Have you suddenly found yourself working from home due to the coronavirus pandemic? Are you struggling to stay productive outside of your usual work environment?
I’ve been working from home for the past five years, and in that time, I’ve learned a thing or two about what helps me stay focused.
Today I would like to share with you my personal tips for newbie remote workers, no matter what field you are in, and no matter your own home environment.
1. Create a (semi) isolated work space.
The first thing you’re going to want to do is create your at-home work space. If you haven’t worked from home before, you are used to your home being a relaxing space—not the ideal conditions for getting work done.
You may need to get a little creative, but all it takes are a few simple changes. It might be tempting to just grab your laptop and settle in to your favorite spot on the couch, but you will find it so much harder to concentrate. A desk would be ideal, but a table works fine too. Place your desk or table near a window if, like me, you need natural light to boost your mood. Some people find that sitting at a desk facing a wall is less distracting than a sitting at a desk that faces the rest of the room. If you need to experiment, now is the time to do a little redecoration!
I like to keep my desk minimal, with only the essentials at arm’s reach. I have a reading lamp for working at night or in the early morning, and despite the infinite possibilities of wifi, I do have my printer on my desk so that I can immediately check the papers that come out without having to walk to the other end of my house.
If you need to be completely isolated, and you can dedicate an entire room to your work, go ahead and set up in a guest bedroom or a den. However, if you do not have a separate room you can devote to your work, or if you just prefer staying in a more communal space, try to at least carve out a corner of a room to dedicate just to working. I promise this will help nurture that headspace you need in order to be productive.
2. Sign off and tune out—but turn up the music!
This will be the hardest tip to put into practice for many people, but it’s so important! You need to limit your screen distractions.
Turn off the TV (trust me, it doesn’t help you focus, and you will feel much less stressed without the constant broadcast of tested coronavirus cases).
Ideally, you would leave your phone across the room from you, or in another room entirely. If, however, you need your phone to connect with your coworkers during working hours, I highly suggest turning off notifications for apps. It’s so easy to check your phone right before starting to work, seeing a Whatsapp from your friend, thinking, “I’ll just reply to his text, it’ll take one minute,” and then finding yourself engaged in a conversation by text fifteen minutes later.
One “distraction” I don’t turn off is music. Many of us find it easier to focus with music, but make sure it is not counter-productive. If I am writing, I usually opt for instrumental music. If I am dealing mostly with numbers, music with lyrics is usually okay. Getting to pick your own soundtrack to your work day is a great advantage to working from home!
3. Work in batches.
The most time-consuming responsibility of my job is answering emails. But once all the emails are answered, I don’t just sit at my desk idly waiting for the next one to fall into the inbox. I used to get up and do something around the house, but this left me coming back to my desk again and again during the day to check if maybe that person answered my email yet.
Now I work in batches. When the emails have all been dealt with, I have a list of other tasks to tackle. This might require a bit of planning ahead, but it won’t take too much time to prepare, and you’ll find that the same tasks make your list every day, until you won’t need to consult a list anymore.
I check off everything else I can do, then look at my inbox again. I answer all the emails that have come in during the time I was focused on other work, and then I can take a break if there truly is nothing else urgent. Working in small batches but many times per day fractured my concentration and left me feeling frazzled. The goal is to work for longer stretches of time, but fewer times per day.
4. Be clear about your boundaries.
Before the pandemic suddenly threw huge numbers of people into remote work, I think people looked at working from home as a joke. Certainly in my own conversations with people, when they learned that I work from home three to four months out of the year, they probably didn’t see my work as rigorous or as valuable as something done in an office.
When I started working from home, I would often get invited to go out to lunch with my friends—who knew I wasn’t “at work”—and I was constantly tempted to run errands during the day because I thought it would be a more convenient time to shop. Needless to say, without clear boundaries around my at-home work time, I wasn’t very productive.
Start treating your remote work for what it is—your job! Demand the same work ethic of yourself as you would in an office setting where you are visible to your boss and coworkers. If you would normally work 9 to 5, try as much as possible to keep the same schedule (unless you know you are more productive outside of those hours).
You also need to be clear about these boundaries to your friends, family, and housemates. Let them know that you will not be available to chat or get together during the at-home work hours you set for yourself. The payoff will be less distractions and less temptations calling you away from your at-home office, and you will be as productive if not more so than in an office setting.
5. Give yourself a break!
You will likely be sitting down a lot while working from home. It’s a good idea to get up and stretch about once an hour, but I suggest you stay near your desk to avoid getting distracted by the pile of dirty dishes in the sink or that wet laundry that needs to be hung out to dry. Sometimes I get so focused that hours will go by and then I’ll have to remind myself to take a ten-minute break. If I need to clear my head, a quick step outside does wonders.
But honestly, give yourself a break from time to time. We all slip up, lose our focus, get distracted. Get back on the wagon and don’t dwell on lost time. And certainly if you are new to working at home, are sheltering in place, maybe homeschooling your kids at the same time: don’t sweat the small stuff. Just keep giving it your best effort.
The reality is that remote work is still a JOB.
My hope is that one of the positive consequences of this pandemic is that people will place more value on remote work. Maybe employers will begin to offer remote options more often, as they see that their employees can be just as productive if not more so working from home as in the office. Finding the work-home balance can be challenging, but there are so many rewards to working from home, and your productivity doesn’t have to suffer.
So good luck to everyone working from home this year!