Monthly Archives: April 2020

Turn Obstacles Into Opportunities

In the last few weeks, the global pandemic COVID-19 has sparked major changes. If you’re like me, you now consider “going out” to be a trip to the grocery store and “socializing” to be a video chat with friends and relatives.

With schools and recreational centers closed, and my business as a solo lawyer and productivity coach continuing to run, I’m navigating the increased blending of work and home life. I have been doubling down on routines, structures and boundaries to stay sane. At the same time, I am giving myself grace, flexibility and margin as the situation keeps unfolding. 

On April 8, in the State of Minnesota, Governor Tim Waltz extended through May 4th the stay-at-home order, which restricts people from leaving their homes except for essential activities. Other U.S. states and countries around the world have curfews, self-quarantining directives, and lockdowns of varying degrees. These measures aim to slow the spread of the virus, but they also bring logistical and economic consequences.

While I do miss hanging out with friends in person, eating out at restaurants, having chai lattes at coffee shops, and taking piano lessons in Minneapolis with one of the greatest (but unknown) composers, I am noticing the silver linings. 

Today’s technology and amenities allow us to stay connected even as we are physically distanced from each other. We can have a virtual coffee chat on Skype, Zoom or on any of the other platform available. We can still get take-out food or drive-through coffee. We can keep up with our lessons online, as I’ve done with my weekly piano classes.

Yes, there is sadness, disappointment, restlessness, and perhaps fear and anxiety, from time to time, around these changes. The 24/7 news cycle and social media feeds that highlight the rising number of confirmed cases and deaths can make things seem more dire than they really are. That’s not to say that many people aren’t suffering from this crisis, both in terms of health risks and financial impact. 

But if you quit the daily news reading and watching, and contant check-ins on social media feeds, you will be better able to build mental bandwidth and emotional resources to focus on what is going well. 

And if you intentionally design a more curated life, you will start to feel more grounded, more present, and maybe more in control (at least over the small but important things).

Before COVID-19, we never had complete control over any of the big issues. When you take a long-term view, this will be a small blip in the cosmos and over the course of human history. 

Although this pandemic is unique on many fronts, this is not the first crisis we have experienced and it will not be the last. By all means, stay informed. Take the necessary precautions. Protect your health. Strengthen your immune system.

Recognize though that trials can be turned into triumphs and adversity can be transformed into advantage. 

Several months ago, for example, I had prepared to give a talk to lawyers on the problems with presenteeism and the emphasis on long hours at the office to prove productivity. This was to be presented as a break-out session at an in-person seminar. The event was scheduled for late March and was cancelled in response to the COVID-19 situation. 

Many lawyers and other knowledge workers have switched to remote work, as small businesses and large organizations are being encouraged or required to do so. This is a valuable opportunity to develop habits and skills to stay focused and productive while working from home. 

In my experience with remote work, which I’ve done successfully for the last 5+ years, I have stumbled on 3 big obstacles to thriving in remote work. If you are (or someone you know is) struggling with the Work-From-Home scenario, I encourage you to read my newest articles on my productivity blog:

Overcoming Obstacles to Thriving in Remote Work: Part 1 – Asynchronous Communication

Overcoming Obstacles to Thriving in Remote Work: Part 2 – Blurred Lines

Overcoming Obstacles to Thriving in Remote Work: Part 3 – Competing Priorities

These articles contain some of the techniques and approaches I use to set the wheels in motion, take steps forward, and maintain momentum, even in circumstances that might seem less than ideal.

Remote work is not an obstacle, but a unique opportunity to produce great results and attend to things that matter, with intention and autonomy. 

Stay well. Stay healthy. Stay connected.

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Dyan Williams is a productivity coach who helps working parents, lawyers, small business owners and other busy people turn their ideas into action, reduce overwhelm, and make time for what truly matters. She is also a solo lawyer who practices U.S. immigration law and legal ethics at Dyan Williams Law PLLC from her home office. She is the author of The Incrementalist: A Simple Productivity System to Create Big Results in Small Steps, an e-book at http://leanpub.com/incrementalist.

Overcoming Obstacles to Thriving in Remote Work: Part 3 – Competing Priorities

When you’re working from home, there is no commute, no officemate and no dress code. Personal responsibilities are harder to put aside when you’re not in an office away from your home life. Without deliberate planning, remote work can make it difficult to distinguish between your personal to-dos and professional priorities. 

In parts 1 and 2 of this 3-part article, respectively, I discussed Asynchronous Communication as the first obstacle and Blurred Lines as the second obstacle to thriving in remote work. 

The third obstacle to overcome is Competing Priorities. Spending time with your family, playing with your children, getting groceries, walking the dog, and doing laundry are not really distractions. They are competing priorities.

Even if you’re lucky enough to work from home and get paid in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic or any other crisis, you need to be practical. Don’t expect to be on top of your game when there is much uncertainty and disruption. To set realistic expectations, you might need to inform your boss, colleagues and clients about the obstacles you face. Explain what you’re doing to still meet commitments, but perhaps at a slower pace.

As I write this article, schools remain closed across the United States and other parts of the world when summer break has yet to begin. Restless children who have no school, sports or extracurricular activities are relying more on their parents for ongoing education and entertainment.

In any remote work situation, you need to give yourself structure, but incorporate flexibility and margin. Instead of multitasking and doing busy work for 8 hours, shoot for 4 to 6 hours of focused work, which is a normal maximum for true productivity.

You might need to work in short bursts, like 15 to 30 minutes, on a daily basis over one week, when you don’t have a large chunk of time to complete the project in one day. For instance, I used the Pomodoro Technique — in which you break down work into intervals, traditionally 25 minutes in length, separated by short breaks — to complete this 3-part article over a two-week period.

Designate time blocks to perform certain activities. In a normal work day from home, I use the mornings for focused work and scheduled calls, typically before the kids wake up. I spend my lunch break to eat and play with them. Then I use my younger kid’s naptime and my older kid’s solo activity time to complete a second round of focused work and scheduled calls. I shut down my work day before dinner.

There are no hard and fast rules to maximize personal productivity. Have you heard that many of the most successful people in the world wake up at 5 am? Before you join the club, consider your own circadian rhythm. This is an internal timing device that controls when you are most alert and when you are most tired. It is your brain’s sleep-wake cycle in a 24-hour period that determines your natural wake up time and bedtime. 

In his book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, author Daniel Pink notes there are three chronotype categories: Early-riser Lark; late-night Owl, and in-between Third Bird. If you’re naturally a night owl, don’t try to reset your circadian rhythm by forcing yourself to go to bed early so you can wake up at 5 am. An early wake-up time works well for natural early risers or for third birds who can more readily shift their sleep cycle through deliberate habits.

Work with your natural rhythm and synch the right tasks with your energy level and time of day. You also need to block time to stay focused on a single, high-cognitive task or to batch process similar, low-cognitive tasks to make progress and meet milestones.

Taking deliberate breaks is critical, particularly in remote work when there are no clear lines between work and the rest of your life. Your ultradian rhythm — which is the wake-rest-activity cycle that repeats throughout a 24-hour day — makes it counterproductive to work for hours on end.

Consider there are alternating periods of high-frequency brain activity (roughly 90 minutes) followed by lower-frequency brain activity (approximately 20 minutes). Take a 20-minute break for every 90 minutes of work to take advantage of the daily ultradian rhythm cycle.

For some, doing chores while working from home interferes with focus and productivity. But if you’re like me, mundane chores like folding clothes and doing the dishes can be a helpful respite from focused work. They can also foster mind-wandering for idea generation and mindfulness for stress relief.

Other ways to take a restful break include mediating, listening to music, observing nature, going for a walk, stretching, and soaking in sunlight.

Avoid time sucks like social media, emails and online news when your focus is at its peak and you have deep work to do. Turning off auto-alerts and notifications makes it easier to get real work done.

Practice morning rituals to jump start your day and evening rituals to wind down before bedtime. Have a start-up routine to begin work and a shut-down process to end work.

Before you begin, you could review your big three tasks or your single priority that must get your attention.

Track how you use your time and compare it with what you had planned to do. This will help you figure out how and when you veered off course and what you can do better the next time. Cut yourself some slack if you didn’t get to check off all your to-dos. Maybe your list was too long to begin with.

At the end of the day, review what you accomplished and celebrate the wins, no matter how small. Focus on the output, not on how many hours you spent at work. Four hours of solid deliverables is worth more than 8 hours of subpar work.

Share your schedule with your family or whoever lives with you. If you’re going to be on a telephone call for 15 minutes or an hour, tell your kids and let them know you’ll engage in a fun activity with them afterwards. A small reward for exercising patience goes a long way. And if you have a spouse, partner or other adult at home, enlist their help to divide and conquer competing priorities.

With remote work, you can integrate your work and life and design your day with autonomy. Whether you keep a strict schedule that mirrors traditional office hours really depends on what works for you. Your personal circumstances and preferences might lead you to design something different to thrive in remote work.

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For more information on overcoming obstacles to thriving in remote work, read part 1 (Asynchronous Communication) and part 2 (Blurred Lines) of this multipart article.

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Dyan Williams is a productivity coach who helps working parents, lawyers, small business owners and other busy people turn their ideas into action, reduce overwhelm, and make time for what truly matters. She is also a solo lawyer who practices U.S. immigration law and legal ethics at Dyan Williams Law PLLC from her home office. She is the author of The Incrementalist: A Simple Productivity System to Create Big Results in Small Steps, an e-book at http://leanpub.com/incrementalist.

Overcoming Obstacles to Thriving in Remote Work: Part 2 – Blurred Lines

To survive and thrive as a remote worker, you need to know how to overcome the obstacles and reframe them as benefits. When you are faced with a crisis — such as the COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions — the ability to shift your mindset becomes even more critical.

As Ryan Holiday writes in his book, The Obstacle is the Way, an effective path to dealing with a crisis is to turn adversity into an advantage, a trial into a triumph, and an obstacle into an opportunity.

In part 1 of this 3-part article, I discussed Asynchronous Communication as the first obstacle to thriving in remote work.

The second obstacle to overcome is Blurred Lines. Commuting to and from an office provides transitions that you do not have with remote work. When the commute goes away, there is no physical switch to know when the work day starts and when it ends. You also might not have a dedicated room or separate space for work, which makes it harder to draw the line between personal stuff and professional obligations.

If you were thrust into remote work or didn’t plan for it, your kitchen, living room, or other personal space might now be your makeshift workplace. When you can’t physically leave the office, it’s harder to shut your computer off and call it a day. The work day doesn’t seem to end because your office is right inside your home.

On the flip side, the lack of clear lines between work and home makes it easier to succumb to distractions. There is the refrigerator in the kitchen and the TV in the living room calling for your attention. The computer you’re using to do work is probably the same tool you use to watch YouTube videos, hang out on social media, and binge watch Netflix shows.

If you’re new to remote work, you will need to start with physical boundaries. When I lived in a smaller home, I carved out a spot in the corner of the living room for my desk, chair and computer. I moved to this dedicated space to work. During my breaks, I went to the kitchen or on the back porch.

After I moved into my current and bigger home, I called dibs on a spare room with windows overlooking the backyard. This has served as my home office since I started my own business as a solo lawyer and productivity coach. I use it to do focused work on client matters. The closed door is a signal to my family that I’m at work and should not be disturbed. Although this doesn’t stop my two young children from calling out for my attention, I routinely go to this office when playtime or family time is over and work needs to begin.

For long-term remote work, it’s good to have a well-functioning desk and comfortable chair for ergonomics. A desk that allows you to easily adjust the height for typing, writing or reading, while standing or while seated in a chair can be pricey, but worth the benefits.

To create good feng shui and improve energy flow, you arrange your work equipment so you face into the room and have a wall or screen behind you. This gives you a clear field of vision and helps you feel protected from behind. This is known as the commanding position in that you have a view of the door or room when you’re at your desk.

Although it might be tempting to place your work surface facing a window, this can be quite distracting. Instead, place your workstation perpendicular to the window or opening so the view is within your scope of vision, but not directly in front of it. This gives you access to natural light but makes you less drawn to the outside world when you need to do focused work.

If you don’t have a spare room to serve as an office, you might need to place your work station against the wall so you have a visual separation from your home life. If you have to face a wall or expose your back to the entryway, you could hang a mirror to have a view of the room and see people coming into your space. You could place a small bookcase, table or file cabinet behind you to serve as a physical barrier. You could also partition your workspace from the rest of the room with a shoji screen or other moveable divider.

Your preference for silence or sounds in your background also affects your work-from-home productivity. The good news is you typically have more control over this in a home office. When you’re in a traditional office setting, you can’t keep telling your colleagues to stop talking in the hallway or to quit laughing in the lunchroom.

I know some people who actually work better with the TV on in the background because they find it comforting and less isolating. (I don’t know how they do this, but they do.) White noise machines or apps can also serve as audio signals for work mode.

Personally, I tend to go with silence when I’m doing high-cognitive work, such as writing a legal brief. But in some situations, I use apps like Brain.fm (to which I subscribe) and Focus at Will, which are designed to get you into focus mode, quiet the mind, and increase productivity.

I occasionally play tracks on Coffitivity and Hipstersound to recreate the sounds of a cafe in brainstorming and creative thinking sessions, or when it has just been too quiet for too long. Instrumental music like contemporary piano or the Monument Valley soundtrack are other favorites.

On the other hand, if you have unwanted sounds at home, you could use active noise-cancelling headphones or earphones. If you have small children around, you need to have another responsible adult around who can address their needs while you’re tuning them out.

If certain scents and aromas make you more productive or less stressed, then go ahead and burn that candle or use that essential oil that does the trick. There are no coworkers with allergies and fragrance sensitivities to worry about.

In remote work from home, you have more control in designing your workspace based on your physical, visual, audio and olfactory preferences. You can have your dog napping by your feet or kid doodling next to you while you answer emails. You don’t have colleagues and clients walking into your office and making judgments about what’s appropriate and what’s not.

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For more information on overcoming obstacles to thriving in remote work, read part 1 (Asynchronous Communication) and part 3 (Competing Priorities) of this multipart article.

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Dyan Williams is a productivity coach who helps working parents, lawyers, small business owners and other busy people turn their ideas into action, reduce overwhelm, and make time for what truly matters. She is also a solo lawyer who practices U.S. immigration law and legal ethics at Dyan Williams Law PLLC from her home office. She is the author of The Incrementalist: A Simple Productivity System to Create Big Results in Small Steps, an e-book at http://leanpub.com/incrementalist.