Here’s how to stick to a routine when working from home, according to experts

At first thought, working from home sounds ideal. It eliminates the things you probably don’t like about a traditional workday: commuting to an office, being stuck inside, making small talk in the elevator, eating sad desk lunches, and putting on real pants, heels, and makeup. But once the initial “I’m going to stay in my pajamas and work from my bed” magic wears off, working from home can be difficult. You might realize that small talk in the elevator was what got you through staring at a screen for hours, and that real pants gave you the extra oomph to get things done that drawstring sweats just can’t.

Although many of us have been working from home due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic for weeks now, that doesn’t mean we have the hang of it just yet. Some days we don’t change out of our pajamas until 5 p.m., and other days we fall asleep wearing the same T-shirt and shorts we woke up in. While this is totally okay (and sometimes feels necessary), creating a work-from-home routine will make your days go much more smoothly.

This is uncharted territory for those of us who are used to working in an office every day, so first thing’s first: Go easy on yourself. No one masters the art of working from home within a few weeks, so prepare for challenges to arise, like struggling to get out of bed, stay awake on the job, feel motivated, and refrain from eating everything in your fridge in one day. But setting boundaries, just like you would when working from an office, can make your work-from-home life feel more normal and productive. We tapped experts for advice on how to create a work-from-home routine—and actually stick to it.

Allow time for adaptation.

Everyone works best under different circumstances, so give yourself some room to test the waters. Accept that it will take time to feel comfortable and productive in your work-from-home routine.

“Adjust your expectations from ‘is this working or not working?’ to ‘how am I doing this week relative to last week?’” clinical psychologist Dr. Joshua Klapow tells HelloGiggles. “We are hardwired to adapt slowly and incrementally. This may be frustrating because you want to get it right now. But if you recognize that, over time, you will figure out how to do this, and extend yourself that permission, you won’t create undue stress by creating unrealistic expectations.”

Also, if you’re not immediately comfortable with your work-from-home situation, switch it up! Changing out your locations, clothes, break times, and snacks can help you stay motivated and feel more relaxed.

Plan your day.

Before your workday even starts, take time to plan it out. Physically writing down a list of tasks to accomplish can keep you organized and drive your productivity. Plus, crossing items off of a list is a damn good feeling. However, allow your schedule to change if important tasks arise or if your needs shift at any point.

“At the end of the day, take time to plan the next day. Then, when the next day comes, your first task isn’t figuring out what to do,” Dr. Gillian Hayes, an ADHD coach, tells HelloGiggles. “Re-plan during the day, too, so that you know what the shape of the next few hours is and you can take into account unexpected things that have come up.”

Along with writing tasks down, Dr. Hayes notes that saying them aloud “so that they’re not just thoughts orbiting around your head” will make them feel more doable. If your mind starts to wander mid-task, look back at your written list to reset your focus on the assignment at hand.

Focus on productivity, not “work.”

Constantly drilling “I need to work” into your mind will only build unnecessary pressure. Rather than forcing yourself to focus entirely on your job during a certain timeframe, focus on the most important tasks at hand. Will putting a load of laundry in the washer take something off of your mental plate? If so, do that before you start your next work task. Your schedule will likely feel less crammed, and you’ll feel less stressed if you focus on being generally productive rather than strictly professionally productive.

“Don’t focus on a rigid routine if that’s not working,” Dr. Klapow says. “The more you can shift from just generically working to accomplishing specific tasks and projects, the more you will find yourself getting work done, even if you don’t have a set routine.”

Reward yourself.

While you’re working from the same space all day long, brief breaks are necessary to stay motivated. Dr. Hayes recommends planning out small rewards for accomplishing tasks. These can be as small as, “I’ll pour a fresh mug of coffee after I respond to these emails,” or “I’ll do 10 minutes of yoga after I finish this article.” Whatever motivates you to complete a task efficiently will drive your productivity. Write your rewards down if you think seeing them break up the tasks on your list will be helpful.

Communicate your needs.

If you are quarantined with other people who are working from home, this can pose another challenge. Your new “coworker” will likely have a different schedule and preferences for a work environment than you do, but it’s crucial that you talk to them about this. “It’s okay to state your needs, your schedule, and your requirements for being productive,” Dr. Klapow says. “But be willing to compromise. Everyone will have needs and a schedule. Don’t fight it—fit it in.”

The more open you are to working respectfully among your loved ones, the easier your workday will be.

Set up checks and balances.

“Once you figure out what is generally feasible and is working, it is essential to create reminders, cues, and prompts to keep you in that schedule,” Dr. Klapow says. This goes not just for your job-related tasks but for your everyday needs—like what time you wake up, eat meals, exercise, and go to sleep. Sticking to a general timeline for these activities is key for making your work-from-home situation start to feel “normal.”

Like with your work tasks, you might need to write down the timeline for your basic needs while you’re training your body and mind to adjust to your new schedule. “The routine is not a routine yet—it needs to be external so you have some guidance and checks and balances,” Dr. Klapow explains.

Above all, be gentle with yourself as you adjust to your new work-from-home reality.

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