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How to remain productive and mentally healthy when working remotely?

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Working remotely isn’t a new concept. People in all kinds of career fields have been doing it for years. But most people are accustomed to one day of work at home, once in a while, or never actually working from home. With the current state of the COVID-19 coronavirus causing many companies to require all of their employees to work from home, a large portion of the workforce is now expected to be skilled at the art of working remotely.

Plenty of people fantasize about working from the comfort of their own homes, foregoing their commute in favor of more sleep, family, or exercise time. But working remotely is a double-edged sword — sure, you get to stay home, but it can be harder to focus on actually working. Whether it’s a pile of laundry that suddenly looks more appealing than your bosses’ to-do list, or a quick three-hour binge of that one Netflix show you’ve been dying to watch, staying productive at home can take a little extra effort. Plus, the isolation can quickly become a downer for those used to socializing at work.

If you’re one of the many starting to work remotely for the first time or engaging in full-time remote work for the first time, you are probably discovering that it’s not as easy as you may have thought. Most of us have been conditioned to work and focus because of outside constraints. Meetings force us to adhere to certain schedules, office hours dictate our start and end time and a manager’s watchful eye keeps our internet surfing to a minimum, for the most part. Therefore, once on your own, you may find yourself floundering a bit to stay productive. Here’s what to do to keep your focus while working from home –

1. Embrace the initial time suck.

Instead of trying to immediately mirror your office work tempo and practices, simply embrace that things are a bit off-kilter and you might as well allow yourself a little indulgence and enjoy being at home vs. in the office. Wear your pajamas all day. Binge-watch that series in the background while answering emails. Run those errands you’ve been meaning to get to. Do what you can reasonably do without putting your professional credibility at risk.

But, and this is critical for remote work success, do it for no longer than two days. You don’t want to create new and unproductive patterns. Don’t assume that this remote hiatus will be short-lived. You want your brain to be able to separate and focus in a productive way vs. getting sucked into an inertia of all the millions of potential distractions available to us at home.

2. Get ready for work

One of the biggest misconceptions about working from home is that you will spend all day in your pajamas on a laptop in bed. Sure, you can do this, but it’s far from ideal. The act of physically getting ready for remote work (having breakfast, brushing your teeth, getting dressed, etc.) also helps you mentally get ready for a productive day. By staying in your pajamas, you’re making it more difficult to get into the right mindset for work.

We’re not saying that you have to put on a full dress suit or anything (most modern offices are business casual anyway), but you should still change into work clothes, put on makeup, or do whatever else you would do before heading out to the office for a day of work. And when the work day’s done, hopping back into comfy clothes will help you unwind and forget about work.

3. Designate an office

Even if you live somewhere cramped and can’t have “an office,” at least mark off some sort of workstation or area for yourself. Turn off the television, and try to get off the couch or your bed. Head to the same spot to work each day. Train your brain that this area is where your job happens, and the rest of your house is where your life happens. Keep your desk free of documents, put away things you’re not actively using, and if possible, wrangle the cables into something more or less controlled. Not only will your work improve, but you will also feel less stressed and more motivated!

4. Set your hours

Pencil in the hours when you will be “at work.” These hours don’t have to be 9-5, but they do have to suit your working/living needs and schedule and not conflict with the needs of your boss. Once you set them, stick to them. Don’t plan long lunches or personal appointments during these hours. Treat it like a time card. If you prefer to break up the day into chunks, make sure those chunks are long enough to be productive (say 3 hours) to get some work done.

The basic method is to set a timer for 25 minutes and work exclusively on the task at hand until the timer finishes. Any interruptions must be put off until the timer goes off. Then, you can take a short five-minute break before starting another 25-minute session. Every few hours you can take a longer 15-30 minute break to recharge. This technique is perfect for those who aren’t used to remote work, and it will keep you honest about how much time you spend actually working.

5. Set up your tools

We’re only as good as the tools we work with, right? There are plenty of different tools and apps out there that can help you maintain your productivity and collaborate with your teammates. You have no reason not to take some time in setting up a toolbox that helps you work more productively and efficiently.
Trello – Whether you use it as your list/task management or your daily calendar, Trello’s got it all. With its collaborative features, you can assign tasks for your teammates or allow them to work off the same ‘board’ and projects.

Google Drive – The days of saving files and presentations to your desktop are over! Instead, access all your documents in the cloud…or on your phone or any computer you log into.
With easy collaboration, you can quite literally watch your teammate make edits within your documents and chat about it in real-time.

Slack – Now who isn’t on Slack these days? The messaging system allows for easy collaboration within a team no matter where in the world they’re located and new updates now allow for video calls and more for simplified communication.

6. Communicate frequently with colleagues

Working from home can be much more comfortable than commuting to an office, but it can also be incredibly isolating. You might not believe it, but those five-minute visits that break your flow in the office also help you feel like part of the team. To combat these feelings of loneliness and isolation, communicate with team members on Slack, Skype, or WhatsApp frequently. Obviously, you should communicate about work, as that’s not only a basic job requirement, but it’s also one way for people to know you’re staying productive. However, you should also be sure to chat with colleagues about other things as well. This will help you feel more like a part of a bigger team, and not just a lone wolf out on your own.

7. Don’t forget to get outside.

Don’t go skipping around the block regularly during your work hours, mind you—unless it’s just for a wee stroll to get the blood moving. But do try and make sure that you aren’t spending all day and night, every day and night, at home. With a complete lockdown in the United States, we can’t make after-work plans at the moment but can surely incorporate in-house exercise at some point.

8. Keep yourself healthy

Make sure you get on a steady sleep schedule that complements your work schedule—and stick to it. Get enough sleep. Eat a good breakfast and healthy lunches and snacks throughout the day. Exercise when you can to keep your blood and brain flowing. At a very basic level, your personal health is the most important aspect of how productive you are during remote work. If you spend all day at home sitting at a desk for weeks or months at a time, eventually your health is going to start deteriorating. You can also treat this as an opportunity to get water from the kitchen and make sure you stay hydrated. Some yoga or other simple exercises will also keep you in working shape.

You should also be aware that staring at a screen all day is detrimental to your eyes, even with blue light filters and other protective measures. Take a few seconds to look away from your screen every 15 minutes or so. Stare out a window at something in the distance or at a plant on your desk. Just don’t look at the screen. Buy or make some trail mix, keep fruit on hand, or get some hummus to fill your dietary needs without putting on extra pounds.

9. At the end, know when to stop working

Once you’re done for the day, leave your workspace, shut your computer, and step away from the job. It’s even more important to keep these boundaries fiercely drawn when you’re working from home. Do your best to leave non-urgent messages and emails until you’re back on the clock. Don’t end up checking work emails until bedtime—you’ll drive yourself nuts! As mentioned before, change out of your work clothes, move to another part of the house, and forget about work for a while.

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