In times like these, it can be really hard to feel satisfied with the amount of work you do. Especially since working remotely became the default, the fine line between work hours and private time is difficult to distinguish. When am I finished for today? How many breaks should I take? I had to help my kid with some reading exercises for school... Now I have to work a little later, right?
How can you work peacefully without feeling guilty? I tried to figure it out.
Lockdown-induced work struggles
I have been working from home since March, and since then, there is one main thing I have been really struggling with.
When am I done?
I already struggled with this when I was still working at the office. However, it was easier to leave this worry behind as I actually entered the office and left the office physically. Working remotely has only made me feel more conscious about this struggle. The only physical barrier there is between working and not working is opening and closing my laptop. But what about those minutes that slip away while doing some quick chores, like getting a package from the mailman?
A vicious circle
It feels like all these unknown responsibilities landed on me, and every day, I would end up in the same vicious circle. I would start the day feeling stressed because I felt like I had to do better than the day before. Obviously, when I started to get sidetracked, I felt guilty for not working as hard as I originally wanted to, so I didn’t take any breaks. Eventually, I ended up doing less than I intended to do because my focus started fading after a few hours... And so, I could not break this vicious circle.
Time for a change, obviously. Let’s look into this way of thinking and how we can improve it! Or in other words: let’s turn this vicious circle into a virtuous one.
1. Prioritize your work
Few people can actually focus for 8 hours or longer. This means your focus time is limited, so you should use it wisely. At the beginning of the day, try to do the biggest, most urgent tasks first. This way, you can invest precious focus time in something important, instead of reading and answering (non-urgent) emails. Delaying hard tasks until the end of the day is not a good idea, as most of your focus time will have been spent by then.
2. Take those damn breaks
After working for a certain amount of time, you deserve a break. Taking breaks is included in your work time and it’s not a crime to take that opportunity and clear your mind! So, you should enjoy your break without any excuses.
To incorporate this mindset, I started making a list of how many breaks I actually take. Turns out I try to have a break every hour (or every 1.5h) for 10 to 30 minutes. Another way to remember to take a break regularly is to do it every time you finish a task (of course, answering one email isn’t a task you should take a 30-minute break for😉). This way, you get a kind of reward for finishing something. In addition, you should keep in mind that if you have a big task to do, you can try to divide it into small tasks.
3. When is your work done?
When I was working on previous projects, I had to count my hours and what I do with them. This doesn't work for me, as I really started to fixate on those 8 hours. I felt guilty if I wrote down that I did a certain task for one hour, when in fact, I only worked 50 minutes on it and took a 10-minute break afterward.
What are 8 hours of work? This question kept floating around in my head. What about breaks? Or when you have a small talk with a colleague? What if your meeting gets sidetracked?
Knowing when you actually are done working, is a perception, in my opinion. And if you are a perfectionist, and in general, very strict for yourself, like I am, then you will always feel like you’re not done yet. Hence, continuous guilt-tripping.
I asked some other co-workers’ opinions about this... Here is what they responded:
“I just give myself a timeslot to work in. However, I try to finish my work, even if I have to divide the task in smaller tasks.”
“Losing focus is part of it.”
”You have good and bad days... Some days, you are able to do in 2 hours what you normally can’t even do in one day.”
4. Let it go
Stop looking for a magic cure to remain focused forever. Try to accept the fact that you simply can't be productive for 8 hours on end. The energy you put in stressing about not working is worse than just taking a 15-minute break instead.
However, I get that changing the way you think is really hard... So, how do you actually manage to let things go? One thing my coach told me was to try to say your doubts out loud every day. For example, tell yourself: “I have done enough, I have worked enough, I am enough.” Of course, this depends on what works for you. It sounds stupid, but your brain will start to think that way if you just say it often enough. This is also called “positive affirmations”, based on the self-affirmation theory (Steele, 1988), so there’s actually science behind it!
Losing focus is only natural and part of the job. Acceptance is an important step in starting to work more effectively. You should take breaks and decide for yourself when work is done. This can help you feel better about your work and performance.
How do you feel after a long workday?