Change your PJs and other strategies to make working from home sustainable

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I am certain that at some point you too fantasized about working from home. Imagine waking up half an hour later, refreshed. Having plenty of time for breakfast and not thinking about the morning commute. Looking forward to spending more time with loved ones, while also being more productive. Sounds like a haven of well-being and productivity, doesn’t it?

Working from home used to be a luxury afforded to freelancers and those employed by companies in certain industries like technology. But the COVID-19 pandemic changed all that. With most companies forced to shut down their offices, we’ve become test subjects, Guinee pigs, in the “world’s largest work-from-home experiment”, as Time magazine put it. So how has this been working out for you until now? Have you discovered the haven you were imagining?

Whether it’s a pile of laundry or your child interrupting your Zoom meetings, staying productive (and sane) while working from home is quite a challenge. When you factor in the draining effects of social distancing, you start missing those noisy colleagues who were otherwise a distraction.

At Moonstar, we’re constantly researching science-backed techniques to boost our productivity and unleash our best self, even when working from home. We’ve experimented quite a bit and want to share our tried-and-tested strategies for staying both productive and sane during this time. The three strategies below have helped us tremendously through the years and hopefully they will do the same for you. Be sure to align them with your own preferences and circumstances and you’ll eventually reframe time at home as more of an opportunity, rather than strict confinement.

 

Set up a designated workspace

The company office acts as a physical cue, nudging you to get into work mode every time you step in. Being productive while working from home starts with re-creating this cue. Choose a spot as your home office and go there every day to work. This will put you in the right mental state. Here are four tips for choosing the best place.

  • Pick a separate room. Ideally, you want to be able to close the door, so you can concentrate fully and avoid distractions coming from family members. If a separate room isn’t an option, find a spot or area with low traffic.
  • Ensure you have plenty of natural light. It will improve your mood and energy, keeping you alert throughout the day. According to research done by Future Workplace, an HR advisory firm, employees rate natural light as the number one office perk.
  • Keep it clutter-free. While messy spaces can enhance creative work, having a desk stacked with papers will generally make you lose focus. Put away everything you’re not actively using for the task at hand and keep your workspace tidy.
  • Have a plant close by. The color green is a reminder of nature, something we have less opportunity to connect with at this time. What’s more, a study from the University of Exeter found that having a few plants in the office amounts to a 15% increase in productivity.

Want one extra tip? Don’t spend time in this spot outside working hours. It’s much easier for your brain to switch from ‘focused’ to ‘relaxed’ when you associate these two mental states with different places in your home. In the words of Laura Mae Martin, Google’s in-house productivity expert: “As much as you can, try to create those boundaries for your brain – that will both help you relax and it’ll help you focus when you are in that space.”

 

Create a work routine

The scariest thing about this pandemic? Its unpredictability, which causes us a lot of anxiety. The antidote? Routine. While it sounds monotonous, a routine is very useful for curbing fear and anxiety because it acts as an anchor. You design it end-to-end, which helps you regain a sense of control and has a profoundly calming effect. It is also something you become really good at doing, since you do it consistently. According to Harvard psychologist Susan David, “Establishing a routine, keeping a schedule and striving for some form of consistency helps you focus, monitor your progress on goals and experience a greater sense of competence”.

Wondering how to create a grounding work routine? Here are five steps to guide you:

1. Keep your morning ritual

When you head to the office, you go through a predefined sequence of steps: wake up, have breakfast, shower, dress up. All those actions mentally prepare you for work, so stick with them every morning, instead of rolling out of bed and firing emails. This also includes changing out of your comfy pajamas, regardless of whether you have meetings or not.

2. Be creative around your commute

The commute to and from the office helps ease you into work mode. Re-create it with simple activities, such as: going for a short walk, reading a few pages, writing in your gratitude journal, meditating, or whatever works for you. Ideally, you would do the same thing in the morning and evening, but you can also choose different activities. For example, choose something energizing, like walking, to get your day started. Alternatively, to ease you out of work mode, choose something soothing, like meditation.

3. Set a clear working schedule

Ideally, you want to stick by your regular schedule, but the key is to start and end your workday at the same time. Let your family know when you are off limits. What’s more, avoid doing chores during these hours – reserve this time for work-related tasks only.

4. Take smart breaks

In the office, interactions with colleagues offer opportunities to recharge. But when working from home, you’ll need to be intentional about regularly stepping away. Don’t eat in front of the computer. When your energy is low, try taking a short walk outside (Charles Darwin did this frequently when writing On the origin of species). Don’t turn to news or social media during this time off.

5. Design a shutdown ritual

Computer scientist and author Cal Newport recommends creating this ritual to mark a clear ending to your workday. First, check your inbox for any pending requests or new tasks. Second, update your to do list by checking off completed items and adding those that emerged from your email. Third, track progress on your most important goals and celebrate the small wins of the day. And last, shut down your computer and embark on your ‘commute’ – close the circle using the same activity you did in the morning or choose something more calming. If you want more details, check our blog article on designing a shutdown ritual and the research behind it.

Regain a sense of control and predictability by creating and sticking to a work routine. Ultimately, just like your designated workspace, this routine empowers you to set clear boundaries between work and downtime.

 

Don’t forget your productivity hacks

By now, you must have identified a theme in this article. Staying productive while working from home is all about re-creating your work environment in a specific place of the house and sticking to your regular work habits. This includes your usual productivity techniques. Let’s do a quick recap.

  • Write a powerful to-do list. Ideally, you should do this the evening before, during your shutdown ritual. Avoid lengthy and overwhelming lists by asking yourself – Which are the most impactful three things I can do tomorrow in order to move my most important goals forward? Then focus solely on those.
  • Do the hardest thing first. Identify the most important and complex task that you’re going to feel guilty for not having done and schedule time for it early in the day. As self-help author Brian Tracy is famous for saying, “Eat that frig!”.
  • Schedule deep work sessions. Plan at least one 60-90-minute block of time and dedicate it to cognitively demanding tasks. Start by deciding on a specific time to begin and end your session. Ensure you have everything you need close by: water, sticky notes, relevant documents. After the session, be sure to take a break, to avoid over-exertion.
  • Avoid offline and online distractions. Offline distractions might refer to your phone, chores or family members (including furry ones). For objects, leverage the principle Out of sight, out of mind. Best-selling author James Clear always leaves his phone outside his home office and finds he no longer feels compelled to check it. For people, let them know you’re unavailable by closing the door or sticking a post-it-note on the back of your chair. Noise-cancelling headphones are also great if you live with active children. Similarly, leverage technology to minimize online distractions. Apps or web extensions such as Freedom, RescueTime or Momentum allow you to block websites and keep you focused on your most important goals.

Staying productive while working from home ultimately comes down to the right mindset and habits. If you’re looking for an extra boost, check out Moonstar’s Personal Effectiveness program – a learning journey comprised of five micro-modular digital missions aimed to help you perform at your best.

One last tip?

Limit your news consumption. The often anxiety-inducing rhetoric you come across on social media or news outlets is of little help right now. Use verified sources to keep yourself informed, but set a specific amount of time, such as 10 minutes a day, for that. Outside this interval, block news apps. If you feel yourself overrun with anxiety, take 6-10 deep breaths and think of three things you’re grateful for.

While the implications of COVID-19 are still somewhat unclear, remote work is slowly becoming the new normal. What you learn about staying productive and sane during this time will surely become valuable practice in the future. The question worth asking is: With a great work-from-home routine in place, will you be excited to go back to the office? The jury is still out on that one.

We at Moonstar want to remind everyone transitioning to remote work (maybe for the first time): You’ve got this! Test out these three strategies and adapt them to fit your own preferences. Stay safe and positive!