Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us have experienced profound changes to our daily routines. We find ourselves unable to engage in activities we enjoyed and, in many cases, unable to be with our family and friends. Perhaps one of the most drastic changes has been the transition to working from home.
The shift to working from a home office has forced many of us to find new and adaptive ways to meet the demands of our professional lives. Our meetings have moved from structured conference room setups to video calls, where everything from technology to pets can be distracting.
Before COVID-19, we would worry about meetings with thoughts like: “I hope my presentation goes well!” or “I want to make sure my ideas are heard this time!”. During the pandemic, new worries have been added to the list, including finding a room in the house that is quiet enough or praying that the WiFi is cooperative. Work can be stressful enough without the constant interruption of pets, children, and nagging dishes in the sink.
Many believe that working from home is something we should prepare for as the new normal. One survey found that 82% of industry leaders are planning on continuing to have at least some employees work remotely after the pandemic. Businesses are discovering how remote work can mean lower overhead and greater flexibility and are coming to the conclusion that the traditional brick and mortar office is not as important as we originally thought. Employees are liking the change as well, according to findings by Gallup; more than half of them want to continue remote work even after the “all clear.”
In light of the expanded set of challenges many of us are facing and the uncertainty of how long this “new normal” will last, I’m sharing a few tips from the perspective of a mental health professional on how to stay productive while working from home.
Treat work like work
Working from home has its perks, like watching TV on your lunch break or getting a few house chores done between meetings. While this may seem like a positive thing, it may be hindering your ability to stay in “work mode.”
For example, let the laundry wait until you’ve finished your workday. Taking a break to sort your whites or fold a stack of towels not only distracts you from your work, but it also changes your state of mind. It takes time for the brain to disengage from one set of tasks and engage with another, so switching frequently between different tasks significantly reduces overall productivity. According to behavioral psychologists, switching back and forth between tasks can take away up to 40% of a person’s productive time. If you mentally separate work and home-focused tasks, you will be more productive in both your professional endeavors and in your home life.
Designate an “office” space
Create a designated space for work, and try to treat that space as you would an office. Your brain creates associations between activities and places, so working from your bed will not only cause you to be less productive at work, but it will also make it more difficult for you to fall asleep at night. Get to your “office” in the morning, after your normal morning routine of getting dressed and ready for the day. Take breaks at planned times, and when the workday is over, put your laptop away, and turn your mind to other things.
If you’re not lucky enough to have a home office, try to create a space in your home that you will use exclusively for work. Invest in a small desk, an ergonomic chair, and possibly noise-canceling headphones. Make your space comfortable so that you won’t be tempted by the TV remote on your coffee table, or the cookie jar on the kitchen counter. Factors such as space, money, and the number of people in your home may hinder you. Still, creating a space exclusively for work is doable with some ingenuity. Somehow my husband and I found a way for us each to have our own “home office” in our small one-bedroom apartment.
To reiterate, it’s absolutely essential to establish a routine that involves getting to your workspace and leaving it at the same time each day. Structuring the rest of your workday is just as important. A routine will be helpful not only for you but also for your family members or housemates; this routine sets expectations about when you will be available. Find regular times for breaks and lunch, and make sure that you have a flow to your workday that makes sense for you.
Get SMART about your goals
We use goal-setting as an intervention in many psychological modalities. In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), weekly goal planners or charts help clients keep track of their progress. Psychological studies have found that keeping a detailed record of daily goals, and planning tasks accordingly help people to be more productive, less bored, and more self-content.
One popular psychological tool to help do this is SMART goals.
S-M-A-R-T goals stand for:
● S (Specific) — Be very clear about precisely what you want to achieve, and consider breaking your goal down into smaller steps.
● M (Measurable) –You should be able to understand whether or not you have reached your goal by using clear metrics.
● A (Attainable/Achievable) — Don’t set your goal too high. That’s not setting yourself up for success.
● R (Realistic) — Know that you have the tools you need to achieve this goal. Goals should be practical and easy to implement in real life.
● T (Time-bound) — Set a reasonable time limit to achieve this goal. Consider breaking down the timeline into smaller steps along the way.
After you have achieved a goal, make sure to celebrate your success! Behavioral psychology teaches us that by rewarding ourselves, we will stay more intrinsically motivated. After you check off an item from your task list, reward yourself with a special snack or a brief walk outside. You have to do this immediately after completing the task. Your brain can use these experiences to create associations between completing tasks and the rewards that follow. Forming these associations helps us to be more motivated, positive, and productive at work. Plus, who doesn’t like a special treat now and then!
Once you have normalized working from home through work-play separation, a dynamic routine, and SMART goal setting, there is only one thing left to do — be kind to yourself! This is a challenging time, and you are strong for working through it. Give yourself breaks, and remember to stay in touch with family and friends when you aren’t working. You’ve got this!