For anyone who just emerged from cryogenic sleep, here’s where things stand: we’re feverishly scrambling to deal with a pervasive plague-lite that may not have the lethality of its pandemic predecessors but definitely has enough bite to cost many lives and damage many others. Yes, the COVID-19 outbreak has turned our lives upside-down, and a return to normality is far off.
Instead of being consumed by mad panic, though, we need to do the pragmatic thing and do our best to get on with our lives. That means looking after ourselves as best we can, finding ways to socialise despite the social distancing (with video conferencing playing a huge role), and working hard to keep money coming in and food on our tables.
Unfortunately, each one of these actions poses a significant challenge. It’s tough to focus on your wellbeing when the future seems so bleak. It’s hard to accept the limitations of virtual socialising when you know how much more meaningful it is to be with friends in person. And as for working hard, well, how can anyone concentrate with everything that’s going on?
Well, I don’t have any tips for the first problem (my wellbeing is questionable) or the second one (my social activity is currently nonexistent), but I do have some useful notes concerning productivity while working remotely as the world falls apart around you. Here they are:
Assemble a decent home office
What do you make of the setup in the featured image? Would you want to work using a laptop unmoored on a small desk and flanked by a stack of magazines? It’s the kind of arrangement that sounds fine — after all, it’s informal and relaxed in defiance of the classic office structure.
But that office structure exists for a reason: it reliably produces results. And if you want to get work done on a regular basis, you need to assemble a sensible home office workspace.
So what does such a workspace require? Well, here are some important components: strong lighting, a good chair, useful peripherals, multiple monitors, and minimal clutter. Those might be excellent magazines, but they shouldn’t be in your eyeline while you’re working or they’ll distract you (however slightly).
If you’re reluctant to invest in your workspace, see if your employer will contribute. Knowing how it will affect your productivity, they’ll probably be willing to chip in.
Dress like a functional person
You don’t need to wear formal attire when you’re working from home. If you want to put on a professional blazer or blouse, you’re certainly welcome to, but it won’t make a huge difference to how you feel.
What will make a difference, though, is making a commitment to dressing like a functional person. In other words, not trying to get work done while wearing pyjamas.
You can dress in comfortable casual clothing and still be totally professional; plenty of industries have known this for years, after all (seeing the average web developer in interview garb would be strange indeed). But it’s rather harder to sit around half-dressed and feel like a competent adult. That’s something people do when they’re unemployed, and when you act like someone who’s unemployed, you end up being roughly as productive as they would be.
Make good use of your downtime
When you’re done with work for the day, what do you do? If you just sit there at your work computer, picking away at tasks and doing little else, that’s a sad indictment of your free time — though it isn’t exactly unheard of. Many people have essentially lost their social lives due to COVID-19. Now that they work from home and don’t have anywhere else to go, they just sit around and stop delineating between work and free time.
It’s absolutely vital that you don’t fall into that trap. Your downtime isn’t just important for raising your general contentment: it’s also important for improving your productivity. Olympic-level athletes eat very cleanly most of the time, yet they have staggering cheat meals from time to time because they need to get away from their routines. Those cheat meals aren’t purely about enjoyment, too: they also induce enough disgust that clean eating once again seems preferable. The more you do with your downtime, the easier you’ll find it to focus on work.
Count your myriad blessings
Sure, things are terrible right now. There’s no point in pretending otherwise. But put your life, specifically, into context. Aren’t you relatively fortunate both globally and historically? You’re reading a piece about working from home, suggesting that you A: have a home and B: have a job. Those things alone place you in a better position than many others.
Counting your blessings is important here for two reasons.
Firstly, it’ll spark a small measure of guilt. Other people with far less are doing everything they can to make the most of their lives. Shouldn’t you do the same?
And secondly, it’ll remind you of what you still have to lose. You’re not even close to rock-bottom, and if you want to safeguard the positive things in your life, your best option is to focus on staying productive and proving your value.
Focus on what you can control
There’s a huge range of trite suggestions that you’ll hear again and again if you’re persistently in need of advice. Suggestions like “just be yourself”, “time heals all wounds”, and “you need to focus on what you can control” are very familiar — but that doesn’t mean they’re worthless. They’re actually hugely meaningful, but they feel hollow because we’re used to hearing them and totally ignoring them. We’ve almost ruined them through overuse.
With that in mind, you should revisit the concept of focusing on what you can control. You can’t make COVID-19 go away no matter how much you worry about it. You can’t stop travel restrictions no matter how eager you are to leave the country.
Spending time thinking about those things is totally pointless. You can’t outright prevent yourself from dwelling on them (that’s not how the human mind works), but you can make an effort to minimise those thoughts.
Stop being too hard on yourself
Lastly, something that’s extremely important for your productivity is being kind to yourself when it comes to your mistakes. We all make mistakes at the best of times, and when times get really stressful, we make even more mistakes. So maybe you’ve shamed yourself somehow this year. Maybe you’ve turned to alcohol or food to make yourself feel better. Maybe you’ve made some stupid financial decisions. Maybe you’ve wasted your free time.
When your thoughts linger on all your mistakes, they can’t focus on the work you should be doing — and when you have a terrible self-image, you can’t trust in your ability to complete your work competently. So forgive yourself for the mistakes you’ve made. 2020 needs to be a write-off in various ways. What matters is that you’re still here and still working. Take a deep breath, remind yourself that you’re a decent person and a skilled professional, and refocus.
These tips should help you get more work done while you’re stuck at home trying to steer clear of COVID-19.
In the end, though, it’s all about doing what’s right for you, so don’t put all your trust in third-party suggestions. You need to decide for yourself what your optimal home office arrangement involves. Good luck!