Try not to beat yourself up if you’re struggling.
When the shelter-in-place orders were issued in New York City in March and my office shut down, I didn’t initially sweat the idea of working from home.
After all, I’d successfully worked from home in a prior job and I had managed just fine then. I didn’t see why this should be any different.
Of course… that was naive. Things were drastically different now.
For one thing, there was a freakin’ pandemic going on. I wasn’t just working from home, I was isolating.
The outside world was suddenly unsafe for me and my family, and so we were basically never leaving our house except for essentials.
Second, I wasn’t home alone trying to work, like I had been when I had my previous job. My husband and 9-month-old son were also home with me 24/7.
To put it mildly, this took some getting used to: My husband and I both needed places to work in our house, but we only had one office.
He likes to have background noise on but I like quiet when I work. We also had to tag team who worked when and who took care of our just-learning-to-crawl baby.
All of this caused a ton of stress.
Before long, I was either working from the floor in my son’s playpen to avoid hearing my husband’s background noise — usually the news — or I was staying up well past midnight to meet deadlines because it was the only “quiet” time I had.
Needless to say, my productivity took a nosedive.
Unfortunately, my experience is far from unique.
The COVID-19 pandemic is taking a toll on our mental health, including our ability to focus and be productive.
In May 2020, the SHADAC COVID-19 Survey found that 90.4 percent of U.S. adults felt additional levels of stress specifically caused by the pandemic.
“Our minds are grasping at straws right now,” says Kate Sullivan, a consulting psychologist and doctoral researcher specializing in burnout and life-work satisfaction.
“Every day feels like the day before it, and yet we’re in an unprecedented situation where we can’t find patterns and prior experience to pull from. As a result, we’re off balance and struggling to make sense of daily life, let alone focus or get work done,” she says.
And as the pandemic has raged on, it hasn’t gotten any easier to be productive.
“Some people found it easier to work from home at first because they thought ‘this is temporary,’” says Jeffrey Cohen, psychologist and instructor of medical psychology at Columbia University Irving Medical Center.
“As this continues, many people are wondering how long this will last and if there is an end in sight,” he says. “When we perceive a situation as uncertain, this leads to increased anxiety which can interfere with focus and make working from home more challenging.”
However, the pandemic isn’t going away anytime soon. And if we’re lucky enough to still have work, despite mass layoffs, our work from home reality isn’t going away either.
1. Create a routine
When we go to work in an office, we have a set routine that we follow: We get up. We take a shower. We get dressed. We commute to work. We work. We go home.
Just because you’re working from home doesn’t mean you have to throw all that away.
“I recommend that people try being intentional about their work and life when working from home — especially during the pandemic,” Sullivan says. “Put as much of your life on autopilot as you can so that you can focus more deeply on your work when it’s appropriate to do so, and so that you can let go of that work when it’s time to recharge.”
What that routine looks like is up to you, but can include laying out your clothes the night before, getting up at the same time every day, having the same breakfast every day, blocking out work time and family time, etc.
“Creating rituals for yourself can replace some of what gave you boundaries and structure prior to the pandemic,” Sullivan says.
For example, one thing she particularly recommends is taking morning and after work walks.
“Since you don’t have a commute to ease into and out of your work day, consider taking a start and end of day walk each day — even if it’s just going around the block,” she says. “It will break up your day and provide you with a cognitive cue to transition into and out of work mode.”
Creating a routine can be particularly helpful if you have children or a family to deal with.
If you and your partner have to tag team work and being with the kids, scheduling who gets to work when will help keep you both sane and minimize resentment.
2. Set realistic goals for yourself
Working from home during a pandemic isn’t a time to “boost” your productivity or “do more.”
“The unrealistic expectations that were floating around at the start of lockdown, things about ‘Shakespeare wrote King Lear during quarantine, the least you can do is start a side hustle,’ are not only out of context, but they’re damaging to people’s ideas of how work and life should play out,” says Sullivan.
“Instead of focusing on how to maximize productivity during the pandemic, I recommend that folks take a step back and examine where their energy will make the most difference,” she continues.
“Yes, you need to complete your tasks at work — on time and well,” she says. “But you also need to take care of yourself and your friends and family.”
So set small incremental goals, write out a to-do list, and celebrate your progress.
3. Don’t multitask. Take things one task at a time
“Multitasking increases stress and can lead to burn out,” Cohen says. “Consider doing one thing at a time because this is the most effective way to work.”
“People who practice doing one thing at a time tend to get the most done and make the least mistakes,” he adds.
4. Minimize your distractions as much as possible, particularly those that can upset you
For example, if you don’t use your phone for work, put it away during your work time so you aren’t tempted to play a phone game, text a friend, or just get plain distracted by it.
Avoid scrolling through the news right before or during work time. It’s easy to get sucked into the news and it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to stop thinking about it after you’ve read it.
It might even be a good idea to turn off any news alerts on your computer. Bad news, such as news of daily virus death tolls, can be particularly upsetting or stressful to read about.
5. Don’t forget to take breaks
Let’s face it, in an office we take lots of mini breaks, be it filling up your water bottle, walking to the corner coffee shop, or chatting with your colleagues.
“Nowadays, when working entirely from home, it’s easy to spend an entire day alone in one or two rooms,” says Francesco Dandekar, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University.
“We rely on variances in our day to keep our brains fresh, and when working from home, we’re simply not exposed to enough different stimuli,” he says.
“Schedule in frequent breaks and changes of scenery. Go outside, even if only for a few minutes,” he continues. “Your brain will appreciate not being stuck in the same context hour after hour, day after day.”
Ripal Shah, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine, agrees. “Even something as minor as listening to good music, unbothered, can be worth looking forward to during the day and can help motivate us to focus during the workday.”
6. Have a dedicated office space and set it up right
“I always recommend that people carve out a workspace that’s just for them and just for work,” Sullivan says. “It should be a place where you do nothing but work so that your brain is primed to focus on work the instant you go there.”
“Everyone’s best workspace is going to be different — mine is shockingly cluttered, but a clear desk is actually unhelpful for me because I end up spending too much time looking for the exact note paper I need,” she continues. “So you need to find what works best for you and stick with that, unrepentant.”
Unless you’re in a studio apartment, try to make sure your workspace isn’t in your bedroom.
“Having your workspace in your bedroom can disrupt your day/night rhythm and impair your ability to get restful sleep,” says Dandekar.
7. Above all, remember to be kind to yourself.
Try not to beat yourself up if you’re struggling. This isn’t a normal situation! It’s okay to be feeling lousy about it.
As the saying goes, “good enough is good enough.”
And during a pandemic, your willingness to keep trying — especially in light of everything that’s happening around us — is definitely good enough.