Productivity during a pandemic

The abrupt switch to working from home utterly destroyed my routines and with them my ability to get anything done. A long period of floundering later, I realized the problem wasn’t fixing itself and I needed to be more deliberate about my approach. This post contains some suggestions to hopefully help you work more effectively from home.

Get some distance

The physical distance between the lab and my home naturally translated to a mental distance between my mindsets at work and at home that allowed me to be productive. When working from home there was no longer any physical (and therefore mental) distance separating my work life from my home life. I had been relying on physical distance to get into a productive mindset, but there’s no reason other types of distance couldn’t have a similar effect. Working in the lab—surrounded by the familiar sights, sounds, and smells (e.g., musty conference proceedings from the 1980s) of the lab—made it easy to slip into a productive frame of mind and work for hours. Increasing the mental distance between work and home when they’re the same physical place necessitates changing other aspects of the experience of working in order to build associations that allow us to easily get into a productive mindset.

Train your senses

One way to differentiate work life and home life is to train your senses. Try designating an area of a room solely for work, possibly in a corner to limit distractions, and ideally near a window to let your eyes focus on something further away from time to time. This ensures you see the same sights whenever you work and associate them with productivity. You can take this idea further by incorporating your other senses as well. You’ll likely hear many of the same sounds every time you work simply by being in your dedicated work space. However, if your work space is part of your home, you’ll probably hear these sounds regardless of whether you’re working or not. To create the mental distance that separates work and home life, it can be helpful to have some sounds you only hear while working. This could be ambient noise like waves, rain, or coffee shop sounds, or it could be a specific playlist or genre of music you find it easy to work to.1

Consider keeping a scented candle, diffuser, or aromatic plant like lavender on your desk so that you smell the same scents (hopefully pleasant) every time you work.

Give yourself a choice

You can either work or do nothing at all.2 Doing nothing sounds reasonable, but when you actually do it you realize why it’s used as a punishment for children in the form of time outs: it sucks! The fact that you have a choice relieves you of the feeling that you’re forcing yourself to work, but the boredom of doing nothing can often make work seem more appealing. When you choose to work, it makes work become something you actually want to do, not just something you tell yourself you want to do.

Pomodoro technique

Set a timer for work periods, and for break periods. For work, set it for a time that feels bearable. For breaks, set a time that feels like it should be enough.

  1. For some reason I find horror soundtracks soothing. 

  2. This includes thinking.