When you’re used to working in an office, shifting to working from home can be quite a change. While there’s often more freedom and flexibility, there are also more distractions (the cookie jar, your dog, that messy pile of random items…). Add the extra role of being a teacher to school-aged children, and it’s easy to feel scattered and unproductive. Rather than beating yourself up, seize this opportunity to find how you work best.
“A lot of productivity advice focuses on how to replicate the office environment, rules and schedules,” says Brittany Berger, founder of WorkBrighter.co, a digital media company that helps people become more productive while caring for their mental health. “I don’t agree with that. The office is designed for mass appeal. Figure out what your own ideal environment is and do that.”
Consider these expert tips to determine how you can maximize your concentration and output while also taking care of yourself.
Although this list has 10 tips, do not take action on all of them, especially not all at once. “If you try to revamp your entire lifestyle overnight, you will probably have a hard time,” says Phoebe Gavin, a social media director and life coach. “Our brains try to maintain homeostasis,” she explains, and if we try to do too much, we’ll overwhelm our minds and wind up back where we started. But if you try to make one small change, once that becomes part of your homeostasis, then you can successfully integrate other things, Gavin says. “This is way more effective long term, even if it takes more time in the short term to see the results you want.”
Maybe you used to make Fridays “meeting day” and sit in the conference room for back-to-back-to-back sessions. You could still do that. But you may find spacing meetings over the week leaves you more energized and creative when you shift to non-meeting tasks. Note how you feel as you go about your day and use that information to create your best schedule.
A popular concept with productivity professionals, time blocking is when you divide your day into periods of time, each devoted to a single specific task. To do this, you need to split your big tasks like projects or writing a paper into smaller tasks. Then, decide how long you want your blocks to be (some people like 15 minutes, others prefer 30) and choose when you’ll do what. (Follow the tip above to help determine when you have the energy and mental focus to do which tasks.)
When it comes time for a block, turn off all notifications and close out of email and messenger programs. Set a timer and work until it goes off. When it does, take a break before jumping back into the same task or another assignment. “It takes time to figure out what works for you and to iterate and tweak and clear out any bugs, but once you get it, it’s like ‘The Matrix,’” Gavin says. “Everything just works. This has transformed my productivity not just professionally but also personally.”
“Especially after finishing something mentally taxing, it’s great to take a break and get things done around the house,” Berger says. Just 10 minutes spent tidying the living room or cleaning a bathroom does triple duty: It checks something off your to-do list, it gives your brain a rest and it recharges you.
Berger advocates changing your clothes when you wake up to put yourself into productive mode. “I find it helpful to signal, ‘All right, it’s time to start my day’ and that it’s a new day, not a random blob of days,” she explains. But there’s no reason to put on a suit — unless you want to. Wear what’s comfortable for you; otherwise, your discomfort distracts you. “It’s more about the rituals than the social expectations,” says Berger, who likes to change from “night PJs” to “day PJs.”
Bryan Mattimore, cofounder of Growth Engine, a boutique innovation agency based in Westport, Connecticut, currently spreads his “office” over six locations in his house: He takes calls in his home office, works on proposals at the kitchen table, does video calls in his dining room, works on his book using a typing table in the living room, takes paper and pen to the sun porch when it’s time to brainstorm or daydream and reads and answers short emails in the bedroom. “Having these different environments available throughout the day not only helps me stay more focused, it also makes working from home more fun,” he says.
You don’t need a big house to achieve this. Berger lives with her fiance in a 400-square foot, two-room apartment. She moves from one corner of the coffee table to another and uses a corner of her bed (but never sits with her head at the pillows) for different tasks throughout the day.
Gavin keeps a big bottle of water on her desk at all times — not only to reap the benefits of staying hydrated, but also to encourage movement. This way she can’t sit for hours at a time. “I always do something active like walking lunges or squat jumps on my way back from the bathroom,” she adds. “I find it super energizing.” She’ll also sometimes do a yoga flow or exercises with weights during a conference call when she doesn’t need to be on camera. “I find that I remember those meetings better,” Gavin says.
“If you feel overwhelmed, take a moment to observe that feeling and try to identify its source,” Gavin suggests. For her, it’s often because her workspace is messy. “If I tidy it up, suddenly things make more sense,” she says. Or, if you find you are overscheduling, identify what’s important, what can be passed off (consider hiring a virtual assistant) and what can be abandoned. You do not have to do it all.
“Scarcity thinking causes stress, and stress saps your productivity and focus,” says Laura Handrick, a contributing HR professional at the Brooklyn-based mental health service Choosing Therapy. “So change your thinking from, ‘I have to cram all this work between 8 and 5’ to ‘I’ve got 24 hours a day to work and only need to get eight hours’ worth of stuff done.”
“Everyone is expecting themselves — and to a lesser extension, other people — to handle everything perfectly right now. But that’s not going to happen,” Berger says. Be forgiving of yourself, keeping in mind that putting in the time to care for your mental and physical health will help with focus and productivity.