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How to stay productive in isolation

As many of us adjust to being furloughed or working from home, how can we feel productive and make the most of our days to benefit our mental health?

By Hannah Bullimore

Looking after our mental health as well as our physical health is playing on everyone’s minds. To keep safe, and to keep everyone else well, we need to stay at home. However, the advice for mental wellbeing has always been to go out and socialise.

As we’re all stuck at home, our productivity can easily vanish too as days blur into each other and we find it harder and harder to get out of bed. As someone who went from being a student to a freelancer in quick succession, I’m used to motivating myself to be productive but even I’ve found it difficult to work each day and stay on top of deadlines and personal goals.

But the truth is, working and being productive has huge mental health benefits. A recent study from the Office of National Statistics found that being in employment reduces the risk of mental health problems such as depression and anxiety. As many of us adjust to being furloughed or working from home, how can we feel productive and make the most of our days to benefit our mental health?

Here we’ve compiled a list of activities to help you keep busy as well as a routine to follow to find time for productivity. 

Most importantly, being productive should benefit your wellbeing, not make it worse. If now feels like an impossible time to get things done, then go with that instinct and cut yourself some slack. However, if it feels as though you need routine and productivity and routine in your day, then read on for some tips on doing just that.

Wake up at the same time each day

It doesn’t have to be early, but waking up consistently each day will help to overcome insomnia and mean you are more quickly able to focus on work. Find a time that feels natural for your body to wake up and then try to wake up at the same time each day. Perhaps allow yourself a little more time to get ready to work in the mornings but have a time at which you’ll be doing something active by – whether that’s work, study, exercise or a hobby to fill your time.

To weekend, or not to weekend

I don’t know about you, but the weekends have been the time that I have most felt the quarantine blues. It’s when I notice the things I’m missing out on the most. As a yoga teacher, I teach the majority of my classes on a Saturday and spend Sunday wither with friends or in the countryside walking my chocolate Labrador. Because of this, each weekend in isolation has so far hit me with a wave of sadness.

Therefore, I’m no longer treating the weekends as weekends. I don’t work as much as weekdays, but I do things to keep myself busy. I write, I read, I distract myself as much as possible.

On the other hand, for many keeping track of the weeks and making the most of weekday productivity will be boosted by the routine of keeping weekends fun. Something we have started as a family is that Saturday night is quiz night. The various households join Zoom and we take a turn each week writing the questions at 7.00pm, every Saturday. We even have family living in America who join us for the quiz. This has become a great way to have a sense of fun in the weekend and also keep track of the passing weeks. It also gives the quiz master something to do during the week! 

Figure out a weekend routine that works for you and use it to keep track and to keep well.

Keep track of achievements

I’m not talking about big things. You definitely don’t need to write a novel, learn quantum physics or learn to play the piano.

I’m talking about the small, daily victories that have taken on new importance in the face of the world turning upside down. It could be completing twenty minutes of exercise each day during the week, meditating every morning, reading a chapter of your book, completing the work tasks for the day, making a healthy meal from scratch.

Keeping track of these achievements will help you to see that this time isn’t being wasted. Life is not entirely on hold; we can still make the most of this time in small but meaningful ways. And when we reach the end of isolation, a diary to look back on will remind us of all we have to be grateful for.

Working from home

Those of us who are lucky enough to be working from home may find it difficult to adjust to at first. As a long time study-from-home and work-from-home-er, here are my top tips on being productive when WFH.

Move before you work.
Whether it’s yoga, HIIT, walking or skipping, movement is key for getting the energy in your body moving, waking up your mind and giving you space before you work. I like to think of my pre-work exercise as my isolation alternative to a commute. Exercise has been proven to increase productivity and just twenty minutes is enough.

Avoid distractions.
Sounds impossible, I know, but try to have a workspace somewhere other than where you sleep or relax on an evening. This will keep a sense of routine to your days and also allow you to focus on your work. Tell those you live with you’re working and ask them not to disturb you. Use Apps and websites such as Cold Turkey to block social media and games from distracting you as you work or study.

Eat well
Keep your mealtimes regular and avoid grazing on sugary snacks throughout the day. Food shopping is difficult at the moment, so try to plan ahead to have healthy snacks and meals on hand. Eat at your usual lunch time, have a mid-afternoon snack and stop working with enough time to prepare dinner – and don’t go back to work after that time!

To-do lists
It might sound old-fashioned, but a to-do list is a sure-fire way to get more things done. Every morning, before you begin working, assess what needs to be done that day. Break it down by priority and do the highest priority things first, not the most fun things. I really like Trello to keep track of projects and deadlines and it avoids wasting reams of paper on a new to-do list each day. I also think a weekly and monthly to-do list can keep you on track and help to see just how much you’ve achieved.

Be realistic
By now, we should all be pretty aware of just how much we can achieve under the current circumstances. Adjust your to-do lists accordingly and also keep in mind that every day will be different. Your mood will vary, your energy levels and the way you feel physically. Take each day as it comes and be kind to yourself. We’re all in unchartered territory right now.

Check Becky Stanton’s article on how rituals can transform your day.

What a productive day could look like…

9:00-9:30

Wake up, read in bed

9:30-11:00

Breakfast and exercise

Either walking or 20 minutes of cardio/weights, 40 minutes of yoga

11:00-13:00

Working and writing

13:00-14:00

Lunch

14:00-16:00

Working and writing

16:00-16:30

Snack and movement

16:30-18:00

Working and writing

18:00-18:30

Dinner

18:30-19:30

Yoga or bath

19:30-23:00

TV or reading

23:00

Bed

Everyone is different, but this just gives an idea of how filling your day and using a routine can keep you productive. I’m not a morning person and would prefer to work on an evening but I also know this isn’t good for sleep, so instead, I allow myself a lazy morning and turn off my computer at six, or seven at the very latest if I’m feeling too inspired to stop writing.

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