10 (+1) Practical – and Critical – Strategies to Stay Productive
In 2007, after 20 years of working as a physical therapist and then Fortune 500 executive, I was laid off along with 27 other VPs. Our organization’s division had been sold by our parent company, creating an overlap of executives within the new structure. It caught me by surprise and in so many ways rocked my (overly busy but seemingly secure) world. If 2007 rings a bell, it may be related to the last recession that began that same year. The future didn’t exactly look or feel bright at the time, but that would soon change, as the company we launched soon thereafter garnered some fortunate traction.
Part of that journey involved making a conscious decision to forego the overhead of a separate office and instead fully commit to running our business from our home. Many, many lessons learned along the way (often the hard way). As so many are now currently working from home over the foreseeable future, I’ve tried to identify the 10 key strategies (plus a bonus) that have been most beneficial to producing lasting, effective outcomes over the past 14 years to pass along that may be helpful to others…
Family (roommates, significant others): Our children were 8, 11 and 13 when we launched our national organization from our dining room table. As many are now not only working from home in midst of the Corona Virus but also have children home from school, let’s start here.
1 – Team Effort – “Phone!!” Even today, our kids likely scramble for the remote or look for the dog when hearing that word. With clients and potential clients calling from around the country, a barking dog, television noise or game of tag in the background didn’t exactly present a pristine corporate image. Thankfully, our kids understood what was at stake, and whenever a call would come through, the house would instantly go into “team silent mode.” When looped into the process, kids (like employees) generally rise to the level of expectations. Making sure the whole family team is on-board with what’s at stake goes a long way when working from home.
2 – Reality Check – While a team effort is important, so too is reality – and planning based on those realities. When are the busiest times of the day around the house? What non-business activities might be taking place? Does the neighbor walk the dog (spurring on your own furry co-worker’s barking) daily at 1 PM? Does UPS/FedEx delivery arrive consistently (with a doorbell ring) at 10 AM? Are the kids making their lunch nearby at 11:30 each day? Identifying these patterns may allow you to schedule conference calls/webinars and other audio-based events accordingly to avoid unnecessary disruption.
Foundations: Working from home creates a significant shift in our health & wellness habits. Our choices determine whether those shifts have positive or negative outcomes.
3 – Fueling – Working from home presents an outstanding opportunity to improve our fueling (purposeful eating) habits. No longer leaning on nearby fast food or vending machine options, it’s the perfect time to establish positive strategies. At the same time, home “work” settings can also swing the pendulum the other way if junk food and desserts are readily available just a few steps away in the kitchen (and no accountability). Automating the process makes shopping simple and makes the best choice the easy choice. Here’s a simple example from my typical day.
- Breakfast – smoothie w/ fruit, protein powder, kale/spinach, yogurt
- Mid-morning snack – cup of decaf green tea
- Lunch – big salad with protein source
- Mid-afternoon – almonds/pistachios/walnuts & square of 90% dark chocolate
- Dinner – varies
The point isn’t to be “perfect.” Rather, the goal is to make the healthy choices automatic. While dinner varies, the other four require no pondering. There’s no scrounging through the cabinet or refrigerator and ending up with cookies for lunch. The answer to those is pre-determined. This shifts it from being a conscious daily decision to the easy answer! Speaking of easy – it’s extremely valuable to eliminate the junk from your shopping list. If ice cream is readily available, there’s always a good excuse to dig in 😊
4 – Fitness – The #1 excuse individuals give for lack of exercise is time. With the daily (average 60-90 minute daily round-trip) commute eliminated from the schedule, now is a great opportunity to change that trend! Yes – there are plenty of other excuses available from which to choose (the gym is closed, I don’t have equipment, etc), none of them hold water in 2020 with the plethora of apps and online options that provide a variety of options that fit every personality and goal while more traditional options are temporarily limited. Or maybe start with a walk. The key is to lock in your fitness time as a meeting with yourself that will not be moved (and never cancelled) except in the gravest of emergencies. Big-time payoff in productivity (and health) for this one.
5 – Connection – The four cornerstones of well-being are Move… Fuel… Rest… Connect. Connection is more difficult during this time of social distancing, making it ever more important. In the midst of this, many of our clients have increased the emphasis on accredited and personalized health & wellness coaching. They understand an accredited coach who has formed a positive coaching relationship with an employee can not only help provide a sounding board for the aspects noted here. They can also play a key role in providing the appropriate referral/encouragement to engage with EAP services your organization might offer long before the individual might seek them out on their own. If you have access to an accredited health & wellness coach through your organization, do not miss out on the benefits during this time. If you don’t, consider seeking out a private NBHWC-accredited coach on your own during this key time. Coaching aside, be sure to make time to connect with family and friends in ways (e.g., Facetime) that may differ from traditional approaches.
Function: With family and foundations covered, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of the actual work.
6 – Setting – Choices can often be limited at home in terms of “office” space but it is critical both for you and your roommates/significant others/family members. Initially, I literally worked from the dining room table before later moving to one of our bedrooms. My wife is extremely understanding and also plays a key role with our organization, but she – for obvious reasons – quickly grew tired of hearing the same conversations taking place hour after hour. Even if others are not in the picture, the more you can segregate your “work” space from your “life” space, the more effective you’ll be at both.
7 – Necessary supplies and equipment – Don’t laugh too hard, but I’ve enjoyed wandering through office supply stores since I was in my teens. There are so many cool options – and a rationale for all of them! But there’s also a big difference between “nice to have” and “need to have.” In most cases, we already have everything we need to set up shop quite effectively without spending any additional money. If you do have roommates/significant other/loud neighbors, the one apparent splurge that will pay off in spades is a set of noise-cancelling headphones so those around you can live their lives without the involvement of any eggshells.
8 – Work Schedule – Not only do you now have more time in your schedule (see #4) but you also have more control over that additional time. This can be a good thing – but it’s important first to reflect seriously on your own historical tendencies. For example, years ago, I had a friend who had the opportunity to work from home but eventually decided against it. When I asked him why, he hummed the ESPN Sports Center theme for me. He loves sports – so the easy access to updates, talk shows, etc reduced his productivity below his expectations so he fixed it by returning to the office. While “returning” isn’t currently an option, that self-reflection process is key (we’ll address distractions down below in #9). At the same time, if you’re a grinder, putting your head down and working non-stop until everything is done, reflection is also critical. “Everything” will never be done. Set a schedule as if you needed to catch the last train home and stick with it with rare exceptions. When your commute is 10 steps down the hall, it’s far too easy to do “just one more thing” and find yourself working an extra hour or two.
9 – Breaks – Think of Stephen Covey’s “Sharpen the Saw” concept from his 7 Habits classic. Yes – we can go-go-go from 6 AM to 7 PM, but the saw will become quite dull in the process. In contrast to consistently bending to distractions (see #9), planned breaks will actually enhance your productivity throughout the day. For some, this may literally be setting an alarm to take the dog for a walk around the block a couple times during the day. Or maybe it’s creating a habit of reading a book over lunch vs. sitting at the computer. The key is to be purposeful in your new setting – including the integration of occasional breaks.
10 – Distractions – The potential distractions at home are essentially endless. Television, social media, and even items like dishes or laundry are just the tip of the iceberg. If you don’t address these out of the gate, they can severely affect your daily outcomes. Fortunately there are plenty of tools to address these effectively. Two of my personal favorites are the hourglass and an app. The hourglass (which in my case is a “30-minute glass”) is a fun way to commit to a focused period of time on a specific project. If texts/emails and other elements on my phone are the primary distractions, then I may literally set the hourglass on my phone while I dig in. If the endless options from the internet are your sirens song, then look into free apps like RescueTime to provide feedback on where time is being spent. Pro tip: Before using the app, take a guess as to how much time you spend on various sites daily. You’ll likely be stunned how wrong you are 😊
Bonus – Soak it in – This is a unique time for our global economy. The shift to working from home may last two weeks. Or it may go on for months or even become a way of life for some reading this. The 24/7 corona virus news and social media cycle can be exhausting and discouraging. However, working from home doesn’t need to be. Soak in this time. Look for the opportunities. Reflect on what makes you, your habits, your pursuits different at home compared to the office setting. Change is often difficult, but it is also often exactly what sparks the growth that will provide benefits for the rest of our lives. Let’s soak in this opportunity as we move forward into this new frontier!