The coronavirus pandemic and all of the changes in its wake have, for many of us, increased our workloads and exacerbated our stress levels. Each condition on its own invites productivity challenges. Experienced together, they can make us feel we simultaneously have neither the time to do all we need to do, nor the will to get anything done.
In this Quartz at Work (from home) workshop, we explore the psychology of productivity and procrastination, and why hitting a wall is normal. Our presenters also share practical and actionable advice on how to overcome productivity, efficiency, and distraction obstacles—including children.
Watch the complete replay of the one-hour session by clicking the large image above, or browse this recap for highlights, along with tips our presenters shared on how to build a sustainable productivity routine.
Psychologist Fuschia Sirois, who teaches at the University of Sheffield in the UK, has spent years studying the connection between procrastination and wellbeing. She says roughly a quarter of adults regularly struggle with the inclination to put things off.
She says procrastination is one factor of the productivity equation that cannot be fixed with classic time-management techniques or fancy apps. Reducing procrastination, she says, mainly comes down to managing your mood.
What contributes to a procrastination-apt mood? Distractions, disinterest, and a lack of information about the task are some of the biggest culprits. Here are some of her tips for counteracting them:
- Reduce and plan for distractions. Let others around you know when you’re working. Boundary-setting is an important aspect of maintaining an environment that won’t be conducive to procrastination. “It’s not the environment that makes you procrastinate; what makes you procrastinate is the feelings you have about the task,” she says. But your environment can facilitate it—so find ways to prevent that.
- Take quick breaks. They can restore your interest in a task. “Interest is a positive state; it will counteract any negative feelings you have about that task,” Sirois says.
- Ask for more information. Particularly when we’re asked to take on a new task, the feeling that we are lacking guidance or important context can prompt us to procrastinate. Get the details you need and you’ll be far more likely to get going on the task.
- Have some self-compassion. You deserve it—especially now.
- Cultivate meaning at work. It’s a huge motivator.
Read more: How to stop procrastinating—a guide from Quartz at Work
Hear more: Listen to Sirois’ free audio lesson on procrastination
Phoebe Gavin is Quartz’s editorial director of audience, with a side business coaching millennials. She says many of the issues she tackles in her coaching practice are tied to productivity challenges—heightened these days by the transition many of her clients have made to remote work.
Gavin, who has been working remotely since 2013, says newly remote workers commonly struggle with the bleed between work and personal life, isolation, and prioritization, any of which can spell trouble for productivity. “Something about an office creates accountability that isn’t necessarily there when you’re home working by yourself,” she says.
Some of her top tips for the at-home worker:
Create a transition routine. Without a commute to help you separate work and home life, you may have trouble getting started on your work day or turning off when regular work hours are done. Consider developing a practice that signals the transition for you, whether it’s lighting a candle, blowing it out, preparing a favorite morning beverage when it’s time to begin, or breaking down your work station at the end of the day.
Be communicative with your manager. Setting priorities is particularly important when you are left alone for vast portions of the day.
Find the system that works for you. There are a lot of productivity systems out there; Gavin doesn’t recommend one over the other. Pick whichever you like, “as long as when you pressure-test them in your actual life, things aren’t falling through the cracks.” She says her own system relies mainly on the productivity app Todoist and Google calendar, complete with alerts for her “fishbowl” moments when she loses track of the time.
Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries.
If you’re home with the kids and lucky enough to have an office with a door, congratulations. You’re still probably getting interrupted plenty, but the physical separation is a boundary that can help you get into the headspace you need to be in for whichever side of the door you’re on.
There are other ways to create boundaries, though.
Daisy Wademan Dowling is the founder and CEO of Workparent, and author of the forthcoming book Workparent: The Complete Guide to Succeeding on the Job, Staying True to Yourself, and Raising Happy Kids. She says the parents she coaches have come up with inventive ways to create the separation they need in order to shift gears between work and child-rearing. Some methodically block their time at the start of the week. Others have found success thinking even smaller.
“I have one client who has a small piece of artwork on her desk that’s personally meaningful to her, and every time she transitions from work self to parent self, she touches that piece of artwork,” Wademan Dowling says. Each time she does so, it’s a sign that she is prepared to let go of whatever she was doing before and fully engage in what she needs to do next.
Two other tips from Wademan Dowling that parents especially might find useful:
Break work up into sprints. A sprint might be an hour, or 20 minutes, or even 10 minutes. “Find something that you can get into, make a dent on if not actually complete in that small block of time, and then disengage from it,” she says. Manage your day as a series of sprints and you’ll accomplish plenty. And remember: Your pre-pandemic ability to focus for hours at a time on a work project no longer applies.
Make a “done” list. “Every single one of us has a to-do list. It’s crazy-making. No matter how hard we work it never feels like we make a dent in that list.” Anchor yourself in productivity by keeping a “done” list. “I keep mine on my iPhone; it can be on Post-It notes at your desk. Every time you accomplish something, throw it on that list.” Dinner with your family? A meeting that went well? Done and done. And don’t forget to pull out the list from time to time, Wademan Dowling says, “and remind yourself of all the many important things you are doing, and the progress that you have made.”