Our household has been upended by the Coronavirus, while I am trying to stay productive working from home. Our college kids are back. We had a guest who stayed, as she had to change her travel plans because her conferences were canceled and her company did not want her to fly. How to stay focused and productive when everything is out of whack? Since I have worked from home for years, I am happy to share a few tips and tricks to stay productive. It starts by creating routines.
Working from home
Organizing4Innovation is a virtual company, with everyone working from a different location and as wide apart as the US and South Africa. So, from the start, I have been working from home and online.
The good news is, I can move mountains in a day. My commute is less than 30 seconds – from the kitchen to my study. And I can get a lot done during the day.
However, that does not happen automatically. To be productive, when working from home, I needed to create routines, as there certainly are many more distractions at home than at an office.
I also needed to develop effective communication channels, as I won’t run into a colleague nor can I easily ask for feedback. What I miss, is having a quick chat with someone for example about the weather. While this may sound silly, honestly, it is important. Without social chit chat, working from home becomes lonely.
Lastly, I need to keep moving. Even if you work in a very small office, you will take more steps between your desk, the coffee machine, the bathrooms, and the printer than at home. So if not careful, you will not be moving enough which can lead to health issues. For example, my back does not like me sitting behind my desk all day.
5 tips to stay productive
Below are 5 tips that have helped me to address the challenges I just described.
When I started working from home, I needed to create a new daily routine. My workday no longer had the natural flow of a commute, arrive at the office, lunch break, etc.
My mother in law – who also worked from home – gave me great advice. She told me, “in the morning, leave the kitchen and laundry as is. Do what you would do when you leave for the office”. She also advised me to create a formal office space.
So that is what I do, when my son leaves for school, I go to my desk in my study. I work from 7:45 am till noon and allow myself a cup of coffee as a break sometime during that period. Then during lunch, I will clean up the kitchen, read the newspaper, or go for a run, to be back at my desk from about 1 pm to 5:30 pm, when dinner needs to be made.
When the kids were younger and had a day off from school, I still kept our sitter to do all the driving in the afternoon. Now that they are older and back from college. They don’t need my help, but they love to come into my office to chat.
So, because of the Coronavirus, I had to change my daily routine too. Today, I decided to start at 6 am, so that I have a quiet period without any disruptions till about 9 am, when my college kids seem to be coming to life. From there on, I work in blocks of about 2 hours. That seems the best solution for the current situation.
Do whatever works for you, but make sure you have a set place and set times to work. These are blocks of time that everyone in your household knows that your focus is at work and not at home.
I also know that it is impossible to always be that disciplined, at least it is for me. I love jogging. It clears my head, gives me new inspiration, and lots of energy. So when I have been really productive, or when I am totally stuck, or when it is a gorgeous day like last Monday, I will go out for a run in the middle of the day. And enjoy the fact that I can.
Instead of meeting in person, you can easily meet online. I strongly suggest using a video option when possible. Yes, that means that you need to get dressed, but you want to do so anyway. Working in your pajamas makes you lazy – at least in my experience. Being dressed up makes me feel and act more professionally.
For video conferencing, there are paid solutions like Webex and Zoom. There are also many free alternatives available. For a few options see below:
Zoom has a free version, that allows you to set up 30-minute meetings.
Skype allows you to call in with multiple people.
Google hangouts is also very easy to use, but it requires the attendees to have a Google account.
You can use your phone too. Whatsapp has video conferencing opportunities, but in my experience, it has been difficult to get multiple people on a call. The same holds for Facetime, which seems to be limited to three people, but that could be my phone.
In general, I prefer to use my computer over the phone, as it keeps my hands free and allows for screen sharing.
And as an etiquette, if you start typing or put your microphone on mute, inform the meeting participants of why and what you are doing. Just as in a normal meeting, you want people to be present and not distracted.
Online meetings don’t allow for much chitchat. At the same time, I have found that casual conversations are important. To work effectively together, you need to know what is going on in each other’s lives.
So, I make sure to call my colleagues more often than I ever did when I worked in an office. Because such calls can be utterly distracting, I send a text first, to ask if this is a good time to call.
What has also worked, when Agustin and I were working closely together on the same project, was opening up a Google Hangouts and leaving it open. We would share our screens and mute ourselves. When needing help, having a question or needing input, we could just unmute and blur it out, as if we were sitting next to each other.
I have found myself sharing more personal information with my colleagues through email or texts than I usually would. Just because that is the only way we know what is going on when you don’t have the opportunity to run into each other.
Now with all the kids at home, loneliness is not a problem at the moment. However, I am aware of other colleagues who are basically stuck at home with very little social contact. So I try to be more responsive and inclusive to them.
With no boss hovering over you, you will have to work more independently and prioritize your own work.
I am a person of to-do lists, but I know that does not work for everyone. In addition, I have found that I need to be careful not to put a workload for a week on my daily list. So what do I do to prioritize my work?
I basically have 4 different lists that I draw my daily tasks from:
- I have a list of important things. Long term tasks that will help me to accomplish the next milestone in our business.
- I have a list of routine things – like these blog posts that need to go out each Thursday. This list is basically a set of actions in my calendar.
- Then there are the urgent tasks, things I know require immediate action.
- And then there are things I need to do to keep our household running or that our kids need from me.
And each morning, while sipping my tea and having breakfast, I create a short-list from all these tasks. A list of things that I want to accomplish that day.
It is easy to keep my day filled with activities. However, I want to make sure that I get to the important stuff too. That is why I start with what is important first.
These important but not that urgent tasks, typically require my undivided attention. These are often complex tasks, tasks where I need to create new content, test new functionality of our T4 platform, or come up with new strategies to reach our clients. To stay focused and get it done quickly, I often close all email and other communication apps, so I don’t get distracted by any instant messages.
The rest of the day fills itself with all the urgent things and the handling of emails that come in. However, if I start with my emails, I know that I won’t get to the long term stuff.
I mean this literally. I have a fitness tracker that tells me every hour to “Move”. That is a clear indication that I have been sitting for a while. I also created a standing desk. Nothing fancy. It is an old Ikea desk, with the extendable legs in the highest position. I switch between these desks so I have to change my body posture.
I also mean it figuratively. Keep moving! Use the additional time you have to explore new things. Especially in a stressful time like this, stay open to new opportunities! Explore new things!
My last word of advice, try to make the best of these challenging times and while working from home. When you are healthy, enjoy the extra time you have and do something fun with it, either for personal or professional gain.
Success, and stay safe, healthy and productive!