Many people are working from home for the first time and finding it difficult to be productive in this environment. Having worked from home for 10 years and now juggling this with home schooling my two primary school aged daughters during lockdown, I share some tips for managing.
The immediate environment has a huge influence on our motivations and mood. It also places specific demands on us. When we go to a place of employment, we get ourselves into 'work mode' and there are focused systems and expectations built into how we approach things. At home there is less of a focus on specific tasks. We have more choices and the expectations have a wider origin. Mundane but essential household chores, DIY and gardening, keeping in touch with friends and caring for yourself and your family are the fundamentals. Add in work and homeschooling children, along with handling the flood of information being thrown at us presently, and the demands are too many to manage. At home, time is less structured, tasks are less focused and there are more distractions.
The best starting point to manage all this is routine. Try to get up at a regular time and have some structure to breakfast and the morning's tasks along with a definite 'start of work' activity. Like many others, we have been using Joe Wicks' PE streamed live to get our day going as a family and to stimulate that 'feel good' factor you get with exercise. My children's TV channels or devices going on of a morning is a big no no.
A 'place to work' is also important. I have the luxury of a home office but most newbies to working from home won't. In order to look after yourself you need to put some thought into where you are working and consider how you can look after your posture whilst you work. The same applies to the children.
In order to get the essential school work completed, we have developed a routine of focusing on Maths and English during the first part of the day. My girls still need a reasonable amount of support with these subjects so I need to be fairly hands-on. I can't work and juggle this but I have found that I can carry out the mundane domestic chores reasonably well. I am no domestic goddess but I try to keep on top of the essentials and also get something ready for tea so that I can work later into the day. Lunchtime is 12.30ish and is prepared and taken together followed by our daily walk with the dog. In the afternoon the children 'study' in a more self directed way and understand that Mommy needs to work. Now we have hit the Easter holidays, I am keeping to the same routine but have exchanged school work for quality creative and fun activities and I am happy for them to get slightly bored to spark their own creativity or go back to some school work if they choose.
Morning times are usually my most productive hours so, now that I have hit the afternoon before I start work, I need to try hard to be focused as I find procrastination can be my enemy. As an Occupational Therapist and Case Manager, I often need to get engrossed in my work and go with my flow once it's kicked in. I am usually guilty of working for hours without a break. This approach will not work in the current circumstances so I have had to change my ways.
I came across the Pomodoro Technique which has been going since I was a school girl myself. It was developed in the 80's by Francesco Cirillo. It's a really simple approach which provides a structure for breaking down large tasks into smaller chunks of 'pomodoros' that can be carried out in shorter bursts of time. I set a timer for 25 minutes and give myself specific tasks to complete during that time. After 25 minutes the timer goes off and I take a break. This should include physically moving from my work station, checking in with the children, grabbing a drink and a trip to the loo. After 4 rounds of this I take a longer break. If I am interrupted by the kids or others during my 'pomodoro', I use the strategies suggested by the technique.
I inform them that I am doing something important.
I negotiate a time to address what they need.
I call back at the agreed time to address the matter.
If the kids really do need me then obviously I stop work and re-start the process accordingly.
The 'pomodoros' help me to focus and prevent me procrastinating so that I am productive for the specific chunk of time. I have even started to try to beat the timer. Once I've completed the first round, I find that I have some momentum and my work seems less daunting and more focused. My children can cope with 25 minute chunks, knowing that I am accessible and close by and will be checking in with them fully soon. It is essential to turn my work phone to aeroplane mode and my personal phone to 'do not disturb' during this time because it seems everyone is sending me information constantly at the moment and I need to be in control of my time.
The only equipment needed is a timer however, there are apps such as 30/30 and Focus Booster which can be used if you prefer. It's good to have a timer that you can see, rather than setting an alarm, so you are aware of the count down. The kids can also see this too. It's also useful to have a notebook close by designated to writing down things that pop into my head that I need to deal with to avoid me getting distracting by these thoughts. In addition to this being a useful technique for myself and my peers, the Pomodoro Technique is useful for my clients too. Whether it be someone who has difficulties with concentrating for periods of time or another who fatigues and needs to pace themselves, this technique may be useful.
I have found that I can get a lot of my general work tasks completed efficiently using this technique however sometimes I need to really stay in 'the zone' to get a complex piece of work done. The technique accepts that you need to adjust the times so that you can work through this accordingly. I have found that working for 50 minutes before a break works better in these circumstances and I reflect this in the specific tasks I aim to complete in this time. I try to save these tasks and my direct client telephone or video calls for when my hubby is at home. He is still out at work a lot but home every third working day. I plan ahead for my more in depth and confidential work tasks to be done when he is at home. If all else fails I am guilty of using devices to keep the kids busy which, of course, they are more than happy to oblige. Nanny is always happy to keep them talking on the phone for a while too.
Needless to say even with all of this in mind, it is impossible to do the same level of work I was doing previously and keep my girls safe, happy and occupied. I have had to have an honest chat with myself, look at my caseload and business and consider what my priorities are. This has been challenging although it has pushed me to take a more commercial view of the business and make some decisions I had been avoiding (or procrastinating over).
Obviously, we value our children having their voices heard so we also try to plan ahead with them. If there is something in particular they want to do at a specific time then that is incorporated into our plan. They are getting used to planning ahead and considering the needs of the whole family which can only be a good thing as far as I am concerned. They have also become more independent with simple things like clearing their plates after dinner, getting themselves a drink or snack, and getting ready for the day ahead and bedtime. They have amazed me by helping out more in many ways from tidying their rooms to caring for our dog and I am really enjoying seeing some of their creative ideas put into action and their self esteem flourish as a result. When helping out with making gravy for tea yesterday, my youngest said 'oh, so its not made with cocoa powder then'?!?
My working day now sometimes goes on into the early evening so I often can't eat tea with the children. I have opted for setting them up with their tea together - using the 'fancy' cups and setting the table makes it nice for them to eat together whilst I hop onto the laptop nearby. Once I do finish work for the day, I am usually pretty exhausted, so I freshen up with a face wash whilst the kids are changing for bed. We all have a good natter before the children go to bed and I make sure I get a good meal with my hubby, some down time and contact with friends and family.
With teamwork as a family and considered planning ahead, it is possible for me to work productively at home though impossible for me to work in the same way as before Lockdown. It is hard work to juggle all the variables in a way that is sustainable so that we don't all burn out. I am also conscious of giving the right message to my children about a balance of work and that they come first. Each family will need to find the right balance for them, but I can highly recommend use of the Pomodoro Technique as a way of helping with time management and productivity for work.
I am hopeful that people will have a new regard for those of us working from home in the future - there is potential for it to reduce business cost and therefore service user cost, to reduce the CO2 footprint of commuting and to provide flexible working opportunities for a wide range of industries. Life post COVID-19 will be different in many ways.