Create a system instead of searching for motivation

With so many people working from home during the COVID19 pandemic, finding motivation is an extremely common obstacle right now. Many of us are struggling to do our work, and we wonder why.

We assume that it’s due to a lack of motivation. “I’m less productive than usual, so it must be because I don’t care enough about my goals or because I’m not trying hard enough.”

But we miss the fact that we’re not in our usual work space, and our work habits have been disrupted. Literally nothing about our work life is the same: we don’t go to the office anymore, we don’t have set working hours, we aren’t using our comfortable work stations, and we don’t meet our colleagues, at least not physically.

Instead, we’re at home. (This refers to those of us working from home, clearly.) If we have a laptop, technically, we should be able to do everything we were doing before, so we expect the same productivity as before. But that’s not fair.

We may find it confusing to be working from home if we usually see home as a relaxation zone or simply a non-work zone. We may not have a working space set up at home, and our laptop may not be as convenient to work on as our work station. In addition, we may not have silence and/or we may be getting interrupted by the people we live with if we have a partner or children.

Alternatively, we may be lonely or bored. If we live by ourselves, we may have complete silence and calm, and that may be part of the problem. Perhaps we need the stimulation provided by many people working in the same physical space. What’s more, a coffee break or lunch break with a colleague provides much-needed social interaction, while also reinforcing the feeling that we’re at work.

Lots and lots of things have changed in the way we’re working right now. Sure, our motivation may be lower as well, but that’s probably not the main issue. Instead, we’d do well to address the changes by creating a system that gets us going.

Create temporal boundaries

Many people benefit from having specific times of day for working such as set working hours. This creates a separation between home and work even though the physical separation is not there right now.

To make this more tangible, in addition to giving yourself working hours, schedule something outside of those times: a call with a friend, a walk by yourself, or an online exercise session. In this way, you’ll actually have to stick to your self-imposed working hours because you have other things happening outside them.

For couples with kids where both parents are working from home, setting up shifts can be very helpful. One parent may work for 3-4 hours in the morning while the other parent takes care of the kids, and vice versa in the afternoon.

Whenever possible, try to create new work-related routines. In preparation for your workday (or shift), you may put on your work clothes, make a cup of coffee, and sit down at the same makeshift workstation every day. Then, once your work time is over, you can change into your home clothes, go for a walk, read a book, or cook dinner.

Create a physical workspace

If you have the opportunity, create a physical workspace for yourself. It’s great if you can work in the same workstation every day, thus distinguishing between ‘work’ and ‘home,’ which is the rest of your house.

Try to limit interruptions while you’re working. Leave your phone in a different room or on a high shelf and stop yourself from accessing social media (use an extension in your browser if necessary). Ask your partner and/or kids not to disturb you while you’re working (easier said than done… haha).

Create accountability

Many people need to feel accountable to someone or something in order to complete a task. Their own desire to do something may not be strong enough to propel them to action, but if they know someone else expects them to do something, they do it.

The most straightforward type of accountability is to have a supervisor you report to. You know what work they expect you to do, so you do it. In order for this to work, the supervisor needs to be familiar enough with your work and needs to check in often enough. Also, there need to be some sort of consequences that take place if you don’t complete something on time. For some people, simply not meeting an agreement is motivating enough; others may need more tangible consequences.

A buddy or a support group can also be a good source of accountability. You and a colleague may team up to tell each other what you’re going to work on today or this week and then revisit what you’ve accomplished at the end of the day or week. Support groups can work similarly where people share what they’re working on and then review their successes and challenges.

Whatever type of accountability you choose, make sure it works for you. You need to feel that someone is counting on you and that there is a real expectation that you will do your work. For more info on creating accountability, check out Gretchen Rubin’s extensive suggestions here.

Remember your ‘why’

Finally, remind yourself of why you’re doing this work. What are you trying to accomplish? Why is it important? Why do you find it interesting? What do you like about your work and why are you the right person to do it?

Once you connect to your ‘why,’ use the momentum and get going.

What helps you get your work done in these unusual times?

Do it because you want to

I recently gave a bootcamp course on organization and time management, and it was really interesting to hear what people found the most useful.

Following through with planned activities is a common stumbling block. Generally, people love planning and creating a beautiful outline for their day or week. But often we don’t feel so motivated once it comes to actually doing the work, so we do something else instead, and our pretty planning falls apart.

One person, let’s call her Jenny, had a really interesting approach. She has tried multiple ways to organize herself in order to get herself to do the things she planned. But she never quite succeeded, and it made her feel like a failure.

As a part of the bootcamp course, I asked people to take Gretchen Rubin’s quiz about The Four Tendencies. This was an eye-opener for Jenny. She found out that she was a Rebel, somebody who resists both internal and external expectations. That meant it was difficult for her to get herself to do things. Even when she truly wanted to do something, putting it on the calendar made it feel like something she had to do instead of wanted to do, so she wouldn’t do it.

For Rebels, it’s important to do things on their own terms. They will do something when they feel like it or because it aligns with something that’s important to them or the person they want to be. No surprise, then, that Jenny didn’t want to do something that was being imposed on her (since that’s how she viewed it).

After we discussed this in our bootcamp, Jenny took a different approach. At the beginning of the day, she would take a look at her to-do list and see what tasks were important for today. Then, she’d start working on whichever one she felt like tackling at that moment.

Sometimes, Jenny felt like reading a book in the morning, so that’s what she did. She went to work around lunchtime when she actually felt like working and stayed there until late in the evening. (One of the perks about being a PhD student is that often we can work whenever we want to in the day.)

Jenny said that this new approach is changing her life. She works when she feels like it, and she’s actually getting a lot more done. Jenny loves her work, so when she’s given the freedom to do it because she enjoys it, she produces better work.

This is quite amazing to me because the uncertainty would kill me. “When will I work on this task? And will I have time to also do that other task? And how will I divide my time between all my tasks?” My mind would keep chattering on. But I’m not a Rebel, I’m an Upholder (somebody who enjoys sticking to a schedule), and the difference in strategies is striking.

But I can also relate to some aspects. Sometimes I schedule myself too full, and I get a little suffocated from all the expectations I’ve placed upon myself. In those cases, I can learn from Jenny: I can cut back on the things I’ve planned and give myself some space. When I do that, the things I enjoy doing come back to me, and I remember why I planned to do them in the first place. I chose to do them because I like them.

Would it help you to do something when you feel like it? Have you tried it? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.