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Ideas to manage your productivity while working from home

I currently tutor keen business minds on the MBA programme at Africa’s leading business school and I have recently been inundated with support calls, messages and emails about how to work from home productively.

This is in light of the COVID-19 outbreak that has pushed the South African government to set strict controls on large gatherings and raising awareness of social distancing along with proper hygiene guidelines, to stop the disease’s spread. Employers have responded to this urgent call by fast-tracking remote working opportunities for staff that don’t need to be in the office environment to successfully complete their tasks.

With this comes a whole new set of rules, of not only the employer now managing a remote workforce but also the remote worker now having to manage him/herself also to still be productive while isolated.

Now I have gained some experience in the mechanics and shenanigans of working from home. When I started my company, Prerna Advisory last year, I opted to create my office at home. It was the cheapest option for a start-up to not have to incur rent expenses unnecessarily. Suddenly, however, I was thrust into the realities of daily home life (running a busy household), navigating spending quality time with my toddler (who didn’t understand boundaries then and assumed mommy play time was all day), managing my time with these minor yet seemingly necessary tasks to be done (because I was there) – all that before I could even sit down to think about what I needed to do for the day in order to generate income and grow my business.

Here are some of my key learnings and top tips I’ve shared with the student cohort, which you may also find helpful to keep you on track:

Create several mini office ‘pods’ in your home

The reality is that you are going to be on your feet, doing many things. It is impractical to believe that just being able to sit at a desk the whole day at home is going to work, like it does at the office. I’ve realised that even though I do have a dedicated work space in my home, also having a little nook set up in different sections of the house where I can sit or stand and work through ideas – and just be able to finish my train of thought – helps me a lot. The key is to find those spots and have them arranged with items that will help you get some work done – some pens and paper, or a flipchart board/white board, or sticky notes and pens, or chair and makeshift table for your computer (invest in a laptop over a desk bound computer) – even just a cosy rug on the floor with a kit of your preferred work tools available nearby. Scatter a couple of books, magazines or journal articles you want to read in those areas too, so that if you are in a thinking and exploring mindset you have some available inspiration on hand. Of course if you’re lucky enough to have multiple electronic devices that are synced up and can store your work in a central location (a Google drive or other cloud based system), having at least one of these also available in the nooks means its just easy for you to resume where you left off online.

Ensure you have good connectivity in all areas of your home

The last thing you need, when you’re in the ‘zone’, is to get tripped up with poor connectivity. Invest in a stable connection and slightly higher bandwidth than you would usually use. Your company may be able to subsidise this. Also ensure the ‘dead zones’ in your house are cleared up with wi-fi and cell signal extenders – again, your company may subsidise this too.

Setting self-imposed boundaries is key…

Sometime last year I heard about the 20/20/20 rule of how to split your time. How it works is that you schedule yourself to complete tasks within 20-minute blocks, in an hour say. The thinking behind this is that it focuses you to complete the task, thereby increasing your efficiency and productivity. I implemented it and it works well, BUT there must be discipline to it. For example, in a given hour, I could choose to spend 20 minutes with my toddler (reading, singing, feeding – whatever the case may be), then another 20 minutes to finish up a household chore, and the balance as just quiet time for me (to catch up on news, some social media – whatever I decide). Then my next hour is maybe a double shift of work (possibly more than 1 task) and the balance to complete some household admin.

Create your calendar over the next few days, or up to a week if you can. This just adds to the level of mental preparedness required to not only get your work done, but also manage other activities happening in your home and family environment.

Remember to include those much-needed breaks for yourself, to have something to eat, make that soothing cup of tea or energising coffee, but importantly to stretch and walk about. Maybe even a power workout in 20 minutes (very doable).

….but don’t also beat yourself up about it

As much as one can plan, we know that things don’t always work out that way. The 20/20/20 rule isn’t designed to set you up for failure if you don’t finish something, rather it helps you to get into a rhythm and routine that can allow you to be productive. When things are not possible to be done, you get to it at the next opportunity. Or you may even put in an extra hour or 2 in the evening and complete it then. However, if you keep postponing a task, or consistently can’t finish it, that is another matter. It is possible you need to figure out why that is the case i.e. why you’re not tackling it in the same manner as the others you have completed. Perhaps you need assistance or lack clarity – in which case you need to ask for support.

Map out your deliverables

I like to visualise things i.e. drawing out little charts, pyramids, connectors and maps. It helps me widen my thinking and keeps me on track. I In my drawings I always list my tasks, the resources I need (information, people and systems for example) and time to complete (a realistic deadline). Once I keep seeing it, I know I must get it done and I have a bit of a route map of how to go about it. It also ends up being a work-in-progress map as I typically add and make corrections as I go along.

Know your energy spikes and lows

When you’re feeling the most attentive, that’s when you need to tackle the most difficult task. You may make significant headway toward its completion, and you will feel rewarded when it is complete. Don’t fall into the trap of doing the smaller things first in order to create space to handle the bigger or more difficult one. That’s just procrastination. Because there will always be small tasks that need to get done. And by the time you eventually create ‘space’ to start the difficult task, your energy is sapped.

Set aside time to socialise virtually

With so many free options for video conferencing and voice-calling, there is no excuse not to be in touch with work colleagues and managers, as necessary. Practice using these tools and they will become second nature to use. Of course, just as you have set your boundaries, ensure your social interaction doesn’t encroach on others, so best to check availabilities ahead of time and book meetings.

Wrap up your day effectively

Just as when you’re in the office, you use time to let you know when to go home, in a similar fashion you need to ensure you’re rounding up your day at home also. The great thing about the 20/20/20 rule, is that it offers a guide of what should have been done in the day. So, I have 20 minutes allocated at my official end-of workday dedicated to my wrap up, plus reviewing and amending for the next day. All this done to some of my favourite music tracks – my signal cue.

Transitioning to working from home can be fun, and you learn a lot about your own behaviours and habits. Get into your rhythm quickly and refine so it works for you.

Here’s to #FindingYourPrerna in a new way of working.