Now that most of the world is going to be switching to remote work for a time, there is going to be an adjustment period for many.
Though it has ended up being one of the best changes for my personal work productivity and work/life balance, it wasn’t (and still isn’t!) always easy.
I spent months being way too hard on myself for what I perceived as lower levels of productivity versus an office. One of the hardest parts of making this switch for me, therefore, was realizing and coming to terms with the differences between working from an office and working from home.
So you don’t have to go through the same things I did, here is what worked for me and what didn’t, with a few things to keep in mind for your own mental health.
Good luck, everyone, and stay safe!
Prefer a video?
As promised, I am now going to be making video versions of most of my blog posts. If you prefer to watch the video, you can find it here:
Tips for being productive when working from home.
Find your time.
When I started working from home, I tried to follow suggestions to keep the same schedule as when I went into lab.
As a postdoc, I normally worked 9:30-7 PM, and initially tried to keep this schedule when I started working from home.
However, this didn’t work for me AT ALL. My morning were insanely unproductive times, and I beat myself up for not being able to wake up in the morning and get to work.
Turns out, though, I am just not a morning person, and without the pressure of an office and lab full of others who were also working in the morning, it was very difficult for me to start.
In the end, I had to make peace with the fact that my brain is not often “on” at 9:30 AM, and getting started at that time is an uphill battle.
Now, if I need to work at this time, I know I will not be nearly as productive as I work during “My Time”, which is definitely afternoon and into the evening.
I am much better working on a project at 9:30 PM than 9:30 AM. In the evenings, my brain really works well, and I am able to get into a flow that allows me to accomplish my best work.
How do you find your time?
For the first week you are working from home, make note of every time you realize you are working in a good flow state, where everything is clicking for you and you are seemingly effortlessly able to concentrate and keep your focus.
It should quickly be obvious what times of the day are best for you.
What do you do with this time?
My best advice here is, whenever possible based on the confines of your job, put your most challenging work in these time slots.
What I do now? Mornings are reserved for my tasks that require the least brain space. For work, this is email, invoicing, planning, etc. I also now schedule my tasks like grocery shopping, laundry, cleaning, etc. for mornings. It is better for me to get these tasks completed when I know my brain isn’t fully “on”. Also, when evening comes and I am ready to work, these tasks have already been completed, so my brain is clear and ready to focus.
My “challenging work” is always reserved for evenings when I know I am at my best!
Gigantic side benefit – my sleep has improved dramatically. I spent my entire life thinking I was just a bad sleeper and had insomnia, and I took medications to help me sleep. Turns out, though, just sleeping and waking up on a schedule that is more in tune with my body’s needs has completely eliminated this problem!
Make a space.
When I started working from home, I thought “this will be amazing – I can work from BED if I want!”
Well, it is technically true that I CAN work from bed, and I do accomplish things while working in bed, this quickly began affecting my work/life balance. It was no longer possible to “turn off” my brain when I went to bed, and my sleep was again affected.
This also applies to the couch, or really anywhere where I usually relax. When I start working on the couch, I am not able to “sink into a book” in the evenings from that same spot.
How do I fix this?
Make a space.
Find a place in your house that is available for you to set up your home office, and make that your dedicated work space.
When you are there, you are working.
If you are at home with others, try to find a space with a defining barrier, preferably a locking door, so your time there can be sacred.
Even if you have a small space, this still works – my work desk is in my living room, only feet from my couch, but since desk = work and couch = relaxing, it still works for preserving my work/life brain balance.
Isolate your space
Much more at home than at work, getting up from your desk to “grab something really quick” can be dangerous for your productivity because of the number of distractions.
Therefore, keep everything you might need right on your desk so there is no “oh, I need to get this quickly from the kitchen/bedroom/etc.”
At the same time, keep only what you need on your desk, as too much here is also a distraction.
When I worked part time at my desk, ergonomics didn’t really matter – I wasn’t there enough for repetitive injuries and pains to occur.
Cue a few months into going full time, and I was having constant headaches due to looking down at my laptop. I got a stand that elevated it to eye level.
Then with a laptop at eye level, I developed crippling wrist pain in both wrists – carpal tunnel syndrome. A wrist rest fixed that problem for me rather quickly.
Coupled with taking stretching and moving breaks throughout the day, these two simple fixes seemed to have eliminated my aches and pains, though yours may be different.
Pay attention to even small nagging pains, as they will grow over the weeks of home work, and look to remedy these as quickly as possible.
What are common issues?
-Chair: Find one that you can sit up straight in with your feet on the floor. It doesn’t have to be fancy – I have an Ikea dining chair that works great for me.
-Feet on floor: If your chairs are too tall for you to have your feet on the floor, consider using a textbook under your feet to raise the floor up a bit.
-Monitor height: It is easier to adjust the monitor height for a detached monitor, but I know many will have only access to a laptop (I still use only a laptop! I get distracted with multiple monitors). You can find laptop stands pretty easily and cheap – I use an Ikea plastic stand coupled with a Moft travel stand that is always attached to my laptop to get it to the perfect height for me.
-Wrist rest: The carpal tunnel syndrome I developed after only a few weeks working full time from home was horrible.I recommend using a wrist rest whenever possible, and this can be as simple as a rolled up towel under your wrists.
Set reasonable expectations.
It was only after I tried and failed to work for 8+ hours per day that I realized I never actually worked 8+ hours per day in an office on the tasks I wanted to – there were always distractions, from talking to colleagues to checking equipment, that took time and halted my deep thinking processes.
When at home, though, without those same distractions, I quickly realized that my absolute maximum for daily concentrated computer work is 5 hours/day.
Going over my maximum working time leads to not being able to concentrate or be productive at all for the next day or two, which is counterproductive at best.
How can you cope with this?
Set reasonable expectations for how much you will accomplish at home, especially at first when you are adjusting. Do not expect that you will be able to sit down and work for as many hours as you think or as you do in your office.
Start with what should seem like VERY low expectations and build as you get used to working at home. Meeting your daily goals will increase your motivation, while continuously missing the mark will lower it.
Because of this, I recommend setting only one major task for each day, and setting your goal time to work towards that task (or amount you will accomplish at that task) at least 25% lower than you expect you can do in the first week to make sure you can get it done.
If you find this is too easy, you can always build, but don’t start from too high and lose your motivation.
Quit when you are “done”
In line with setting reasonable expectations, make yourself quit when you are done.
Now that I work full-time on my computer and at home, I see that I genuinely cannot regularly work on more than ~5 hours of concentrated work in a day. Any more than that, and my brain does not function properly the entire next day, rendering me nearly useless and doing way more to harm than good to my productivity.
I know that after these 5 hours of concentrated work, I can still do things like email or invoicing, but I absolutely need to stop with the “brain work”, and I impose a strict cutoff on myself.
Getting in an extra hour of work on one day is not worth only being able to do one hour of good work the next.
How can you figure out your stopping time?
Depending on your personality and the projects you are working on, your amount of work time will likely vary from mine.
This was easy for me to see based on how difficult it was for me to complete my Pomodoro sessions. If you aren’t familiar with the Pomodoro technique for productivity, it uses a timer that has you work for 25 minutes then take either 5 or 15 minute breaks to refresh, and is my preferred method for working (more on this later).
At the beginning of my work day, I generally skip the first 5 minute breaks, preferring a 50-minute work session followed by an ~20 min break and then another 50 min work session. After that, I generally move to regular Pomodoro sessions with breaks following each 25 minute period.
By the end of my work day, I notice my brain struggling to keep up with the full 25 minute Pomorodo – for sure consistently happening after the 10th session of the day, and often starting by the 8th.
As an additional measurement tool, I use Toggle (available online and for your offline desktop) to track my projects and the amount of time I spent on them each day. Using this, I can see exactly how long I work each day, and on days where my brain was off, it was easy to check my work hours the previous day to confirm my personal hard cutoff of 5 hours of concentrated work.
Because some days I struggle after 8 sessions, though, I may reduce my cutoff and let myself stop “early” some days, knowing that if I pushed through 4 more sessions, I would likely have a very difficult time the entire next day.
Be honest with yourself, but also nice to yourself
That last point is hard and I still sometimes struggle with the fine line between being lazy and preserving my brain for the next day. Sometimes I am just want to stop early, and it takes a lot of self-awareness to recognize it is just boredom.
Along the same lines, don’t always assume you are just bored or lazy. Again – I have consistently seen that pushing my brain too hard on any day will ALWAYS make the next day harder. If you really are struggling, shut off and walk away.
It is better to work 4 good hours each day for two days (8 good hours and lots of free time!) than 4 good hours and 2 bad hours one day and 6 bad hours the next (only 4 good hours, 8 painful hours, and much less free time!!).
You CAN work longer before time off
Ok, so in several points, I stressed the need to quit when you were exhausted or at your cutoff time, but if you are going on holidays or taking time off anyways, you CAN work longer the day before because it doesn’t matter if your brain doesn’t work the next day.
Want a 3 day weekend? You can cram a bit more work into 4 days, and then there you go – extra time off!
I use this often before any day off…especially if I want to finish a project, I can often work an extra hour or two on those days, and then my brain doesn’t have to remember anything from that previous project when I get back to work!
Find a “work marker” that works for you.
Just like I advocate making your to-do list work for you by breaking it down into manageable tasks (read that here), work productivity should also be broken down into manageable and measurable units that do not seem daunting.
Writing daily goals like “finish this project” are often counterproductive, as if any new surprises arise, your day and motivation are derailed. I instead advocate for finding a “work marker” – some way of indicating and precisely measuring how much work you get done that can also be used to break up bigger projects.
Many freelancers I know use hours…they will put so many hours into a project.
For me, marking work in hours is physically painful. Waking up to see “work 5 hours on XXX project” as my daily goal makes starting to work seem impossible. That many hours seems hard to get through, and I am more likely to procrastinate longer as I don’t want to feel “stuck” for that many hours.
Instead, I mark my work via Pomodoro sessions (described in point #4 above). My to-do list, therefore, would read “12 Pomodoros on XXX project”, which seems much more manageable and easy to tackle, and more importantly, doesn’t make my brain go into a meltdown.
Make this work for you
Maybe hours DOES work for you, and you can use that as your work marker, but if you are like me, maybe it doesn’t.
Maybe the Pomorodo sessions will work for you, but also maybe they won’t.
Can you be creative here? If you are writing or editing, maybe you can go by paragraphs or words. Do you listen to background music when you work? Make it a certain number of songs.
If you are finding that the wording of your goals and to-do list is causing you anxiety or helping you procrastinate, though, definitely play around with this to find your best system.
Getting started again after procrastinating
Procrastinating will always be a big one for me, especially when I am at home with all of my things and so many ways to distract myself and only myself to be accountable to.
It’s very easy to do “one quick thing” that turns into hours somehow, and it feels like most of your day has been derailed.
How do I fix this?
I love this solution because its so simple, I never thought it would work, and yet it almost always gets me immediately back on track.
When I notice I am distracted or procrastinating, I count backwards from 10 and immediately go back to work.
This crazy simple trick amazes me daily with its effectiveness.
Take advantage of working from home
Now that you are hopefully able to work while you are home, it is important to recognize many of the advantages that this does provide. Here are some of the best for me.
Use your breaks around the house
For me, the best benefit of working from home is that my breaks from work are now generally dedicated to keeping my apartment clean. Whereas previously, I generally worked all week and spent part of a weekend day cleaning, doing laundry, taking out recycling, etc., I now accomplish all of those tasks during my work day, freeing up my evenings and weekends to have more time to do things I love.
How do I do this?
When taking my 5 minute breaks from my Pomodoro timer to make a tea, I can wash a few dishes or wipe down the counter tops.
My longer breaks can be used to change a load of laundry, fold clothes, run the vacuum, etc.
Added benefit – I have also found that doing “mindless” tasks like these during my breaks helps to shake loose thoughts I may have been struggling with during my work session, and I end up getting new ideas while doing things like folding clothes!
Change your commute time to personal time.
Remember all that time you used to spend commuting to work? I lived ~4 km (~2.5 mi) from campus, which took me ~30 min door to door each way with public transit.
Now that is ~1 hour extra free time that was added to each of my days that I try to spend reading or working out.
Making this adjustment to working from home can be difficult, especially now when its sudden, forced, and at a stressful time, so taking this commute time and converting it to something that makes you feel good can make all the difference.
How can you do this?
Can you take this time to do some exercise or stretching? Read a book? Take a bath? Bake, paint, play an instrument or do anything else creative and that fills you up?
Try to not let this extra time be lost to fueling anxieties over the news or pouring over social media, and instead use it to fuel yourself. Its basically free time.
Realize that when you are done, you are done!
I love this one – in a lab setting, I rarely shortened my hours, regardless of how much I was doing on a given day – there was always something to fill up the time, even if it ended up being useless tasks or procrastination.
Now, though? A huge motivating factor and productivity realization for me was that when I finish my work, I am done for the day.
Those 12 Pomodoros I need to do on a project? If that is my goal for the day, that is what I need to get done before I let myself stop, but when I reach it, I stop.
Therefore, those session can take me 12 hours or they can take me 7 (with needed breaks!), and realizing that I can stop when I am done and that my time is mine afterwards is both a wonderful feeling and very motivating.
How can you take advantage of this?
Definitely let yourself stop early if you work hard and finish early – don’t force yourself to keep going just because you think there are more hours in the day. It will prevent you from becoming overloaded (really – the next day after a “long day” for me is almost useless!) and is one of the most motivating reasons I have to sit down and keep working!
This goes along with point 4 in the first list, too – not only do you not get to take advantage of stopping early when you finish, not stopping can actually hurt your brain capacity for the next day!
Also – plan something that you want to do for when you finish your work. For me, its often a workout or drinks with friends (now converted to Skype with friends and family, but it works!). I won’t let myself do it until I finish my work, but since I want to do that thing way more than I want to work, allowing myself to quit when I finish my goals has become my biggest motivator.
Pick your work days.
The standard 5 days on, 2 days off work schedule was never ideal for me, and judging by all of the memes that exist about the different work days, this is true for many others. Mondays were always exhausting and demoralizing (5 whole days until another day off! ugh!), and Fridays I was running on an empty tank.
It is the standard, though, sure, and difficult to change when you need to go into an office or lab, but now that you don’t can you rethink this schedule for yourself?
For me now, its pretty rare if I work 5 days in a row, and also rare if I take two full days off unless I am out of town – not having two days off would have seemed crazy to me before, but without the 5 days “on”, I don’t feel like I need it.
Instead, I often take off Tues or Wed, and I generally work on a weekend day, breaking my work “weeks” into chunks of usually 3 days.
This has made a gigantic difference in my productivity and my motivation to work – I no longer dread Sunday evenings, knowing I have to get up and go to work, nor do I have a Friday slump. I feel fresher on the days I do work, and significantly more relaxed about my work schedule.
Can you do the same?
If your work permits, a non-traditional work schedule might also help you. Is there a day of the week where there is something else you might want to do besides work and a weekend day where you are often home anyways?
I wish a post like this could come in better circumstances, but I hope it helps regardless.
With everything that is going on right now, it can be easy to see this time in a negative light and look forward to when life returns to “normal”. However, there are so many advantages to working from home that it would be a shame to just wish all of that time away and not take the time to appreciate it while it is here.
Use that extra time you now how to spend it with friends and loved ones (even via video call, if necessary!) and on things that will fill up your soul.
My final wishes for you today – stay safe, follow recommended protocols, and reach out to your support system when you feel overwhelmed.
Hugs from afar to maintain our social distancing, and love to you all. 🙂