3 Steps to a Happy, Productive, Work-From-Home Lifestyle
By Mary Iannuzzi on July 9, 2020
The average office worker is only productive for 3 hours a day. OK, that’s an exaggeration. Specifically, the average office worker is only productive for 2 hours and 53 minutes a day.
Remote workers may be concerned about the time we spend going back to the refrigerator, hoping there’s something new this time, but studies show we are more productive at home. The problem? It's often because remote workers spend more time working than their office-based counterparts.
When I started working remotely, I was the poster-child of efficient productivity failure. Now, after two years of remote work, I’ve found the tricks that keep me productive, reduce stress, and help me get more done in less time.
There are 3 main components to a happy work-from-home life:
2. Time Management
Your physical environment is key to your head-space. Two main boundaries to establish in your home:
1. Dedicated Place
2. Dedicated Space
Have you ever picked up your phone and checked your work email right in bed? Never, ever do that (again).
Human brains compartmentalize incredibly well. If you tell your brain to work in your sleep environment, your home environment, or your play environment, you are sabotaging your brain’s natural ability to function at its best in each area. You may eventually find it easier to work in your bed than to sleep in it (that’s called conditioned arousal and it’s a big indicator of clinical insomnia).
Set aside a dedicated place in your home that you only use to work. This is difficult if you’re in a small space but, if your kitchen table must double as your desk, try to transform it in some way during work hours. I put my notebook, work phone, coffee cup, and a little container of office supplies in the same arrangement around my laptop every day. The office supplies are pointless – I never use them, but they make it feel like a desk. Whatever works for you, but stay consistent.
“My family/partner disrupts me constantly throughout the day.”
You are clearly on the clock, but somehow it still feels rude (and annoying) to constantly tell your spouse or kids “no”. This is a universal complaint from those working from a shared home. Remember that fact about your brain relating environments from a few sentences ago? The members of your household instinctively consider you available for household activities when they see you in the house. Did you notice how many times I just said house? It’s a tough transition for them too, so:
Make it clear to all members of your household when you are unavailable. Thankfully, I have a door between my workspace and the rest of the house, but a door stops no one without ground rules. My general rule is “Door closed = emergencies only. If you wouldn’t call me at the office, don’t bother me now.” If you don’t have the luxury of a door, invest in some good headphones and apply the same concept. You can get creative, just develop a clear visual signal you are not to be disturbed. This sounds blunt, but it’s necessary. It’s not personal and, if you stay consistent, it will keep you and your loved ones, well… loving each other.
Pro Tip: Live alone? This applies to friends and family outside of the household as well. When people see you run errands (that you scheduled and planned for) mid-day, they get bold about asking you to do all kinds of activities and chores that others “can’t do because they are ‘at work’”. And no, they don’t see the irony in that comment. “No” is your new favorite word.
We’ve all read 100 blogs on time management at this point. Here are the three simple steps that finally worked for me:
1. A Tomorrow List
2. The Pomodoro Technique
The Tomorrow List
Using a tomorrow list is like starting a drag race at 60 mph while all your co-workers start from a standstill. Yes, it is that dramatic, I will die on this hill. You can save hours once perfected.
At the end of each day, make a list of the first 3 to 5 tasks you will complete the next day. When you start your day, tackle those tasks immediately. You’ll be done with half of your work day before your co-workers have finished writing their to-do list.
Don’t write down more than 5 - too many tasks is no tasks at all. You can add more when you finish, if you like.
Pro Tip: Arrange your tomorrow list from most difficult to least. This means your day will get progressively easier, and doesn’t allow you to waste time avoiding the hard stuff. (I personally throw one easy, more routine task at the top just to get my brain going, then arrange the rest of my list descending by difficulty).
The Pomodoro Technique (Time Blocking)
The name is strange. The outcome is strangely good. Here’s how it works:
Step 1: Work diligently, without distraction, for 25 minutes.
Step 2: Take a 5 minute break and do whatever you want.
That’s it, and it works wonders. Absolute concentration for 25 minutes is better than an average hour of work. Set a timer for both your work periods and your breaks, and don’t skip the breaks. Letting your brain rest is key to full focus during your 25 minute work chunks. The method suggests you repeat the cycle 4 times, then take a longer break. It’s best if you use these extended breaks to leave your computer, physically move around, or otherwise genuinely detach from work.
Really Pro Tip: Put your tomorrow list in Pomodoro form. True “time-blocking” means you schedule out all of your lists in timeline form, down to the minute (You’ll also need to schedule time blocks to answer emails, etc.) This takes some getting used to. You will over/underestimate the time needed to complete tasks at first. Don’t give up! If you become a successful time-blocker, you are swinging in the same league as Bill Gates and Elon Musk. Maybe you want to be rich. Maybe you want to get a full day’s work done in three hours and enjoy the rest of your afternoon. Both are fine choices.
With great power comes great responsibility. As it turns out, most of us really aren't responsible enough to have the internet.
Most of your work tasks will require a computer, but try to slim down the number of open tabs, documents, and apps to the least number needed to complete the task at hand. A notebook is like a single tab for all your tasks, temporary notes, thoughts, and calculations. Time blocks (or lists) work better when physically written down, and it just feels good to manually cross things off.
Using a notebook for anything outside of absolutely necessary computer work eliminates those “I-opened-my-online-notes-app-and-somehow-I’ve-been-on-LinkedIn-for-an-hour” rabbit holes.
This is the third component, but it’s really the conclusion paragraph. All of these productivity techniques are tied together by rest. Rest is an actionable step, a goal, and a side effect of all of the above work-from-home tips. You cannot be productive without rest. Key action steps:
Daily: Schedule intentional moments of rest within your work day.
Weekly: Schedule big chunks of rest into your work week. That means setting boundaries on work hours (it doesn’t have to be 8-5, but it has to be something) and not working 7 days a week. This includes checking emails.
Monthly: Schedule rest from business and constant engagement. Try to plan one weekend a month to unplug. Hikes, bikes, road trips, spa days… anything that leaves the hustle and bustle behind. This is really key to avoiding long term burnout.
Thanks for reading! I hope these tips help reduce your work stress, keep your home life happy, and make you feel great about your productivity. Let’s work smarter, because we all work too many hours already.