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Working from home - 5 ways to be productive

September 15, 2020

It's 7:50 a.m. The sound of your second snooze alarm cuts through the silence, as you slowly sit up, edge out of bed and come to your senses. There's only 10 minutes until you start work, but luckily, you don't need to find something halfway decent to wear, or to commute to work in slow-moving traffic; sipping on a drive-through coffee to the grating chatter of morning radio.

You slip instead into something more comfortable, grab a coffee in your favorite mug and look out of the window.

At 8:25 a.m. you open your laptop and begin to answer emails. Nobody has noticed you started 25 minutes late.

You look around the room after 20 minutes or so and spot the wilting houseplant by your window. Moving down to the kitchen again to fetch some water for the plan, you may as well have another coffee while you're there. It's 9:15 a.m.

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In the USA, 42% of us are working from home full time now. In the UK, the figure is slightly higher but is typical of the European average.

Even though the vast majority of these workers are doing so as a result of the pandemic, even more conservative speculators predict that around 1/3 of work will be permanently done from home in the G7 countries by the end of 2021. This is a huge shift.

For many of these workers, there will be an adaptation process; a daily battle against distraction, procrastination and isolation. At NEO Academy we are well-versed in the ways of remote, liquid working, and we understand the challenges, but also know how positive it can be.

So, for our colleagues and clients in agencies, schools, universities and colleges around the world, we would love to share five tips to help you get the most out of home working.

1. Start and end the day right

If you roll out of bed and into your office chair, your day will not be productive. You might not be ready to join the 5am club, and it may never be something that's right for your own family dynamic, but getting up early is key to a productive day.

There are any number of gurus with specific formulae on how to organise your morning, but here are the components they all agree on:

a. Exercise. This raises your dopamine and serotonin levels; focusing your brain and raising your productivity.

b. Reflect. Journalling, meditating or simply planning your day will settle you mind, and make it easier to be less reactive during your day. You'll feel clearer and more focused.

c. Learn. Listen to a podcast, read a book, study that language you're trying to learn or do 30 mins of your online course. This habit breeds not only self growth but more discipline and a sense that your day is not only about work. This is you time.

At the end of your working day, switch off the laptop and put everything related to work away out of sight if you can. This helps to draw clear line between work time and home time, and visible reminders help you do this. Leave the digital devices alone at least 2 hours before you go to sleep. Wind down naturally, and avoid the small dopamine micro hits from scrolling your Facebook, Instagram or Twitter feed. Your brain needs to slow down.

2. Establish a working pattern

Whether it's 25-5, 50-10 or 52-17, breaking work time into intervals can really be a game changer. We like the 50-10 approach, where you work for 50 minutes, then take a ten-minute break.

Yes, it's that easy. Breaking work into parcels of time helps to keep your focus and give you a short pause to refresh your cognitive bandwidth, rather than working way past optimal. In the break, get a cup of tea, some fresh air, listen to music, stretch, or even quickly check your social media (be careful not to get pulled in!). When the alarm goes again, get back to it.

Of course working patterns can get complicated when we are working across time zones. There are numerous articles with tips on time zone etiquette, but one lesson stands out above all else - if you don't take care of yourself first, you'll never be operating at 100%. It's tempting to roll out of bed and be stricken with the realization that your colleagues are already halfway through their working day, but stop. Your morning is important, and by establishing a healthy routine, you might get to the inbox a little later, but you'll be clear, efficient and productive when you do.

The digital age has brought with it some unreasonable expectations of instantaneous responses, and if you give in to this it can be a difficult habit to change. Talk to colleagues and try to establish boundaries and reasonable expectations of response times. Look after yourself.

3. Defeat distractions

Can you believe we didn't get to this one first? Concentration is like sleep; the deeper you get, the better it is. When you are interrupted, however, you can't just get right back to where you were. In fact, it takes about 23 minutes to recover from a distraction when you are really focused.

Just add that up through the day, and imagine how much time we waste just getting back into the flow. So what can we do?

It's important to analyse your distractions. Looking at flights or property? Checking the sports results? Be patient with changing these habits, but be firm. In the end, you can always use tools like Freedom or Boomerang to pause access to distracting sites, or even schedule time into your pre-work morning to search for that holiday flight. Try to schedule time in your day for checking emails, and have the inbox closed while working on other things. Or what about people interrupting you? Sure, you can turn the phone notifications off but also try to talk about this with others in your home. If they know that you are following the 50-10 pattern, they can (hopefully) wait for your break if they have something to share.

If other things are breaking into your work day, acknowledge them and write them down. In the next day's pre-work reflection and planning, you can think of a way to minimise them. Good routines take time to build.

4. Stay focused

There's a reason this one didn't come first. If you're not following a positive morning and evening routine, and haven't started to address distractions in your environment, this is a non-starter.

We recommend a tidy, minimal work space where possible. Freshen up the air when you can, and try to position yourself within natural light. Get your snacking under control and avoid energy crashes after heavy lunches or sugary treats. Drink water. Lots of it.

With your brain ready for the day from a serotonin-filled morning, try listening to binaural beats in your earphones. Use quality audio files such as Spotify, rather than YouTube's compressed format. You might also try calibrating your perfect sound with mynoise.

You only have a limited amount of cognitive bandwidth each day so plan around this. Try your high-value, high-importance and creative tasks in the first part of your day. The lower order tasks such as responding to emails and doing more routine work should be left until the afternoon. Why waste the best of your capacity on clearing your inbox?

5. Connect with others

Properly scheduled, and in the second half of your working day, why not push the email window aside and ask your colleague if they have time for a 10 minute chat instead?

We are all social beings. We all need connection, and feelings of isolation can really sneak up on you if you're not careful. Taking some phone or Zoom time to chat will not only help you feel much better, it will help your colleague too. It is tempting to see this time as unproductive but supporting our social and emotional well being is one of the most positive things we can do. Just notice next time how you feel before and after connecting this way.

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A work in progress

In the end, it is about finding what works best for you. The next time you are feeling down about how unproductive your day has been, please be kind to yourself and remember this:

You are doing your best and adaptation takes time.

Tomorrow is another day, and you can take another step towards a better routine.

Look at your productivity by results, not by hours spent at the laptop. If the results are not there then make small changes to your routine.

There are so many of us working this way, and finding new strategies through trial and error. If you have something to share, we would love to hear from you. Feel free to contact us any time and we will continue to share ideas with our community in our blog and LinkedIn channel

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