Productivity While Working at Home in a Rapidly Changing Time

I don’t know how it’s felt for you, but for me the last few weeks have been a blur of change. I’ve been here 10 days now, physically distancing, and doing my best to balance work with my home life, my worries with my gratitude. This time hasn’t been as productive as I’ve wanted it to be – or have expected it to be. It’s not like I’m a stranger to working from home. I had a home-based business for 7 years while my boys were growing up, and have worked from home on a contract basis off and on since then, so why has this been so different?

Short answer? The world is different. The news cycle and social media are what my fella refers to as ‘churn’. We are watching other parts of the world and our own neighbourhoods with different lenses than ever before, pulled apart and together by this invisible threat. I’m finding my attention fractured, and even in quiet moments being pulled in a myriad of different directions with concerns about my family and friends, students, my community, my work, our front-line workers (health care providers and grocery store workers!). How can anyone get anything done in this wild time? It’s taken me days to come to some rudimentary ways to try to manage all my emotional reactions AND get going on things that are productive for work.

It’ll be no surprise, but I used some visuals. And organized my space a little. Oh, and heeded the great advice of a very good friend (waving at Allison) to go slowly in order to go quickly.

The visuals part? It started with a list. This part was really important, as my brain isn’t really prioritizing well. Each time I thought of something that has to get done, I wrote it down – even when in the middle of another task – without worrying about the order. It took a couple days to assemble the list while handling more urgent things. It got lengthy, with many teeny-tiny tasks (address and mail a form) and some humdinger big ones (edit film for class or collaborate with others around Spring semester). Writing the list helped mitigate the fractured attention piece that I’ve been struggling with. For the first couple of days, rather than write down the task, I’d just switch to it – leaving me with a whole bunch of half-done things and a sense that the world is getting away on me. Writing the list allowed me to have some continuity in my tasks without losing track of the things that need to get done.

In the spirit of go slowly to go quickly, the list became a diagram. Initially I went through the list with different colours to help with prioritization, putting a green dot next to small tasks, different colours next to more involved tasks. I then drew my diagram on a circle (there’s no picture here as it has many things on it that are confidential) with all the tasks listed around the centre (a little cartoon of me, calm and happy). The big tasks were put closer to the centre with the smaller tasks and sub-tasks or steps broken out from them, mind-map style. Doing this allowed me to see what are the little, easy things that can be done right away, and which ones need to have a block of time set aside.

Wooden desk in the sun, red walls behind. Two computer monitors, keyboard and books and papers strewn across the desk. Sun streaming in, filtered through the large leaves of a night blooming cereus plant. Small orchid and coffee cup on desk with all the clutter.
Some time spent organizing my space made a big difference to my mindset.

Oh – and the diagram is drawn digitally on an infinite canvas program, Leonardo. This allows for infinite additions and subtractions as time goes on. It’s my favorite drawing app on the SurfacePro.

I organized my desk space, too. This helped with my distractability as well. Being set up where I can look out the window from time to time is a lovely luxury, one that keeps me happy and grounded. Seeing the birds and witnessing the slow snow melt supports my mental health, too.

I’ve changed my email management, only checking email 3 times throughout the day and turning off the notifications. The flurry of information coming in was enough to send me back into that fractured attention place.

I’m doing many of the other things that are recommended in other places, too, such as in this article and this one. The big things?

  • Keep routine (I know I’m privileged in many ways with this, including my children being adults – I could write another article on how I managed when my boys were small, in the pre handheld device days).
  • Use a space dedicated to work (not working sitting on the bed, remembering to use good ergonomics)
  • Take scheduled breaks
  • Eat healthy food
  • Connect with loved ones (virtually and within the household)
  • Have some boundaries around work – don’t let it spill over into dinner, or into the evening before bed if possible
  • Set yourself up for a good sleep schedule

Well, I’m grateful if you made it this far and would LOVE to hear how you are managing these shifting times.

Take care, lovely people. Be gentle with yourself and each other – we’ll get there together.

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