Written by Artemis Stefani
Artemis is a first year PhD student in Developmental Neurosciences at UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health. She investigates atypical human brain development following preterm birth with a focus in the frontal lobes.
Being productive and experiencing a global pandemic are probably two things that don’t go together. It’s difficult to ignore everything that’s happening and just “focus on getting work done”. At the same time, there is social and financial pressure to keep things progressing, which causes additional stress. The human brain’s control centre is mainly located in the prefrontal cortex.
This centre is responsible for planning, making decisions, solving problems, concentrating, and controlling our behaviours. When we are faced with stressful or unpredictable events (such as a global pandemic), our thinking skills can become less flexible and we are less able to concentrate or accomplish things efficiently.
So, can we do something to overcome this? And just to be clear, this is not another “push your boundaries” kind of article.
While I am not an expert in the psychology of productivity, I do have some concrete tips that I am hoping can be helpful for someone who struggles.
Being productive: A process
Before diving into work…
#1: You are allowed to be unproductive. Every person has a different limit. Some people manage to work eight hours straight – some others barely make it through one hour. Don’t pressure yourself. Let go of the need to keep up with a tight schedule, recognise your own boundaries, and work with that.
#2: Acknowledge your feelings. This is a unique and extreme situation. Don’t ignore what is happening around you. Become friends with your feelings and embrace this new routine. Don’t “wait until it’s over”.
3: Introduce exercise in your daily routine. Mild or intense workout can boost both mind and body. Experts advise that even 30 minutes per day can be enough to stay healthy and relieve stress.
#4: Plan ahead and plan realistically. It’s easier to follow a plan than not have one at all. Even when adopting a plan, things can divert. So why not plan ahead?
Write down all the tasks you want to achieve for the following day and create realistic time slots for each one of them. Which brings me to the next point.
#5: Dedicate time slots for designated work. Don’t make long lists of items that are impossible to complete even in a normal workday just because you are working from home. The day only has 24 hours, and you’re not using all of them for work. Evaluate the time each task needs, allocate a time slot of your day, and assume that you will be using the maximum possible time to complete it.
#6: Break your work into smaller parts. For two reasons: Firstly, you will realise how much work every step of the process needs. You will get a better picture of each task. Try to do this as much as possible – even if it means breaking down a task into 10 smaller ones. Secondly, you will feel good ticking off items from your to-do list which can boost your productivity levels!
#7: Avoid distractions for periods of times. When you dedicate time for a task, try to avoid as many distractions as possible. This means: putting your phone on complete silence (even tilting it facing down), and avoiding social media.
Distractions can be different things in every household, and we cannot be in full control of all of them. So, at least try to avoid the ones you can control.
#9: Introduce breaks. If you have the flexibility to do so, introduce breaks for rest and breaks for short house chores. This way, your day can revolve around different things while keeping a balance and without feeling drained.
#10: On less productive days do tasks that demand less energy and effort. Low-effort tasks can mean different things for every person. For me, such tasks include reading “easy” science papers or working on side projects that don’t demand much mental capacity.
#11: Don’t punish yourself. If you managed to work less than planned on Monday, don’t add them up on Tuesday. If you managed to work only a few hours on one day, that doesn’t mean that you will be able to magically work more hours on the next day. Only work long hours if your productivity levels allow and not because you are forced to.
#12: Don’t rest in the same place you work and don’t work in the same place you rest. That doesn’t necessarily mean separating them in two different rooms. Not everyone can do this, especially if they live in a small place. If you can separate rest and work in different rooms, then great. If not, separating them in different stations is enough. For example, only use your bed/couch for rest, never for work.
#13: Socialise with your household and online. Prioritise time for talking with loved ones and organise online socialising with people you care. It is a difficult period for everyone and even more for those who are sick or have loved ones at risk.
#14: Make your free time pleasant. From cooking new recipes to taking care of your plants, you can give meaning to simple things. Learn how certain spices go together and increase your cooking skills. Understand the flavours you ingest and be mindful… even in a pandemic.
#15: Balance your sleep cycle. Just because you’re spending your whole day at home, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a sleep schedule. Of course, sleeping well requires being able to sleep, so first make sure you create space for a restful sleep during a pandemic. One of the most useful tips for me is to keep sleeping patterns consistent.
Prioritising self-care can help us be aware of the boundaries between work, personal life and mental health during these times. And if you end up not being as productive as you wished… Be kind to yourself. Stay safe