Since the middle of March, I have been working from home due to COVID-19, and with all the changes and unknowns, I feel zapped of all motivation. Because of the stress of the situation and because I am out of my normal routine, all I want to do is sit around in my pajamas and be mindless, either by watching TV or wasting time on my phone.
I knew that being idle was only a short-term fix, though, and that I had to find healthier and more productive coping mechanisms. Over the past several weeks, I’ve been implementing the following techniques to combat idleness and be productive, both for work and at home.
Set an alarm and keep a regular sleep routine
Most people — from toddlers to adults — thrive on routine. Keeping a regular sleep schedule is important to getting restful sleep and to keeping normalcy during this abnormal time. It’s tempting to stay in bed most of the day when there is little to do, but setting an alarm has helped me to stay create a new routine and be more productive.
Since there is nowhere to go, I am very tempted to stay in my pajamas. I have found that this makes me lethargic and unproductive, however. Getting dressed in the morning, even in casual clothing, makes a big difference in attitude and motivation. Pajamas signal to your brain that it is time to wind down, while real clothing reminds you that it’s time to start the day.
For me, it has been important to keep a daily routine; otherwise, I will do nothing. I try to make my day mirror a regular day as much as possible: eat breakfast, work in the morning, have lunch, do more work, and then take the evening off.
Even if you aren’t working from home, I would recommend finding a project or something productive to take the place of work. This might be something practical like spring cleaning, home improvement projects, gardening, or organizing your home. Or you could try something more creative: start that book you’ve always wanted to write, compose your own music or practice a new piece, draw, paint or color, learn a new language, tackle a classic novel, or learn a new recipe. We need meaningful work — we were not made to be idle. Whatever you choose to do, make productive work part of your routine.
Make a schedule
In the morning, I make my to-do list for what I want to accomplish throughout the day. Then I break it up into morning and afternoon. In keeping with a regular routine, I try to save the evening for fun and relaxation. Before I even begin working, I add in breaks. I tell myself, “After I finish this task, I get a 10-minute phone break,” or “I am going to take a walk at noon.” Knowing when my next break is coming motivates me to work toward finishing the goal.
Make realistic goals
Like many people, I can’t do my job as efficiently on the computer as I can in person. For the first week of self-quarantine, I was beating myself up over not accomplishing what I normally would do in a single day. Piling too much work on myself led to feeling overwhelmed and depressed, and to not wanting to do anything at all. I started avoiding work as a means of coping.
Then I realized that it was silly to beat my head against a brick wall trying to do the impossible. In this crisis, everyone has had to adapt. For me, that meant setting more realistic goals. I have had to adapt my standards to working from home and change my expectations of what can be done in a single day on the computer. I feel more motivated to work knowing that I have created a reasonable workload.
Reward yourself for finishing goals
If you feel unmotivated to get anything done, use positive reinforcement to motivate yourself. Positive reinforcement is a psychological technique where you get a reward for completing a task so that you will associate the task with the reward. Although this may sound a little strange, it’s a common practice: owners give dogs a treat when they perform a trick, parents give their kids stickers or toys for behaving, and teachers give students candy for answering questions. You can use this technique on yourself as well to build good habits.
The reward might be a break, time on the internet or TV, a cup of coffee, or any number of things. It is also important to give yourself credit for your actions through positive self-talk. These are difficult times — just getting through the day is challenging and should be acknowledged.
Set screen time boundaries
My phone, social media, and browsing the internet have been major time sinks, pulling me down into hours of idleness. Continually checking the news made me feel overwhelmed and anxious, and I started coping with those feelings through idleness.
Doing nothing is not a long-term strategy, however. To cope in a healthier way, I started putting my phone on silent and leaving it out of reach. One of my breaks from work is checking my phone for messages for no longer than 10 minutes. I also keep my internet tabs to just what I’m working on, instead of having email and social media open and ready to go. Keeping distractions out of sight helps me be more productive.
The less I do, the less I want to do. One way I feel more energized is from exercise. Exercise can increase energy and improve mood. Getting moving gives me the energy I need to get back to work. You don’t have to be a superstar athlete to get sufficient exercise: a brisk walk around the neighborhood (where allowed), following along with online workout videos, or making up your own routine at home all do the trick.
Do something social
Another reason I feel lethargic is from the lack of socializing. Even with social distancing, it’s important to fulfill your social needs. I’ve been planning at least one social interaction into my day. I have called my elderly relatives, video chatted with my coworkers, met up with my Bible study group online, and done a virtual game night with my siblings and cousins. You don’t have to be super tech-savvy to connect with others; you can have meaningful conversations on the phone.
These are trying times, but idleness only drags the time out and leaves you feeling depressed and sluggish. Staying busy by filling your day with productive work and activities helps time move faster and makes life feel more normal. A balanced routine of meaningful work and rest is the best recipe to health and happiness.