Have you suddenly found yourself working from home and are struggling to be productive? I have a sneaking suspicion that with the onset of COVID-19 and hordes of people now forced to work remotely, there’ll be a huge drop in productivity globally. Working remotely can be a real challenge: you are alone, you’re in your own home, there are distractions galore and you don’t have colleagues physically next to you as motivation. But, it can be done and done very well.
I’ve been working for myself for six years and working remotely for even longer, and in that time I’ve tried and tested many methods to increase my productivity based on research, books and courses I’ve completed. Here are some tips that have helped me. Hopefully they’ll help you, too.
1. Work out when you are most productive in the day.
For me, I’m most productive first thing in the morning and I get my “second wind” in the evening. As soon as I wake up I’m ready to hit my work. For other people, their most productive time is the afternoon or evening. Work out when you are at your best, and structure your day around that (as much as you can). For example, knowing that I’m at my best in the mornings and evenings, I give myself a big break in the afternoons. So, I’ll work hard in the morning and in the afternoon I’ll take a long break and do housework, go on a run, etc. In the evening I’ll get back to work. There’s little point fighting against when you work at your best. Work with it and your work will flow far better. Here is a fantastic article outlining research on our naturally-preferred times for waking up and therefore productivity. (Did you know that Charles Dickens would write during the day, and then take a very long walk: sometimes covering as much as 30 kilometres in one day?)
2. Train your brain to get into a state of flow.
The concept of “flow” is a well-established concept in Positive Psychology and it describes that state of mind when you are in deep concentration: when time seems to just melt away and you are 100% engaged in the task at hand. This state of mind is also known as “being in the zone”. Being in a state of flow requires that you are doing a task that is: challenging but not overwhelming (a task that will stretch you but isn’t boring or too challenging); and has clear goals and provides instant feedback. Being in this state has been described as
“…being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”Geirland, J., Geirland, J., Finley, K., Matsakis, L., So, A., Barrett, B., Graff, G. and Ray, J., 2020. Go With The Flow. [online] WIRED. Available at: <https://www.wired.com/1996/09/czik/> [Accessed 16 March 2020].
The flow state is deeply productive and there are many ways to get there. Read this piece for more information. For me, I use the power of behavioural psychology and have trained my brain to enter into a state of flow when I listen to a particular music track. I’ve found that minimal electronic music puts my brain into deep concentration – the rhythmic, consistent beats and ambience relax me and focus my attention completely. Distractions melt away into inconsequence.
3. Make a realistic list for your day and week.
Not everyone likes lists, but they can work so well. Each day I use Trello to keep a list of major tasks I wish to complete. The clearer the items, the more likely you will achieve them. For example, if you list “website makeover” this is such a vast project and the goals are not clear. It is highly unlikely you can complete this in one day, anyway. Consider creating a to-do item for each step in that process, so that you can mark off each step as you go without feeling overwhelmed or unsure about what you need to do next.
If you have a big report to write, break it down into components so that you have smaller, achievable goals listed. This way, you can tick off each section as you’ve written it.
Completing any project, whatever the scale, is arguably very simple: pick a realistic date for its completion and work backwards from there. Plot out each step that will need to be completed to move the project to completion, and diarise each of these steps. Then, have daily and weekly goals to complete each step. Before you know it, the project is moving along nicely and you will reach the end goal.
4. Minimise distractions
If you are committed to completing your work, distractions are not going to help. There’s a concept in behavioural science that helps me: it’s called a “Ulysses contract”. This involves making a commitment when you know that the temptation may be too strong to resist. For example, if I know that the temptation of checking my phone is too strong, I will switch it off and place it in another room. For more information on Ulysses contracts, read this. Of course there are apps that switch off social media apps for specified time periods, however I’ve heard too many stories of people who try them but just disable the app. Be strong, close off those distractions and get back to work. You can always schedule time in to check your phone so that you’ve allowed time for it.
5. Track your time
I use software to keep track of time spent on all work-related tasks across my day. After much research I’ve been happily using Harvest for several years. When I worked in the Pharmaceutical Industry I had to track every 15-minute increment of work, billed to projects and tasks. Harvest works similarly. Not only does this keep me on track, but I can run detailed reports to better understand how much time I spend on each task, and therefore how long particular tasks tend to take. (This also helps immensely when we are quoting on projects.) I switch off my timer when I reach for my phone, go to the bathroom or have a meal. This keeps me accountable and I feel guilty if I look at my timer and see that I hadn’t done much productive work in the day. In addition, I’ve found over many years that I now have an excellent understanding of what a “good” work day looks like, in terms of time spent on productive tasks. This completely keeps me on track.
These are some of many ways that I keep myself accountable and productive. I’d love to hear from you: do these tips help? What works for you? What are your experiences of working remotely?
Working from home can be really challenging, but by using methods based on behavioural science we can all work more productively – and happily. The best advice though, is to try a number of methods and assess how they work for you. Over time, you too will develop routines and strategies that see you working at your best.
Note: I am 100% independent and do not receive any kind of commission from any of the articles posted or apps mentioned. I simply love spreading knowledge that can help everyone be as productive and happy as possible.