In the early days of quarantine, I found myself sending emails in my kitchen. As I was doing so, I could hear my wife on a conference call in the basement, while my youngest daughter and son were playing in the living room. Through it all, I heard my nine-year-old on a Zoom meeting with her classmates raise her voice: “Colin…Colin! Move your camera up, so we can see you!” I could only shake my head in wonder at the bizarre existence we’re experiencing due to Covid-19.
The setting above is not how I would describe a productive workplace. I am certain that even designers of the most open-office floor plan would agree that this much interaction does not maximize employee output. Considering how many people now find themselves in similar home-office situations, many people are asking how to stay motivated and maintain sanity during a pandemic. Based on the anecdote above, I am certainly doing the same. My conclusion? Identify one non-negotiable element of your day that recharges your batteries, and then maintain the discipline to ensure it happens daily.
In considering what makes a workspace and workday productive and sane for me, I looked to a recent trip to the office. My day unfolded as follows:
Activity: Arrived at my desired time with coffee in hand after breakfast at home.
Benchmarks: Started on time while properly fueled.
Activity: Created a schedule of events – conference call, research, writing, conference call
Benchmarks: Followed schedule without significant interruptions.
Activity: Went for a walk.
Benchmarks: Exercised after lunch.
Activity: Turned off computer and went home.
Benchmark: Ended my workday.
Unfortunately, most of these activities cannot take place in the same manner when working at home. If my daughters need help with their schoolwork or my son needs a diaper change, those realities may delay the start of my workday or interrupt a project. Days working at home are often spotted with unexpected video calls and text exchanges, rather than traditional workplace interruptions. Even stepping out for a breath of fresh air can be a tall task when work and home life are so integrated. Further, the home-office experience can easily result in no true conclusion to the workday. If something on my checklist isn’t accomplished during normal working hours, my natural solution is to continue the activity after my kids go to bed. The result is an endless cycle of accomplishing bits and pieces of work and household tasks without ever feeling like it’s time to punch out for the day.
Identify one non-negotiable element of your day that recharges your batteries, and then maintain the discipline to ensure it happens daily.
Despite a piecemeal approach to work life and home life, I am still generally able to remain productive without my preferred benchmarks. I can function with varied start times even without proper fuel; adjust to an interrupted schedule; and work at night until the work is done. Performing my work well is important, and I can find ways to stay focused regardless of time and place. But when I went for a simple walk, it hit me how critical this one step (or more accurately 1,000 steps) is to my well-being. The exercise makes me feel better, but it is also solitary time to organize my thoughts. When I returned from my walk, I was recharged and clear-headed to work with focus until my tasks were done. It was, I concluded, the 20 minutes I needed most to maintain productivity and sanity.
As simple as it sounds, my advice is to find that one part of your day that you need most to be at your best. Make it your non-negotiable. There may be days when you can hit every benchmark for your day’s work or home objectives; there may be days when you don’t hit a single benchmark. But you’ll find if you hold onto your non-negotiable, then other benchmarks are more likely to follow—even on the days when outside factors throw you off course.
The Wall Street Journal recently published a column by Jere van Dyk, an American journalist held prisoner in Pakistan by the Taliban in 2008. His article, “A Hostage’s Guide to Isolation,” provides a thoughtful list of ways to fill your time productively. Here are a few excerpts from van Dyk’s list:
- “Set a regimen. Get up early. Use that time to pray, meditate, or exercise.”
- “Don’t eat too much. It will make you listless. Try not to sleep during the day. It’s a form of escape.”
- “Try to accomplish something: reading part of a book, learning new words, even of a foreign language, doing more push-ups, playing the piano, whatever it is, every day.”
His advice flows from experience and offers many different methods to be productive and sane in a situation far more difficult than any of us are experiencing. Many of his suggestions resonated with me, but a person with different preferences and priorities might find the suggestions ill-fitting. People around the globe are facing starkly different settings and situations, so it will take some individual reflection to figure out your individual priorities.
From there, it takes discipline. In Donald Whitney’s book on discipline, he began by observing that modern Americans often disdain the concept of discipline. People are more likely to think of the domineering parent punishing a child rather than the Latin origins of disciplina—the object of instruction, teaching, learning, and knowledge. Perhaps both concepts of discipline are needed in a work-from-home workplace shared with kids, but the latter definition is most critical. Accountability is far less imposing in your own home when there is no office construct to help keep people on task, which means that self-discipline is most important for success. The goal in discipline is not to become a joyless automaton without regard to distractions. But it takes self-reflection and focus to recognize what is critical for performance—a step likely to vary from person to person. Once you have figured out your non-negotiable, you will need discipline to make it happen. While the setting in my introduction may never be the ideal workplace for productivity, there are some sanity-restoring joys to be found. Don’t miss out on listening to tech-savvy children discuss Zoom-bombing, or the unexpected gift of sharing your lap with a new puppy during a conference call, or some other amusement that is unique to you and your setting. Productivity may suffer with the distractions of home, but if you maintain your non-negotiable, you will be in the best position to not only survive quarantine but to thrive.
 Van Dyk, Jere. “A Hostage’s Guide to Isolation.” The Wall Street Journal, April 7, 200. Available at: www.wsj.com/articles/a-hostages-guide-to-isolation-11586279646.
 Whitney, Donald S. 2014. Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. Colorado Springs: NavPress.