New to working from home? This is how you can stay productive

As the reported cases of COVID-19 are growing exponentially, more and more people are working from their homes.

Home office sounds great, but it can be difficult to focus if you’re not used to it. You are in a space where you are used to relaxing, there are other family members, and it doesn’t help that there is a health and economy crisis going on.
But the reality is that many of us will be working from home for at least a few weeks, maybe longer. So we better learn how to do it effectively.

I’d like to offer a few practical tips that worked well for me when I worked from home full-time for the last 8 months, and even before that worked in a small team spread across the globe. I encourage you to try those of them that seem relevant for you, and share with your colleagues and friends what works and what doesn’t.

  1. Organize/plan your time
    1. Fixed time slots for work
      Decide what will be your working hours. Agree on these slots with both your colleagues and family members, and don’t forget to plan breaks.
      You can just plan hours of work in general. Or you can plan specific hours for specific tasks. For example for me mornings are better for tasks that require focus (strategy, writing, etc), afternoons are better for less demanding things like team calls and testing.
    2. Plan your tasks on regular basis
      Have a very clear idea what you need to accomplish today. Do you need to finish a presentation and send it out to the team? Or do preliminary analysis? Or process orders? Don’t just do the busy-work, but know what your goal is.
      For me, planning happens in monthly, weekly and daily cycles. For each period I try to limit to 5-6 most important goals/tasks. When I plan my day, I look at goals for this week to make sure I don’t miss anything important.
      Do I hit all the goals all the time? Of course not. But I definitely accomplish more when I write my goals. It makes me think and decide what is really important, and not forget about it. 
    3. Motivation
      It may not be obvious, but being in the office in the presence of our colleagues is a strong source of motivation (and reminders). When you work from home, you need to substitute it for something else. Set some rewards for yourself. For me, even ticking off the item in the checklist (see above) is a great motivation, but it may be something else for you.
    4. Communication with the team
      1. Regular contact
        Think about how much communication happens spontaneously in the office, without anyone calling for a meeting. Sometimes it’s just a chit-chat about personal stuff, but often it’s work related and a lot of valuable info is exchanged.In home office setting this is lost. So it’s good to schedule regular calls with your team even if there’s no specific agenda. You can always cancel if there’s really nothing to discuss.
      2. Established focus hygiene 
        If your work requires strong uninterrupted focus, it’s best to agree with your team on way how to signal to them this is your focus-time. It could be a specific time of the day, or “meeting” in your calendar, or specific status on Slack. 
      3. Agree on one channel for urgent cases, turn off notifications for other channels (if you can)
        Turning off notifications is a cornerstone of focus and productivity. But when working from home we may feel isolated, so the need to check not-so-important emails and notifications could be stronger. It’s better to agree with team and customers on a primary channel for urgent communication. You can chunk the rest of the channels to a few checks every day at specific times (see point 1. of Preparation). Frequency depends on your type of work.
      4. Keep social contacts
        Our colleagues are often people we spend the most time with, many become our friends. You will probably miss the social aspect of your job. Keep in touch. For example my husband’s boss had a great idea – his team is saving some time on the daily commute, so he encouraged them to use the time to learn something new (it does not have to be work related), and share it in a short video with the rest. They also have “virtual happy hour” – each from their homes. I love these ideas, but you can come up with your own.
    5. Open and close your workday
      Working and living in one space can be confusing for our brains. But there is a way to let our brain know that it should switch from work mode to relax mode – a ritual.
      It could be as easy as wearing your work clothes when you work and change after work is over. Or assigning a specific space for work and not use it for anything else. Or a daily routine that will “surround” your working time – for example planning the tasks in the morning and reviewing the list in the evening.
      What ritual would you enjoy? 
  2. How to keep your focus
    1. Dedicated space for work
      Our brain associates space with the type of activity. If you have the possibility, try work from place in your home that is different from the places where you relax. (If you are planning to work from home long term, it is worth changing working place from time to time – you may even get short boost of productivity).
    2. Remove distractions
      Our homes are full of things that can distract us. Books, magazines, unread mail, cups, etc. Remove them from the place where you intend to work and try to keep your view clean.
    3. Phone 
      There’s nothing more distracting than your phone. Of course we usually need it for work as well, so we can’t just turn it off. You can try these (ordered according to level of distraction removal)
      • Airplane mode (at specific times)
      • Turn off notifications
      • Leave it away from your reach
      • Leave it within reach but out of direct sight
      • Put it screen down
      • Change the color scheme to monochrome (it makes notifications less exciting)At the end of the day look at stats – how many times have you unlocked your phone? How much time did you spend in work-related apps, and how much for fun? Are you satisfied with that or need to do something differently?
    4. Pomodoro technique
      This method works great for many people. It is about chunking work into focused 25-minute bursts with short 5 minute breaks. There are many apps that will help you to keep the pace. More info here 
    5. or music
      Probably everyone has their music that gets them into flow. I often use* – the science-based music specifically designed for focus (they have music for relax and sleep as well). On most days this works like a charm for me and I can focus deeply. On other days I listen to just normal music. For difficult days I have my own Spotify playlist called “High energy“, which I use to kick me into flow.
      *use code “hecatee” for 20% discount after free trial
    6. Beware of snacking
      This is a distraction that I struggled with. Mornings are good (having bulletproof tea for breakfast helps), but in the afternoons I still struggle on some days :).
      The usual tips work – drink tea instead, etc. And if the urge is strong, it’s good to only have healthy snacks in the house, use them as rewards for finishing tasks, and only bring small portions. 
  3. Well functioning brain
    Here I could rant about 3 of my favorite topics – good sleep, proper nutrition and hydration, and stress management. But this article is already long enough as is. Keep them in mind – it’s so much easier to focus when you are well rested and nourished. But I’ll add a few things that may not be obvious:
    1. Bright light in the morning and afternoon.
      Can you have your breakfast or coffee out on the sun? Or have a short walk?
    2. Move
      Can you go outside? Or at least have a good stretch in the morning, and possibly a few times every day?
    3. Learn new things
      It’s a good time to pick up cooking, right? How about that online course you considered joining? New language? Sowing?
    4. Social life during social distancing
      Yes it’s responsible to avoid physical contact in the midst of coronavirus pandemic, but make sure you stay in touch with your family and friends. Virtual lunches and dinners can be fun. Or you can reach out to interesting people you haven’t talked to in a while.
    5. Meditate, do some breathwork, relax
      Even a few minutes a day can make a difference. Or in case of 4-7-8 breath, even a few seconds.

Do you like any of these tips? Don’t just close this article and go about your day the usual way, pick at least 3 and try them today. Come back in a few days and try some more. Come up with your own ideas and talk to your team – it’s a good topic for you next virtual hangout 🙂

I wish you a productive day.


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