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Published on December 2, 2020

5 Ways to Maximize Productivity While Working From Home

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5 Ways to Maximize Productivity While Working From Home

For most of the United States and the rest of the working world, working from home has become the new norm, with no foreseeable end in sight. As days fill up with instant messaging, endless emails, and constant distractions, many find it challenging to stay productive and get work done, leading to burnout, fatigue, and loss of motivation over time. Working from home productivity just isn’t easy.

Companies are starting to recognize the toll that working from home is having on their leadership teams and employees. Yet, very few corporations possess the proper resources to educate and update their workforce on ways to work from home, which is why so many continue to struggle with the delicate balancing act of having their work-life not interfere with their personal life.

Even before COVID-19 hit the world, working from home was destined to become a reality, with up to 80% of workers polled by Owl Labs stating that they wanted to work from home, at least part of the time[1]. These statistics are great news for all parties involved.

Companies capable of allowing their employees to work remotely are estimated to see an annual savings of $11,000 per halftime telecommuting employee, with an additional $2,500 to $4,000 in yearly savings for the employees who choose to work remotely[2].

So how do we set our people up for success while working from home? More specifically, what drivers and factors determine the productivity of company leaders and employees while working remotely?

These answers lie with the brain by creating daily habits of success focused on maximizing leadership communication, employee productivity, engagement, and sustained cognitive processing.

1. Sleep Your Way to Success

There’s a reason we spend (or should spend) a third of our lives sleeping. Sleep is a superpower we all inherently possess, yet up to a third of the population in today’s current workforce reports consistently having issues with getting the recommended minimum of 7 hours of sleep each night[3]. Yes, sleep is essential for allowing the brain and body to recover, but it’s also vitally important for the consolidation of memories and higher-level cognitive processing[4].

If you genuinely want to get more done while working from home, prioritize your sleep by going to bed and waking up at the same time each night. This template will help you dial in your circadian rhythm and improve your ability to feel refreshed consistently[5].

Mid-afternoon naps can also be a great way to give the brain and body a short period of rest, as long as the naps are less than 20 minutes, which is the threshold where the brain can fall into a deeper sleep[6]. Resting longer than this can cause you to wake up feeling groggy, tired, and fatigued because you will be waking up in the middle of a sleep cycle.

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Still convinced that sleep doesn’t matter? Keep reading.

Researchers at the University of Michigan performed a study in 2014 that uncovered an astonishing 24% increase in hospital admissions for heart attacks on the Monday following daylight savings time in the spring, when we lose an hour[7]. These findings were also followed by a 21% decrease in the frequency of heart attack admissions during the “fall back” daylight saving time, when gain an hour.

If the simple fluctuation of an hour can yield these dire consequences, what do you think consistently losing 2-3 hours of sleep each night is doing to your brain and body?

Sleep like your life work from home productivity depends on it, because it does.

2. Exercise to Build Physical and Mental Endurance

Physical exercise is one of the most powerful drivers of our brain and nervous system. There is a reason babies move around inside a mother’s womb: Movement is well-known to be a significant driving force behind our nervous system’s development and maturation.

Although a baby may not be intentionally performing the movements themselves, we know that physical activity is a foundational basis for the proper development of the brain and higher-level cognitive processing systems[8].

You can learn more about the brain’s role in movement in this TED Talk with Daniel Wolpert:

Most attribute physical exercise to losing weight, building muscle, and maintaining a healthy BMI, but it also carries significant benefits for our mental and emotional health[9]. Aerobic exercises such as jogging, swimming, biking, and walking can reduce anxiety and depression[10] by enhancing activity in the frontal lobe[11], a brain region associated with positive self-esteem, personality, and cognitive processing.

Movement is also an essential factor for increasing our ability to learn new tasks and focus because it influences the production of a specific protein, Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), which is responsible for optimizing neuroplasticity, learning, and memory[12].

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Studies have even confirmed improved workplace productivity and decreased absenteeism via workplace-related health initiatives and educational programs focused on physical exercise, which can positively influence nearly all the spheres of an individual’s personal and professional life[13].

If you genuinely want to be a high-achieving leader and move your career forward with working from home productivity, make the conscious choice to move your body.

3. Use Food to Fuel Your Body and Brain

Thomas Edison was ahead of his time back in 1903 when he stated, “The doctor of the future will give no medicine, but will interest his patients in the care of the human frame, in diet and in the cause and prevention of disease.”

Nutrition is the keystone of health. It provides the raw materials to help us maintain our brains and bodies, which are always under constant remodeling and repair from the stress we place on ourselves throughout life[14].

Food choices can significantly alter how we feel and are used as the primary fuel source for our body’s gas tank. Food doesn’t just feed our body; it also feeds the bacteria that live inside our bodies. These beneficial bacteria form a symbiotic relationship with our bodies, meaning that both parties benefit from each other’s existence.

They play a large role in regulating underlying inflammatory processes and have recently been involved in mediating the onset of neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s[15], Parkinson’s[16], and Multiple Sclerosis[17]. Gut bacteria also play a big part in regulating our immune system, as nearly 70% of our immune system is located in our gut[18].

Our gut bacterial profile also plays a vital role in the production of neurotransmitters. The latest estimates state that our gut produces nearly 90% of our body’s serotonin[19], which is the feel-good neurotransmitter that becomes out of balance in conditions like depression, anxiety, and PTSD.

Food is no longer viewed just for its taste and texture. It can play a pivotal role in your overall health and well-being, possessing the ability to increase your energy levels and working from home productivity throughout the day. True leaders understand these principles and will do what is necessary to take their game to the next level.

4. Utilize Time Management Techniques

We set timers and alarms for cooking, waking up, and exercise, yet we rarely choose to set a timer for work. Why is that? For most of you reading this, it may have never crossed your mind, but using a timer to prioritize work has been around the working world for many years.

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The Pomodoro technique, named after the developer, entrepreneur, and author James Cirillo, was invented in the 1990s to maximize productivity by utilizing time-sequenced periods of focused work. Cirillo created the technique to cut large projects and time-consuming tasks into smaller 25-minute periods of tolerable work, with a tiny caveat: The shorter periods of time are designated to be used strictly for the task at hand and nothing else[20].

The Pomodoro Technique for Working From Home Productivity

    This distinction may not seem earth-shattering based on the initial impression. Still, it’s a significant factor for working from home productivity when you consider the evidence that the average working person is interrupted every 3 minutes and 5 seconds, decreasing to interruption intervals every 2 minutes and 11 seconds when using an electronic device such as a computer or phone[21].

    By merely using the Pomodoro technique, a remote worker can vastly improve their productivity by eliminating any outside factors that can take them away from their work.

    It should be noted that these distractions aren’t merely just wasting time. They’re also wasting precious brainpower[22] and energy resources. The brain uses up nearly 20% of the body’s energy reserves to produce electrical messages between neurons and maintain the integrity of various neural structures[23]. Excessive switching between tasks[24] depletes the brain’s coveted resources, causing faster rates of burnout, fatigue, decreased self-control, and altered cognitive processing.

    Your time is valuable, so don’t waste it on things that won’t matter in the long run. Your company and employees depend on your leadership skills to be sharp at all times.

    5. Set Your Schedule for Success

    How often do you schedule your haircut? What about your oil changes? These questions may seem trivial, but they bring up a relevant point: Scheduling is a consistent way to make sure things get done.

    Working from home provides many luxuries that can’t be found in the office, but it’s easy to fall into the mindset that this added flexibility means less structure to your day. The opposite is true. If you’re working remotely, setting a schedule for when and how you want to work could be one of the most important factors for facilitating your productivity throughout the day.

    Why? Because it’s easy to fall into the trap of working for the entire day, checking your e-mail into the evening hours, and never genuinely checking out of your workday.

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    Setting a schedule is an essential component for maximum productivity because it facilitates a set structure for remote workers to follow, which can be difficult now that they’re working from home and taking a break whenever they feel like it.

    Setting a schedule for starting and stopping work is crucial to not only avoid burnout; it’s also essential to allow time away from work to spend time with loved ones and enjoy your personal time. Creating a structure will also provide an example for your employees and team members to follow, which will inherently facilitate greater outcomes and working from home productivity.

    As Benjamin Franklin says, “Those who fail to plan, plan to fail.”

    The Bottom Line

    To truly make remote work a success, it will require strong individual and team leadership to make it happen. Everyone needs to be on the same page to facilitate systems and proper channels of communication.

    The moment leaders and individuals start to veer off track is when the spokes begin to fall off the wheel of work from home productivity and team success. Individuality is essential to turning this remote-working dream into a reality, so leaders must find ways to fail early, fail fast, and fail often to find the success that works for their team members and organization.

    Implementing these simple steps should be effortless and sustainable for the long term, but it won’t just happen overnight. The adage of “it takes 21 days to form a new habit” is outdated, with new research pointing that it actually takes an average of 66 days to form a new habit[25]. The more consistently leaders work on creating these habits, the easier they will become.

    More Tips on Working From Home

    Featured photo credit: Krismas via unsplash.com

    Reference

    [1] OWL Labs: State of Remote Work 2019
    [2] Global Workplace Analytics: Latest Work-At-Home/Telecommuting/Mobile Work/Remote Work Statistics
    [3] CDC: Short Sleep Duration by Occupation Group — 29 States, 2013–2014
    [4] Physiological Reviews: About Sleep’s Role in Memory
    [5] Sleep Foundation: Circadian Rhythm
    [6] Sleep: How Long Is an Ideal Nap?
    [7] Interventional Cardiology: Daylight savings time and myocardial infarction
    [8] Psychology and Aging: Exercise holds immediate benefits for affect and cognition in younger and older adults
    [9] The Primary Care Companion to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry: Exercise for Mental Health
    [10] Psychiatria Polska: Effects of exercise on anxiety, depression and mood
    [11] Medical News Today: What does the frontal lobe do?
    [12] European Journal of Neuroscience: Hippocampal BDNF mediates the efficacy of exercise on synaptic plasticity and cognition
    [13] BMC Public Health: The effectiveness of workplace nutrition and physical activity interventions in improving productivity, work performance and workability: a systematic review.
    [14] Organogenesis: Tissue repair
    [15] JNM: Brain-Gut-Microbiota Axis in Alzheimer’s Disease
    [16] The Cure Parkinson’s Trust: New Evidence Suggests Parkinson’s Might Not Start in The Brain
    [17] Medical Sciences: The Gut Microbiome in Multiple Sclerosis: A Potential Therapeutic Avenue
    [18] Clinical and Experimental Immunology: Allergy and the gastrointestinal system
    [19] Caltech: Microbes Help Produce Serotonin in Gut
    [20] Sketchplanations: The Pomodoro Technique
    [21] Gallup: Too Many Interruptions at Work?
    [22] Vanderbilt University: Task Switching
    [23] Scientific American: Why Does the Brain Need So Much Power?
    [24] Science Direct: Task-Switching
    [25] European Journal of Social Psychology: How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world

    More by this author

    Dr. Erik Reis

    Peak-Performance Leadership Consultant

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    Published on October 22, 2021

    The Flowtime Technique: A Pomodoro Alternative

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    The Flowtime Technique: A Pomodoro Alternative

    Today, there are countless productivity techniques that claim to help you work at peak efficiency. Among them, few are more widely known and widely used than the Pomodoro Technique. It’s a time management system that suggests that you break down your work tasks into 25-minute chunks and take breaks in between them.

    The idea revolves around the notion that most people begin to lose focus after 25 minutes of continuous work and will need a reset to remain productive. But there’s a problem with that idea: no two tasks are the same. And for that matter, neither are any two people! That means a one-size-fits-all productivity system can’t possibly be the best fit for everyone.

    But there’s an alternative that provides more flexibility and allows you to customize it for your specific use cases. It’s called the Flowtime Technique, and here’s everything you need to know to use it and start getting more done.

    What Is the Flowtime Technique?

    The Flowtime Technique, while not as well-known as the Pomodoro Technique, has been around for some time. In many ways, it’s a direct descendent of Pomodoro. It’s the brainchild of Zoe Read-Bivens, and she thought it up as a means of dealing with some of the shortcomings she experienced while using the Pomodoro technique.[1]

    She found that sticking to 25-minute work segments often interrupted her flow—the feeling of being immersed in a particular task—and ended up harming her productivity rather than enhancing it. To fix the problem, she sought to create a system that retained the beneficial aspects of the Pomodoro Technique while allowing her to get into a positive flow and stay there.

    The Basics of the Flowtime Technique

    To start using the Flowtime Technique, the first thing you’ll need to do is create a timesheet to help you manage your daily activities. You can do this with a spreadsheet or by hand, whichever you find most convenient. At the heading of your timesheet, include the following column headings:

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    • Task Name
    • Start Time
    • End Time
    • Interruptions
    • Work Time
    • Break Time

    Your timesheet will be the primary way you track your daily tasks and establish a flow that works best for you. Once you have it set up, here’s how to use it:

    1. Choose a Task

    To get started, choose a task you wish to get done. It should be specific, and something you can reasonably complete in the amount of time you have. In other words, don’t choose a task like “paint my house.” Choose something like “paint the front door of my house.” If you select a task that’s too broad, you’ll have difficulty sticking with the work. So, try and break down what you’re doing into the smallest manageable pieces.

    2. Begin Working on Your Task

    The next step is to start working on your task. Begin by listing the task you’re going to work on in the appropriate field of your timesheet. Then, list the time you’re starting work. Once you’ve gotten started on your task, the only rule you must observe is that there is no multitasking allowed. This will help you to focus on what you need to get done and minimize any self-imposed distractions.

    3. Work Until You Need a Break

    You may then keep working on your listed task for as long as you like. If you feel yourself getting fatigued after 15 minutes, take a break. If you get into a productive groove, lose track of the time, and end up working for an hour straight, that’s fine, too.

    The idea is to get to know your own patterns and work in segments that fit you best. If you don’t focus well on certain tasks, work on them for shorter durations. If you get absorbed in other types of tasks, maximize your output by working for as long as you feel capable of staying focused.

    You’ll likely find that the longest period you’ll be able to sustain is around 90 minutes or so. This corresponds to your Ultradian Rhythm, which are the alternating periods of alertness and rest that our brains experience throughout the day.[2]

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    There are plenty of case studies that demonstrate how taking regular breaks improves productivity. It’s one of the reasons that mandatory breaks are a part of the Pomodoro Technique. But there’s evidence that the less-structured Flowtime approach to breaks works just as well. One technology company that recently directed its employees to take breaks every hour as they saw fit saw productivity levels rise by 23%—with no mandate required.[3]

    4. Take an Appropriate-Length Break

    When you decide you need to take a break, go ahead and do so. Just make sure to write down your stop time on your timesheet in the right place. You can take a break that’s as long or short as you like, but don’t abuse the privilege. Otherwise, it won’t be long until your breaks eat up the majority of your time.

    As a general rule of thumb, try taking a five-minute break for each 25-minute work period, and increase your break time proportionally for longer work periods. You should use a timer to make sure you get back to your task in the right amount of time. And when your break ends, don’t forget to record the time you’ve resumed work and list the length of the break you took.

    5. Record Distractions as They Happen

    While you’re working, there are always going to be times when you’ll get distracted. It may come in the form of a phone call, an urgent email, or even the urge to use the bathroom. When these things happen, record the occurrence in the interruption column on your timesheet. Do your best to keep distractions short, but don’t try and block them out.

    The reason is that you’re unlikely to succeed and sometimes, the things that distract you will be a higher priority than what you’re working on. So, it’s important to deal with distractions as you see fit instead of trying to simply work through them.

    6. Repeat Until Your Work Is Complete

    All you have to do next is to repeat the steps above until the tasks you’re working on are complete. As you complete each task, be sure to record your final stop time. If you wish, you can calculate your total work time (and fill it in) when you finish a task, or you can do all of the math at once at the end of the day.

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    All that matters is that you don’t leave any gaps in your time tracking. Your timesheets, once complete, will become an asset that improves your ability to create a work schedule that maximizes your daily output.

    What to Do With Your Timesheets

    Although the act of recording your work periods and break times will help you remain on-task each day, there’s another important reason you’re doing it. It’s that your timesheets will gradually begin to reveal to you how to craft an ideal daily schedule for yourself.

    So, at the end of each week, take some time to compare your timesheets. You may see that certain patterns begin to emerge. For example, you might notice that your longest work periods typically occur before lunch or that there are specific parts of your day that tend to be filled with distractions. You can use this information to plan subsequent days more effectively.

    In general, you’ll want to cluster your most important tasks at your most productive times. So, if you are reviewing detailed property records, for example, you can set aside time to do it when you know you’ll be able to focus without interruption.

    Conversely, you should schedule less critical work at the times when you’re most likely to be interrupted while working. So if you need time to respond to emails or return phone calls, you’ll know just when to do it. This will not only make you more productive but will also eliminate mistakes in your work.

    Key Similarities Between Flowtime and Pomodoro

    If you’re familiar with how the Pomodoro Technique works, you may have noticed some similarities with the Flowtime Technique. As we’ve discussed earlier, this is intentional. The Flowtime Technique is specifically designed to retain three critical features of the Pomodoro Technique, which are:

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    1. Precise Time Tracking

    One of the reasons that the Pomodoro Technique is so effective for many people is that it creates a rigid system to facilitate time tracking. By having to split your work tasks into 25-minute segments, you become acutely aware of the tasks you have in front of you and how you’re using your time. That alone helps you to avoid wasting precious work time because you have to account for every minute. The Flowtime Technique provides this benefit, too.

    2. Eliminating Multitasking

    With the Pomodoro Technique, you have to choose a task to work on and use a 25-minute timer to measure each work period. This does an excellent job of keeping you on-task because you know from the moment you set the timer what you’re trying to accomplish, and you’re therefore not likely to stray onto another task.

    Even though you don’t need to use a timer with the Flowtime Technique, the very act of writing down your task accomplishes the same task. Because you know you’ll be tracking your time spent working on a particular thing, you’ll tend to stick with your task until it’s complete or time for a break.

    3. Facilitating Breaks

    One of the biggest killers of productivity is exhaustion, and there’s plenty of data to prove that taking breaks is essential to maintaining peak work performance. That’s the real secret to the Pomodoro Technique’s successful reputation—it makes breaks mandatory and unavoidable.

    The Flowtime Technique, by comparison, also insists you take breaks. It just doesn’t force them upon you until you’re ready to take one. In that way, some additional self-discipline is required to succeed using the Flowtime Technique. But if you can obey a timer, there’s no reason you can’t learn to obey the signals your body sends you when it needs a time out.

    Final Thoughts

    At the end of the day, you may find success using the Pomodoro Technique. There’s a reason it’s so popular, after all. But if you’ve been using it for some time and find yourself straining against its rigid structures, you’re not alone. So, consider giving the Flowtime Technique a try for at least a week or two. You may find it’s a much better fit for your work style and that you get even more done than you ever have before.

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    Featured photo credit: Fakurian Design via unsplash.com

    Reference

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