Many of us are just now figuring out how to effectively work remotely full-time, but writer Laura Vanderkam has been at it 18 years and has some working from home productivity tips to offer. When she 24 years old and struggling to find a full-time editorial job, she started freelancing, which kicked off her long-term remote-working hustle.
Over the years, Vanderkam says she’s struggled with a number of the WFH obstacles many are now facing for the first time, like setting boundaries, feeling disconnected from others, and balancing her work while parenting her five children. In her book, The New Corner Office, Vanderkam shares her time-tested working from home productivity tip, which includes her own insights and strategies from other WFH pros.
Below, Vanderkam shares five common WFH obstacles, with tips for how to solve each.
Having trouble with your working from home productivity? Here are the 5 biggest obstacles—and how to solve each:
1. The problem: Setting boundaries
The fix: Scheduling yourself something to do after work each day
When you live at the office (literally), it’s easy to fall into the trap of having your work life bleed into your home life, and never really turning off. “When I first started working from home, I was living in a small studio apartment,” Vanderkam says. “I could see my laptop no matter where I was, which made me feel guilty for not working.”
To solve this, she signed up for three different community choirs. “Since I had to be somewhere, it forced me to stop working—and also to get dressed,” she says. While a number of community activities aren’t exactly an option right now in light of COVID-19, Vanderkam says you can still schedule after-work plans to reinforce the boundary between professional and personal time. “You can call a friend or relative at a certain time in the evening, or you can set aside an hour to work in your garden before it gets dark. If you have kids, you can reserve the evening for eating dinner together as a family,” she says. “Anything that will force you to stop working will help set boundaries.”
2. The problem: Trying to watch your kids and work at the same time
The fix: Splitting the childcare duties
If you’re a parent working from home, a big challenge right now is being able to concentrate on your work without also dealing with homeschooling, feeding, and entertaining your kids. “A pandemic is a really unusual circumstance, and this is definitely not what working from home is supposed to look like,” Vanderkam says.
Still, it’s the reality for many and an obstacle for which she doesn’t have a simple solution. “It’s very difficult to meet the needs of a client [or your manager] while also meeting the needs of a child,” Vanderkam says. If you have a spouse or partner also working from home, she suggests finding a way for each of you to pitch in on childcare throughout the day. “A lot of couples have worked out a way where both people can work about 30 hours a week, with each person meeting the childcare needs,” she says. If you’re financially able to hire a nanny or even a babysitter for a few hours each day, that can help immensely.
If neither of those are a realistic option for your situation, be open with your manager about your struggles. That way, they are aware of just how much is on your plate. It’s very likely you aren’t the only one on your team in a similar situation right now.
3. The problem: Connecting with colleagues
The fix: Video-coffee dates
For some, working from home can feel isolating due to the lack of IRL contact, but Vanderkam says working remotely definitely doesn’t require cutting ties with your colleagues. “As much as people talk about Zoom fatigue, video calls really are an effective way to connect,” she says. “It’s why people feel like they know celebrities. They feel like they know them just by seeing them on a screen.”
If you used to grab coffee with a work friend or ate lunch with a core group, Vanderkam encourages you to pick those habits back up and just do them virtually. She also suggests scheduling 10 minutes of social time to meeting agendas. “When you’re at the office, this happens anyway. It’s human nature to start meetings with a little chitchat.”
4. The problem: You’re worried your boss thinks you’re slacking off
The fix: Setting measurable goals
“So many people are worried that their boss thinks they’re sitting at home watching Netflix that they end up never signing out of their email and being sure to respond to every Slack message within 30 seconds,” Vanderkam says. “But if you’re trying to respond to messages all the time, you’ll never get anything done.” And, of course, this bleeds into the whole “setting boundaries” issue.
To solve for this issue, Vanderkam says to proactively check in with your manager to create measurable goals for any given week (or month, depending on what makes sense for the type of work you do). “These are goals or tasks that if they’re all met by the end of the week, it means that was a really awesome week,” she says. After all, it’s much more likely that your manager cares more about you helping meet company goals—not ensuring that you’re sitting at your computer 40 hours a week.
5. The problem: Getting distracted
The fix: Avoiding “home tasks” during the work day
One of the luxuries of working somewhere other than your home is that things like dishes in the sink or a pile of dirty laundry are all out of view. But when you walk into the kitchen for a glass of water and see a pile of dirty dishes piling up in the sink, it’s easy to get caught up doing household chores—especially when there’s a work project you aren’t exactly excited about on your to-do list.
That’s why keeping home tasks separate from professional tasks is helpful for increasing working from home productivity. “My advice is to avoid doing home tasks during work hours, because those aren’t tasks you would be doing if you were in an office,” Vanderkam says. “The exception to this is if you decide to take a conscious break, like stepping away from your computer for 15 minutes to put a load of laundry in,” she says.
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