Today is the first day that my younger son has been in in-person school since March 2020. My other son will start school, in person, next week. (Well, fingers crossed!)
And this is a story about the year I did everything wrong, what I learned and how I managed to stay productive despite it all.
Like you, my year (er…18 months and still counting) was upended. I was used to, blissfully, working from home all by myself, while my kids were at school and my husband was working in an office. And like you, March 2020 brought any sense of normalcy to a screeching halt.
Like a lot of people, we moved during the pandemic, for many reasons not particularly germane to this post, but whose consequences, in fact, spawned it.
What do I mean by “wrong”? Well, I mean that I didn’t follow much standard productivity advice. At all. Because I couldn’t, given our circumstances.
So, let’s take stock of all that fabulous productivity advice that I didn’t take:
I didn’t work from ergonomically correct locations or positions. For a few months I worked from a short, backless wooden stool. For 6 months, I sat on a $10 folding chair from IKEA. I sometimes didn’t have a desk, and, if I did, rarely was it at the right height.
“Work with your chronotype”
I did not, could not, follow my own natural time rhythms. Due to the timezones we were in being quite different from the timezones where work and remote school were happening, I was waking up hours earlier than is natural for me. As an inveterate night person, I felt this deeply.
“Maintain a stable workspace”
I worked from bed (the horror!), in bedrooms, in a closet, and from couches. I didn’t have a stable place to call my own workspace for more than a few months at a time.
“Use multiple monitors for maximum productivity”
I didn’t have another monitor and worked solely from a 13 inch laptop. It was small. But it also helped me to block out anything that I wasn’t working on in the moment.
So that’s advice I didn’t follow. And yet, I was actually able to remain productive.
How was I able to remain as productive as ever during this time, even when not following many of “the rules”? Let me tell you the practices I employed that think made a big difference:
Survey the situation and make a plan
This was crucial to our success. We were in a few places, so when we got somewhere new, we had to make a plan. Where will each person work? What are the ground rules? Who can be interrupted and when?
This stuff shouldn’t be left to chance. Everyone gets assigned a zone; everyone knows the rules.
Shift timezones mindfully
Melatonin, daylight lamps and a pretty rigid sleep schedule were key factors here. We lived what I’ve been calling a “vampire schedule” for the better part of a year by taking melatonin about an hour before wanted to sleep, using daylight lamps to mimic sunlight when we woke up in the wee hours, and by adhering to a pretty consistent sleep schedule, even on weekends.
One other random thing that helped?
Because our work and school was happening on Pacific time (i.e., not the timezone we were in), adding a secondary timezone to my calendar made scheduling so much easier. (If you’re not sure how to do this, here’s how: Google Calendar or Outlook.)
Create a “mobile office”
I wasn’t in a stable location, but I knew I needed to create some stability in my workspace. So I created a very pared down “mobile office”, Basically, it was a work caddy that fit in a tote bag and that I could set up wherever we were. It consisted of: my laptop, a notebook, a pencil and a mini (8”x11”) whiteboard. That’s it. Lesson learned: I don’t need all the trappings of a perfectly ergonomic workspace and all my supplies to be productive.
Create a visual schedule
Each week, I created a visual schedule to let the kids know when we were in meetings (and therefore not to be interrupted unless there was an emergency). I posted this schedule prominently and we talked through it so everyone knew what to expect, every week.
Maintain (and adjust, if necessary) key routines
While almost everything changed around me, I knew it would be important to maintain at least some stable routines. I kept a relatively consistent work routine (still writing this article on Monday mornings, finishing work in time to cook dinner, not working evenings or weekends). And other routines had to be significantly reworked; for most of the year I gave up my post-work run (because I learned I can’t run with a mask on or I feel like I’m gonna die!), but I replaced it with post-work yoga. I took a look at the routines that made my life feel “normal” and I sought to recreate those routines in my new environment.
Update your home screen apps
This may seem like a silly afterthought, and maybe it is. But how often do you optimize the home screen of your phone for the situation that you’re currently in? It was a couple months into the pandemic before I realized that Uber and Lyft were still taking up valuable real estate on the home screen of my phone despite not having used the services in months. Ditto for Waze; I wasn’t driving!
When your situation changes, take a moment to rearrange the apps on your phone so that your home screen only contains what’s currently relevant. You’ll be surprised what a difference this makes.
Communicate, experiment, iterate, repeat
The last thing we did, and maybe the most important, was (and is!) to continually communicate and pivot as necessary. We asked the following 3 questions, in our family, at least once a week:
- What’s going well? (So we can double down on it.)
- What’s not?
- What can we try to improve what’s not working?
I’m back home now, in my regular space. As I write this, one kid is in school and one is quietly enjoying his last week of summer freedom (because I’ve given up on controlling screen time over this past year). And I’m once again taking stock.
My kids may be going back to school. But my husband is still working at home, meaning that I don’t (yet) have the house to myself to work during the day. I’m wearing noise-cancelling headphones and working not from my home office (where my husband is currently having a, rather loud, meeting) but from the couch.
Next week, my oldest will return to school. And pretty soon my husband will go back to an office. And at each of those junctures it will be time to reassess and readjust.
Just last week I was reading Katy Milkman’s new book, ”How to Change” and she mentioned some research I found both compelling and reassuring: that habits strengthen when we have the opportunity to perform them in unideal situations. When we build habits flexibly, they stick better.
So, whatever you have managed to do during this most uncertain of times, whatever habits you’ve built, consider that those habits will be stickier because of this 18 month long masterclass in flexibility we’ve been going through.
A tiny silver lining.