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Work to Live While Living at Work

In March of 2020, with very little warning, our lives were changed virtually overnight.  For many of us who worked in the corporate space, that meant our office space had been replaced with the need to carve out a work space at home.  In parallel, we were navigating a newly remote team, boss, and customers.  To compound the change even further, many companies were scrambling to adjust their business model to cater to customers who were also working from home.  For most of us, that meant a shift to “living at work” or seeing our work lives and personal lives collide, both figuratively and literally, like never before.

And this doesn’t even mention the changes that we were trying to maneuver in our personal lives and the worldwide pandemic we were all trying to avoid outside.  To say that it was a lot of change at once is probably the understatement of the century.  While many struggled with anxiety, depression, and substance abuse, others tried to manage the change through humor, resulting in a barrage of trending memes to help us cope.

The pandemic has changed life as we know it and although one day, fears of COVID will be a thing of the past, as of today, we still don’t have an end in sight.  

The unexpected side effect of everyone working from home is that our work and life hours have started to bleed. Now, it can be difficult to distinguish time when we are supposed to be working from time when we are allowed to enjoy our lives.  

Five things compounded this phenomenon: 

  • Work communications came in at all hours of the day and night
  • Many companies struggled with the change and people started to worry about losing their jobs
  • Physical work space had very little, if any, separation from home life
  • External activities and socialization opportunities largely came to a screeching halt
  • Zoom fatigue became a new word in the dictionary

Separating Work from Life

It’s a great opportunity to explore what we’ve learned thus far, press the reset button on the pandemic and find ways to separate life and work life. This will enable us to stay healthy and productive as we navigate this new norm.

Let’s find a way to work to live while living at work. 

Three things can help us thrive in this (hopefully) temporary environment:

  1. Optimize Productivity (so you can efficiently move through your to-do list and be less distracted when you’re not working)
  2. Explore Boundaries
  3. Make Time to Recharge 

Optimize Productivity

There have been a number of studies and books all focused on improving productivity.  I scoured through the best ones to give you bite-sized tips to help you incorporate small changes to help you move through your work load faster and more efficiently.

Secret #1- Rest and Recovery are Key to Excellence

Anders Ericcson was a psychologist who coined the term, “It takes 10,000 hours to become an expert.”  Malcolm Gladwell then popularized this even further in his popular business book, Outliers.  

But there’s a lesser known fact that Ericcson uncovered that is key to this discussion.

Ericcson studied elite musicians at Berlin Academy to try to decipher what separated the good from the great.  

What he found was this:

  • The best musicians practiced for 60-90 minutes, 3x/day, and took time to rest between practice sessions.  They got, on average, one more hour of sleep per night compared to the musicians who were just “good.”
  • The “good” musicians practiced, on average, for 100 minutes straight/day and slept and rested less than the best musicians.

What this study shows is that, in addition to consistent practice, rest is critical when you’re looking to improve.

Secret #2- Just Say ‘NO’ to Multi-Tasking

Researchers at Stanford compared groups of people based on their tendency to multitask and their belief that it helps them with their performance.  They found that self-described “heavy multitaskers” were worse at performing because they had trouble organizing their thoughts and filtering out irrelevant information.  They were also slower at switching from one task to another.

Our brains can only focus on one thing at a time.  If you try to do two things at once, your brain lacks the capacity to perform both tasks successfully.  

In short, multitasking reduces your efficiency and performance.

Researchers at the University of London verified this by measuring IQ scores after study participants multitasked during cognitive tasks.  They found that, after multitasking, IQ scores for adults declined to that of an average 8-year-old child, or similar to what you’d see if they had smoked marijuana or stayed up all night.  

Focus on the task at hand to stay speedy, efficient, and sharp.  It will actually improve your productivity and increase the chances that you’ll show up well in front of the people you want to build trust with.

Secret #3- Use Time Blocking

In the book The 4-Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss, it’s stated that it’s important to get into a rhythm, complete related tasks in one block, and then move on.  This eliminates the time required to mentally engage in a new task, which eats up precious time and energy.

In addition, use the “2-minute rule” to knock out small tasks.  Here’s what that looks like: set the timer for two minutes. If you haven’t finished the small task at hand, move on or schedule time to come back to it later.

This will ensure those small tasks don’t turn into something more involved and time consuming.  If these seemingly small tasks start to take longer than expected, weigh the need to finish them against those priorities you’ve already established for the day to ensure this is where you should be spending your time.  If not, schedule time to finish it later, find a more productive way to knock it out (would a phone call be faster?) or decide to let it go.  Bottom line, limit distractions and tasks that will eat up your day but won’t move the needle.

There are several additional tips that will help you as you think about how to structure your day to maximize productivity:

  1. Tackle creative/challenging work early in the day
  2. Schedule the least desirable/most mentally taxing tasks for early in the day when you’re refreshed and full of energy.  If you procrastinate and wait until later, these tasks will likely weigh on you through the week and be left to the last minute.  Don’t do that to yourself.
  3. Schedule Time for Planning. Set aside time at the beginning and end of every week to plan.  Use the time at the beginning of the week to prioritize tasks, schedule blocks of time to get work done and set an intention for the week. For example, what do you want to accomplish, both personally and professionally?  How do you want to feel?Use the time at the end of the week to reflect on what you achieved through the week, being mindful of focusing on all the positive contributions that you made.  So often, we get stuck in a negative cycle of, “what haven’t I done?”  Instead, flip the script and optimize your self-narrative.  If there were things you didn’t get to despite your best efforts, put them on the calendar for the following week. 
  4. Set aside time to answer email/messages, then shut it down. One of the easiest ways to derail your productivity is to get distracted by the constant barrage of messages that pop up on your screen.  The mind shift from topic to topic is a huge energy drain.  Also, when you stop paying attention to the speaker during a video call, the message that’s received may not be your intended one.  Instead, commit to your task at hand and carve out three times a day to review and respond to email: early, mid-day, and at the end of the day.  That way, you are focusing on what you need to get done versus getting pulled in various different directions.  Bonus: sometimes if you wait to respond, the issue tends to resolve itself. 

Here’s a sample weekly schedule to refer to as you think about the best way to structure your week.  Even if you can’t start exactly at 8 and end at 5, this will give you a general idea about how to block time. This will enable you to be more effective at work and maximize your personal time.

Sample Weekly Schedule

Create Boundaries

Separating your home life from your work life when both are so intertwined requires a concerted effort.  Both in a mental sense but also in a physical sense.  For this reason, I’ve broken this topic into two sections.

Create Mental Boundaries

There’s been a lot of conversation around how important it is to set work-life boundaries.  It turns out, the answer to decreasing overwhelm is not in setting boundaries.

Back in 2016, researched from Ball State University and Saint Louis University tested the theory that lack of strict boundaries between home and work leads to higher levels of stress.

They found the opposite to be true.

Your mind will naturally wander to things that need attention in personal matters when you’re at work.  Conversely, your mind will wander to work matters when you’re trying to enjoy your personal time.  This is a product of our natural cognitive process so it does us no good to fight nature.  In fact, getting mad or stressed when our mind wanders from one to the other in the moment is like getting mad when you get hungry.  It’s what we do as humans.

Instead, pay attention to the reaction you have to this cognitive transition.
Is it inspiring?  Or is it depleting?  If it’s inspiring, like thinking about your beach vacation in the middle of a tough work week to help you get through it, you’re golden.  If it’s depleting, like thinking about the endless laundry you have piling up that you don’t have time to get to because of work, that’s what you’ll want to optimize.

Instead of ruminating on the heaviness of that thing you have to get to that you can’t right now, try this instead. Schedule time in your calendar to get it done, find a way to outsource/delegate the task, or simply decide to let it go.  Find a way to switch the thought you associate with that task to one that’s more empowering. This will allow you to truly stay in the moment and optimize your energy management.

Create Physical Boundaries

The danger of working from home is that we conduct work activities in a space that houses our personal lives as well.  Whatever physical boundaries that may have existed before have disappeared.  It’s time to get them back.

If you can, find a way to eliminate the physical reminders of work when you’re focused on your personal life.  For example, if you have a personal office, shut the door.  If your office is in the corner of a living area, try to find a divider, like a Japanese screen. Or, simply turn off your computer screen when you’re not in work mode.  This will limit the times you get visual reminders of work.  It’s as important to carve out time for personal life as it is to carve out time for work.  Too much of either one will inevitably impede on the other.

Find Ways to Recharge

Part of the challenge to everyone working from home and juggling sometimes, unpredictable schedules is that work-related messages are now coming in at all hours of the day and night.  For those of us who have a need to respond to any incoming messages in minutes, this can be a real challenge in our desire to create distinctions between work and life.

It can be easy to let our work hours overtake our personal life and then our home obligations take precedence over our personal needs until we no longer have time for ourselves.

But scheduling time to recharge, both mentally and physically, are key to helping you thrive daily and particularly important in times of high stress (like a pandemic).

Recharge Mentally

Psychologists John Kounios and Mark Beeman mapped brain waves to discover when we at our peak performance.  What they found was moments of brilliance and creativity come when we are in a calm and relaxed state- when we are doing anything BUT work. 

This is probably no surprise to you as you reflect on when your best ideas come to you- when you’re in the shower, when you’re walking the dog, when you’re outside gardening or mowing the lawn.  It’s important to give ourselves time and space away from information gathering-mode to let ideas permeate and manifest into new ideas.

Think about ways to create time and space away from your back-to-back zoom meetings, influx of work messages, and to-do list to allow yourself the time and space to think through high level strategy decisions and new ways to approach problem-solving.  A good way to do this is to calendar in time to think or just get outside, every day.

Feeling overwhelmed and having trouble finding time to do anything more? Read this blog to help you find a solution.

Recharge Physically

There are countless studies out there that highlight the holistic advantages of incorporating regular movement into your work day.  On the alarming side, a study back in 2008 showed that there were more deaths from physical inactivity than there were from excessive smoking.

On the more motivating side, a study featured at Harvard highlighted that movement increases oxygen flow which triggers new brain cell growth.

Either way you look at it, incorporating daily movement into your routine is important.

To help, build in blocks of time between meetings and use this time to walk to the kitchen to fill your water, get a snack, or go grab the mail.  Find ways to ensure you don’t sit at your desk for hours at a time.  

Calendar in time to work out.  It doesn’t have to be hard-core cardio to constitute a work-out.  Find something you enjoy doing that checks the activity box for the day- take a walk, garden, go hiking, do yoga, hop on your bike.  Find an activity that you enjoy doing as a way to increase your heart rate so you’re motivated to make it happen.  

This forced time working from home with very little interaction with others is tough.  Find ways to make it easier and prioritize your personal life as much as you prioritize work.  If you do, you’ll find both become more enjoyable and easier. And although you might be living at work, you can still allow yourself to live to work instead of working to live.

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