New business and new business models have all given way to more unique and varied work arrangements as well, and one of these kinds of set-ups is working from home. Work-from-home arrangements can be incredibly efficient and beneficial, but done wrong, they can also lead one to unproductivity and the inability to continue working. Penny Zenker discusses some of these pitfalls and how one can remain in complete control of the situation. It’s really all in the restraint you allow yourself to keep you away from the distractions found in a home set-up. If you’re working from home, you might just see your work habits reflected in Penny’s list of pitfalls. If that’s the case, then you’re going to have to make a change – and that’s something that Penny’s knowledge can definitely help you with.
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Productivity Tips For Working From Home: 7 Pitfalls To Avoid
This is special because we are right in the midst of the beginnings of the Coronavirus here in the United States. Many companies are asking their employees to work from home. I thought that I wanted to dedicate this particular session towards those of you who are newly working from home or maybe even you work from home on a regular basis, but there are extra stresses at the moment with maybe kids being at home because school is closed. Also, the concerns of the uncertainty of where the economy is going, concerns about your family, your health and well-being. That stress adds up to be additional distractions from the day-to-day work that we also need to get done. How do we compartmentalize or focus on the work that we have to do and at the same time take seriously what’s going on in the world and set ourselves up for success in other areas of our life as well?
I wanted to share with you a presentation that I did that was dedicated to some tips and tricks of how you can be more productive while you’re working at home and perhaps some of these productivity skills you can also bring back to work when you head back to work. I will be creating a series that will help you with different types of topics around this. Also, I’m going to open up and do a live Q&A for people also to help to ask questions. These are general tips and your specific interests and concerns are things that I also want to address at some point. I’ll send that out. Do subscribe to our newsletter so that you get information about what’s coming up and also different events and activities like that that might be of interest to you. Without further ado, here is my presentation of the seven pitfalls that you can experience working from home and how to avoid them.
I’m the author of the bestselling book, The Productivity Zone: Stop the Tug of War with Time. I want to share with you in these crazy times when you might be finding yourself working from home for the first time or maybe you work from home, but now also your kids are home for the next couple of months. There is a lot of uncertainty in the air with the Coronavirus, the state of emergency that we’re in. I want to do what I can do to help you to be more productive during this time. I wanted to get this out as quickly as possible and share with you seven pitfalls from working from home and how to avoid them. At any time, there’s also a checklist that’s provided with this. You can either read this or you can download the one-page checklist that will help give you an overview of all of the pitfalls to avoid and also some ways to do that.
Distractions are the number one thing that is keeping you from reaching your goals, from having more meaning in your life, more money, being healthier. We’ve got to take a look at those distractions. Somehow, they’re things that we tolerate in our lives. The best example for me was one summer when my kids were at home and they weren’t at camp for the first time. I was getting interrupted on a regular basis, maybe every 5 or 19 minutes with a different request of, “What’s for breakfast? I need to get this for school. Can you put this on the shopping list or get it for me? How do I use this printer?” I was getting more and more frustrated, not necessarily frustrated with them, but also frustrated with myself because I didn’t do anything about it. I tolerated it.
I also knew that I had the opportunity to leave the house and go to Starbucks or go somewhere else to get some work done. I didn’t. Why didn’t I do that? I want you to ask yourself the same thing. With all the distractions that you are tolerating at work, at home, and even your own emotional distractions, why are you tolerating it? What can you do to create that heightened awareness of what it costs you? What it cost me is all that frustration every time I was interrupted was that I couldn’t get my work done and it meant that I had to work longer hours. Instead of spending more time with them in those summer days, I ended up spending less time with them. It worked against me that I wasn’t doing anything about the situation. That’s why I want to talk about this and create some heightened awareness for you and what you can do.
An interesting, simple, small solution was after I became aware of this, my daughter was also aware of this, and she did me a huge favor by helping me out. She brought me this sign that she put on my doors so that when my doors were closed, not only did they see the closed doors, which was one indication not to come in, but we added a little humor and a little stop sign that she created for me, which said, “Do not disturb me unless you’re literally dying. If you’re dying, call 911, not me.” I thought this was the funniest thing, but the crazy thing is it worked. It worked for her because she created it and she saw that I needed a way to have focused work time so that I could have focus playtime with them. She created this for me, for me also to be aware that I’m going to hold the line. When someone does come through the door, then I can say, “I’m working. Please come back. Please adhere to the sign.” It also worked for my son who was continually interrupting me. A simple little sign of letting people know you’re not available, even though it might appear that they should already know that can go a long way. That’s an example of these things that we can do to protect ourselves and protect our time and our focus.
I want you to understand a little bit about my productivity curve that is listed in my book, The Productivity Zone, to get an understanding of where I’ve come from in this and how it all fits together. In order for us to be productive and be in the productivity zone, we need to be able to manage and balance efficient and effective. That means we want to do things quickly, but not at the cost of everything else. That happens. We do things quickly and then we make mistakes. Being fast doesn’t mean that we’re reaching our result. Also, being effective and achieving our goal is not always that great either if it’s at the cost of speed. Let’s say that we got it done, but it cost twice as much or we got it done, but it took three times as much time. That means that we’re not in the productivity zone, so we’re either over-functioning or under-functioning when we’re not in the zone. We want to be able to be clear as to what we need to do to get in the zone. In my book, I talk about the ten core drivers that help us to get in and stay in the zone.
We’re not going to talk about that specifically now, but you can check that out in my book if you get a chance and if you want to do so. What I want to talk about with these pitfalls is also what keeps us out of the zone. When we are distracted, we are stressed. Distractions are procrastination and perfectionism. Those are the things that are out of the zone. Those are areas that distract us, whether it be physical, environmental or even emotional. Those are distractions and they create stress. It’s that stress that puts us into a fight, flight, or freeze mode and keeps us from the thing that we want. I want you to remember that as part of this process. To start out, I want to create some heightened awareness as to where you are in your distractions.
Distractions are the number one thing that are keeping you from reaching your goals. Click To Tweet How well do you know what’s distracting you and what you’re tolerating? I created this distraction quiz to start that process off. Go ahead and take this distraction quiz and find out whether you are a wizard, whether you’re a squirrel, a hamster, a deer in the headlights, or a time zombie. Go and find out, take the quiz. Let’s take a look at the seven pitfalls. Number one is we don’t want to get caught up in bad habits. You want to keep the same start and end time to your day. Don’t snooze and sleep in because that’s affecting your discipline first thing in the morning. When you set a time to get up, get up at that time. Be your word. Start and end at the same time. Also, set a daily plan. Before you start your day, identify what it is that you’re going to do that day that’ll help you to be more focused on the things that are most important.
I highly suggest that you create a team huddle that every day you check in with one another and you identify what your priorities are if there are any obstacles that you have that you need some support with. Also, if there are any changing priorities in the group or in the team so that you can get those updates. Most importantly, especially during this highly-volatile time, do not check the news in the morning. That’s only going to start your day with negative energy. That’s not how you want to start your day. Make sure that your morning routine includes focusing on the things that bring you a high level of energy. You can check the news later and see what’s going on during one of your breaks.
Number two is taking a look at your workspace. Your workspace, when there’s clutter, it’s clear that your mind is taking excess energy into the things that it sees in the peripheral, in that clutter, and it’s keeping you from being more productive. What you want to be able to do is take things off your workspace. This might be a workspace like your kitchen table and you’re not used to working there and it’s not a dedicated office space, but you’re going to create that dedicated space for now. Here are some ways to do that is instead of keeping all the papers and books and things that you need accessible on the table. Go ahead and get some boxes and put the papers and books in those boxes. Put them under the table and access them only when you need them and only what you’re working on.
It’s the same thing with your computer. You want to close down all the tabs that you’re not using because they do take up mental space and open up only the tabs that you need. There are some great tools out there that’ll help you to be more efficient and effective in organizing your digital space, such as Platstack, which is a new tool that I found that I love. If you’re working on a specific project, it will open up all the links that are associated with that project and you can close down everything else knowing that with a click of a button, you can open it up quickly and get back to where you were. There are other apps that you can install to help you save time. You can look at one of my websites, P10App.com/recommended to find other tools that can support you.
You can use that sign that I gave you, do not disturb, put that up and have a chat with your kids so that as a family, you’re aware of, “Here are the times that we’re going to spend together. Here are the breaks that we’re going to take together. Also, here’s where our concentrated time is together.” People support what they create. If you can come up with it together, then you’re going to have an effective productivity schedule for all of you. That’s the same when you go back to work, you can do that as well. You’re going to find that dedicated space and you’re going to turn off all the notifications, especially if this is your home computer and you’ve got your home mail on there. I don’t know why. That’s one of those things that you’re tolerating. Make your computer and your technology make it where you go and you pull it when you need it versus them pushing it to you all the time. That puts you in control. That’s going to be one of the most important things here.
Turn off all of those notifications on your computer and on your phone so that when you are working, you can focus. On your phone, you can put it on to airplane mode. That’s going to support you and do not put it on your desk. You’re going to want still to look at it because it’s there. You can’t help but look at it. It’s our psychology. We are addicted to it. Do yourself a favor and use this shakeup time that you’re working at home to make some changes. One of those things is to not work with your phone on the desk. Put it away. Put it in the charger across the room or somewhere where you can’t get to it. You’re going to have impulses to want to go and check it and that’s okay. You can even count the number of impulses that you have for fun to see how crazy it is. Also, see each day as they reduce down. I have worked with clients who have done this process and weaned themselves off of checking their phone on a regular basis and it’s been huge for them in terms of the productivity that it’s created for them. These are some things that you can do to improve your workspace.
Number three is procrastination. Maybe you find yourself for the third time at your refrigerator and you’re not even hungry. Maybe you’re making that fifth cup of coffee and you don’t even want any more coffee. The thing is these are little things that happen that we do to procrastinate from the work that we’re currently working on. It might be that it’s something that you don’t want to do. It might be that you’re not connected to it. It might be that it’s not so much fun. It’s a long slog and getting done whatever you need to be done. Whatever it is, we want to put things in place to help you to avoid procrastination.
One of them would be to use short time blocks and to use a timer because the timers are psychologically there. It’s proven to help to keep more focus. Also, with those short time blocks, there’s actually a technique called the Pomodoro Technique that you could see how you can use that 25-minute blocks. You can also make it 40-minute blocks. I like my blocks a little bit longer because I can concentrate, but if you have trouble concentrating, then 25-minute blocks might be good for you. That gives your brain the knowledge that you’re going to take a break after so that you can stay focused on what you’re doing. Once you get started and you get connected, then you’re going to be able to stay more focused. Also, if before you start that time block, you review your outcomes. That’s going to help you be more focused as well because you’re going to be connected and ask yourself, “Why is this important?” What will be different after you complete that?
A simple little sign to let people know that you're not available can go a long way. Click To Tweet That will help you to get more connected to it so that you can stay in it to complete that time block. There’s also an app called Focusmate and it’s where you might sit with somebody else online and you tell them what your objective is for this time block. They tell you and then you get on and do it while you have an open line together. It’s quite an interesting concept. You can also do this with your work colleagues, but the idea is not to converse back and forth. You’re not going to be able to leave your desk and go to the refrigerator when somebody is watching you and that you are accountable to a third-party. That’s the context behind that. Also, schedule your procrastination. What that means is that you set up those break times so that you can do the chores, you can get your coffee, you can check your email. Those things might be sources of procrastination. You can quasi-schedule them and that will help you to stay focused on the time blocks you’re working on.
Number four is the chat tools. Chat can be a huge productivity saver because when you have questions and you need them answered quickly, people can be available, but they can also suck up your whole day. Imagine how some people feel that meetings are ineffective. Having chat tools open all day is like having an all-day meeting. It can distract you constantly and detract from your productivity. There are a couple of ways. If you’ve never used chat tools before, you may find that this is a new introduction for your company now that you’re going to be working from home. Here are some tips on how to best utilize these chat tools. First of all, talk to your team about guidelines for how to use these tools. Set up some ways that you can use them most productively together so that you find that you’re working together with these tools. You also want to identify what’s urgent. How do you define an urgency so that you know when something is urgent? How are you also going to contact that person?
Maybe your chat tool isn’t the best place for urgent items. Maybe you have a way to do that via text messaging where only those text messages will go through. You can set that up on your phone on the do not disturb function. You can allow certain things to come through. You might set that up with one another so that you’re clear when it’s urgent, here’s how you contact me. Otherwise, we’re going to meet up at certain times and have open chat hours during those times. It’s like having a coffee together or having a meeting with these chat tools. This is going to be the time when you’re working online together like that Focusmate where you’re open to answering and asking questions. When there’s a lot of back and forth and it’s a longer, more detailed issue, maybe chat tools aren’t going to be the right medium. Go ahead and jump on a conference call where you can see each other by video and you can share screens and do things like that. That may be a lot quicker way to resolve a question or problem that you might have and get to the answer more quickly.
Number five is email. It might’ve already been a challenge for you, but now it might get even more of a challenge because you’re working at home. You may get more emails than you’ve had before. Good email practices are more important than ever. Here are a few tips on how to manage your email. First of all, again, you want to reduce the number of times that you’re checking your email because email can also be a huge distraction. Block and schedule a time for your email. Maybe if you’re setting up 45-minute blocks for your focus, you can check your email for 5 or 10 minutes at the top of every hour. That’ll give you quite a few times that you’re checking your email a day. Kevin Kruse, for instance, he recommends this 3-2-1-0 method, which means three is the number of times you should check your email a day for 21 minutes, hence 3-2-1, and that will help you to get to a zero inbox. That might be too few of the times. If you’re going from the average of 150 times checking your email, that might be a little bit too much of a jump.
Maybe you check it those seven times a day at the top of the hour. Use a system that’s going to help you to do that. The key is to check your email less. You also want to make sure that your title is reflecting the content because many times these emails go back and forth and they have a title that has nothing to do with what’s in the email and that’s not helping anyone. You take the responsibility to make sure that each time you write an email, you’re changing the title to reflect the content. While you’re doing that, why don’t you put a call to action in the title and let somebody know if you need a response from them immediately? You can have a quick little code that you agreed together. NRT, Need Response Today or TM for Tomorrow.
You can create some codes so that they know right away from looking at it how they might organize those emails. That leads to the next point of filter and file. If you know that it’s not due until Wednesday, if you keep your folders Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, you could move that into the Wednesday folder and know that that needs to be done on Wednesday. Many people do use their inbox as a to-do list and that’s totally fine. You’re going to want to organize yourself in a way that makes it easier for you so that you can manage the things that you need to manage and leave the things that aren’t important to another day and put them away. Wherever you can, you want to show somebody versus tell them. Put a picture in, make it easier, put bullet points and summaries and structure your emails in a way that’s going to make them shorter because those long emails are not getting read or not getting read accurately. They create more back and forth than are necessary.
Manage expectations. Talk about as a group what your response times are going to be. That can alleviate any frustration or feeling like I need to respond to this right away where you’ve agreed as a group, that response time, unless it’s urgent, is going to be maybe four hours. Therefore, you’ve got time within four hours to check your email and get back to somebody. You go ahead and put that in the footer to remind people and manage those expectations even further. You can do that with clients as well. Let them know due to the situation, this is going to be your response time if it’s changed. If it hasn’t changed, what is your response time so that they also can be aware? If somebody tells me, “I’ll get back to you in 24 hours,” I don’t expect them to get back to me in ten minutes. It could be with our sense of urgency in the way that we are, that if nobody says anything and you usually get back to me in ten minutes, then I might have an expectation that you’re going to get back to me in ten minutes. We want to manage those expectations. Here you’ll see some apps that can help you to organize your mailbox. SaneBox sorted helps you do to-do lists and set up when you’re going to follow-up on things. FollowUp.cc will take it out of your mailbox and send it back to you when you need it. There are different types of tools, check those out and see if they might be of use.
Number six is a big one that nobody’s talking about but is important and that’s misunderstandings. The more things that are being discussed by a text or by email can create a lot of misunderstandings because there’s no tone and no body language in this communication. I’ve seen it many times as to where somebody is not in the best state themselves and especially in this time of fear and uncertainty and they read something into an email that isn’t there. The number one thing that we’re going to do is assume positive intent. While we’re doing that, we can get curious and when we do hear or think that there’s a tone in an email, instead of writing an email back, that’s a perfect time to pick up the phone and give someone a call and get curious and ask them a question. “Could you explain more about what you meant by X?” By being curious, it means that you’re not triggered. You’re not on the defense, and therefore you’re going to come across as interested versus defensive and attacking. That’s what we want to make sure that we avoid because the more of that that goes back and forth, that can impact your relationship. That takes up a lot of energy and can definitely take away from your productivity.
When we are distracted, we are stressed. Click To Tweet Also, another thing that’s important is if there are any delays or challenges that come up in your work, it’s important that you communicate them because I know that I am a big stickler for anybody who identifies a delay the day before it’s due. It’s extremely frustrating. The way for you to be able to work more professionally is to let somebody know ahead of time, “Here’s a challenge that I’m facing.” You can also say, “Here’s what I’m doing in order to mitigate this challenge.” Maybe the person has some ideas, but you want to let them know that you’re working on it. There is a challenge and it may cause a delay in the end result. That will give them means to check in with you more often or for you to check in with them. That’s important in communication because other people are relying on your work and your timeliness. It’s important that we open up more effective means of communication, especially when you’re going to be working from home.
Lastly, we’ve got temptation. You’re working from home and if you’re using your home computer, you’ve got fewer constraints on your computer than you do at work. You might be more opt to jump into social media because you can and that can lead you down a totally dangerous rabbit hole. You want to make sure that you are helping yourself set up what I call gatekeepers to keep you from temptation. The more things that we can set up to protect our time, to protect our productivity and to protect us from temptation will be rewarded in the long run. Some of those things are mentally and psychologically, pretend like you’re not home. I know that sounds crazy, but it works. If you pretend that you’re not at home, then you’re not going to have the same temptations that you have when you’re fully in the mindset that you’re at home.
You want to give yourself only healthy choices of what you’re going to do during your break. Think about it with our kids when they were young, we’d say, “Do you want broccoli or carrots?” We’d give them two healthy choices so that they can choose from. That’s what you’re going to get to do on your break times. You’re going to choose from two healthy choices of going to take a walk or listening to your favorite song. That’s going to be able to help you then get after the break to get back into the work that you’re doing and stay focused.
You can also ask yourself a quick question as you see yourself start to get into something that’s not productive, you can say, “Is this the highest use of my time?” By asking that question, you’re triggering yourself to be more aware of the choice that you’re making. You’re also more aware of the decision that you’re making at that moment. When you say, “Is this the highest use of my time?” When the answer is no, it will help to bring you back on track. Be proactive and know what’s next. If you started your day with a list of things that you need to accomplish, then you already know what’s next on the list and that’s going to help you also to stay focused and stay on track and stay away from temptation. There is a gap in there between when you finish one thing and you’re ready to start something else. When you don’t know what’s next and you’re not prepared and proactive, that can turn into a giant crack and can take you again down the rabbit hole. Be aware. Also, lastly is scheduling those priorities. If you did, do your plan at the beginning of the day, schedule them and that will also help you to stay on track and stay away from temptation.
To recap, one of the things that can help you across all of these areas and is a good habit is using this Pomodoro Technique or any type of time blocking which takes those smaller blocks for you and gives you better focus and helps you to string those blocks together. You can go and check out the apps that I recommend on P10App.com/recommended. I also have my own method for time blocking that helps you do a top downtime blocking that allows you to align your goals and your tasks. It’s not about aligning the tasks that you have for the day, but it helps you to set up a process that you’re going to be time blocking according to your goals so that you can be more in alignment.
I also have a specific method that I teach around time blocking. It’s strategic time blocking and it’s a top-down approach helping you to block more of the categories that help you to reach your goals and a process of then bringing that from a monthly, a weekly basis into a daily basis and a regular plan. If that interests you, you can check that out on any of my websites that are available. Also, you want to track your time. Tracking your time at least once a quarter, and this is a good time to do it now that you’re starting to work from home, is to get a heightened awareness of where you’re spending your time and where also you’re wasting your time. A valuable tool for you is to get that heightened awareness and to be able to close the gap into where you might be wasting your time or not spending the time on the things that are most important.
Tracking your time is also a valuable exercise. Do this for two weeks. This is valuable because it’s going to show you where you’re spending your time and where you’re wasting it. I know you’d rather have a root canal than track your time, but if you do this for two weeks, it’s going to help you to align your goals and your tasks. Like with time blocking, those two in combination are going to help you to get and reach your goals faster and be more productive. I am running a fourteen-day time study and a challenge, so if you’re interested in following me with that and giving you assignments each day and helping you stay on track, you can go to AccelerateProductivity.net/14daystudy to check out what that offering is. Either way, make sure that you’re tracking your time so that you can make sure that your goals and your tasks are in alignment and you’re doing the most with your time, energy and efforts.
Also, don’t forget that you can do online workshops. It’s because you’re working from home doesn’t mean that you can’t have those effective meetings to work through problems or opportunities for that matter. There are platforms that I use when I facilitate workshops and for whatever we’re doing them online because everybody is all over the world. There’s a great technology that allows you to have a front of the room type of presentation and then break out into tables and work on topics with tables and then come back to the group. Do check that out if that’s something of interest and you can certainly contact me for any more information about that or how I might be able to help you facilitate some workshops in the area of productivity, communication, or even thinking outside the box. Those are my areas of specialty. If you want to reach me, you can go to PennysKeynote.com and there’s a calendar link for me. You can also reach me at my email at Penny@P10App.com. Check out my show and subscribe to TugOfWarWithTime.com/takebacktime and check out my apps that are available on the App Store and Google Play.
- The Productivity Zone: Stop the Tug of War with Time
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- Google Play – Take Back Time app
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