Staying Productive at Home
I’m writing to you all at the end of another day spent WFH. Needless to say, I had difficulty staying productive at home.
What a strange way of life we’re all coming to grips with. I notice every now and then — maybe while plugging away at a bit of work or pouring myself a cup of coffee — a small swell of sadness lift in my chest. A strange kind of sadness, it’s inflected with powerful stirrings of global goodwill I’ve never really felt before. It is hard, isn’t it, not to feel somehow more connected to everybody now, even as we’re kept physically further apart?
And yet, even as the world beyond our front doors bends further out of its familiar shape, we find ourselves adapting. It’s what we do. Coop Italians up in their apartments and they’ll make music from the balconies. Tell New Yorkers they can’t come into work, and they’ll end up being even more productive at home. The world is changing. And we are changing with it.
But change at any speed requires thoughtful planning. And even still, wisdom tells us that “the best-laid plans of mice and men go oft awry.” I, for one, have been working from home for just over a week now. And though it’s gotten easier, it definitely didn’t start that way.
Here’s a note I wrote to myself after day 1:
I just completed my first day working-from-home. It was a struggle. Every imaginable distraction beckoned with added force. And often, I found it nearly impossible to concentrate.
I woke up late, lingered over breakfast and the news, rocked my pajamas all day long, grazed like a llama, made messes without cleaning them up, hardly moved, and generally: GOT NOTHING DONE.
Then, I ended up working well past midnight to finish the bare minimum number of tasks I’d set out to complete that day. I went to bed a defeated soldier in the battle of productivity.
In the morning, I woke up sluggish and blue. Not because I’d failed to make the best use of my day. That happens, it’s life. It was more that I felt useless in the face of the greatest global crisis of the century. Here I was: able-bodied, reasonably bright, and yet all I could do to help was stay inside.
Then I remembered some advice. The best thing for those of us stuck at home is to keep ourselves sharp during this period of stasis. We want to find ways to stay productive at home. We want to be ready to move the world forward in new and brilliant ways when the veil lifts and the light of health and wellbeing rush through our communities again.
Step #1: Remind yourself of your purpose.
Whether you’re a student reading this, or the parent of a student, take note that the easiest path to motivation is feeling like the work you have to get done is purposive. This will mean something different to every person who reads this sentence, but purpose drives all of us.
Step #2: Get out of bed when you say you’re going to get out of bed.
When we don’t have a subway or school bus to wake up for, it’s incredibly easy to sleep until lunch. But it’s a complete disaster for how productive at home you can be. By the time you start working on something, you’ll feel the day’s already half-gone. Because it is.
Set your morning alarm on your phone. Then, slide it into your sock drawer or bookcase or some other spot far enough away from your bed that you’ll be forced to your feet. No snoozing for you. There: you’re up and at ‘em! The hardest part of your day, completed.
Step #3: Use your usual commute time for self-care.
Rather than trying to optimize your productivity by adding time usually spent commuting to your work schedule, take advantage of those precious minutes to prepare yourself for the day. Whether that means a few more minutes in the shower or a good, reading a book, make sure you do something to compose your body and prime your mind. And at the end of the day, take that commuting time to decompress: listen to a podcast with chamomile tea or meditate.
Step #4: Your bed is not a desk.
Like step three, this one has to do with establishing the sacred boundary between work and life in your home. Be disciplined with yourself in saying: a bed is for sleeping, a desk is for working, a kitchen is for eating, and so on.
One of the worst learning-from-home strategies around is to study or write in bed. Your brain has established the strong habit of putting your body to sleep while you’re in your bed. Trying to work there will get your eyelids drooping faster than listening to your great uncle explain the nuances of tax law.
Some tricks I use:
- No matter what my work plan has in store, whether I’ll be in video conferences or not, I always dress as if I’m headed to the office. It keeps me disciplined and reminds me that I’ve got a job to do. It might not quite be a uniform, but it offers a similar effect.
- I also do a mock-commute. Even if I’m just walking the eight feet from my bedroom to my kitchen, I pack my backpack, make sure I’ve got all the pens I need, fix my hair, and walk purposefully to my makeshift office. When the day’s over I pack up, clean my workspace, and head “home.”
Step #5: Limit the distractions AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE.
Look: I know this one’s hard. The world is changing every day. We’re all experiencing something unprecedented. We’re away from our friends, disconnected from usual channels of information (gossip). At all times during the day, we feel an acute itch to connect, to share anxieties, to make jokes, to cry.
But if we’re going to make it our goal to stay productive at home — for ourselves and for the world that will need us — distractions have to go. Decide on however many hours you need to get done all that needs doing. Take into account how much time you usually waste on YouTube, Instagram, News apps, etc. and subtract it. You will then have a surprisingly manageable number of hours. During this time, ditch your phone, turn off CNN, and focus on the work.
Set clear time limits for tasks: 30 minutes of work with 10 minutes of break is a good cycle for maximized concentration. Now, be rigid with these limits but make sure to reward yourself for sticking to them. Imagine how good it will feel to pick up your phone or switch on the TV after a long day’s absence from them, and with a pile of freshly completed tasks filed neatly into the cabinet of the past.
Step #6: Be good to yourself and those around you.
Co-habitating with others for long periods of time is difficult. Make sure to communicate with those you’re sharing space with what your needs are — in work and leisure. Check in with each other. And, please, give one another the benefit of the doubt. This is new for everyone. We’re all learning as we go.
We are each of us living through a turning point in human history. If you feel the pressure of this moment, that’s because it is heavy. But if we do what we can each day to be a better version of ourselves than we were the day before, we’re certain to emerge from these dim days with unconquerable stores of fortitude. And a renewed capacity for joy.
We look forward to those days with a smile.