This pandemic has created a new army of at-home-workers, most of whom didn’t choose or want this new experience of working from home. But many of us have been doing this for years. We’ve tried (and abandoned) a bunch of tricks over the years for staying focused on work. If you’re one of the new work-at-home warriors and you’re finding yourself struggling, here are a few tips I try to play by. If you have other ideas that work for you, please share!
1. Set yourself a realistic daily routine.
- work time
- email time
- social media time
- workout time
- time with kids/pets
- bill-paying time
- cocktail hour
That’s a lot to cram into one day. But you were doing all of that before, plus your commute. See? Commuting is one thing you can eliminate from your schedule now.
With the whole family home, you may find your most productive hours for work are at odd hours, like after the kids are in bed, or before everyone else wakes up. If necessary, talk to your boss about skewing your schedule to make more effective use of your undisturbed hours or computer availability (especially if you’re all sharing a single computer).
2. Get back on regular hours.
Sure, you’ve enjoyed your vacation binge-watching marathons until 4am. But eventually, you’re going to have to get back on regular hours, because life WILL get back to normal someday. Start working yourself back to a regular routine now, so it doesn’t shock your system when this is over. Set a target bedtime and wake-up time, and do your best to stick to them.
3. Have a family meeting about schedules.
Talk about your schedule, your needs, their schedules, their needs, and how you can all help each other.
If you have kids, share your work schedule and ask them how they can help you get your work done. This might give them some ownership of protecting your work time. Expect bargaining or bribes to be involved. And plan their school-time and screen-time hours to be convenient for your work schedule. “During Mommy’s morning work hours, you can play with Legos <or draw, sculpt with clay, play guitar, read, play outside, etc.>. After lunch, we’ll spend two hours together doing your school work. After that, while Mommy does more of her work in the afternoon, you can have screen time.”
It’s especially important to work out a family schedule if you’re sharing a single computer for your work, your spouse’s work, and the kids’ schoolwork. Without a schedule, there will be constant fighting and/or resentment.
4. Create a quiet (okay, quiet-ish) workspace.
If at all possible, set up your computer/work station someplace other than the kitchen or living room. A card table in the bedroom, a corner of the basement, an ironing board in the garage, picnic table in the backyard… anywhere that lets you minimize the amount of noise and distractions you’re exposed to will help you stay focused.
5. Can’t escape the noise? Try headphones.
Noise-cancelling headphones or earbuds with focus-inducing music might help cut out the underlying “dull roar” of family noise if you can’t find a quiet space in your house to work. Headphones are also a good signal to your family that you’re working (like a Do Not Disturb sign).
6. Get dressed. No really. Get dressed.
When you get up in the morning—and I can’t emphasize this enough—get out of your damn pajamas. Our brains are ridiculously susceptible to physical clues we aren’t consciously aware of. Clothing is one of them. If you wear pajamas all day, your brain thinks it’s okay to be completely off duty. While that might be okay for the occasional “mental health” day, that’s not conducive to work, let alone “adulting” in general.
You don’t have to dress up, by any means. But put on something other than pajamas. Yoga pants, jeans, shorts… any of them are fine, as long as they aren’t what you sleep in. Wear a clean top, comb your hair, and look like you got up on purpose this morning. That’s a physical signal to your brain that you’re ready for a productive day. Plus, it doesn’t repulse your family members, and since you’re all living in close proximity 24/7, that’s becoming increasingly important.
7. Create a brief routine to get yourself started on work.
For me, it’s a cup of decaf sitting beside my computer, window shades open for some daylight, and a quick stretch to get the blood moving. Others might start by listening to one motivational song, doing a set of jumping jacks, sharpening a pencil, or turning on a sunlight lamp on their desk (to combat Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)). Again, it’s all about signals to your brain that it’s time to get to work. Then sit your butt in the chair and open up your work project. Now. Go.
8. Resist distraction by delaying gratification.
Promise yourself rewards, like “If I do 2 hours of work, I can have 30 minutes of Twitter time <or a walk around the block with the kids, or whatever motivates you>.” Stick to it – both the work time and that reward time.
9. Resist housework. Yes, you have my permission to ignore the laundry.
This was the hardest for me when I first started working at home. And I hate housework. We’re talking loathing-level hatred. But some days, laundry would seem easier than tackling a new project. And those dishes piling up in the sink would call my name. And the front flower patch always needed weeding… All of those distractions were hard to ignore.
So household chores had to become part of my routine. Laundry gets done on Fridays. Dishes get done as soon as the meal is done, or they sit until the next meal. Yardwork happens on weekends only, or for an hour on weekdays instead of my workout time. Don’t slip into household chores as an escape from work. Put them into your schedule and ignore them until their assigned time. Or, if you have kids at home (and this is my favorite idea), assign them to the kids.
10. Make to-do lists for work, divided into manageable tasks.
Don’t list “work on ABC Report” – that’s too vague and intimidating/overwhelming. Break it down into steps, like: “1) List the 3-4 main points I want to make in the ABC Report. 2) Call John for results of field study. 3) Write Intro for ABC Report. 4) Call Beth for update on sales numbers for the ABC Report. 5) Write remaining sections of ABC Report.”
Then, when you finish a task, cross that sucker off your list with gusto! It’s important to have a visual way to track your progress so you feel productive.
And here’s the cool thing about feeling productive: it makes you feel worthwhile, and it combats feelings of depression, loneliness, worthlessness, despair, and many of the other darker emotions it’s easy to succumb to during these days of isolation (or in some families’ cases, too much togetherness).
So throw those pjs in the laundry basket, run a brush through your hair, pour yourself a cup of something hot, and sit down in front of your computer. Ready? Boom! You’re a work-at-home warrior, and you’re crushing this!