Before the pandemic spread across the world, working from home was a luxury available only to some. Those with the discipline to get the job done and permission from the boss (or who were their own boss) could avoid rush-hour traffic and save the time spent commuting. For the people who already worked better in isolation, they could ditch the office chatter and at least some meetings while working from the comfort of home. Fast-forward several months, and all that’s changed, of course. Working from home has become the go-to solution for thousands of businesses and employees.

Many employees now working from home enjoyed — even thrived in — the office environment. Others simply didn’t know any alternative and may have found it jarring when self-isolation measures forced them to transition to working remotely. If you’re in the latter category, there are factors to keep in mind as you try to maintain productivity (and your sanity) working in a new, yet all too familiar, environment.

Create a Neat Workspace

Now that we’re months into this work-from-home quarantine, be honest: Have you ever tried to set down your laptop and work amid a jumble of cereal bowls, crayons and paper, TV remotes, and knickknacks that looked great about four months ago when the table was clean? Drives you to distraction, doesn’t it? Well, the opposite is true, too: Having a clean workspace improves productivity and promotes a positive attitude that carries over into your work.

The following steps can help you get rid of clutter:

  • Focus first and foremost on creating a comfortable working space. Your goal should be a clutter-free environment; it can be just a chair and a computer on a table.
  • Take a day off for cleaning, and tossing anything you don’t need. If you’re a pack rat, now is a good time to let go of all those things you’ve tucked away but never used.
  • If you find you have a lot of junk to get rid of, check dumpster rates and rent one. Rates can run as low as $250 weekly, and many companies will now drop off a dumpster and pick it with no personal contact.

Stick to a Schedule

When you work from home, maintaining a schedule and following a regimen are important — even more so than at the office, since there are no workplace rhythms and the boss isn’t looking over your shoulder to help you stay on task. 

Working remotely can give rise to tendencies toward either procrastinating or overworking. To combat the extremes, be sure to set regular hours for yourself, work consistently during those hours, and when they’re up, stop and call it a day.

If you use a to-do list and software productivity tools, you can get so much done that you may surprise yourself. Pace yourself to move forward through tasks efficiently without feeling harried. Other keys to avoid problems include allowing for regular breaks, getting up often to stretch your legs, and eating lunch away from your computer, if possible.

Don’t Try to Multitask

Beware the temptation to multitask. At best, multitasking is a misnomer, and at worst, it’s a myth: The human mind cannot do it. Even if you think you’re accomplishing more than one thing at a time, your attention can only rest on one thing at each given moment. All you’re really doing is shifting your attention from one thing to another, then back again. Each time you shift, you need to refocus — sacrificing both your time and attention. It’s better to focus on one task at a time.

Minimize Distractions 

Distractions can be the enemy of productivity, but they’re everywhere — from the lawnmower next door to that one shopping website you can’t stop browsing to the bored child kicking things in the next room. If you find you have trouble staying on task, track your progress with productivity software. Block any websites that you can’t seem to stay away from. Use a timer and keep a diary of which activities you perform when (and be honest with yourself about them). 

Email can be a major time-waster, so dedicate specific times to checking it, perhaps once at the beginning of the day and again at the end. Also, try limiting the amount of time you spend reading emails during each sitting. If you’re taking more than a half-hour each day to deal with them, you may need to re-evaluate your approach or set some filters.

Unless using social media is in your job description, avoid sites like Facebook and Twitter during work hours. Phones can be major distractions, too, so consider silencing your ringer when you’re working and then checking messages only at scheduled times. Unless your boss requires you to constantly be available, limit your time for taking calls, chatting, texting, and instant messaging.

Be Aware of Your Finances

When working from home, you may find a little extra time in your schedule to fit in other things. Instead of wasting this time, why not take some of it to assess your financial health? Consider checking your score and working to improve your credit by disputing any inaccuracies you find in your report and addressing any issues that are legitimate. The better your rating, the better terms you’ll get if you find you need to borrow in the future.

The global financial picture is rough, with unemployment skyrocketing and markets crashing. If you’re having trouble paying your bills, look into negotiating with your lenders for delayed or reduced payments. You may want to try working with a credit counselor to consolidate your debt. And create a new budget that takes into account your new income level and expenses.

Take Kids’ Activities into Account

If you have kids, be sure they pay attention to their own class or activity schedules, which should mirror your work schedule as much as possible. Let your kids — or other housemates — know they’re not allowed to interrupt you unless it’s a real emergency. (Think “the house is on fire,” not “my brother won’t share.”) 

Give kids guidance on how to self-regulate as much as possible, and make that part of their daily responsibilities. This kind of direction can not only free you up to do the work you need to do, but it also can build their self-esteem and prepare them to become self-motivated problem-solvers.

Reward Yourself

Repetition can be fatiguing, so make sure you differentiate work time from not-work time. At the end of each day, plan to reward yourself. Perhaps you’ve been wanting to learn a new skill, like playing guitar, gardening, skateboarding, or driving a stick shift. Take some free time to explore doing new things. Changes of pace and scenery are important for maintaining mental health, and switching focus from a cerebral activity to one that includes a physical aspect is great for the brain and body, both. 

It’s well past time to figure out the most efficient methods of working from home, but these adjustments can be made with some focused attention, and commitment to self-improvement. Before you know it, you may find yourself more comfortable and productive working from home than you ever thought possible. And whenever the shelter-in-place restrictions are lifted, you’ll have created a new set of positive habits that can help you move forward into whatever the future holds.