So I’m officially on Day 8 of my telecommuting exile and it has been…a challenge. Like I said before, I miss my office. I miss my colleagues. I miss my routines. Generally, I just miss the way things used to be.
Still, like everyone I need to do what I can to stay productive even as it sometimes feels like the world is falling apart. I thought I’d share here some strategies that I’ve been using so far to do that that are working for me.
As always, I want to acknowledge that I’m speaking from a place of privilege as someone with a job that is allowing me the opportunity to continue to work through all of this and the flexibility to practice social distancing to keep myself and others safe. Not everyone has that right now. Also I’m privileged in the sense that my time and my space are my own—I don’t have to share them with anyone on a day-to-day basis except for an occasionally pushy cat. So the point of view I’m writing from is someone whose only responsibility at the moment is herself (and her pushy cat).
That said, here’s what I’ve got on how I’m staying productive:
Limiting exposure to the news: Like most people, when this thing first started, I was pretty much glued to my favorite news sites. As soon as I woke up in the morning, I’d check the headlines from the New York Times. Then when I got to work, I’d read through the various local and national newsletters I receive in my inbox every day. Then I’d check some headlines on some other news sites I like just in case. Then I’d go back to the New York Times in case anything had changed. Before I knew it, I had fallen into a black hole of anxiety and stress and hours had gone by with no work getting done. Pretty much the same thing would happen when I got home at night. Before I went to bed, I’d check the number of new infections in my area (in New York State, where the number of known infections is now said to be doubling every three days) and then not be able to sleep.
The thing is, compulsively checking and re-checking the news made me feel like I was doing something. As if by informing myself about what was going on, I was somehow taking action. I wasn’t. I was just freaking myself the f*ck out.
A certain amount of freaking out right now is probably healthy, given the sheer magnitude of everything that’s happening. And staying informed is definitely important. But not at the expense of living life.
So now I’ve limited my news intake. I put my phone in another room while I sleep so I won’t reach for it first thing in the morning. Instead, I wait until I open my work e-mail. I look at the newsletters I’m subscribed to, absorb this new information as best I can, and then I put it away. I don’t look at the news again until I’ve finished my work for the day. I definitely don’t look at it right before I go to bed. It’s not easy but if I want to do anything besides spend my day worrying, it’s necessary.
Creating a structure to my day: One of the things I’ve always liked best about my job is the near-complete autonomy I have over how I spend my time. Sure, there are meetings and reference shifts and instruction sessions. And of course I have to check in with my supervisor regularly to account for what projects I’ve been working on and what progress I’m making. But overall, the layout of any free time in my day has always been pretty much up to me.
Luckily, I’ve always been pretty good about managing time. Like, I have a color-coded spreadsheet that lays out what tasks I want to get done on which days for an entire week and I generally manage to stick to it. But what order I do things in and how long I spend on them has always been a bit loosey-goosey. Mostly I just drift from one item to the next based on what I feel like working on in a given moment or what I know I have to get done. This system has worked well for me the last five years or so that I’ve been using it. Which is to say, I managed to get tenure a year early by organizing my time this way.
Except it turns out a system like doesn’t work as well in a full-time WFH situation. I mean, I still have a color-coded spreadsheet but drifting from one task to another like I did before leaves too much room for that compulsive headline-checking I talked about above or getting distracted by non-work related things. So now I have a schedule for myself, which lays out the order in which I will work on my tasks throughout the day and between what hours. That order is the same every day and I’ve been forcing myself to follow it as much as possible—especially the part where I stop and put all of my work away before dinner in the evening.
To be clear, this structure is not one of nonstop work. Full disclosure: my color-coded work task list has never consisted entirely of actual work-related activities. I always have a few spaces for “personal” activities like the twenty minutes I would use to work on a personal creative writing project at lunchtime. Those personal activities are now things like a short walk in the morning and a 10-minute Headspace meditation in the afternoon. It may seem ridiculous to include stuff like that on a to-do list but I feel like these are things I really need to be doing right now to keep my sanity and I know myself well enough to know that if I didn’t put them on the list, I wouldn’t do them.
Connecting with colleagues: I am a loner introvert who lives by myself and there are frankly ways in which this social distancing thing was made for people like me. I mean, before all of this happened a weekend in which I didn’t leave the house and didn’t talk to any other people was, like, a good weekend for me. That was something I looked forward to.(1) Now I’m a little worried that by the time all of this is over, I’ll have forgotten how to talk to other human beings and will instead start talking to my co-workers the same way I talk to my cat. And this is all assuming that I remain healthy while I’m doing the social distancing thing.
So I knew I would have to take steps to make sure this didn’t happen. I contacted some colleagues I was social with (in a work-related way) in the past and invited them to regular virtual coffee and chat sessions where we can talk about what we’re working on and check in with each other in a more general way. I did the same with my research/writing partners on a recent research project and some former library colleagues as well. This way, I can practice social distancing without becoming too isolated.
So, yeah. It may be that I need to change all of this up as things continue to develop, but this is what’s working for me right now. If you have any strategies for keeping yourself productive and sane right now, feel free to share in the comments below.
(1) I told my therapist this once. She was not impressed.