One thing many of us have learned this year is that time moves quite differently at home. The global pandemic disrupted the routines of millions, forcing employees to adjust to working from home overnight and tackle the ups and downs of remote work from a place of isolation. On the flipside, it also created a space for exploring how to structure work and manage time in more meaningful ways.
Productivity and ways of working are are significantly impacted by how we feel, as well as our environment. So as this year winds down, what can we take away from our remote work experiment? What exactly did the pandemic teach us about time management?
It’s rare to find someone who hasn’t felt overwhelmed this year. We’re working through a very unusual situation of sustained uncertainty, so it’s important to be kind to yourself and take small steps. We might not be quite as proactive as we were at the best of times, but rather than catastrophizing and panicking that you’ll never get to the end of a big project, the pandemic has stressed the importance of focusing on the smaller parts of progress.
To borrow the terminology of the book The 4 Disciplines of Execution, it’s about focusing on your lead measures – the short-term behaviors you can control – over your lag measures – the bigger thing you’re ultimately trying to achieve. That means understanding the time required for each element of a task and being realistic about what you can achieve within a time frame; being present in what you can do today or this week.
Since lockdown began, many of us have seriously struggled to focus. When we get behind with our work, it’s tempting to start multitasking, believing (mistakenly) that we’re getting more done this way. But multitasking and context switching are some of the worst things you can do if you want to better manage your attention. Instead, you should practice task batching.
Task batching is the act of grouping similar small tasks together and doing them all at once, as one larger concentrated task, rather than trying to tackle them sporadically throughout the day. So, you could set yourself half an hour for blasting through all your emails or answer in-app comments. Because you’re focusing on one single job, you’re able to create a more concentrated workflow, minimize distractions, reduce context switching and improve your focus.
During a year that many of us tried to work alongside babies, pets, relatives or housemates, one thing we’ve had to accept is that we can’t control everything. Rather than worrying futilely about things out of our control, we should just try to accept that not everything goes to plan – but that doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world, by any stretch of the imagination. We should only try to control what we’re able to, and be flexible about what we can’t.
One way of exercising more control over your work is getting into the habit of time blocking. Time blocking is a time management method that breaks up your day into set, finite units. By blocking out controlled spaces for each task, not only are you ensuring you actually do it, you’re also making it easier to plough through your to-do list without deviating. Many of us have discovered that when you work from home, disruptions are all around – whether it’s coworkers emailing you or noisy kids in the next room. Time blocking helps you work towards the bigger picture, and makes it easier to accept if you won’t get something finished in a day. If that’s the case, it’s not a cause for panic; just prioritize that task for the next day.
When you work from home, setting boundaries is essential – not only for your productivity, but for your mental wellbeing. Working where you live isn’t easy – you might have children demanding your attention, or you might find it hard to step into “work mode” when you never leave the house. Try to create habits and routines that mentally signal a break between work and personal time – like going for a quick walk at the start and finish of each working day. This acts as a mock commute, allowing you to bookend your working day and transition back into personal time more easily.
It’s also crucial to let both sides of your life know when you need to be given space to work. Share your schedule with coworkers, housemates or family members, and identify times when you’ll be working and available, and when you’ll have clocked off. If people know you won’t be available after 6pm, you won’t feel the pressure to be “always-on”, and can enjoy your leisure time without fretting that you’re letting people down.
During lockdown, it seems more people than ever took steps to better manage their time. But, ultimately, we can only keep time accountable and use it more effectively once we understand how we already use it. Tracking your time is crucial if you want to identify where your time is really going – but no-one wants to faff around with fiddly manual timers or note taking. The good news is that automatic tracking apps can now do the whole job for you – capturing all the time you spend on different activities and apps, so you have accurate insight into how you’re working. Once you’ve identified those hidden time drains, inefficient processes and productive patterns, you’re armed with the insights needed to make smart changes to the ways you manage time.
Now many of us have taken a step back from our normal lives, we’re able to see the benefit in prioritizing what’s genuinely important to us – not what’s urgent to other people. When you start focusing on the work that you find most meaningful, you’ll probably find new joy in it, and start to value your time more and be more protective of where you spend it.
This requires a combination of actions – such as learning how to politely say “no” to tangental work, regularly deprioritizing tasks on your to-do list, scheduling deep work and protecting time for your own professional development and self-investment. One of the easiest ways you can free up more time for your important tasks right now, is to automate the needless parts of your workflow. All of us have unproductive, time-consuming elements to our work, but with the right tools, we can outsource the brunt of the work and free time to focus on what matters.