Liz Harrison

Need to boost your pandemic productivity?

“Will someone please get the cat puke out of the laundry basket?”

Being a realist I knew it wouldn’t happen, but I had to give it a shot, right? And that, ladies and gentleman, is how this day started for me.

I’ve been working from home for years, so I’m accustomed to the idea of multi-tasking, working in short spurts, and (sometimes literally) putting out fires when they pop up. Today’s menu is an “off” day for client work, because I’ve put off doing “my stuff” for months now. I need to find more gigs, and need to re-do my presence on the web, so here I am, writing pearls of wisdom for the masses who got thrown into the wonderful world of working from home.

Everyone is offering productivity advice these days, right?

Think like a gig worker.

Gig workers tend to take work in relatively small bits – deadline work. We’re aware of how long it takes to do the tasks we contract ourselves out to perform, so we can tell a potential client when to expect a finished product.

Traditional employees have a similar arrangement in the sense that they have a limited number of hours per week when they are physically present in their place of employment. Now, if they are working from home, those specific time constraints don’t necessarily apply. If you’re lucky, you are able to do business as usual, just without a commute – keep your regular hours from your living room.

Most likely, you’re splitting your hours up into little chunks throughout the day and evening, to accommodate the needs of others in your household. You can’t help with home school tech problems and do your own job at the same time. A gig worker’s daily schedule might look like a checkerboard filled with multiple jobs for multiple clients. If they’re highly efficient and disciplined, they don’t do “overtime” unless they have absolutely no choice.

Shifting gears is the norm. Today is laundry day here, since I got the not-so-subtle hint from my husband that it’s time. When his boxers show up on a peg with his towel in the bathroom, I know he’s pondering recycling because the drawer is bare. At least we’ve gotten this down to non-verbal cues!

What does that mean for my work day? Well, I have interrupted myself based on the buzzer from the dryer for most of the day. That was probably a good thing, because I actually ditched an earlier draft of this. (Take my word for it, you should be thankful!) I was in “stereo instruction” mode when I initially sat down to type, probably because I had been re-reading the instructions for our dishwasher.

Set priorities and stick to them.

Today’s priority was to get at least a post or three written for this blog, and tie up the remaining loose ends in the back-end of the site. Basically, get this puppy ready to go live. Second priority was to get the laundry done (whilst avoiding the urge to evict the cat), and third was to scrape together something resembling a meal for whoever happens to be in the house at dinner hour. Feeding the inmates is low priority today because one already has a dinner arranged, and the other two are champion scavengers of the refrigerator, particularly on this day of the week – the day before garbage day.

If this was a normal work day, that list would be filled with deadlines. Highest priority is given to whatever is due first, followed closely by whatever will take the most time to complete (if it’s not the same thing.) Personally, my to-do list tends to be broken into one hour slots. I’m not a morning person, so first items in the morning tend to require the least brain power which leaves time for the caffeine to kick in. If I work on anything for more than a few hours at a time, it’s a rarity. Usually I’ll go from editing a book, to writing brochures, to editing articles, and back to the book, or something like that. The point is that there’s nothing wrong with shifting gears, and honestly, it tends to help most people be more productive. Repetitive work is brain numbing, and numb brains are only good for playing solitaire.

Stay away from goals.

Note that this is the first time I’m mentioning that word. I don’t set goals. I prioritize. It’s semantics, but words can be very powerful. There is nothing worse than getting yourself down over the fact that you happened to fail to meet a goal one day. It’s important to devote your time to what needs the most urgent attention. If you’re realistic about your abilities to do any given task, set aside enough blocks of time to actually do it, you will manage to get it done. Until you get really good at estimating the time you need to do things, add time. Give yourself an extra hour or two.

Don’t just sit there. Do something!

Most importantly, when you catch yourself staring blankly at the screen and doing nothing, get away from whatever it is in front of you. This is arguably the biggest productivity killer in the office setting, especially if you have supervisors who hover and get annoyed when you walk away from the grind. Forcing workers to sit at their desks when they hit a brick wall mentally is counterproductive.

Do a lap around the house. Go outside for some fresh air. Take a shower. Just try to avoid true time stealing activities like video games, social media, etc. Your problem is that your brain is tired of dealing with screen time. Don’t switch it up with a different kind of screen. Sure, it might help you jump start your thinking, but it’s more likely to just suck you in. Wait until quitting time for the fun screen stuff.

Recycling is for soda cans, not priority lists.

Finally, at the end of each day, get a new sheet of paper or open a brand new notepad file. Make your priority list for the next day. Don’t just copy/paste what wasn’t done onto the new day’s list. Re-word it. Throw away today’s page or file. Bottom line – do not allow yourself to get upset about what didn’t get done. It’s not worth it, and it will only make it more likely that you’ll spend more time spinning your wheels.

When you finish work for the day, put it away. Literally set aside the laptop, unless you’re using it for something fun. Create a separate user on your computer if you have to. Put “fun stuff” on the screen for after work, and keep “work stuff” in its own profile.

Don’t answer work calls after quitting time if you can avoid them without losing your job. Basically, keep the work/life boundaries you had before you started working from home. If you weren’t expected to deal with work things after you left the office, you shouldn’t now just because your office is at home. Quit answering after your normal quitting time. Sure, your boss might try to push it. Ask the obvious question: If it wasn’t “ok” for you to insist on me answering your calls after work before all of this, why is it acceptable now?

The key to increasing productivity while working from home is to manage distractions, set boundaries on your time, and keep your priorities straight. Simply put, learn to work to live, instead of living to work.

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