person working in hammock

#53: Create your perfect home-office day!

Having difficulties working from home? Finding it easier to vacuum your apartment than work on your paper? Spending more time watching the news than focussing on your research? No idea how to get yourself organized amid a pandemic? Feel bored and isolated? We’ll show you 10 creative ways to organise your perfect home-office day. 

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Are you still working from your home-office? In many countries, the COVID-19 lockdown of universities is lasting far longer than expected. And even in places where restrictions are being partially lifted, most academics are still confined to their home-office. Who knows – this could also be the new-normal! Companies like Twitter and Google have announced that their employees can work from home indefinitely! Maybe your university is considering the same option – so it’s good to prepare for the days you’ll spend working from home! 

We know that many of you struggle to organize your workday in a productive way while working from home. We’ve heard about these troubles frequently:

  • finding it difficult to focus or concentrate on academic work
  • being distracted by the news, social media and just being at home 
  • having problems structuring your day
  • wrestling with being on your own (this ranges from just being bored, to feeling some low-level depression or social isolation)

Obviously, time is not the issue for most of you, since many other commitments – from field-work and experiments, to conferences and summer schools – have been cancelled. The most likely culprit is a lack of motivation and a lack of structure. We took up the topic of motivation in one of our recent posts, ‘Overcoming low motivation while in COVID-19 lockdown’. If you missed it, read through it right now! So today, we’ll focus on re-establishing a smart working structure that will make all of the above mentioned struggles easier to handle. But the two aspects really belong together and you should try and up your motivation, before trying to establish a productive daily structure. 

We’re all working under exceptional circumstances right now, so you may be coping with more worries than usual. But we want you to realise that there’s a lot you can do, to turn things around and improve the situation for the better!

While you can’t control the overall situation, it’s still your choice how to react to it. We feel that as researchers, we’ve got a particular responsibility to continue our academic work and move the state-of-knowledge forward! We’ve compiled 10 great tips that address all of the above mentioned problems and move you into the productive zone! In addition, you can work out your own perfect home-working schedule with our free worksheet ‘My ideal home-working day’.

You’ve got time – so what’s the matter?

It’s worthwhile pondering here for a minute what the underlying problem is, before we jump to suggestions. Most of you suddenly have ample time and considerable freedom to decide when to work on what. You’ve also got a long list of important things to do, but we’ve heard that many of you still struggle to get anything done during lockdown. 

The problem is that you lack nearly everything that would normally neatly structure your day. You used to have a certain time to get up and to leave your apartment so that you could be in the lab or office and start work on time. There were, more or less, the usual times when you would exchange with colleagues and supervisors, and work on your projects. In the evening you’d leave, head home, organise dinner and probably enjoy some relaxation, sports, or another activity. The day had a familiar structure and rhythm. 

All of a sudden this was lost as soon as lockdown was implemented and you had to work from home. At the moment no one sees if you arrive for work on time or what exactly you do all day long. There’s no accountability – so it’s pretty easy to get lost! 

A daily structure acts like a backbone or scaffold you can build on and to which you attach your daily activities. Such a structure is vital for you to survive and thrive! This is why many of our tips below focus on re-establishing a healthy structure for your home-office days. That will help you adjust to the situation and get into the flow again. 

10 tips for a productive and satisfying workday at your home-office:

Tip #1: Decide on your workspace

Having a dedicated workspace is important! We know that not everyone has an extra room that can be redefined as a home-office and its not necessary. But you need a fixed place where you will always start your work-day in the morning and where you have everything at hand. If necessary, be a bit creative here: Get out the spare table from the basement and set it up in a corner – that’s all you need! 

If you then feel later in the day that a change of location would be beneficial, do so! It’s ok to mark essays on the sofa and read the methods chapter in the hammock! That’s the great flexibility that home-office allows for!

Tip #2: Set your alarm in the morning

This is still a workday, so you shouldn’t allow yourself to sleep in! Set your alarm and get up in the morning! Ideally, you set it to the same time that you would get up when you were going to the university or institute for work. Get out of bed right away, get ready and have a nice healthy breakfast (no not the full Sunday brunch, just because you’re at home and it feels like a Sunday morning). Especially, don’t forget to get dressed! Melina Papalampropoulou-Tsiridou (Nature Career April 2020) suggests the following: “Prepare to work from home the same way you would if you were going to the office, to set the appropriate mood for work. In my experience, working in pyjamas affected my productivity and my professional confidence.” It definitely does – so browse your closet for the right outfit! 

Tip #3: Start on the right foot 

How you start your day has an immense influence on your mood and how you tackle work-related tasks throughout the day. If you want a jump-start, try running (if permitted), yoga, or any other sort of exercise i to start your home-working day off on the right foot – it’ll increase the flow of oxygen in your body and make you feel much more awake. Meditate, if that brings good vibes for you! But even a short stroll around the block – just so you’ve been outside in the fresh air before working – can do the trick. So what gets you moving early in the morning?

Tip #4: Decide when to start and end your workday

Decide when you start working (stick to the same time every day) and when you stop. This is again an important way to structure your day and delineate work and play – which often gets mixed up in the home-office. You start working at your start time and stop when you’ve decided to stop – whether you’ve achieved everything you wanted or not. It’s important that you know that work can’t stretch out for unlimited periods of time. Spare time starts after work (and when other chores are done). But it’s also important that you have sufficient spare-time that you enjoy! Only a good balance will positively influence your productivity and keep you sane! Fix your schedule now with our free worksheet ‘My ideal home-working day’.

Tip #5: Plan your tasks for the day

Decide on a few key tasks for the day and write them down, as well as how long you’re going to work on each of them. The selected tasks need to be motivating and specific. If you have a task like ‘do literature review for my dissertation’ it will demotivate you. It would put anyone off because it’s too big and you have no clue where to start. In our recent SMART ACADEMICS blog-post Overcoming low motivation while in COVID-19 lockdown! we’ve described in detail how to choose the right tasks so that you can easily get into the productive zone. 

Tip #6: Plan meaningful breaks

Before we discuss how to organise your working time, decide when to place a few breaks in. Breaks – yes you heard it right – will help you to structure your day. You don’t work an 8h stretch, you work 1-2 hours and then you’ll have a short break (5-10 min.). If your attention span is shorter, you may be better off with a short break every 45 min. Try this out for yourself. You may also find it easier to focus in the morning than in the afternoon. 

Apart from these mini-breaks, in a normal ca. 8h workday, you should plan for one longer lunch-break of about 1h and two shorter breaks of about 30 min each. If you happen to live together with spouse, partner or family, the lunch can also be a great time to get together and socialise before digging into work again. 

A break is a break. That means you get up from your workspace and go somewhere else – even if it’s just for 5 min to fix a cuppa! But don’t overrun your time, when the break’s over, head back to work!

Tip #7: Focus on the task at hand without distractions

It’s challenging to focus on the same task for many hours. Most people find it easier to focus for shorter time spans and that’s also our suggestion. When you decide on your tasks for the day, you’ll also decide how long you’ll work on each and if you need to take a short break in-between. So as suggested above, a good strategy is to work in short 45-60 min. bursts. During these sessions, you’ll focus intensely on the task at hand. Be strict and disciplined with yourself (work is work and play is play)!

There’s no checking of any news-sites, online shopping, or writing facebook posts or tweets! No checking your bank-account, email, or the status of your online delivery! All of that is done during breaks or in the evening! Remove potential triggers by closing all other computer-programmes except the ones you’re using at the moment. If you’re easily distracted, read our SMART ACADEMICS blog post on Social media/www distractions at work: 5-step-cure! 

Tip #8: Choose your evening activity

Your workday is over! Now move out of your working space, stow away your stuff and decide how you want to spend the evening. There’s probably still a few chores that need to get done – so now’s also the time to get the vacuum cleaner out, empty the dishwasher, or run errands. But there’s also free time and activities to look forward to! You might need to be a bit inventive here: It’s not gonna be the regular evening at the pub, or workout at the gym. But maybe a stroll around the neighbourhood where you’ve never had the time to walk, crafting, or making music are great alternatives. Your workdays will work better if you’ve also got a feeling that enjoyable things happen in your life! So it’s totally worth planning out your favourite activities! We ourselves came to enjoy having zoom-family gatherings with the whole family where we play games together. We also love badminton in the backyard, and a bicycle ride after dinner and until sundown (pretty empty streets)!

Tip #9: Decide on a bedtime

Make sure to get to bed on time, so you have enough sleep (7-8h) and you can get up at your regular start time in the morning. If you find it unsettling, don’t read the news before trying to go to sleep. We check the news twice a day – once during a break in the late morning, and after lunch. That’s it. It’s enough to catch up on what is happening. 

Tip #10: Team-up with others!

If you have a flatmate, partner, or family around, you’re lucky – ok there might be other challenges under lockdown, but at least you’re not alone! But that is the case for many international PhD students and research fellows who are stuck in a foreign country with few options to socialise. We know it doesn’t make up for the real thing, but engaging online with people right now is your best option. Here are a few inspiring suggestions:

  • We’ve heard of colleagues who’ve organised zoom-breakfasts together! It’s a sweet idea to start the day. You’ve got a reason to get out of bed and get started! Who could you ‘invite’ over?
  • If you feel lonely in the ‘office’, get the virtual office background noise from PhD & productivity . It suddenly feels as if you were working in your normal PhD office space getting work done with a co-worker. 
  • Another great way to beat loneliness is to join other international researchers and PhD students for our upcoming 3-day live online course ‘How to publish in peer-reviewed journals’! That is three entire days in good company while you learn step-by-step how to write a paper yourself in the most efficient way. 
  • You can also team-up with another friend who’s in the same situation, or an entire group of colleagues. A zoom-meeting in the morning, before you start working and another one at the end of the day does add structure and fun. Do a virtual round table every morning of your goals for the coming hours or what you intend to work on. That will give you accountability partners – you don’t want to say ‘I didn’t do at lot actually . . .!” at the end of the day! Exchange about your days, your challenges, and help each other out! Who could you ask to meet with you? 

Great days in home-office: be prepared for the ‘new normal’ 

You may not remember the COVID-19 lockdown as the happiest time in your life! But with a little discipline and a slick structure to organise your workdays, you can get a lot done and make progress with your PhD or research projects! Head straight to our free worksheet ‘My ideal home-working day’ to plan out yours! 

Your skills to organise a work-day at home will be of great benefit later on. And apart from that – being able to work productively in your home-office will assure things run smoothly whatever the new-normal future holds.

If you like more assistance with productive work-habits and you want to super-charge your PhD project after you lost time due to Corona, sign up for our upcoming free short PhD masterclass! It’s all about getting your PhD safe to the finish line! 

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