The recent COVID-19 outbreak and sudden home isolation has turned our daily lives upside down. Healthcare workers and public service employees are facing an enormous workload. At the same time, the rest of society stays locked in their homes feeling like the world has stopped. You’re lucky if you can work from home. But no one said it would be easy during a global pandemic. In this article, you’ll find tips and tricks on how to focus and stay productive during these unusual circumstances.
The alarm goes off. Time to wake up. Not choosing to snooze was hard enough before the quarantine. Now, working from home, you know you’ll be fine getting up 10 minutes before that Zoom meeting. When you finally arrive at the kitchen table, someone has already turned the TV on. The news about the recent Coronavirus outbreak dulled your appetite. Instead of opening Slack to check in with your teammates, you try to convince your family that sneezing doesn’t mean they’re infected. Then, your grandma calls, and you discuss conspiracy theories you wish you’d never heard about.
It’s 10 a.m. when you lock yourself in another room, and you’re already tired. But the workload is high, the to-do list endless, and your laptop keeps notifying you about all these incoming messages. At least a few of them are articles or videos. The world’s economic situation is alarming, medical supplies are running low, people are losing their jobs. You are worried.
And you’re not the only one.
Everyone is affected by the current situation in the world. The variety of challenges we’re all facing now is wide, and everyone deserves understanding and support.
1. Make the best of remote working and focus on the positives
Whether you worked remotely in the past or you’re a total newbie, switching with such short notice is hard. The situation quickly moved from ‘How to wash your hands’ instructions in public bathrooms to a complete lockdown of the world. Still, if you’re able to work from home, it means you’re in a better position then many people these days. With these few steps, you will create a comfy home office, and you’ll never want to go back to your cubicle.
Prepare a clear work
You’ve probably read that working from the couch will ruin your spirit. Before you realize it, you’ll switch from Slack to Netflix. I disagree. You don’t need to frantically search the internet for cheap desk ideas. There are various ways you can separate your work area from your leisure time and space. Be it fixed hours, type of music you listen to when working, or the way you dress, many solutions are available. Avoid the areas that have strong associations with other activities in your head. Working from bed, wrapped in sheets, will not only make you uncomfortable but also ruin your sleep at night. You don’t want to go that far. There’s nothing wrong with working from your couch or sitting at the dining table as long as you clear up the space. Get rid of books or magazines you read in your free time. Turn the TV off. Don’t surround yourself with snacks or anything else that is unnecessary. A clear space and set working hours should do the job.
Choose your working hours wisely
Standard office hours are terrible for night owls, but they are not perfect for early birds either. Being a morning person myself, I am super productive between 5 a.m. - 10 a.m. Usually, I’d have to spend most of this time getting ready, eating my breakfast, and commuting to work. Thanks to working remotely, I now use these morning hours to do anything that requires me to focus. It’s the best time to write. By the time I turn on Slack to check in with my workmates, I already have three productive hours of work behind me.
Both night owls and early birds should adjust their work hours to suit their own rhythm. Talk to your teammates, and agree on core hours you will share for necessary meetings. Apart from that, work when you feel the most efficient and productive.
Create a strong routine and set boundaries
Whether you choose to work early in the morning or late in the night, stick to the schedule. Setting up a strong routine will allow your mind and body to adjust easily. Planning your tasks and meetings will come naturally, and you will feel more organized and calm. Creating a healthy habit is the key to your focus and productivity. Set clear boundaries. During your working hours, don’t wash the dishes or do the laundry. Make sure your family or roommates understand that you’re working.
I’m staying at my family’s home right now. The first few days were pretty distracting. It’s an open space, and it’s very easy to talk and spend time together. But since I set up a strong routine, my family knows when I’m busy. They now have fun with it and say ‘“Knock knock” before approaching me during my work hours.
Embrace asynchronous communication
Working from home, you might feel a constant urge to stay on top of the information flow. Since communication has moved to mainly writing and messaging now, there’s a lot to read and respond to on a daily basis. Working remotely invites a new era of FOMO (fear of missing out). We’re no longer afraid of all the social buzz we could miss. Instead, we worry about working from home and overlooking important updates or messages from our coworkers. If you're checking Slack and email every five minutes, you won’t be able to do anything else. Don’t be afraid to turn off the notifications. Check your messages during scheduled breaks and reply to messages in batches.
2. Take advantage of available tools to improve your productivity
There are plenty of tools out there that will help you improve your focus and tune into work.
I’m a fan of simplicity. Pomodoro technique is nothing new or innovative, but it works. It simply breaks your work into specific intervals. After every 25 minutes of strong focus, you get a five-minute break. These 30-minute sessions are called pomodoros. After four pomodoros, you can take a longer break of 15 to 20 minutes. It’s surprising how much you can do in 25 minutes if you focus only on the task at hand. Thanks to five-minute breaks happening so frequently, you’re able to postpone any small, mundane tasks. Replying on Slack or filling up your water bottle is no longer a distraction. It’s also much easier to commit to full focus when you know it’s only 25 minutes.
You can choose from various available options like Focus To-Do or Tomato One.
Toggl is another great app that made my daily routine much more efficient. It’s a time-tracking app that allows you to keep track of any projects you work on. All you have to do is type in the task you’re on, and click start. Toggl will track the time you spend on it until you click stop. It also has an ‘idle detection’ feature so it will detect any time you spend away from the computer. You can edit all the entries later, name them accordingly, or assign them to specific projects. If you enable Toggl to record your activity in the background, you’ll see a summary of your activity on a timeline. In case you forgot to track your tasks for a few hours, you can review what documents you were looking at or the tabs you had opened in your browser. This way, you can easily figure out what projects you worked on, and adjust the entries in the app. Toggl remembers your entries and will put all the same tasks in one batch, for example ‘article writing.’
Thanks to Toggl, you can review your performance every day. You have a clear idea of how much time each project or task requires. It allows you to better plan your days and estimate your work.
The greatest benefit to me is that Toggl motivates me to focus on the exact task I’m tracking. I no longer jump from one task to another. As soon as I see Toggl running, I know it’s time to work, and I get into the flow. It also has a built-in Pomodoro timer. This way, it reminds me every 25 minutes that I can take a break. The ‘list’ view shows all the tasks of the day and sums up the time you spent on each one. You can also see your whole day on a ‘timeline’ view. It’s very encouraging to track all your working hours and clearly see what you did and when. No more blank pages in your head and confusion about the day ending before you even realized it.
When was the last time you enjoyed complete silence while working? It doesn’t happen often these days. What’s left is noise and white noise to reduce the noise ;) Doors slamming, dogs barking, and your coworkers or family talking will make it impossible to focus. Apps such as Endel come to the rescue. Endel creates a personalized sound environment to mask all the noise around you. You can choose different modes like ‘focus’ or ‘relax.’ Combining art and science, Endel uses sound to align your mind and body to any task or goal. And let me just say, it works miracles. The ‘relax’ mode has been a lifesaver recently. It helps me to be more mindful and focused. It also helps me relax when I feel overwhelmed and upset with the current situation in the world. I hope it will soothe your mind too!
3. Take care of your mental health to stay more focused
Remote work can be a challenging task all by itself. It requires setting new routines and habits. During the COVID-19 outbreak, it is even more tricky. Stress and anxiety caused by all the breaking news hampers our efforts to stay productive and positive. To stay focused on work, make sure you take good care of your mental health and your emotional wellbeing.
Cut back on your information intake
Unless you’re a medical researcher or a specialist on the world economy, you don’t need to read every bit of information that floods the internet. Limit the time you spend reading news, and stick only to the crucial updates. Make sure you’re aware of the government’s and WHO’s instructions. That’s all you need to survive the current pandemic. Following the panic-inducing news and detailed updates in the media will only affect your wellbeing. It will occupy your mind, distract you from your daily priorities, and offer no help to the world in crisis. You don’t want to become ignorant, but you can’t control the situation either. Choose how you get involved wisely.
Do your part
Stay home. You’ve heard that a lot, right? Wash your hands frequently, and do only the necessary shopping. These are the things that you can control. Help your grandparents if you can. Deliver groceries or the medicine they need. Talk to your friends and loved ones to make sure no one feels alone during the unexpected isolation. You may also donate to nonprofits helping to respond to COVID-19. But take off the pressure of yourself, and don’t worry about the things you cannot control.
Don’t compromise on your health
Being locked in at home, stressed, and worried, makes it harder to stick to good habits. We’ve all seen the memes about hours spent on Netflix and cupboards running out of sweets and snacks. Our routines are upside down, but only by staying healthy and in good condition can we keep our sanity. Healthy food means a healthy mind. Getting enough sleep is crucial to being productive throughout the day. Instead of starting another TV series, try working out at home or experiment with yoga. Treat this new situation as an opportunity to grow healthy habits, and get in better shape. When everything gets back to normal, you don’t want to leave your house feeling miserable and guilty.
Meditate and breathe
When everything seems wrong and you feel scattered and confused, guided meditation will help you find peace of mind. Apps such as Calm, Headspace, or Insight Timer offer thousands of guided sessions and various courses to change your mindset. Meditating can soothe anxiety or simply get you into a productive, positive mood. Even five minutes can be a game changer. Give it a go, and try to relax. You can also try various breathing techniques. They will bring your body and mind back into balance and help you to stay focused and mindful. Try to take a few conscious breaths. Doesn’t it feel good? Especially on busy and stressful days, breathing exercises will make you feel more present and grounded. The 4-7-8 breathing exercise is my favorite. I practice it whenever I realize my mind keeps wandering off, and I need an oxygen boost. See if it works for you too.
We don’t know what the future will look like. As daunting as this experience may seem, it also brought the opportunity to rethink our priorities and improve our routines. All we can do is focus on now. When the world gets back to normal, let’s leave our homes with some good habits up our sleeves.