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How to Stay Productive in Isolation

Around the world, people have holed themselves up in their home offices and begun to do their work remotely. Whether they’re newly remote or trying to launch an online enterprise, working from home is a new challenge for many people. One of the biggest detractors of remote work is the isolation from other people. As highly social creatures, humans often find themselves irritable or depressed when they don’t have people around. As it turns out, many of us were quite accustomed to water-cooler chats and vibrant brainstorming sessions. Some people are even missing the boring staff meetings.

Although many experts hail remote work as a boon to creativity and productivity —and many workers agree — it can also harm productivity. Despite a lack of distractions (or a commute), people who are used to being surrounded by coworkers might find themselves unable to work efficiently without their physical presence. It’s akin to how some people get so used to the sounds of the city that they can’t sleep without ambient noise. Plus, we’re distracted by a constant stream of notifications about the pandemic, as well as worries about what’s next.

What is to be done? While it’s unclear how long the pandemic will last, it’s important to get newly remote workers feeling happier and more productive now. Let’s explore some techniques to help boost your productivity even while you’re in isolation.

Step 1: Have the Right Tools

The good news is that isolation can be partly overcome by the right set of tools. If your team was already using Slack or Zoom, you’re on the right track. It just might take a little effort to make these tools a regular part of your work life. For example, perhaps your team used Slack for general chatting or to share funny GIFs. Now, it can be your virtual venue for a daily check-in. If you’re a supervisor, consider rolling these check-ins into the daily schedule to help prevent loneliness.

If you’ve been relying upon email as a means of communication — or even project management — it’s time to implement a robust collaborative tool such as Asana, Basecamp, or Trello. These tools are helpful even when you’re in an office or studio environment, but are especially so when you’re working remotely. For one thing, they help reduce the need for unwieldy email chains with multiple file attachments — and that’s a fix that might carry over into when things are finally back to normal.

Secondly, they help provide a point of reference that quickly becomes absent when people aren’t in a physical space together. Normally, checking on a project status would be a fairly organic process: Just drop by your coworker’s office or bring it up in the next meeting. When you’re stuck at home, this isn’t possible, and so it’s easy to lose track of what’s happening with your team. That’s where a collaboration tool can help you excel.

Above all else, collaboration tools keep you connected. If you’re chugging away on your tasks at home and having minimal contact with your colleagues, you’re bound to feel lonelier and more disoriented. Take advantage of these tools, many of which are free, to keep in touch and keep yourself motivated.

Step 2: Address the Loneliness

Here’s the secret: While productivity gurus rightfully champion periods of deep focus as the key to getting things done in less time, the truth is that we draw a lot of energy from those around us. That’s why many of us struggle to stay motivated when we’re forced to work from home. The silence of an empty room can be more distracting than a busy office full of energetic people.

To help address this problem, it’s time to break a cardinal rule for avoiding loneliness and procrastination. Get on social media — yes, really. Not only do you need to connect with others to deal with isolation, but also this is an opportune time to connect with colleagues, customers, and followers. You might even find that you’re able to grow your company’s reputation or garner new business.

It’s true that casual scrolling of social media can contribute to loneliness, as well as procrastination. However, it can also boost your feeling of connection to others, and it’s a great way to break out of your established social circle. That’s why it’s important to start using your social media strategically. Establish goals for your use and look for ways to boost your business or brand through each platform. Then, devote time each day to spend on social media, or use it as a break in-between your deep focus blocks (more on that in a moment).

Step 3. Grow Your Skills

Take some time for personal development. You’ve probably noticed that you have more time in the day. Use it for “upskilling” and take that online coding class or marketing course you’ve always wanted to try. You can also pick up a new creative hobby such as painting or knitting. Often, you’ll discover that you feel more creative and innovative in your daily work.

Alternately, take this newfound time to recover. Many of us work too hard. If you’ve noticed that you’ve been fatigued, struggling to remember things, or not as productive as usual, you’re likely burned out. Incorporate rest time for low-key activities such as reading, yoga, or meditation.

Step 4. Set Boundaries and Guidelines

In a regular work environment, most of us rely upon our daily deadlines or assignments. When we transition to remote work, suddenly our day seems expansive and endless. This can lead to overworking, which can present challenges for your HR department as well as your productivity and mental health.

It’s important to keep to the same work schedule that you would have if you were going into a physical work environment. That means walking away from your work area at the end of the work day. And if you were checking your work email while you were off the clock, now is the time to quit that bad habit. You can’t expect to psychologically distance yourself from work, especially when you work from home, if you don’t disengage from work tasks and messages at the end of the day.

There are a couple of time management techniques that are especially effective for remote work. The first, block scheduling, is the process of breaking your day down into time “blocks,” each of which you devote to one of four themes. The four themes, admin, so- cial, focus, and recovery, refer to the different types of tasks that you would do in a given day. The idea is that your energy is better suited to one of these four themes depending on the time of day. By devoting high-energy times to hard work and low-energy times to routine tasks such was checking email, you can maximize your productivity.

During remote work, this approach is especially helpful because it helps you carve out what seems like an endless day into manage- able blocks. It’s all too easy to keep working past the end of the work day, because why not? You’re already in work mode. But you need to set clear boundaries to help avoid burnout, which kills your productivity.

The second, the Pomodoro technique, helps you work for periods of deep focus (called a Pomodoro), then take a break. For remote workers, this is helpful because it forces you to step away from the computer at regular intervals, similar to how you would in an office environment for meetings or chats with coworkers. However, the Pomodoro technique also boosts your productivity. Most people can’t sustain periods of deep focus for longer than 25 minutes or so, especially when a pandemic is on our minds. The Pomodoro technique provides a sense of urgency that can help motivate deep focus. In fact, this article was written using the Pomodoro technique!

Wrapping Up

Although we are in isolation, we’re easily connected by an amazing variety of digital communication and collaboration tools. We’re as devoted to our work as ever — perhaps more so, without the distractions of a work environment. The key to staying productive in isolation is to approximate the energy of a physical work environment while enabling our focus and sense of connection. Now, more than ever, it’s crucial to take care of our minds and bodies. Now is the time to abandon workaholism and burnout and prioritize deep focus, regular breaks, and true collaboration. With these tools and techniques in hand, you can more effectively tackle the demands of isolation and come out not only more productive, but also a happier, healthier worker.


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