Tips for Working Remotely and Staying Productive

Tips for Working Remotely and Staying Productive
Upwork Staff
July 23, 2020
6 Min Read

For many companies, 2020 has shattered the idea that working from home isn’t productive. Remote work has risen rapidly as a result of the pandemic with more than half of the U.S. workforce working remotely. A third of hiring managers found that productivity had actually increased as a result of remote work, proving that businesses around the world are making remote work, work. Thanks to modern technology, it’s easier and more efficient than ever before.

But working remotely can be a double-edged sword. A home office may reduce the distractions of co-workers and bustling workspaces. However, there are still plenty of diversions at home that can kill productivity. Below are some tried-and-true tips for staying productive while working remotely..

1. Set up a workspace

It’s easy to mentally separate work and home life when working in an office building. When working remotely, however, you’ll have to be more intentional. If you’re able to, designate a space in your home as “work-only.”

This space should be off-limits to housemates, family members, and children (as much as humanly possible). It should also have a strong WiFi connection. This helps create a physical boundary between work and personal life.

Your home office should be where you do most, if not all, of your work. Ideally, you won’t use this workspace outside of business hours. This will help you stay in work mode while on the clock, and shut work mode down when it’s time to clock out.

2. Stick to a routine

Similar to a home office, designated working hours can help keep your focus on work when needed. Routines reduce stress and increase productivity by creating a sense of control over your day. To stick to a routine, Dr. Amanda Caplan at NorthShore University HealthSystem suggests that you:

  • Decide what needs to be in your routine
  • Set small goals
  • Lay out a plan
  • Be consistent with time
  • Be prepared
  • Make it fun
  • Track your progress
  • Reward yourself

Work-life balance is critical, especially if you’re working from home full-time. Commit to a routine that helps maintain that balance.

3. Capture motivation at its peak; start working early

The earliest part of the day is when we are typically the most productive. A two-year study found that people most often complete tasks around 11 am. Afterward, productivity drops for the rest of the day.

Try to start work as soon as your morning routine (breakfast, shower, coffee, etc.) is complete. Use these productive hours to tackle the toughest task for the day, or to fire off a bunch of small, easy ones.

4. Avoid multitasking

Multitasking is seen as an admirable skill, but it’s actually detrimental to productivity. According to various studies, multitasking:

  • Temporarily drops IQ and lowers brain matter density
  • Reduces attention span, affects learning, and disrupts working memory
  • Reduces focus and concentration
  • Hampers creativity and innovation
  • Damages the part of the brain responsible for emotional intelligence
  • Increases stress and burnout

For the uninitiated, a better option is to complete work in batches and create mental space for deep work.

Fractured time

Fractured time is when you spend short, distracted bursts of time on individual tasks and quickly move on to others. This isn’t classic multitasking, and it won’t help you stay productive. Fractured time doesn’t allow you to concentrate on one task long enough to get into the zone.

Time batching

According to productivity software provider Monday, time batching is “a productivity system that helps individuals focus on a group of similar tasks during a dedicated time period without interruptions.”

To make it work, batch similar tasks together into “small,” “medium,” and “large” tasks. Small tasks may take about 15-30 minutes of attention. Tasks that take up to 2 hours belong on the medium list. Finally, your long list is for tasks that take more than 2 hours.

Time isn’t the only factor between the small, medium, and long lists. Consider which tasks require the most brainpower. For example, thirty minutes of research likely isn’t the same as thirty minutes of clearing your inbox.

Once you’ve batched, decide which is the best list to start with based on your schedule and focus. You’ll want to think about your priorities: Is it better at that moment to get many small tasks done, or to work on larger tasks that have a bigger impact on your team or organization? Once you’ve chosen, stick with the list to keep your motivation and distractions to a minimum.

Deep work

Recently, the concept of deep work has come to the forefront of productivity conversations thanks to a book by Cal Newport. Deep work centers on being able to focus on hard tasks that require a lot of brainpower for sustained periods of time without distraction or deviation.

Deep work is similar to batching. You divide your to-do list into deep and shallow work. Batch all deep tasks into 3-4 hour blocks, and remove distractions so you can stay on task. Close browser tabs, silence your phone, don’t schedule meetings, and stay off social media.

If that seems like too much, you can break deep work down into shorter sustained periods. For example, you can work for 50 minutes, then take a 10-minute break. However you choose to employ it, deep work improves focus by dedicating specific time blocks to demanding tasks.

5. Take a break

Breaks are just as important to productivity as your time spent working. In fact, one study found that not taking breaks actually reduces productivity. Researchers found that frequent break-takers were more productive and that the ideal work rhythm was 52 minutes of work followed by a 17-minute break. This near-hourly cycle is due to the natural rise and fall of activity in our brains.

Stepping away from your computer and doing whatever it takes to renew your focus and energy—whether it’s exercising, spending time with family members, or taking a lunch break—can make you a better worker and increase productivity. Taking time for you will help you stay sane and productive throughout the day.

6. Hold off on personal tasks

It can be tempting while working from home to take care of personal tasks. After all, the washing machine is just steps away. However, the short-term satisfaction of completing immediate tasks often isn’t worth the long-term cost of avoiding more important tasks.

So says the Journal of Consumer Research, which published a study about The Mere Urgency Effect. As researchers explain, “The mere urgency effect documented in this research violates the basic normative principle of dominance—choosing objectively worse options over objectively better options.” In other words, we don’t always choose to do the task that’s really best for us. Breaks are important, but leave personal tasks for lunchtime or when you’re done working for the day. Separating work from personal tasks keeps your mind focused on each type of task when the time is right. Stay focused on work while at work, and on home life when you’re off the clock.

7. End the day by closing work programs and tabs

At the end of the day, it’s important to transition from work mode to home life. If your laptop or computer is used for both work and personal tasks, close any work-related programs and tabs. You can use productivity tools like Toby to save your entire session to open later.

You can also increase productivity by saving tabs required for the next day’s tasks, including email, documents, reports, online tools, etc. Using productivity tools not only helps you stay productive while working from home, but also allows you to find a work-life balance that fits your needs.

Staying sane and productive while working remotely

Working from home presents some challenges to maintaining a good work-life balance, but it isn’t impossible. With the right tools, techniques, and boundaries, you can carve out space and time to be productive without letting work invade your personal life. 

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