Dubai: Has time management gone out the window ever since you started working from home?
With people complaining about having no time to themselves, extra workload and strained relationships at home, Gulf News spoke with time management and productivity experts to find out how you can come on top of the work-from-home situation.
The big question: What do you value?
Makram Maadad, a trainer and public speaker and founder of Know Thyself coaching institute said that biggest and most effective way in which individuals could stay consistently productive was if they focussed on finding out what values mattered most to them.
“No time-management tool will help you in the long run if you don’t focus on living a fulfilled life based on the values that matter to you,” Maadad said.
These values may vary based on your personality and experience, so while one person may value spending time with their family, another may care strongly about justice or equality. But how do you find out which values are foundational to you?
“There are two questions that I ask my clients to understand what their values are – ‘What can you not live without?’ and ‘What do you absolutely hate?’. As they answer these questions, I note key words that they use to understand what they value,” Maadad said.
While this may appear to be a long route to productivity, according to Maadad, it is one that is most resilient to external changes and factors.
“Unfortunately, COVID-19 has also become a scapegoat, an easy excuse for people who may be procrastinating. If you are doing things every day that lead to a life that is fulfilling for you, you will do tasks even when it is difficult. For example, if you place a huge value on your health, you will find ways to exercise even when the gyms are closed,” he said.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 has also become a scapegoat, an easy excuse for people who may be procrastinating. If you are doing things every day that lead to a life that is fulfilling for you, you will do tasks even when it is difficult. For example, if you place a huge value on your health, you will find ways to exercise even when the gyms are closed.
Understanding how the human mind works
It can also help to understand just how our brains have evolved over the many millions of years and how our basic instincts – which kick in at times of stress – can hinder productivity.
“As we evolved, so did our brains and we arrived to our newest brain in this evolutionary process – the neocortex, the thinking brain or the conscious awareness. It makes up 40 per cent of the entire human brain. You are reading this right now with your neocortex and it loves gathering information and establishing a new connection every time you are learning something new. It also requires work to become stronger, because it’s a muscle,” Maadad said.
However, the neocortex has been around for a lot less time compared to our primitive, reptilian brain, which focusses on survival.
“We are still wired to pay attention to the negative because that is how we evolved. We payed attention to what is out there that is dangerous and we either fought it or fled from it. That part of our brain - the survival, limbic, primitive brain – was very active and it still is today,” he added.
That unfortunately means that we tend to focus on negative information for a lot longer, and a lot more frequently, especially if we are afraid for our survival.
“Studies show that 87 per cent of negative self-talk goes by undetected and 70 per cent of our day is spent in the zone of protecting ourselves, driven by survival and in these times of COVID-19, these numbers have spiked,” Maadad said.
Knowing that your primal instincts are forcing you towards unproductive habits can be a great first step in addressing the problem at hand.
Top productivity challenges and their solutions
Looking at specific problems that people face in their day-to-day existence, what exactly is it that is stopping you from structuring your day in a productive way, allowing you to get the office work done and having enough time for a personal life?
According to Rabih Rizk, a management and human resources consultant with Dubai-based Meirc training and consultancy, there are five big challenges he has seen people face since social distancing guidelines came into effect.
Challenge #1 - No clear cut-off time from the office work.
You may have felt this problem creeping in as you started working from home – all of a sudden late-night updates on work or early morning calls from a team member became acceptable. While earlier your work day ended as the clock struck six, you were now working at least a few more hours to get everything done.
“Companies are in need of high productivity from every employee and everyone has their own schedule at home with their families. People I train have told me that they can no longer tell if they are now at work or at home – they feel like they are working 24x7, leading to people burning out,” Rizk said.
The schedule is totally scrambled. You see emails coming across at 2am, people calling you for a meeting at 8pm or even during weekends. So, there is no clear-cut separation between work and life and that is the main challenge.
Solution: Build routines, avoid distractions and break it down
As obvious as it may sound, according to Rizk, people need to be reminded of creating a basic morning routine of getting out of bed and into the shower, changing into a fresh pair of clothes and having a set workspace.
“Design your workspace based on your needs and work there every day. You can’t be working from the bed one day and the sofa or balcony the next day. Create your routine in such a way that you and everyone around you gets used to it. For example, my daughter knows that the room’s door will be closed because I kept it locked for a while. Now, I don’t lock it and yet she does not open it because she assumes that it is locked,” Rizk said.
“Wake up at the same time, change into work clothes – not a full suit but at least dress in a way that tells your body and your system that it needs to be ready for work,” Rizk said.
Break it down
Another advice Rizk had was to create 25 to 30 minute chunks in which to get tasks done. After each task, take a five minute break, or a longer one after a couple of hours.
“This routine is going to generate discipline,” he said.
Stick to your chair
“You also need to fight the feeling of moving out of your chair. Imagine that you are tied to the chair for 25 minutes regardless of all the temptations you may face at home,” he added.
Identify and remove distractions
“You need to really focus and prioritise your tasks and eliminate internal sources of interruptions – like turning off your phone, fighting the temptation to log on to your social media account or unnecessarily checking emails. If you allow your phone to interrupt you every five minutes it will take you seven hours to get work done that would take only two hours,” Rizk said.
Challenge #2 – Lack of a privacy or a calm environment at home
Is your spouse, child or pet driving you up the wall? With all members of the family working, studying or playing at close quarters, many people can feel a lack of personal space affecting their productivity.
Solution: Get your support system in place
Whether it is people in your household or friends and family that make your social circle, you need their support to stay on top of your game.
“You need to find the balance between maintaining your privacy and your mental wellbeing.
Challenge #3 – Drop in motivation due to stress
“It is difficult to stay motivated at work with the other challenges and fears that people may be facing. It could be financial, it could have to do with a lack of job stability or even worrying that you may catch the virus when you interact with someone you meet outside. It is a big challenge to find the desire to work and focus among all the other concerns that one can have,” Rizk added.
Solution: Stress-management techniques
While the current situation is unique, basic stress relief exercises continue to be effective.
“Stress is stress – whether it is to do with COVID-19 or anything else – you need to follow basic stress relief exercises to manage it,” Rizk said.
Some simple ways in which you can manage you stress are:
• Staying in touch with friends and family
• Meditation, breathing techniques
• Healthy food habits
• Having enough sleep
• An attitude of gratitude
Challenge #4 – Lack of connection with the work team
Meeting your team mates every day and quick, short chats with your manager can help orient you towards what the top priorities are for the day. In the absence of these physical interactions, people can struggle with knowing exactly which task they should be prioritising.
“Is something a top priority just because my manager sent it to me via email? Or should I do it later? At work, just having your manager available for a quick check can help set your agenda for the day,” Rizk said.
Solution: Stay in touch and be ready to adapt at short notice
With a situation that is constantly evolving, your organisation or management’s priority or strategy may also be changing. This is why a clear line of communication with your manager can go a long way in creating clarity.
“Regular meetings where you share progress reports and discuss priorities can help in such a situation. An agile and adaptable personality would definitely help you in shifting your direction towards what the business requires at the moment. Always remind yourself that every productive act that you are doing is helping you, your family and your company survive the COVID-19 situation,” he said.
Challenge #5 – Loneliness
According to Rizk, 80 per cent of the people he had interacted with said they missed going to the office.
“It seems most of us are really social beings, we really need our work community to keep us focused and productive,” he added.
Solution: Take time to reconnect
“You will need to disconnect more often and call a friend for a very light chat on something cheerful that will really disconnect you from the stress you have otherwise you will lose your mind. Even from personal experience a 15 minute call with a friend sharing a new joke or concern project or ideas is really helpful. It cheers me up,” Rizk said.
Important vs urgent
Another great tool, recommended by Maadad, was to break down your daily tasts based on two criteria.
List all the tasks you have to complete in a day and list them in four categories:
1. Urgent and important.
2. Not urgent, but important.
3. Urgent, but not important.
4. Not urgent and not important.
While understandably, you would address the tasks under the first category first, what you should spend more time with are the tasks under the second category.
“If you postpone those things they move to priority number one. So, you need to plan these and execute before this happens,” Maadad said.
For the third category, he recommended delegating them as much as possible, as these were often tasks that were generated by others and were a priority for others.
“If these are not necessarily leading you to your objectives, this is where you need to draw boundaries,” he said.
“In general, remember that if you are constantly fire-fighting, this would be a result of poor planning,” he said.
Work smart, not hard
“Work will always expand to fill the time available to you. If you decide to work late or work on weekends, there will always be work for you to do,” he said.
Maadad asked people struggling with maximising efforts to try and study Pareto’s Law. According to the law, 20 per cent of your work should lead to 80 per cent of the results you want in life.
So, planning well and working effectively could hold the key to making sure you are able to successfully navigate the murky waters of life during the COVID-19 pandemic.