Working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 is a challenge. This entry grew out of emails that I wrote to students who asked me about strategies to help them focus on their work.
From my students I hear that they are coping very differently with the current state of COVID-19 self-isolation: Some are being very productive because they have fewer distractions, others find it hard to focus on anything in their confined living situations. From my colleagues, I hear much the same.
I agree that staying focused and being productive is difficult, especially when home office is the only option and there is no real frame to structure our days and divide work time from non-work time. Because I struggle with that myself, I want to share some strategies that – sometimes – work for me.
This is in no way intended as a guide: different things work for different people. But maybe some of you find a strategy they hadn’t known about and feel inspired to try it.
I lower my expectations
Yes, that’s right. No. 1 productivity tip: embrace the un-productivity. I simply accept that during this stressful time, I’ll get less done.
First of all, I remind myself that I cannot just cram more work into the time that I would normally spend commuting, or having coffee with colleagues, or meeting friends, or taking calligraphy workshops. I don’t expect myself to be more productive just because I have ‘more time’ that I can spend sitting at my desk.
But even getting the same amount of work done can be hard, for reasons that are not always easy to see. The circumstances under which we live have suddenly changed so dramatically that the stress of adapting to it is reason enough without knowing what exactly is stressing us out.
For me personally, grocery shopping has become super stressful just because some of my fellow shoppers behave carelessly – I feel I need time to recover from every run to the store. I really miss being close to my friends and favourite colleagues. I have to find new ways of communicating with people and every act of communication takes longer now. I’m sensitive to sound, so every meeting on Skype or Zoom with their tinny and choppy voice transmission easily grates on my nerves and becomes exhausting fast. The constant stream of bad news is depressing me and I have to spend energy to distance myself from it.
All these factors are part of the overall stress level of living during the pandemic. I acknowledge that and accept that it is simply impossible to keep up a level of productivity that feels comparable to the time before the pandemic.
I feel that this acceptance enables me to prioritize my tasks according to lowered expectations, to put ‘less on my plate’, to say “no” to new tasks more readily, or to embrace mediocrity for tasks where excellence is not really that important.
I work at night
I enjoy working late at night, some time between 9pm and 3am, when there’s no reason to be writing emails or enjoy the sun or roam kitchen cupboards for snacks ... – when the world has come to a stop, in a sense. I may put on work music, for example some drum and bass tunes or other electronic music.
This puts me into a zone where I can easily get a couple of hours of focused work done. During the day I allow myself to do other stuff, like sleep in, enjoy the sun in the garden, read books or watch TV series, do quick admin work,
(who am I kidding). or do the washing up
During normal semesters before the pandemic, this wasn’t usually possible because I had seminars or appointments for which I had to get up early. But now there’s no reason for me not to sleep until 11am, start the day slowly, and get work done at night.
I don’t do social media (much)
It does help with staying focused that I don’t own a smartphone. I also have a habit of not-saving login data for social media websites in my browser, so that I have to manually login everytime I visit the site, which is enough hassle that I don’t do it more than once or twice a week.
This is a natural way for me to limit the temptations of meme groups or cat pictures, which can be a warm and fuzzy source of distraction.
I count time, not pages
A mindset that I learned the hard way over the years is to think about academic work in terms of ‘time spent on’ not in terms of ‘amount of pages written’. Writing just doesn’t work in a mechanical way so that you can say, “oh, because I can type out a page per 30 minutes, I should be able to write 12 pages in six hours”.
So, I set achievable goals like “write on X for two hours today” – where ‘write’ means ‘engage with the text’. This encompasses the production of new text, but also research, reading, note-taking, revising existing text, or making it look professional.
Sometimes I use the Pomodoro method, which breaks down the time I spend on a task and schedules frequent pauses. This helps me to not feel overwhelmed by a larger task, and it also creates a sense of achievement when I track the amount of intervals (‘pomodoros’) I have already worked on something.
I prioritize the quick or the cool tasks
Because I use a bullet journal to keep track of tasks, I already have a habit of creating daily To Do lists. To be able to work through them, I practice to make myself aware of the time a task will need or how much time I actually want to spend on it.
Then I do those tasks first that can be completed in little or limited time, like for example ‘send files to colleague: 5 mins’, ‘read student paper and write response: 2x30 mins’, ‘memo notes business call: 10 mins’, ‘check publication proofs one last time: 60 mins’. It motivates me to see that I can actually do several of those smaller tasks within the span of an hour, and the longer tasks seem less daunting when my To Do list is already half done.
When I tackle tasks that are part of a larger project, like all professional writing I do, I start with the tasks that are the most fun to work on. In my academic writing, this is usually literary analysis (as opposed to writing the introduction or a theory chapter), but it can change depending on what I’m currently writing. In general, I free myself from the idea that I need to write certain bits of a paper before I can write the bits that I want to write.
I try to celebrate achievements
This Sunday, I baked a delicious brioche loaf as a reward for a fairly productive week in which I graded several term papers, wrote about 100 emails, and got some writing done on three different projects. I planned for it on Monday, I shopped for it on Thursday, and by Saturday I was really looking forward to it.
Daily rewards are good when I’m already focused enough to write daily, like saying “Okay, I’ll put in one more hour after dinner and then I’ll play my favourite video game/read this great book/binge this silly TV series for the rest of the evening”.
It’s important to note, though, that my rewards are not conditional on actually having done work: I’m not punishing myself by denying myself the brioche or the gaming if I don’t manage to be productive. It’s a matter of planning nice things for myself and framing them as a celebration to look forward to.
I don’t find this easy because I have internalized a terrible work ethics (especially prominent at university) where 10 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year is the quota that is expected almost as a matter of course. Scholars often seem to pretend that their work doesn’t happen ‘on the clock’ but that scholarship is the clock and that academic work is not labour so much as it is life.
Putting it like that makes obvious that this is really unhealthy, but for many of us it’s not easy to free ourselves from the guilt that goes along with working reasonable hours instead of insane ones.
So, I try to take a moment every day or at least once a week to consciously appreciate what I did get done and that it brought me closer to a larger goal. And then I pick out a special something to celebrate this achievement.
Do you have strategies to be focused in this strange time, which feel both functional and healthy to you?