With outbreak spreading and universities closing their doors, students are forced to learn how to be productive from home. This can be a major challenge for those not accustomed to this work setting, surrounded by distractions capable of destroying productivity. Here are some things I try to stick to when working from home.

As background, I am someone who works best in silence (or with classical/coffeehouse background music). Any trace of outside noise causes me to lose focus, and ultimately degrades my daily productivity. Until recently, I was someone who tried to separate their home-life from their work-life. As a master’s student, I was provided a closed-door office with one or two officemates, which made working on campus relatively easy for me. I could throw in my headphones, close the door, and get to work. There was never a need to work from home.

Now, I have an open-floor plan office shared by my entire cohort. Though there is an added convenience for collaboration, the setting does not suit my optimal work setting — particularly with writing and research. I knew this setting wouldn’t work for me, so I decided to experiment with working from home when the opportunity presented itself. (For additional context, I live alone in a small one-bedroom apartment. Thus, I can attest to having limited work space, but cannot speak to the added distraction of living with others.)

I still haven’t perfected the working from home situation, but I’ve learned what works for me and hope these tips can be useful for any fellow graduate students getting thrown into this situation.

  1. Be honest with yourself: Know what environment works for you, and try your best to recreate it. Some people are accustomed to occasionally working from home, and this transition will be relatively smooth for them. For others, it is a completely new challenge. Whether you can crank out paragraph after paragraph wearing sweatpants and a baggy sweatshirt, or you need to be in more professional work attire, that’s for you to decide. I’ve made the jump to the casual, comfy clothes, but again, it’s knowing what works for you. As for operating in a small work environment without actual office space, I utilize the “dining room” table, keeping work away from the comfort of the couch or the bedroom. (If living with others, I’d recommend clear, honest communication about what your expectations are moving forward. Find a happy medium suitable that can work for everyone. Remember, everyone has different work space preferences and the transition won’t be easy for anyone. Expect some bumps along the way.)
  2. Keeping your routine: I think this is the most critical component of maintaining productivity. Every semester brings about a new routine: You wake up at a certain time. You go to class at the same time every Monday and Wednesday, Tuesday and Thursday, etc. Try to keep this habit — especially when it comes to classwork. Whatever time slot was devoted to in-person lectures, try to keep it for online lectures. Think of it as actual class time and pushing it off counts as skipping. Of course, if there is lag in content upload, this may not be possible, but do your best to keep the routine you’ve been accustomed to for the last eight or nine weeks. Take the first week to feel things out. It’s a learning process for the entire institution.
  3. Hyper-goal setting: Before you actually start your work day, make a list of all the things you want to achieve that day. From there, break those goals into smaller, more tangible goals. If the larger goal of the day is to finish a rough draft of a paper, then break this down section by section (sub-goal 1: finish the results section, sub-goal 2: finish the discussion and conclusion, sub-goal 3: proofread the paper, etc.). Have a running list of these hyper-goals and cross them off as you push through them. There’s really no better feeling than crossing off items from the to-do list, especially as you become accustomed to the new work style. Along the same line, set a timer for [X] minutes and devote this solely to one or two of these hyper-goals. Be honest with yourself. You know your attention span better than anyone else. Start with a 15-20 minute block and work your way up to a 40 minutes or an hour. Devote all your energy and attention to these one or two hyper-goals so you can cross them off your list. Then, reward yourself.
  4. Schedule breaks: We aren’t robots. Set aside time throughout the day to get away from the work. Take a lunch break if this is generally part of your daily routine. Get a quick at home workout in. Do something to rejuvenate yourself before that next block of hyper-goals begins. I promise taking these scheduled breaks will boost productivity.
  5. Stay away from screens: Phones are the most prevalent distraction. Whether it’s texting, aimless web browsing, or needless scrolling, phones provide an easy outlet for comfort. Keep them at a distance except during your scheduled breaks. The phone distraction applies in all work settings, but working from home presents a new screen: the TV screen (and any gaming systems plugged into it). Again, this will vary person-to-person. If you’re someone that works well with background noise, then go for it. But if you know this isn’t you, avoid the urge because before you know it you’re binge watching [insert your favorite show here] for the fifth time.
  6. Stop opening the fridge: Needless snacking is an impulse you’ll need to address. When you’re five feet away from your week’s worth of groceries, it becomes instinct to go check it out. Are you really hungry? Drink some water and reassess in five or ten minutes.
  7. Patience with yourself: This transition does not happen overnight. No matter how well you recreate your routine and optimal work environment, it is going to take time to adjust. After about a week, don’t be surprised to see a fallout from your “honeymoon” phase of working from home. There will be good days and bad days, and isolation can make those bad days even worse. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help, motivation, or guidance from others. This is a critical time to support each another.
  8. Patience with your professors: We as graduate students aren’t the only ones affected by this shock. Be patient with professors as they work to convert their in-person lectures to online content (especially those with undergraduate classes, too). I think I can speak on behalf of graduate students and say we thank you for all your hard work and flexibility.

Creating your productive work environment takes time, patience, and experience, and I am happy to chat with anyone who has questions or concerns about working from home. Would love to help out any way I can!

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I would also appreciate feedback or recommendations from those who are accustomed to working from home — particularly those who work from home but do not have an at home office. I will continue to update this list moving forward hoping to provide a useful resource to those not accustomed to working from home.

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Artist credits: ZdenekSasek from VectorStock.com. Available at: https://www.vectorstock.com/royalty-free-vector/cartoon-frustrated-man-or-businessman-sitting-vector-26782419

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