(It’s probably not quite what you expect)
I wrote a blog back in 2016 called 5 Time Management Tips for Useless Time Managers. I was doing a lot of part-time freelance work at the time, but a great deal has changed since then. Not just for me, not just for my generation, but for the whole world.
While I am not new to working from home, I am new to it being my full-time working environment, and in these (desperately tries to use a different word) unprecedented times *shudder*, I felt it was worth revisiting the topic. I’ve changed. My career has changed. The world has changed. Let’s make it work for us.
There are so many articles telling us how to be more productive, how to clean the house and learn a language before the sun has risen: how to “have it all”, but I have found these rigid, and sometimes punishing, schedule ideas to be unsustainable and misery inducing as I fail to make it more than three days in a row.
So, without further ado, here are my eight tips for a productive and happy working day, taking into account mental health by being kind to yourself and easing off the pressure.
Disclaimer: I am already not following much of my own advice, as I type from the sofa in my PJs at nine o’clock in the evening but, hey, that’s sort of the point of this article. Also I’m the boss now.
This was initially the last point on my list but I felt it was important to read the rest of this article with this in mind.
Go easy on yourself. Some things will be more relevant to you than others – obviously working from home for a company will not allow you the same scheduling freedoms as being your own boss, just like running your own business but having to care for dependents introduces another cog to the machine. However, no matter our responsibilities, our personal daily struggles, visible or invisible, one thing you can do is to go easy on yourself.
I don’t expect the remaining seven tips to be new to you, especially if you’ve been wrestling with working for home for a year or more but I hope I can share some ways I have found to find a little more peace with my own company and as always I’d love to hear from you if you have any tips to share.
If you are working for yourself, then the great news is this is up to you. Not a morning person? Don’t start early in the morning. Enjoy working out at lunchtime? Schedule it in.
Yes, research has shown there are so many benefits to getting up early but let’s face it, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for productivity. Take ‘The 5am Club’. Personally, I love the concept – taking an hour before the day really begins to do 20 minutes of working out, 20 minutes of study and 20 minutes of planning. However, I don’t know about you, but there is no way I am getting up at 5am unless I’m getting a flight somewhere. I’ve tried. It just isn’t for me.
So I’m here to tell you, the good news is you can adapt! You can redesign! You have the technology! Why not make your own 6am or 7am club, or – wait for it – take an hour in the evening instead? Shocker, I know.
Experiment with your time, see what works best for you. You don’t have to over-complicate and fill each second unless that really is what gets you out of bed in the morning.
Routine gives us a sense of control in an upside-down world. After years of commuting, working, cooking, going to the gym, picking up children (yours, I hope), collapsing into bed at night, and repeating this five days a week, the pandemic days can seem vast and unsettling. A simple and flexible routine will still give you structure but also allow you to factor in time for rest and relaxation that you didn’t have before.
“Having a routine takes away the element of decision-making … and removes additional uncertainty”Adrienne Herbet, Power Hour
Forced working from home had thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands, of people scrabbling around for a desk, a spare chair and just somewhere to sit and get things done. Defining your working space both physically and mentally is simple in theory but obviously poses unique challenges for each of us. Some people are lucky enough to have a spare room: an office already, others are using a desk in the bedroom, or the kitchen table. I am lucky to have some choice. I move between my home office and the kitchen table daily, and I like the different spaces depending on what I’m working on.
If you are working with limited resources however, there are some key things you can do to help yourself get physically and mentally in the right space for work. Try pinning up a notice board in your eyeline, this can be used for daily tasks or inspiration.
Physically define the space, maybe with a rug, or room divider. If you have a separate room, close the door, communicate with family or housemates about needing to be undisturbed. I am aware this is not easy with children in the house.
And finally, get to know yourself and what works. As I’ve mentioned before, experiment, and find what works for you. A view out the window is helpful to some but wholly distracting to others. I can see into at least 5 gardens and a few living rooms from my office which doesn’t always help keep my mind on the task at hand.
We all know this one. Even if we don’t act on it. While I’m not about to install a treadmill desk, I have become a convert to getting up off my seat to have a break, and not just the tea and biscuits kind.
There is an absolute wealth of content on YouTube these days to help you here. You don’t need to get changed, you certainly don’t need to be a gym buff or a yoga bunny: it is not as much of a faff as you imagine. Try one of these five minute desk yoga videos from SarahBethYoga. You barely need to move from your chair, but I guarantee you will feel better for it. Seriously.
Another way to wake up and define your days is to create your own fake commute. This has become easier now the days are getting longer. I take my dog for a walk every morning and found myself celebrating the end of a day by closing my laptop, tidying work stuff away from sight and going for a short wander round the park before coming home and settling into the evening. This has worked wonders for clearing my head and it is a sneaky bit of extra exercise too.
The benefits don’t stop there. This kind of bookend to your day can help give you a reason to get dressed – even if it is just old gym gear – and then look forward to getting your pjs back on at the end of the day. Feel free to go out in your jimjams of course but, and bear with me on this, it’s too easy to allow the days and weeks and months to become an amorphous blob of time and space, during which you occasionally wonder when you last changed out of this particular jumper that may, or may not, have ancient egg residue on it from a mid-morning brunch sometime in the distant past. I still love and enjoy a pyjama day mid-week, that’s the joy of working from home, but I truly believe getting dressed is one of the gentlest ways to start getting back into a routine if you are struggling. Even washing your face and putting some jeans can inspire you nip to the corner shop which can be just the thing to get yourself going again.
Also, I don’t want to frighten anyone, that’s very not the vibe of this article, but have you heard that SITTING IS THE NEW SMOKING ? So take that ciggie for a walk once in a while.
By the way I am not endorsing smoking. Nor am I telling you to stop. You should. So should I. But we know that anyway. Just remember to stand up, dance around, touch your toes, shake your arms and just move your body a few times a day.
The big one. The most distracting thing ever. Do you pick up your phone to send an email/check the time/call your mum but then all of a sudden, its 2 hours later and you’re on Facebook having totally forgotten why you picked the bloody thing up in the first place? Me too.
We are all prone to distraction from our smart phones. If you can, leave it in another room while you are working. But, if you need to actually use it for phone calls (people do that, right?) then try activating some of the phone’s built in focus modes, you can customise it to only allow phone calls, imagine that!
If you can afford to do without phone calls for 20 mins or more, you might like this app Forest: Stay focussed. You choose a length of time to focus for and it plants virtual trees while you work. It can also play forest sounds which is lovely and soothing, and conducive to helping you focus. I have zero affiliation with the makers of this app by the way, just a fan.
Eat your lunch away from your desk. I was bad at this even when I worked in an office, but it is so good. It works in the same way as taking short breaks to stretch or walk around the block. It helps you to be more productive when you return to your desk and you’ll enjoy eating more.
Something else I have learnt over the last year is this: while I love to cook, and initially revelled in working from home allowing me to cook lovely homemade treats every lunchtime, I found I spent way too long doing it. I also frequently ended up making enormous meals that put me to sleep for the afternoon. Now, I try to plan and pre-make my lunches. I’m not talking about making 35 meals on a Sunday night, but whenever I have time, I might make lunch for a couple of days, or shock horror, sometimes I buy a few prepacked salads from Asda because it’s easy.
By doing this you give yourself a proper break at lunch, with time to eat and relax afterwards.
You might not even eat lunch.
(If you don’t usually eat lunch, please don’t start on my account.)
Rest & Reward.
After a certain amount of time in front of a screen, it becomes difficult to remain focussed and productive. Knowing when to stop and take a short break is as important as doing the work. By never leaving your desk, tasks drag on and on when you could genuinely have completed them in under an hour. Longer tasks need fresh eyes for new perspectives.
With the office being at home, it can be difficult to know when to stop. Some of the ideas discussed above, like the fake commute, really do help give a definitive start and end to your day. I know sometimes we have to work late and start early but pay attention to yourself and get to know when your focus has gone. A break will allow you to come back fighting. Incorporating rest is something we all struggle with but given the flexibility to use your time in your own way you can carve out a balanced and easier lifestyle.
Try your utmost to have at least one day off a week. A full one. Every week.
“Routine makes room for rest … it doesn’t have to be perfect, and it won’t be perfect but structuring our days increases the likelihood of that bit of respite occurring.”Sarah Crosby, from her book 5 Minute Therapy
Remember to reward yourself, you deserve it. Breaks throughout the day can be taken after completing certain tasks, or a goal you set yourself in the morning. Have a brew and a biscuit, or water and some fruit, have a bit of celery if that’s what floats your boat. From experience, I’d save the glass of wine until the end of the day as it tends to have an adverse effect on my productivity.
Unless of course your day’s task is to drink the wine, in which case, chin chin!
Not-So-Secret Tip Number 9.
This is your reward for making it this far. Congratulations! Thank you for sticking with me. I have really loved writing this article.
I care passionately about mental health awareness and writing a blog about tips to work from home was always going to heavily lean on ideals of kindness and ease. Working and being on your own all day every day is undeniably difficult and combatting loneliness is paramount. So, Not-So-Secret Tip Number 9 has two parts:
a) Send a message or a voicenote to someone on your lunchbreak. Hell, give them a call if you know how to use your phone in that way. You never know how much it might mean to someone or what delight you might get in reply. Do it today.
b) Never be afraid to reach out if you are struggling. If you feel as though you have no one to talk to, talk to me. I mean it. contact me via my website, social media or WhatsApp. But I guarantee I’m not the only one who would be happy to hear from you.
Look after yourselves, I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I did writing it. Let me know if you have any magic tips or unusual work from home strategies! As always, I’d love to hear from you.
Now get back to work you lazy bums.