’ve procrastinated and then sleeping late the next day, continuing the cycle. Try to go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day. Put on work clothes (casual is fine—anything but what you slept in) to help mentally transition into the workday.
The bed calls to you, promising you’ll be just as productive wrapped in your comforter. Don’t believe it! Get up and work somewhere with proper lighting, a supportive chair, and easy access to any needed supplies. If you can create a home office space with a door you can shut to keep out distractions, even better. Try to keep work and personal spaces separate as much as possible. Your body and mind will thank you with both increased productivity and more effective relaxation when you transition from one space to the other.
When your office is your home, you can’t signal to your coworkers that you are done for the day by packing up and leaving. You also might tell yourself that you will enjoy the flexibility of working irregular hours. But when any time can be work time, every time becomes work time. And working around the clock leads to burnout. As with your personal routine, try to recreate your work routine as much as possible. Log off for the day at your usual time, and let your coworkers know that you are observing normal work hours. Set away messages and turn off notifications on your devices.
“But it’s just background noise!” A little music might help you focus, but it’s unlikely that a TV binge or podcast is really just breaking up the silence. Research shows that multitasking doesn’t exist—what happens instead is focus bounces back and forth between multiple tasks rapidly, hurting the outcomes for each task. So turn off the TV and focus on your work. You’ll finish faster and with fewer errors and have more time to binge!
Social media, checking the news, and online shopping can be thieves of time, especially when you’re trying to get things done. Use a website blocker to stop your worst impulses. You’d be amazed how often you open a new tab or click a search link without thinking, and a slight nudge can help keep you on track. There are plenty of website blocker apps that let you set specific times, so you can still get back to the ‘gram after work.
Even if you are usually the office loner, you might find yourself missing the company of your coworkers—or simply the convenience of turning to someone to ask a question rather than waiting an hour for a response to an email. Use chat apps like Slack to recreate quick, casual conversations, and video conferencing apps like Zoom to facilitate face-to-face meetings. These apps will help preserve team cohesion and streamline communications.
Congratulations, you’ve maintained your routine and kept focus during work hours. You’ve earned a break! Regular breaks on a set schedule will keep you from getting burned out or losing focus before it happens. Some people prefer a longer break every 90 minutes, while others suggest a 10-minute break every hour. The “Pomodoro method” calls for a 5-minute break every 25 minutes, with a 15- to 30-minute break every 2 hours.
Whatever break schedule you use, make sure your breaks are actually restful. Ideally, that means no screens. While a break can seem like a good time to catch up on social media, uninterrupted screen time increases eyestrain. Get up, stretch, and get some fresh air instead.
Humans are social creatures. If you don’t get a regular dose of interaction, many parts of your life will suffer. Since we can no longer chat around the coffee machine or go out with friends after work, socializing should be a priority. Be sure to check in with friends and family using Zoom, Facetime, or even a simple phone call. If you’re feeling ambitious, organize a virtual happy hour or game night. There are plenty of social activities adapting to online life.
You might think that work-from-home productivity tips look suspiciously like office productivity tips—and you’d be right. The challenge becomes initiating them and sticking to them under these very challenging circumstances. With a little adaptation and persistence, you’ll be on your way to a productive and sustainable home office.