A joke that emerged in 2020 among the work-from-home crowd goes like this: “We should stop calling it working from home and start calling it living at work.” For many, 2020 marked a year of learning to adjust to working-at-home routines, sometimes also juggling child care, cabin fever, and the daily stressors of an ongoing global pandemic. Even with social lives on hold, time to get it all done could feel in short supply, and though the vaccines are slowly rolling out now, a definitive end to this routine is still hazy for many. If finding ways to be more efficient and productive deserves a place on your 2021 to do list, here are some strategies that might help. .
Innovate your schedule
If your job doesn’t require strict hours, Liz Fosslien, coauthor of “No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work,” recommends restructuring your working hours outside the 9-to-5 framework. “My job involves a lot of writing and I’m way better at [working] early in the morning or late at night,” said Fosslien. “If I want to go for a run in the afternoon or read a book, I will, because I know I will work again from 7 until 10, and I know I’ll do my best work and work the fastest.”
Fosslien, who is head of content at Humu, a human resources consultancy, reminds us that we may have lost natural breaks in our day, like before or after meetings or a daily commute. “It’s the ‘in between time’ that I loved,” Fosslien says. “That’s when you’re not actively doing work and your brain can synthesize everything [you’ve] heard and come up with ways to connect or present those.” Fosslien recommends anyone fortunate to work from home add in a “false commute” at some point (or points) during the day, “Get out of bed and walk around the block twice.”
Or, take a nap. Studies have shown that brief naps during the workday can help cognitive performance — brief meaning anywhere from six to 90 minutes. In her 2013 Tedx Talk, sleep scientist and author of “Take a Nap! Change Your Life,” Dr. Sara Mednick argues for a midday nap between noon and 4 p.m. Her experiments with both poor and average sleepers found that taking a 60-minute nap improved work performances as much as a full night’s sleep.
Know your work style
A September Harvard Business School study polled more than 3 million remote workers and found the average workday had increased by 48.5 minutes since the start of pandemic. The study also found an uptick in meetings, and in e-mails sent after hours. So, the workday isn’t just longer — it’s more taxing.
Mollie West Duffy, Liz Fosslien’s coauthor and cofounder of their popular Liz + Mollie social media account (@lizandmollie), says boundary setting around notifications — using the “in a meeting” status on Slack for example — is important. “If people are more OK with doing that and not expecting replies so quickly, there will be more forgiveness.”
Duffy and Fosslien create humorous (and all-too-relatable) illustrations of common workplace stressors. They also host workshops that coach corporate teams on feelings-focused practices, such as “How to be an emotionally fluent leader” and “Combating burnout and building resilience.” “Understanding differences in work styles” was a popular one at the start of the pandemic, says Duffy, who worked in organizational design at global innovation firm IDEO.
Duffy believes defining your work style cultivates productivity. Are you a data-driven introvert with a dislike for large meetings? Or someone who thrives on a team but struggles to focus when working alone? Or a big picture ideator who just can’t get organized?
Recognizing work style helps you build in productivity-encouraging habits, like committing to brief but consistent screen breaks to provide relief from a Zoom-heavy schedule. For Duffy, it’s keeping social media off her phone, reading the news only twice a day, and keeping short-term, long-term, and daily to-do lists.
“It’s OK if your productivity looks different than other people’s,” said Duffy. “But it’s not OK not to figure it out.”
E-mail like an editor
Leadership consultant Nancy Halpern — whose client roster includes Condé Nast and Dow Jones — cites traditional newspaper editor mentality when composing an important e-mail. “The standard rule: cut it in half,” she says.
“When people write too much it’s usually with good intent,” Halpern explains. “They think, ‘If I tell them everything I know, then they’ll have all the answers and they’ll be all set.’ But what they’ll really have is a tsunami of information, not knowing what information is critical and what is just an extra detail.”
She says using bullet points, sequencing by importance, and bolding key dates and information can help get your message through in few words. (“Two sentences per point, max.”) Then use a one-sentence summary or takeaway as your subject line. Remember, if recipients need more information, they’ll ask.
“Their goal is to extract what they need to know as quickly and painlessly as possible so they can get on with it,” Halpern says.
Brush up on your Zoom etiquette
While some of us may now consider ourselves Zoom experts, Halpern says a refresher on best practices can help. Small changes can make a video conference more effective, engaging, and, of course, productive.
“When you’re on Zoom, you’re communicating even when you’re not saying anything,” she says. “Are you well-lit? Is your camera cutting off your chin? Do you have a virtual background you think is cool but is actually distracting?” Halpern recommends using Zoom to replicate as close to an in-person interaction as possible, showing your full face in a professional environment. Also, sit up straight — “Posture matters, you can hear it in your voice when you are opening your chest. You sound more confident and clearer.”
Halpern reminds speakers to always use full sentences and break at the end of sentences or commas, allowing colleagues to process information, while consciously adding other voices into the conversation. “Pause and say, ‘I’ve said a lot, do you have thoughts or questions?’” she says. “Mention people by name, highlight and acknowledge others. It creates that connection and community that we’re all longing for right now.”