You’re stuck in your apartment and ordered to work-from-home. There’s a deluge of bad news on social media, and your own mounting anxiety around COVID-19  isn’t helping. How do you actually get work done?

By now, you’ve read a tome of articles online around remote work and working-from-home. You know you should try to keep a schedule, dress like you’re going to work, and use video conferencing as a way to stay motivated. But successful remote work needs a mental shift, and here’s what you should keep in mind:

Deep Work

A 2012 McKinsey study found that an average knowledge worker now spends more than 60 percent of the workweek engaged in electronic communication and Internet searching, with close to 28 percent of a worker’s time dedicated to reading and answering e-mails. Clearly, precious hours are wasted communicating and over-communicating, It’s why writer Neal Stephenson said:

“If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels. [If I instead get interrupted a lot] what replaces it? Instead of a novel that will be around for a long time… there are a bunch of e-mail messages that I have sent out to individual persons.”

While it’s important to stay in touch and communicate while working remotely, it shouldn’t come at the cost of working efficiently. Author Cal Newport wrote about distractions that impede our ability to work in his book “Deep Work”. 

‘Working Deeply’ is when professional activities are performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push our cognitive capabilities to their limit.

Learning to work deeply requires a mindset change and what better time to do it than when in quarantine?

When working deeply, you can create new value, improve your skill, and do work that is hard to replicate.  And why is it important? Most of us are in the habit of performing shallow work which is cognitively undemanding. Think clerical tasks performed while distracted. And what affects this cognition or your ability to work while being fully concentrated? The ping on your phone. Or notifications. You’re logged on to social media accounts from your computer or your phone and every few minutes, you’re sneaking a peek to prevent FOMO.

But by doing this you’re willfully stopping yourself from achieving the deep concentration and clear thinking required to perform superior quality of work. 

While distractions in the form of a colleague dropping by at your desk or your spouse’s call are common even at the workplace, they’re exacerbated manifold at home: Suddenly you’re thinking of doing laundry or changing your curtains or cooking up another snack. Your home is your territory and as liberating as that can be in terms of allowing you to work sincerely as and when you please, it can also continuously vie for your attention. Reaching a state of deep work is the best solution to combat this.

Newport warns in his book Deep Work, “There’s increasing evidence that this shift toward the shallow is not a choice that can be easily reversed. Spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness and you permanently reduce your capacity to perform deep work.”

Set Rituals

Your routine has probably gone for a toss and your first step should be to bring it back. After that, focus on rituals. Routine and rituals are two different things. Your routine may be to sit in front of the computer from 10 am to 6 pm but you may get nothing done in these hours. So, develop a daily ritual of ensuring that you are not distracted in any way between say, 11 am and 1 pm. Newport says, “By supporting deep work with rock-solid routines that make sure a little bit gets done on a regular basis, the rhythmic scheduler will often log a larger total number of deep hours per year”.

Set fixed hours for social media and messaging apps

Learn how to control your phone. It may be impossible if you’re in the habit of checking your phone every two minutes, but put physical barriers between you and your phone. A simple way to do this is to keep your phone in another room. If you have to get up to go check it every time, you will do it less. Or log out from social media accounts every time you use them on your computer. If you have to log in every time you want to quickly check Twitter, you will be deterred.

Turn it up only during predefined designated hours. You will not only see your productivity soar, you will also see how it’s much better for your mental health: you don’t need a minute-by-minute update of the pandemic. It will not help.

Set boundaries with others

Just as you may block your calendar at work to prevent unnecessary meetings from crowding your day, sit down with your family or flatmates and give them strict instructions. Explain to them that you’re working from home and therefore, you will only have opportunities to relax or spend time with them at pre-decided hours. 

The carrot and stick method

The method of incentives works for everyone and it can work for you as well. Figure out what you need to accomplish in your day or week and assign punishments and rewards to it. For example, if you have to finish a report today, carve out a sizable working time for it. And if you do it, reward yourself with some time off the next day or an extra hour of Netflix or something else you enjoy. But if you don’t, deny yourself social media rights for a day.

This method only works though if you’re committed and honest to yourself. If you’re not confident about being able to pull this off, involve those you’re living with. Tell them to enforce the rules you’ve set for yourself. Do it a couple of times and watch good habits take shape. 

And finally, clear your mind

We’re sure that there are a thousand worries weighing you down. But there’s only so much you can do. After a reasonable day’s work, put away your electronic devices and work tools. Make sure everything is out of sight and allow your mind, your eyes, and your body to fully relax. This is where you exercise, read a book, meditate, cook or spend time with your family; so that your batteries are recharged for a more wholesome day tomorrow. 


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