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.
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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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.