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Avoiding cabin fever while avoiding corona fever

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Aleks Prodan, veteran remote employee and Associate Global Director, Transport, shares his secrets on how to work successfully from home. Aleks originally published this article on LinkedIn. Read it here.

I’ve worked remotely full-time for over three years. Working remotely is great!

The commute is a few steps to my home office or a few minutes’ walk to my coworking space. The flexibility of being able to work from almost anywhere in the world allows me to experience new places.

Finally, being able to base myself in lower-cost locations allows me to save money. I realize that this is a big privilege, and I take my productivity very seriously — regardless of where I’m working from.

To flatten the curve and delay the spread of COVID-19, many companies have mandated staff to work from home. Both the U.S. and Canada are asking people to practice social distancing.

Parts of Europe are going on lockdown mode, closing schools and events and requiring their citizens to stay home — except to get food or medicine. 

As people stock up on essentials and fire up their laptop from the comfort of their home, I want to share some tips on how to be productive and avoid cabin fever induced by extended confinement.

Five parts of being productive at home 

First, let’s talk about what remote work is not: a vacation from your job or boss. Rather, it’s an opportunity to show that you’re mature, responsible employee who can get work done without needing someone standing over your shoulder.

What you need to do to be productive while working remotely:

  • Be self-motivated
  • Manage your time well
  • Minimize distractions
  • Be proactive in communicating with your co-workers and clients
  • Stay sane

Self-motivation

Self-motivation is key to ensuring that work gets done — remotely or in-office. As someone who has worked on a Ph.D. for five years, I’ve experienced multiple highs and lows in self-motivation, though I did eventually emerge triumphant.

I’m no expert in self-motivation, but if you find yourself procrastinating day after day, there are probably deeper reasons for it (and maybe you’re in the wrong job). 

Time management 

Managing time well is key for remote work. I find that having a routine and a work mindspace can do wonders. 

A routine means that, after my morning coffee, my mind goes to work and stays there until lunch. After lunch, the mind goes back to work until the end of the workday. By then, my mind has left the work mindspace and has stopped worrying about work until the morning after.

Creating a work mindspace is not easy. Having a separate location (e.g. a home office with an ergonomic setup) is extremely helpful. For a period of time, I worked from my home office exclusively. My mind associated being in that room as being at work.

I wouldn’t visit that room outside of work hours. Don’t have a separate room? Simply carve out a corner and place a desk there. The important thing is to trigger your mind to associate a particular place with work. 

When you’re done with work, be sure to get out of this mindspace. Otherwise, you’ll stress over things that didn’t get done. When you’re working in-office, turning off your brain as you walk out of the building is easy. It takes a bigger effort to do so when you’re working from home.

Minimizing distractions 

This is tricky, especially if the school is closed and your kids are at home. Even without kids, notifications on your phone, household chores and cat videos can quickly become unmanageable distractions. Figuring out how to minimize them is extremely important.

Identifying distractions and dealing with them is an individual process. Something that distracts you may not distract me and vice-versa. 

I find that the Pomodoro Technique helps minimize distractions and improve time management. The technique sets a timer for 25 (or 45) minutes, during which you turn off all distractions and focus on one specific task. Then, you can distract yourself by taking a 3-5 minute break, before following up with another Pomodoro session. This technique allows you to be productive without having you run the risk of burning out from prolonged focus. 

Communicating proactively 

Communicating with your coworkers and clients is another ingredient for remote success. Making yourself available and reaching out to people to check on things go a long way towards ensuring that you’re in the loop.

When you cannot physically go into someone’s cubicle to ask them a question, you need to be able to do that remotely via a messaging platform. Likewise, timely responses make for fluid communication within the company.

At the same time, you probably want to turn off all other notifications on your mobile phone to keep you from getting distracted. I have every notification turned off on my phone and computer, except our company’s messaging platform.

I still check my email and other means of communication on a semi-regular basis, but on my terms. This makes me reachable and minimizes distractions from non-urgent matters.

My coworkers span at least 12 different time zones. This often means keeping my messenger on until late at night for any urgent queries. I do have a rule: my phone doesn’t sync with my email (using this app) from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m on weekends and all day on weekends. One less distraction to worry about. If someone wants to reach me urgently, there’s messenger or my cell phone. Otherwise, whatever they need can wait. 

This goes both ways. Don’t expect them to respond immediately. If it’s something urgent, pick up the phone and call.

Staying sane while working remotely

Whether you are an extrovert or an introvert, we’re all social animals. While you’re not Shackleton, you can still get a case of cabin fever if you stay at home for too long.

While working from a park cafe (or any cafe) is not an option during this lockdown, you can still get out of the house and go for a walk. Changing the atmosphere around you even for as little as 30 minutes can have amazing effects on your productivity.

If you live with roommates or a significant other, you’ll have someone to talk to (hopefully you don’t get into a fight while in quarantine). Kids will test many relationships in the coming weeks. Be sure to have a way with your loved one to do a “relationship reset” if things get ugly.

If you live by yourself, you’ll need to actively find people to communicate with. Ideally, this communication would be face to face (going out after work to meet your friends). If that’s not possible, you can always have a coffee date with friends and coworkers on Skype. 

In fact, if your entire company is working from home, have a couple of hours a week of online watercooler chats. This will keep you talking and help you maintain important relationships with your coworkers.

Still feeling anxious? Take a deep breath and find 15 minutes to mindfully meditate. YouTube has plenty of videos.

Bottom line

Remote work allows great flexibility and has multiple positive benefits if you are aware of its drawbacks.

Working from home in these strange times is a great way to show yourself (and your boss) that you can be productive and manage your time well.

Maybe your boss can even let you do it part-time or full time after this crisis is over. 

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