How to stay motivated while working from home

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This time of year, Tommia Hayes is usually busy coordinating with hundreds of business leaders across several states to organize her employer’s biggest event of the year, a corporate and social responsibility conference, that generally takes place every June in New York City.

That conference, like countless other plans waylaid by the pandemic, is now canceled. But that hasn’t stopped Hayes, the senior communications manager at the nonprofit HealthCharities, from being as busy as ever.

The 30-year-old Washington, D.C., resident says she works longer days now that she has shifted to planning virtual events and taken on completely new responsibilities at work; is earning two professional marketing certifications; and has to coordinate with her fiance to provide full-time child care and homeschooling to her 5-year-old son.

Some days, Hayes says the workload is energizing and helps her feel like she’s making meaningful contributions to her team, especially during a time when job security is a top concern. But most days, she finds the juggling act exhausting.

Hayes is among the many workers who, as they enter their third month of working remotely, are finding their focus and motivation waning.

While many professionals around the country jumped into the fray of working remotely by sharing productivity tips, morning routines and modified work spaces, the novelty of the collective experience is now wearing off.

“Now that we’ve been at this for a couple of months, it’s hard to sustain that motivation for the long-term,” says industrial-organizational psychologist and certified leadership coach Kimberly Adams.

Motivation can also change if the nature of your work is different, whether you’re working more hours to meet demand, fewer hours as responsibilities vanish or you’re doing tasks outside your job entirely. CNBC Make It spoke with experts for tips on how to take control of your motivation and reframe what it means to get work done today.

Take time for yourself every day

Productivity experts say one of the best ways to maintain focus in a new environment is to establish a sense of routine. Executive coach, keynote speaker and management professor Monique Valcour recommends setting aside a few minutes every morning to plan out what you absolutely need to get done that day. Then break down what you need to deliver into small, achievable steps that you can check off along the way.

This can help you feel like you’re making meaningful progress toward a bigger goal, which can be highly motivating, Valcour says. Leave longer-term projects for another list (which should also be broken down into steps by weeks or months) so you can stay focused on what specifically can be accomplished in one day.

Hayes says her 30 minutes of “me time” in the morning has been a huge benefit to her routine. “Before my son wakes up, I make a cup of tea, sit down and unwind a bit,” she says. “I log on early before people are really looking for me to respond to anything. Then I go through what I need to to process and motivate myself for the day.”

Find out what work energizes you

When you’re laying out what needs to be done each day, make sure you have at least one thing on your to-do list that you enjoy, Valcour says.

“We all have certain tasks that give us a real sense of progress, and others that you just have to slog through,” Valcour says. “Make sure you’ve got at least one thing every day that’s going to give you a boost that’ll make you feel more engaged.”

It can be a good idea to loop in your manager to make sure you’re aligned on what you’re expected to deliver and that it includes work that you find motivating.

Discussions with your boss can also go a long way to help you feel like your work has value to the larger organization, which can help you find meaning in your day-to-day.

“Understand the purpose of how your tasks fit into the larger picture,” Adams says. “If you don’t understand how your work fits into the larger picture, that’s an opportunity to seek clarification so you can feel the work you’re doing is valued.”

Build in rewards

After you identify the work that energizes you, you’ll still need to find ways to power through the ones you enjoy less but are still expected.

Make these tasks feel like less of a chore by building in rewards of what you’ll get to do once you check them off.

For example, when Adams feels unmotivated to complete a daunting task on her plate, she tells herself that she’ll get to enjoy a walk with her dog as soon as she gets it done.

For others, that might mean rewarding yourself with time to sit outside, work out, listen to a podcast or play with your kids.

“Do it in a way with self care to replenish your energy throughout the day,” Adams says.

Take stock of what you accomplish each day

It’s easy to check things off a to-do list and immediately add things to keep going, which is an easy recipe for burnout. Valcour suggests workers actually recognize all they’ve done in a day or week, task by task, as a visual reminder of what they’ve accomplished.

“There’s a familiar sense of hustling all day but getting nothing done,” Valcour says. “Figure out your structure to have a sense of progress, plan your work and reflect on things that felt good to work on.”

Talk to your boss

Remote work and living under the stress of a pandemic has caused many people to work longer hours every day. Some might veer toward workaholism as a distraction from the news, while others may feel the need to overwork and prove themselves out of fear of losing their job.

Either way, experts agree it’s important to be honest with your boss about how you’re feeling about your workload. Discuss what you’re finding most challenging, and have an idea of what support from your boss can help.

If you have less work to do because parts of your job aren’t transferable to a home environment, bring it up with manager but also come with potential new ways to contribute to the the organization, Adams says.

This was Hayes’s approach when she found changes to her usual tasks, including writing social copy and planning virtual events, meant she had more time to assist the team in other ways. For example, Hayes says she’s taken on writing more thought-leadership pieces on behalf of the company, and she’s helping supervise a new team member.

“I wanted to make sure [my boss] knows I’m a team player and can support in any way she needs me to,” Hayes says. “The team is going above and beyond to show their work and prove to the organization that their contributions are meaningful.”

Set yourself up well physically

Working remotely can also take a physical toll, which can affect your mood and motivation to do anything productive.

As much as possible, try to maintain a separate work space so you can physically and mentally disconnect outside of work hours. If you don’t have room for a dedicated space, that could mean you simply set up shop at the dining room table every morning and clear it away, stowing equipment out of sight, when you log off.

Try to change up your posture every hour to reduce back, neck and shoulder pain. For example, you might start your day at your kitchen table, then transition to a standing position or sit on your soft couch. Take breaks to stretch, rest your eyes away from the screen and mentally recharge throughout the day, Adams says.

Practice self-compassion

As it goes even during more stable times, you’ll have your off days. Experts say it’s important, now more than ever, to be realistic about having those feelings and to be self-compassionate when it happens.

Valcour says she’s noticed she’s not as energized when the weather is gloomy.

“Even though I had a ton of deliverables due, I wanted nothing more than to lay on my couch,” she says of a recent bad day. So, she took a minute to think about what she absolutely needed to accomplish that day to meet a deadline. “Then I gave myself a little permission to be human,” she says of spending the rest of the day decompressing away from work. When the weather cleared the next day, she felt renewed to start again.

“Recognize a funk as a signal to give yourself a bit of a break to step back and think, ‘what do I want to do to respond in a healthy way?'”

For Hayes, she noticed her son began to pick up the same coping habits when she had bad days. When she felt unmotivated to work and stressed by the news, she watched TV, snacked and let go of her routine. As she noticed her son was doing the same, she decided it was time to get proactive and respond to the stress in healthier ways, such as by reading, exercising, eating healthfully and going outside to play.

“Now, instead of just wanting to just watch TV, my son will look up kids’ exercise videos on YouTube. And when I read, he picks up his own books or plays with his toys,” Hayes says. “You have to lead by example.”

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