Working from home has its advantages. For one thing, it saves time by avoiding a bustling, congested commute, skipping the beauty routine, and just working in PJs. Yet, you may find it challenging to stay focused without the structure of a work setting.
Do you ever find yourself puttering around, doing endless chores that prevent you from getting down to serious work? When you finally do sit down at your computer, you keep getting distracted by social media or going down Google search rabbit holes. Looking up at the clock 90 minutes later, you think, “Where did the time go?”
On a recent meditation retreat, I gained some important insights into how we use our most valuable asset: time.
Marina Abramovic created the Cleaning the House workshop for performance artists to cultivate their physical and emotional endurance. Recently, the Marina Abramovic Institute opened the workshop to the public for the first time. The four-day experience involved fasting, no electronics, no reading, no clocks, minimal creature comforts—and lots of strenuous physical and mental exercises. During the retreat, we didn’t know what time it was, nor did we know what we’d be doing next. It was an exercise of letting go of one’s usual habits and routines.
When I returned to my life in New York, I was struck by how my relationship with time had changed. The Cleaning House workshop did, indeed, give me a clean slate. With fresh eyes, I could see how my approach to time was creating feelings of distraction and overwhelm.
I discovered time segments as the sweet spot between structure and freedom. Instead of over-scheduling and muscling my way through a long to-do list and ticking off endless boxes and then feeling guilty for not getting more done, I began to schedule my days working from home as segments with clear beginnings and endings. Each clearly delineated segment creates space for the work to happen in—it reduces distraction, time urgency, and feelings of overwhelm.
Here is an example of a typical (and ideal) day working at home in nine segments:
Segment 1: Embodiment
Research shows that physical exercise, yoga, and meditation all help improve mental clarity and reduce stress. Take time to center yourself in your body through stretching, yoga, mindful breathing, or mirror meditation. Set a simple intention for the day (suggested time: 30 min to 1 hour).
Segment 2: Most Important, Most Detailed Work
Try doing your most important and detailed tasks first—when you’re freshest. Avoid email, calls, news, and social media—if you must check, do it quickly, deal with anything urgent, then close all applications and turn off notifications and focus your attention on your important task. You might find it harder to start, or you may be more tempted to procrastinate when the stakes are high. That’s why doing your most important work first thing is key.
In Your Two Awesome Hours, Josh Davis discusses the research on how to optimize your two most productive hours every day—instead of squandering them with emails and distractions. And by doing your most important task first, you can ride the good feeling of accomplishment all day (suggested time: 2-3 hours).
Segment 3: Communications
Having done your most important work first, you may find yourself less likely to get distracted and overwhelmed by the volume of information to deal with via email, news, text, voicemail, and social media. This is one area where it’s easy to go down a rabbit hole. Prioritize what’s most urgent and set a time limit—with an alarm—when the alarm goes off, close all email and social media applications (suggested time: 30 min to 1 hour).
Segment 4: Secondary Creative Tasks
It’s important to make time to explore your ideas without the pressure of evaluations and deadlines. This segment gives you space to create something new, a way to work that feels fun and spontaneous—yet scheduled.
For instance, I work on several writing projects at once. During this segment, I allot myself two whole hours to write about whatever I want. I pick the piece I’m most inspired to work on. The key here is there’s no pressure to write something profound or to finish by a deadline. It helps keep the words and ideas flowing—so you don’t get stuck or blocked. Ironically, we often have our best ideas when there’s no pressure to do so (suggested time: 2 hours).
Segment 5: Exercise
Get outside! Walk the dog, ride your bike, walk, take an aerobics or yoga class. This is a refreshing and needed break—research shows exercise increases mental clarity, in addition to its many health benefits (suggested time: 30 min to 1.5 hours).
Segment 6: Substantive Reading
Staying current by reading articles and research relevant to your fields of interest is important, but often gets put on the back burner. Research shows that reading more helps to improve one’s thinking and writing ability. Reading regularly can also improve your capacity for empathy and perspective-taking (suggested time: 2 hours).
Segment 7: Chores
It’s important to designate a specific segment to chores. One of the main distractions reported by people working from home is that they get derailed by household tasks. As you sit down to work, you might notice that a plant needs watering or a pair of socks should be put in the laundry—pretty soon you’re doing a gardening project or cleaning out your closet instead of working. Try doing household chores, paying bills, scheduling appointments, and checking email and social media accounts and responding to requests before the end of the day, but during this segment only. I then close all email and social media applications and don’t look at them again until the next day (suggested time: 1 hour).
Segment 8: Social Contact
Another peril of working from home is social isolation. Make sure you have some sort of quality face-to-face (or at least voice-to-voice) contact with your partner or a friend every day. Research shows face-to-face communication helps reduce stress, anxiety, and loneliness. Online chats, Facebook, and Instagram likes are no substitute for genuine face-to-face contact with people close to you (suggested time: at least 1 hour).
Segment 9: Embodied Winding Down
Get away from your screen and turn off your devices at least two hours from bedtime. Relax your body and mind through stretching, yoga, meditation, journaling, and/or taking a hot bath. Going to bed fully relaxed will improve your sleep—after a full day of segments.
Dr. Tara Well is a psychology professor at Barnard College in New York City where she developed a mirror-based meditation called “a revelation” in the New York Times. She has taught hundreds of people how to use the mirror to awaken self-compassion, manage emotions, and improve face-to-face communication. Find out more at www.MirrorMeditation.com.
Image courtesy of Paige Cody.