For many these days, day-to-day life looks a bit different than it did just a few years ago. More people are working from home, more companies are instituting shortened work weeks, and more parents are homeschooling their children. Managing the hours of each day while juggling it all can be challenging.
I asked productivity coach and time management expert Donna McGeorge for her advice. Here’s what she said.
The Epoch Times: As changes to day-to-day life like shortened work weeks, working from home, and even homeschooling become more common, what are some of the challenges you see people struggling with when it comes to managing their time?
Donna McGeorge: Multitasking. They spend their days jumping from one thing to another without creating the space for focused work. It’s just too easy to get distracted or pulled into something going on around the home when it’s full of people.
Setting yourself 60- to 90-minute bursts of work so that you can focus is really important. Put the timer on, and go for it!
Boundaries. Kids are getting more used to it now, but there is still an idea (particularly for pre-teens) that if the parents are about, they are available. And even boundaries with their workplaces. In my experience, employers have become more flexible and understanding around the complexities of working from home and remote learning, and it’s important to share your commitments with your boss, and your family.
Extended hours. We are at risk of working almost all of our waking hours because it’s quite easy to do it. Opening email at breakfast (or even from bed) and starting work early, and then finishing off the last email in bed before closing your eyes for sleep is a common problem.
Deciding your start and finish times for work is critical to maintaining familial relationships, mental well-being, and your ability to be productive. Being 100 percent on 100 percent of the time is not the key to great work.
The Epoch Times: What are some common mistakes people make in managing the different aspects of their lives from home?
Ms. McGeorge: For many, it’s not having the contextual, spatial, and mental markers around professional and personal life.
Contextual markers are for switching context, for example, home context to work context.
Pre-pandemic, these contextual markers were things like dressing for work and the daily commute. It marked out the beginning and the end of each context. This is hard to replicate when working from home.
Spatial markers help us decide what spaces in our home are for work and for rest. For example, you need to have a specific space for work, even if it’s the end of the kitchen bench or dining table. That way you don’t “contaminate” your resting or “down time” space. If you relax on the sofa watching TV, then don’t work there! If you do that too often, eventually you will find you can’t relax because your brain is still in work mode. The same is in reverse, don’t use the working space for relaxation or when the time comes to work, you may not be able to concentrate.
Mental markers are really about giving your brain a rest. Make sure there are times when your mind is on, and times when it is off. If we are 100 percent on 100 percent of the time, we never give our brain a chance to recover. It’s like an organ in our body, it needs rest. Make sure you go to bed and wake up at the same time every day to build up a pattern of rest so your brain knows when it’s OK to switch off, and when it’s time to switch back on again. The risk is that you have poor sleep because your brain continues to “work” when it should be resting.
The Epoch Times: What are some key strategies you recommend to people who feel overwhelmed or distracted at home?
Ms. McGeorge: Take breaks. Francesco Cirillo’s Pomodoro Method is my favorite. Work in 25-minute bursts, and then take a break for five minutes before putting your head down again. These are called “pomodoros.” Doing four of these in a two-hour period will produce amazingly productive results.
Decompress. When you do take a break, make sure you do something non-work related. This is easy when working from home because in your five-minute breaks you can put a load of washing on, empty the dishwasher, sweep the floor, go out into the garden, check the mailbox. All of these things give you a physical and mental break from work and will enable you to come back fresher.
Write stuff down. Even Einstein said he didn’t waste his mental capacity trying to remember things that were in books. He knew that the mind was for creating ideas not storing them. Get as much out of your head as possible onto to-do lists, or checklists so that you are not clogging your mind with unnecessary clutter.
The Epoch Times: How do you define burnout and what do you recommend one do who feels like they’re experiencing burnout?
Ms. McGeorge: It’s a constant state of overwhelm, feeling out of control and beginning to fail at the important things. If you are tired at the end of every day or starting to snap at colleagues, family, or friends when they don’t deserve it. If you find yourself apologizing a lot for your behavior, it might be the signs of burnout. Ask yourself, when was the last time you felt joy or happiness? When did you last take some time for you?
My recommendations: Decelerate or stop. Protect some time in your diary, cancel some appointments, just stop for at least two hours. Sit on a sofa and let yourself just breathe.
Decompress or take stock. Grab a piece of paper and write down everything that is on your mind—not just work-related tasks, it could be how you feel about a project, personal admin, or thoughts that are in your head. Write it all down until you can’t think of anything else–until your head is empty and stops putting more thoughts or ideas in.
Decide. Choose the top three things that you need to do in the next week and focus on those. Once you have a handle on those, then choose the next.
The risk of not doing the above is that you will get sick, or you will make mistakes and the very thing you are worried about, failing at the important things, will start to happen.
The Epoch Times: When home becomes a space for working and schooling, carving out time for fun or relaxation might feel different. How important is it that leisure time remains a priority?
Ms. McGeorge: The human mind and body are designed for activity and rest. It’s why we need to sleep! Things that bring us joy or that nourish our soul are the kinds of things that generate serotonin, oxytocin, and dopamine—the “feel good” neurotransmitters. These are also the neurotransmitters that keep us hooked into our executive function and allow the ability to be creative, problem solve and think clearly.
Not to mention getting out in nature to breathe fresh air (an oxygenated brain is a productive brain), get some vitamin D (critical for healthy bones), or look at water (seeing or hearing the soothing sounds of moving water triggers a flood of positive neurochemicals).
Prioritizing leisure time and activities is critical to being able to keep going in our work.
The Epoch Times: What’s your best advice for thriving in this “new normal?”
Ms. McGeorge: Defining—make sure you have your work in perspective. Work is a means goal, not an ends goal. It provides the means for you to be, do, or have what’s important to you. When you truly understand why you do the job you do, even a bad one is tolerable because of the things it provides. Even the phrase working for a living is important. It’s about having a life that the work provides, rather than it being the end goal.
Focusing—try to put like-minded work together. Multitasking, or jumping from one thing to another, or living all day in your inbox is not useful. Protecting space for chunks of focused work, or activities that are similar means you aren’t experiencing “monkey brain” by jumping from one thing to another. When you focus for extended periods of time you access alpha brain waves which create that feeling of flow.
Discerning—thinking about your time, energy, and attention as valuable resources and being selective about where you spend them. This is as important for work as it is for your professional life. It’s OK to not be involved in every project, meeting, or discussion. It’s OK to not attend every social event you are invited to. Be very choosy about what you say yes to.
Finally, ask yourself daily, “What am I doing today that my future self will thank me for?”