I’ve been working from home for exactly a month now. I’ve left the house about five times in that period and during the day I’m on my own here. I’ve been inundated with emails from students and colleagues, and phone calls and online meetings, as you’d expect. But just over a week ago, I noticed that what I’ve really been doing is just working non-stop but still not getting very far. I started in the mornings when I would leave the house to drive to work (7 am) and basically work through until around 5.30 pm, but somehow most evenings I just didn’t feel like I had got much done, and sometimes ended up thinking about work all evening – and even dreaming about it! I spent so much time working or thinking about work, but I realised that I wasn’t working very effectively and I wasn’t taking care of myself so that my brain would be fit enough for all of the new challenges that online and distance teaching bring with them.
I’ve been preparing materials for a semester which is going to start on Monday but looking back over them I was quite disappointed with my performance. So, I stopped to take stock and figure out what I would need to do to keep myself from burning out whilst working at, and teaching from, home this term. In this post I’d like to share some of the ideas that I’m trying out and that seem to be working for me. Maybe they’ll be helpful for other people to! The overall motto is: less is more!
First of all, I’ve tried to limit the number of hours spent doing work things to the same number I would work at work. And quite honestly, even with my full-time EAP teaching position it’s probably only about six real hours of effective work I do per day on average. So that’s what I’ve set myself for this period of working full-time at home. I have to say I’m not really strict with myself on this and some days I do half an hour longer or so. But still far less than from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. In this case, slightly less is definitely more! At the absolute latest once my husband gets home I shut the computer down – even if that means stopping in the middle of something. At least I know straight away where I’m going to pick up the next morning!
I’ve read a bit about pomodoro technique and so on, and I realised that I had been trying to multitask, letting myself get distracted by every email as it came in and basically not focusing so well on the lesson plans and materials I was writing. What I do now during my self-imposed 6-hour working day is set a timer, shut down my email program and turn my mobile phone onto completely silent. I usually go for about 90 minute blocks and not start until about 8 am in the morning. I do two blocks in the morning and one in the afternoon, plus checking emails and and talking to colleagues on the phone. Some people and techniques recommend shorter chunks than this – I don’t know if less is more here; perhaps it depends what you’re working on. But working for concentrated blocks of time has really helped me to stay concentrated, and, looking back over the plans and activities I have written, there is a much clearer linking thread through a lesson or a material, so that saves me time having to edit later. This is definitely something I can recommend and I’m going to carry on doing.
In between those blocks I take breaks away from the desk and try to do something completely different. I do a little bit of cleaning, some colouring, or some exercise like yoga, hula hooping or a stint on the elliptical trainer (and then shower!). For me, doing especially exercise in shorter sessions helps me to get motivated to actually do it! (There it is again, less is more!). And I have even found that, during some rather monotonous activities like colouring or or on the trainer, that’s when some of my best ideas come to me. I sometimes also use that time to make a mental to-do list or plan for my next 90-minute work block. Sometimes I just do laps of my garden looking at the spring blossoms, the fish in the pond, or get lost in my thoughts. I also walk around the house when I’m on the phone to colleagues, which means I’ve easily got my 10,000 steps per day in most days since I started working from home, often without even noticing it! I’m sure the physical movement is also helpful for getting oxygen to my brain to work more effectively!
Some days (if I’m feeling particularly restless),I let myself have a little quiet time after lunch. I usually just lie down and listen to some music to get my mind off of work tasks. Of course, occasional thoughts about work do sneak in, but somehow in a less hectic way. And sometimes I get flashes of inspiration during these little rests.
In the evenings and at the weekend I take a complete break from working at the computer. I try to do activities that are completely different from my work for example baking, gardening, puzzling or watching TV. And of course catching up with friends on the phone, etc. If the weather is nice I tried to spend as much time outdoors as possible, even if it’s just reading a book in the garden. I’m pleased to say that this has really helped me to stop thinking and worrying about work stuff at the weekend. And sometimes when I get back to the computer on Monday a task that felt so challenging or where I felt I had got stuck the week before suddenly seems a lot easier or more manageable. I learnt and from previous mental health issues how important weekends are, and I think I had maybe lost sight of that a bit. But now that I have reclaimed my weekends and completely work free, I’m much more able to produce better work during the times that I am at the computer.
So, as a quick re-cap and handy list, here are my tips for working more effectively at home:
– Stick to a (limited) number of working hours per day.
– Break these working hours into timed blocks during which you’re not distracted.
– Take breaks through the day and do things that are clearly different from your work. Do exercise, for example.
– Allow yourself some quiet time. Spend some time outdoors, for example.
– Do not let work encroach into your evenings or weekends. (Or, depending on your situation, set other clear days/times when you DO NOT WORK.)
– Do not beat yourself up about not having done a ‘perfect’ day’s work every day.