How to Increase Productivity While Working from Home

Remote work has experienced more than 159% growth over the past 15 years, but many Americans are working from home exclusively for the first time due to COVID-19. Whether you are among this group, or if you’re an experienced telecommuter but you’re not well-versed at working from home during a pandemic (spoiler: none of us are), you may have begun to experience some serious cabin fever.

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Recreating the normal workday while isolated at home is nearly impossible. So how do you take good mental care of yourself and work productively from home? Consider reframing it completely. Your COVID-19 workday does not need to look like your workday during normal periods of life. It can’t and it won’t. So, here are four ways to rethink productivity, give yourself some grace, and get things done while working from home.

First, identify what matters most for you to accomplish each day and week. Plug these projects into your calendar first. At the beginning of the week (or at the end of the prior week on Friday afternoons if you’re a Laura Vanderkam disciple like me) jot down what needs to be accomplished in the days ahead in order for you to win. What will move the needle? What will really have an impact? Then estimate how long each project will take and block out time on your calendar to tackle these projects first. Attacking your most important projects this way, as opposed to just making a laundry list of “To Do’s” will help you stay focused in a highly distracting environment. Identify these five to ten most important projects and put them on your schedule first. Then schedule other less important items around them. Even if you are short on time or focus on a given day, if you knock one of the high value items off of your list, you have cause for celebration.

Second, create a work from home schedule that includes realistic allotments of time for projects and breaks. Sitting at your desk in solitude for the better part of eight hours a day is not a recipe for physical or mental health. Instead, break up the day by quarters or even 90-minute sprints. Schedule breaks to exercise, eat, get outside, or take a nap. And give yourself firm parameters for how long you will spend on a given project. According to Parkinson’s Law, “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Test that law by giving yourself a firm 90-minute window to get a project complete. I have found that when working from home I can often get deep work done more quickly than I can in the office because I have more control over interruptions. (No colleagues popping in to say, “Got a second?”) This is a great opportunity to experiment and see if you can push the boundaries of accomplishing more with less time. What you might normally try to accomplish by lunch may be possible to complete by 10:00 instead. You can celebrate that win by investing more time in self-care: yoga, a jog, or playing with your dog are all good ideas.

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Third, adjust your routine to better match your natural rhythm. If you’re not sure what rhythm of productivity works best for you, keep a journal by your computer. When you get to a point where you’ve reached your concentration capacity and you feel the impulse to click over to a news site or a social media app, jot that down. After a couple of days of tracking your time and focus, you should be able to see what Daniel Pink, in his book When, calls your “peak” time of concentration, your “trough,” and your “recovery” periods. According to Pink, “For most of us, the pattern goes like this: Peak-Trough-Recovery. That is, the morning is our Peak, the early-to-mid-afternoon is our Trough, and the early evening is our Recovery. However, for people who are strong [night] owls, the pattern moves in the reverse order: Recovery in the morning, Trough in the early-to-mid-afternoon, and Peak in the late afternoon and into the evening.” Working from home may give you the opportunity to flex your schedule so you can work when you are feeling most alert and creative, even if that is 9 PM. And for parents who are home with kids, you can set aside a few hours of work to be done after the children are in bed.

Fourth, take heart. This will not last forever. Working from home with no access to the office and no option to relocate to a coworking space or a coffee shop is difficult. And for most of us, this way of life does not feel sustainable long-term. If you have felt the pangs of discomfort, loneliness, and anxiety, you are not alone. Your co-workers, clients, colleagues, and customers have felt these too. So, if you feel disappointed in yourself, anxious about another day that is no different than yesterday, remember to give yourself a break. Things are difficult. We are all making sacrifices and this season of sacrifice will eventually end. So, do what you can to make today a success, then give yourself a break, and try again tomorrow.

Whether you have fallen in love with working in sweat pants or you are dying to get back to the office and around humans you are not related to, work right now is going to feel a little bit different than “normal” work, so take care of yourself, look for opportunities to optimize, and remember, this is temporary.

Hilary Sutton is a DC-area writer, consultant, and speaker, passionate about helping people spend their days in work that is wildly fulfilling. She is the host of the podcast, “Hustle and Grace with Hilary Sutton.”

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