- Accept that you will be less productive.
A lot of people are having a very hard time with this. That’s understandable because let’s face it: if you have a full-time job and school-aged kids, you’re going through something right now. The same goes for people not used to working from home, or not accustomed to virtual meetings. You can try to keep up your productivity by working nights, giving the kids unlimited screen time, and ordering takeout every day. That’s a sure-fire way to burn out in a matter of weeks, reducing your productivity to zero. This tip is actually quite straightforward: the sooner you accept that you will be less productive right now, the more productive you will be.
- Structure your day.
Just like in the previous article about managing anxiety, structuring your day is associated with having some sense of control over what is going on. You are most likely working from home, maybe you are home-schooling your child, and/or caring for a toddler. It is incredibly helpful to develop a new routine appropriate for this situation. To give you an example: my husband and I both have full-time jobs and are working from home right now. We have to home-school our six-year-old son and care for our one-year-old toddler. Without structure, no work would be done, no school would be taught, no toddler would be fed. So, over the past few weeks we have slowly but surely worked towards a schedule that allows us to spend about four to five hours a day working, and the rest caring for and teaching our kids. This schedule has changed multiple times and will most likely change again over time. And that’s ok. Be structured about your day, but be flexible about your structure. What works for us, may not work for you. Once you find something that does, stick to it. Write it down. Make it a routine.
- Take regular breaks.
Over the past five years, I have given hundreds of workshops about stress management. The one thing that seems to be impossibly difficult to implement in people’s work life, is taking regular breaks. In the current situation that has become even more of an issue, since people are skipping on breaks to make up for lost time. Don’t do that. It will not help you. It won’t make you more productive, and it will wear you out. Your brain is not equipped to handle four hours of non-stop meetings. Get up from your desk/kitchen table/couch at least once every hour. Walk around for a bit, and clear your head. This doesn’t have to take more than five minutes and will massively benefit your mental and physical health.
- Do short mindfulness exercises.
Mindfulness has both a very good and a very bad rep. To some it’s the miracle cure for stress, to others it’s ridiculous hippie psychobabble. I understand that last sentiment, but it’s wrong. Mindfulness isn’t about doing 5-day silent retreats to ‘find yourself’. It’s about using your mind to pull yourself back to the here and now, so you can stop freaking out about the past or future. One very short exercise that you can easily implement into your daily routine revolves around conscious observation. Walk over to the window, and close your eyes. Take a deep breath, open your eyes and for twenty seconds, watch. Don’t think about what you’re seeing, just observe what’s going on. Then close your eyes again. Take a deep breath and for twenty seconds, listen. Don’t interpret what you hear, just listen to the sounds. Take a deep breath and for the last twenty seconds, feel. Don’t judge it, just stand there and let it happen. Don’t think in terms of emotions (I feel stressed, or I feel tired), make it factual (I feel the ring around my finger, or I feel my hair touching my shoulder). Done correctly, those 60 seconds can be enough to give yourself some breathing room when you feel overwhelmed. These types of micro-interventions are so effective that we have developed a mindfulness game called Joyn Me. It combines gamification and mindfulness to help people manage their energy in a few minutes per day. There is a truckload of science supporting the value of mindfulness as a stress-reduction technique, so it might be worth a try.
- Formally end your working day.
When you’re working from home full-time, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate your work from your home life. It is important to make this distinction because you need to preserve your energy to adequately deal with everything that is going on. It may be tempting to work through the night to feel more productive, but this will come back to bite you in the end. Under normal circumstances, you could use your commute to switch your brain from its ‘work’ to its ‘home’ setting. Since that commute probably only lasts from your desk to your couch (if that) right now, it may be useful to find a daily ritual that signals the end of your working day. The exact ritual is dependent on your individual situation but could be something like closing your laptop and going for a short walk around the block or having a (virtual) drink with your partner, friends, or co-workers.
- Do not work nights.
I’m sitting here writing this at 9.45 PM so I appreciate the irony in this statement, but that doesn’t make it any less true. This advice relates to the previous one about formally ending your working day. You may feel pressured to work nights to make up for lost time, but that is not a feasible (or healthy) long-term strategy. A lot of people are currently home-schooling or caring for children. As a mother of two, I can confirm that this does not qualify as downtime. And if you’re not getting any downtime during the day, you better make sure you get it at night. This doesn’t mean that you cannot finish the odd task after the kids have gone to bed. And some things (say, writing an article) are done more efficiently without a kid hanging on each leg asking for snacks and screen time. But do not make a habit out of it.
In Part 1, I outlined the power of play as a stress management technique, and a way to (virtually) connect with people around you. In the context of balance, there is one important aspect that I want to add to that. If you have kids, find time to play with them. Be with them. Without distractions. Your kids are most likely at home 24/7 right now so it may feel like you’re spending more time together than ever. But don’t confuse quantity with quality. Homeschooling your kids is a necessity. Not a choice. Especially to them. Your kids will most likely not call it quality time, and neither should you. As busy as you may be, find time to drop everything and just hang out. Play a board game, make a puzzle together, or join them in their pretend play. It will strengthen your relationship, which will reduce your stress levels, which will benefit your productivity.
I will be the first to admit that maintaining your physical fitness during a global lockdown requires a fair amount of determination. And I will also be the first to admit that I haven’t even come close to the six hours of dance practice that I got before this whole thing started. Don’t beat yourself up over missing a few workouts, but do find a way to incorporate some form of exercise into your week. It doesn’t have to be daily, and it doesn’t have to be as intense as it would be in the gym, but being stressed and sedentary can seriously jeopardize your mental and physical health. Exercise stimulates the release of brain chemicals that will make you feel good, it will keep you healthy and it will keep you sane. So, join a live workout on Zoom, dance around the house in your jammies, or set up an obstacle course with your kid in the backyard (perfect play opportunity!), but just make sure you get off your couch regularly.
- Become a serial monotasker.
Our brains are not very good at multitasking. Better yet, our brains are incapable of processing two streams of information at once, meaning true multitasking doesn’t even exist. The only thing it can do is switch quickly from one input to another. The better your brain is at switching between tasks, the better you will appear to be at multitasking. However, task switching makes you less efficient, and more prone to mistakes. It also requires a lot of energy, more than performing one task after another. I can imagine that anything requiring more energy is not something you need in your life right now. So whenever possible, try serial monotasking. Do one thing at a time, and do it right. Prevent yourself from getting distracted by (for example) putting your phone in flight mode when you’re in a meeting, and not answering e-mails when you’re going over your child’s math assignments.
There is no balance without sleep. Sleep allows you to process your day, it allows you to maintain focus, and it provides the energy you need to all the things mentioned above. If you do not get enough sleep, you will not be able to balance anything. If you only choose one thing from this list, let this be it.
These tips are all meant to help individuals balance their work and private life during this unprecedented situation. If you’re a manager or business owner, it may help to be mindful of the importance of these things for your team. Unless you’re a grocery store owner or toilet paper manufacturer, you’re probably struggling to keep your revenue up right now. Most of you will want to prevent mass layoffs, and you may be focusing your attention on making sure you have enough cash flow to pay your employees. However, remember that the mental and physical health of your team plays a big role in that as well. This is even more true now that we’re all working remotely. Check in with them, ask them how they are coping. If possible, make sure they have suitable workspaces at home. And give them some time to adjust. Focus on your people. It may save your business.