Work Smarter from Home by Hacking your Habits

In our concerns to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus, many companies have directed employees to work from home. But working from home is new territory for many businesses, for managers and staff alike. It’s an adjustment which can be quite successful with a little preparation.  

Much of the trouble with focus and discipline that people encounter when first attempting to work from home comes from a dissonance between the necessity of working while everything in the environment indicates leisure. Certain habits can help ease a transition to making home a more multi-functional environment.

 Underlying most of these ideas is the suggestion to develop certain habits. The habitual takes very little energy and doesn’t occupy the mind, which in turn frees up mental energy for creative problem solving, innovation, and patience with customers and team mates.

 
  1. Work needs it’s own area. If you have the luxury of extra space in your home, designate an area for work now. Do only work there and don’t work anywhere else. You can set more than one work space if you have multiple available. Just don’t do “home” in those spaces anymore.
  2. Plan your work and work your plan. This is old advice, but it’s even more important now. Your boss can’t check up on you as much so your work product will have to speak for itself.
  3. Use a task manager and prioritize. In IT, teams use a bug tracker or ticketing system. Customer service teams use tools for tracking customer needs and systemic issues.  You need something like this for your own desk and mind. There are many great apps out there.  Avaza (https://www.avaza.com) is great for individuals managing several projects. It allows users to  invite collaborators, and view projects as Kanban, Gantt, or lists, and track expenses. Other great tools are Trello, Write, Notion, Monday, Todoist.
  4. Get up, suit up, and show up. Sitting in your pajamas and slippers trying to focus on business creates a disharmony that your mind has to actively work to overcome. Being home is already a cue for leisure, add bed clothes and you’re fighting an uphill battle just to remain seated in front of a keyboard. This is an easy way to work smarter instead of harder: Get up, do your grooming, get dressed and sit down at your designated work space on time, awake and ready to get things done.
  5. Keep the same hours. Many people adjust to changes of routine with no difficulties. But many others will start having migraines and GI problems if their physical routines are disrupted.  If your commute normally takes two hours get up at the same time as always, maybe take a long walk in your neighborhood, meditate a little or spend time with the family and then suit up and dig in.
  6. Use a time tracking app or distraction buster. Time Doctor (www.timedoctor.com) will let you track work by project and if you drift over to Instagram it will pop up a reminder,  “are you working now?” RescueTime and AntiSocial are distraction busters without time tracking.
  7. Segment your browsers. If you don’t already use multiple browsers make sure you have a few. Opera, Safari, Edge, Chrome, Firefox, etc. Start using certain browsers for specific tasks. Anything personal goes into Browser A, then don’t open Browser A while you’re woking. Check your webmail from Browser B and connect to your client apps on Browser C. The simple act of associating a particular browser icon with personal or fun stuff will help with the subliminal “i’m working right now” reinforcement your mind needs.
  8. Segment your device desktops. Likewise, many operating systems support multiple desktops. If you’re the kind of use that navigates via desktop, group the icons you need for work onto on desktop, and those for fun on another. Set the background for each to be very different. This is especially important if you need to work from mobile apps at all.  Little visual strategies like this are great for helping reinforce the “it’s time for work now” cues that make focusing on work easier.
  9. Plan for communication. If you’re leading a team, plan and communicate plans for communication. Maybe you plan a 10-minute huddle three times a day to start. Some like to make sure to have longer overlaps on team shift changes to ease mindshares.
  10. During work hours stay focused on work-things. Accept that you may have to set your work hours as 8-12 and 1-6 or break it up in some way that will help establish a routine at the same time leaving a window of acceptance that you will be drawn to do home things, because you are home. Plan longer breaks if your children or extended family are now at home.
  11. Try the pomodoro technique. For lots of kinds of activity it aligns well since many tasks can be completed in 25 minute intervals and you don’t feel the dread to start as much because you know you can stop in less than a half hour.
  12. Plan work for times of day that are most appropriate for that work. Prioritization of tasks and needs of others is always a balancing act. If you can stay cognizant of the fact that your mind works better for some tasks at certain times of day than others and plan accordingly you will work smarter not harder. For example, don’t plan to comb over a spreadsheet looking for discrepancies right after lunch or when you are sleepy. Don’t try to proofread when you have the most energy and ideas sparking off each other at the start of the day.
  13. Make notes on paper, or small dry erase board. If you don’t already, keep a notepad by your computer. Sometimes we get lost while switching apps. So sometimes the cost of task-shifting for your note taking app is not worth it. Make notes on paper and transfer any that need keeping to the notes app during your evening wrap up.
  14. Wrap up at the end of the day and make notes about where you will need to start tomorrow. Try to leave adequate time for wrapping up, and make sure you don’t end up trying to do the loose ends if you don’t need to do them right now. This is a great practice for in-office work, but it’s essential to have some rituals around beginning and ending work when you are at home. You don’t have a commute to pre- or post-game, so your mind will benefit from alternate cues to shift gears.

Alice Fritz is a polymath artist and full stack software engineer. She leverages over 20 years experience with e-commerce, insurance, and public relations to identify opportunities for technical innovation in support of business and customer-driven challenges. She is a dynamic, insightful, and tenacious technical leader, with a knack for guiding disparate and geographically dispersed teams. She is Chief Technical Officer for BOOMFLEX (boomflex.co), a technology company serving small businesses in Connecticut, New York, and Massachusetts.

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