Working from home used to be glorified as the ultimate way to achieve work-life balance. Barely four months into 2020, most of us now realize it’s not that glamorous. Under normal circumstances, working from home is a challenge. But trying to carry on with “business as usual” in the midst of collective trauma and uncertainty can feel damn near impossible.
Let me just start off by saying that if you’re struggling to be productive right now there is NOTHING wrong with you. In fact, this is 100 percent normal given the circumstances we all are in. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t strategies that may help you better adjust.
My WFH story
I have to admit that my day-to-day routine has barely changed. When I’m not traveling, I am a complete home body working fully remote from my home office. I run my travel blog, manage a Croatia travel business with my partner, and do SEO and online marketing consulting in the travel industry. (While I am mainly based out of Croatia, my work is out of the U.S.)
I always knew I wanted to work for myself so I could have my own independence, but I did have to trade some other perks. For awhile I’ve struggled with not having a co-working space in Dubrovnik, where I am mostly based. It’s only after 2 and a half years that people seem to somewhat understand what I do for a living. It can definitely get lonely at times.
In a sense I’ve been practicing “self-quarantine” by working from home and literally leaving our small seaside village a handful of times a week.
What keeps me from going insane is serious sticking to a schedule and maximizing my productivity to work more efficiently. At the end of the day, I’ve learned that you have to give yourself breaks and know when to call it a day. It’s hard to get anything done if you’re too hard on yourself!
I’ve outlined these lessons of mine in detail, hopefully saving you some stress of navigating working from home.
- My WFH story
- Establish a “going to work” routine
- Set-up a distraction-free environment
- Get comfortable, but not too comfortable
- Maximizing productivity with a work from home schedule
- Learn to unplug
Establish a “going to work” routine
The productivity of your day will be determined by what you do before you start working. You don’t want to get into a habit of stumbling out of bed and sitting down in front of your laptop every morning. Instead, you should make a point to set an alarm and establish a “getting ready for work” routine, even if it means staying within your own house.
Make the bed in the morning
There are two types of people in this world: those that whip the covers back and move on with their day, and those that take one extra minute to make the bed. I suggest you become the latter while working from home.
For one, it’s easier to creep back under the covers in an unmade bed. I’m also a firm believer that a cluttered place is a cluttered mind, especially when working within your living space. Making the bed each morning is a good reminder of this.
Make a morning routine
It’s really tempting to work in your pajamas and go three days without showering when working from home. However, make a point to shower and change your clothes in the morning. Even if you don’t put on makeup (or a bra), you’ll feel better for the day in you’re clean!
Also, this would be a good time to make a habit of making breakfast and coffee at home. This could also be good quality time with your partner, roommates, or kids to start the day while everyone is at home!
Get some exercise
Most of us are used to having a morning commute before we clock in the work day. Even if it’s just for 15 minutes, I suggest you get a little exercise. I personally start each day with walking for at least 25 minutes.
Studies show that going for walks in the morning boost your metabolism and improve mental clarity. If you can’t go for a walk right now, try doing some yoga or pilates to get your morning going before work.
Set-up a distraction-free environment
Arguably the biggest challenge when working from home is avoiding distractions. This is still something I struggle with and try to remain very diligent about. Add kids, roommates, or partners to the equation and it becomes even more of a challenge.
Opt for a quiet space facing the window
I always gravitate towards working where I have the most natural light. It helps my mental clarity and concentration, but it also keeps me from getting distracted by my home environment. If you sit at the kitchen counter, you’re likely to get distracted by food (guilty) and people coming in and out of the room.
See if you can turn the guest bedroom into an office for the time being. Otherwise you can turn a corner of your bedroom into a small office space, preferably that’s away from the bed.
Use earplugs or noise canceling headphones
If you’re distracted by noise, you’ll definitely want to invest in some ear plugs. I have been using these silicon earplugs since my test-taking days in college. I still bring them with me when I travel, work, and often sleep.
A more high-end option would be investing in noise-canceling headphones. This may be a good choice if you have kids or multiple people working in a smaller space.
Leave your phone in the other room
If you find yourself taking too many phone breaks, you need to take away the culprit. I usually leave my phone in the living room or on the bed while I’m working, unless I’m expecting a call from someone. If I have to keep my phone next to me then, I usually keep it on silent and vibrate on ring when a client happens to call.
Disable e-mail and texts notifications on your computer
You may be surprised the amount of work you can get done without the constant pings distrupting your concentration. I definitely recommend taking the text notifications off your computer, and if you can, also e-mail notifications. Try to make a point to only check e-mails at specific times throughout the day (more on this later).
This also includes logging out of Facebook messenger or slack unless you need to be on at a certain time. Your to-do list will definitely thank you later!
Try the “self-control” application
If you have a designated work computer, you may already have limits on what you can search on the web. Otherwise, definitely consider downloading the self-control application. Essentially what this does is blacklist a series of URLs for a designated period of time.
For example, I input all my online shopping and social media websites into here once. Then, say I want to work without getting distracted for three hours, I set the timer and the app will block all of these sites during this time. You can also whitelist URLs, meaning highlight the only addresses you’re allowed to use during this time.
Get comfortable, but not too comfortable
Wear what is comfortable
Even though I don’t recommend wearing your pajamas to work, I do recommend you get comfortable. Some may be comfortable something more “smart casual” like a blouse and jeans. Others may feel more comfortable in leggings and a sweatshirt. Honestly, just live your damn life and do what works for you!
Without a spacious work desk and chair, it’s tempting to want to sit on the couch or on the bed with your laptop. Take if from my experience: you definitely need to make sure you maintain proper posture while working from home. I’ve strained nerves in my neck and back just from being able to move my laptop around wherever I want.
Ideally you want your screen to be at eye level. That’s why I use this adjustable laptop so my screen sits higher. I also often use this Bluetooth keyboard so that I can type from my lap while moving the computer further away.
If you want to invest in a new office chair, Target actually has a wide selection. Otherwise I would recommend a lumbar-support pillow. It really helps with my sciatica, and is much cheaper than buying a specific chair!
Change up your position
You definitely will want to avoid sitting all day, if you can. I usually sit for 4-5 hours while working on tasks that require the most concentration. I try to do this at the start of the day (with breaks of course). Then when I get to more mindless tasks, I move to laying on the couch or my bed. This works for me a reward for getting more complex work done first.
Now would also be an ideal time to invest in a standing desk. People love them since you can adjust the height, taking it from a sitting to a standing desk in seconds. I would love to find a way to see how I can get one back to Croatia!
Maximizing productivity with a work from home schedule
Hold yourself accountable using a master planner
It’s easy for the lines to get blurred between personal and professional life when working from home. I’m still trying to break the habit of cleaning the house every morning before getting to work!
Especially right now since our normal routine is distrupted, it’s more important than ever to get organized with your to-do lists. Your team at work may already use online task management systems like Asana, Monday, or Slack.
I like to use Trello for my master list of tasks. It’s great for personal use or for small teams. You can create visual boards separated by project type. Then each board you can create several custom lists. For example, under my blogging board I have a vertical tab for “upcoming posts”, one for marketing tasks, another for backend web work, and so on. You can add other team members, organize posts by date, add attachments, and set reminders.
When working day to day, I always keep my Trello tab open on my computer to remind myself what I should be working on. It’s kind of like having an accountability buddy or boss that’s always checking in on you, if you don’t already have this.
Focus more on weekly goals instead of daily
Right now, it’s important to take it a day at a time. But when it comes to goal-setting , try to focus more on what you want to accomplish in a week instead of a day. The reality of working from home is that you do have to be more flexible with your time.
You have to accept that some days will not be productive at all. Other than writing this blog post this week? Well, I got completely sidetracked from some projects after making a TikTok account. Sometimes working from home means taking non-essential Zoom meetings and tasks off your plate to prioritize your own sanity.
If you don’t finish what you wanted in a day, try not to sweat it. Instead, try to carve out time at another point in the week to catch up.
Maximize efficiency using block scheduling
If you find that you aren’t working very efficiently, you may be stretching yourself too thin. Do you have 100 tabs open right now? How many different tasks are you working on at once? You may have been able to function this way in an office, but at home you’ll likely have to be narrow your focus.
This is why I love block scheduling, essentially working on one single task without interruption for a designated period of time. Some suggest the rule of working straight for 45 minutes and then take a 15 minute break to do something else like check e-mails. I personally need at least 30 minutes to get into a work flow, so usually go 1.5-2 hours, and then get up and stretch.
It really depends on your line of work, but I personally find blocking my days for different types of projects really effective. For example, I may work on blogging, Mondays and Tuesday, Wednesday for planning Croatia tours, and Thursday/Friday for other freelancing work.
Sometimes I shift tasks around so that I can finish the most important projects at the beginning of the week. Usually on Wednesdays I need to give my brain a bit of a break in order to finish out the rest of the week. I try to treat myself to saving easy tasks for Fridays.
Plan your work around your peak productivity hours
The sooner you realize your peak productivity hours, the better. Some of us are morning people, and therefore should plan to work on the most complex tasks during this time, instead of wasting precious energy responding to non-essential e-mails. Others may not wake up until later in the afternoon, and prefer to start the day with less intensive work. You can take this quiz to figure out what is your peak productivity time of the day.
It may hard to completely change your schedule depending on your line of work and your child-care schedule in the house. You may want to consider getting up earlier, or talking to your employer about changing your hours.
Learn to unplug
Put your work away when you’re done.
The biggest challenge when working from home is the feeling of always working. I used to struggle with feeling like I was always and yet, never working, because I wasn’t working efficiently.
I started to make a point of making one main area of the house my home office (for now could just be temporary work station). Then, when I left this area or put everything away, it helped me feel like I left work.
If it is possible, consider deleting your work e-mail from your phone as well. Getting a work e-mail at home while you have your equipment with you makes it easy to hop back on and keep working for the night.
Get into a “after work” routine
I love to start my day with walking the dogs. I usually end the day with answering some quick e-mails. Lola likes to help!
Just as it’s important to get into a going to work routine, you should also make sure you come up with a way to un-wind after working. Usually I like to get out of the house and stretch my legs by going for another walk. This may be a good time for yoga, a home workout, or get right into cooking dinner and listening to your favorite music.
It sounds silly but find something to turn on that will make your brain associate it’s “relaxing” time now. I like to turn on music and turn on my fairy décor lights after I finish working for the day. Or it could even just be turning on Netflix. Find small habits that you can do every day after work that make you feel relaxed, so eventually your brain will associate that it’s time to turn off work.
Communicate boundaries with your family or roommates
It can be challenging, but we should all be having open conversations with the people we live with. This includes our kids, roommates, and partners. Talk openly about your needs and listen to others as well. See if you can come up with a compromise in sharing the home office, or try to see how you may be able to work around each other’s schedules.
When working from home it’s also really important to make sure household labor are divided equally between partners. Women tend to take on more than men in this area, even while working full time, various studies show. That’s why you should have conversations with your partner or spouse about dividing labor equally. Some days, it may mean that I have more time and end up cooking and cleaning afterwards.
But then my partner does the laundry and cooking the next day. It can’t be 100% equal all the time, but overall it should feel that way.
Communicate boundaries with your team and employer
Tension is high and everyone is doing their best to adjust to the current times. You may be getting extra pressure from work to meet deadlines, do extra work, or work overtime. If you’re starting to feel run down because of this, make sure you communicate this with your team, clients, or boss.
This is especially hard for women to do, as we all want to be people pleasers. Now is a good time to practice how to firmly, yet diplomatically communicate your boundaries. Right now is not the time to be stretching yourself too thin.
You need to conserve extra energy to keep yourself mentally and physically healthy right now. Make sure you are protecting your well-being above all. Sometimes the western work culture makes this extremely difficult, but hopefully this will be a major takeaway from the situation.
Practice daily mindfulness
Don’t let your mind spin out of control about all the work that needs to be finished and all the things in the world you can’t control. Instead try focusing on the present as much as possible. Practice daily gratitude in the morning and evening before bed. Try mindful breathing, meditation, or yoga.
Not only will this help keep you calm and centered, it will improve your productivity and mental clarity during these trying times.
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