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Productivity Tips for Working at Home

I started doing some in-depth research about the difference between unstructured and structured learning for this blog post, but then I decided to focus on something more relevant to the current situation. Most people have to either work from home or study from home, so I decided to write a blog post about how to stay productive at home. The following post will outline a few tips and suggest a couple of tools to help people stay productive at home.

Isolate From the TV and Internet

More often than not, it is impossible to isolate from the internet while doing work in the modern world, but sometimes it is possible. When my school sent us all home for the rest of the semester, I set up my study area in the basement of my family’s farm.

The internet there at the time was not very good, and I was able to avoid it. At the time, I was getting too engrossed in the constant barrage of news about the Coronavirus and the stock market crash that isolating myself from all sources was the only way to get work done. It made some things difficult, such as sending emails to my professors and obtaining my assignment, but I found I could do most of that before I went to the farm. On days when I had classes, I had to stay within an internet connection to attend. My point is that removing yourself from the internet is hard, but not impossible, and it eliminates all forms of useless internet browsing.

TV is not hard to eliminate from your working hours, and I would highly recommend it. I was one of those people who turned the TV on to a news channel while working on my computer. After some introspection, I realized that every time I heard something interesting, I would waste about 5 minutes listening to it, and then another 5 to 20 minutes getting refocused. Sometimes people in my family watch shows while I am working, what can you do, and it is tough to focus because some shows are just eye-catching. My advice is that if you are alone, limit the TV to music only, and if someone else is watching TV, either plug in your headphones to block it out or move to a location where the TV cannot be watched (if possible).

Block Distracting Websites

If it is impossible to isolate from the internet, it is possible to block the most distracting websites. There have been many apps and browser extensions that help people stay focused, encourage good habits, and block productivity draining websites. I will go through a few of the ones that I find the most helpful.

Stay Focused

My personal favourite because I have used it regularly. It is a chrome extension, but it can also be added to the browser Opera. I used it often on my Chromebook while studying because it was my main computer. Currently, my main computer is a relatively low resourced computer running Lubuntu, and I am presently adding StayFocused to it, so I will see how it works on Opera.

Interesting Features:

  • There are funny pop-ups telling you kittens get hurt every time you increase the time limit on websites and other things that loosen your restrictions.
  • You can set what sites you want to be blocked and you can explicitly allow sites.
  • The timer can be set to whatever you want, and you can also set your active hours.
  • The ‘nuclear option’ allows the user to block ‘All websites’, ‘All websites other than allowed list’, and ‘Only websites on the blocked list’. It also gives a ‘smart bomb’ option which will only block stuff like multimedia content and images.

At the moment, I have five allowed websites, and around 20 are marked as distracting. My active hours are from 06:00 till 21:00 on Monday through Saturday, and I have allowed myself 30 minutes each day on the distracting websites. That means if I spend 30 minutes shopping on Amazon, one of my blocked sites, I will not be able to use any of the blocked websites for the rest of the day.

Downsides:

  • Too easy to circumvent during weak moments. All you have to do is increase your time limit before it runs down, or go to incognito mode.
  • I would like more customization options like setting a specific time limit for each site, unblocking a site for a day, or blocking a site for a day etc

Waste No Time

I am interested in this one because it has an interesting feature of tracking how much time is spent on websites. I plan to use this feature to see if some websites should be blocked and currently are not. It also has most of the features that Stay Focused has. I don't have much else to say about this extension because I have not yet used it much, but I may expand when I use it more.

Others

There are many apps and extensions that offer a service similar to the ones that I have mentioned here, but I do not know much about them at the moment so I will list them and say a few quick words.

  1. LeechBlock: From what I have heard about LeechBlock it is similar to StayFocused but for those who use firefox browsers.
  2. Limit: It is another Chrome extension, but it allows the user to set a different time limit for each website.
  3. Pause - Stop Mindless Browsing: This Chrome extension redirects to a waiting page before you go to a distracting website. It is meant to make you reconsider whether you really want to go to that website instead of getting work done.
  4. Freedom: This is a fully-featured application that is offered for most platforms. The downside is that some of the options are only available at a price.
  5. Cold Turkey: It sounds like this is a stricter version of Freedom.
  6. FocusMe: Another paid fully-featured distraction handler.

The paid versions are definitely better than the free versions, however, I feel that it is possible to find a combination of the free versions that can meet the paid versions. I am planning to spend some time finding a good combination of the free extensions to use and then I may report back with my results.

Set Timers

Timing how long it takes for you to complete a task or how long you stay on a break makes you more aware of how you are spending your time. Over time I would think that trends could be seen, and those trends would allow for easier planning. For instance, say you always underestimate the time it takes to do writing tasks over time, you would be able to pick up that more time should be made for writing tasks. Keeping track of the time I spend on tasks is on my to-do list, but I still have not implemented it to its fullest extent yet. For more information on the benefits of using timers, go to the following links:

Plan Tasks and Set Goals

I try to set 3 or 4 main goals that I work towards continuously, and then roughly weekly, I set around 3 to 5 mini-goals to complete daily. I try to list mini-tasks that I can do for each of the main goals in advance of planning a week so that I can pull from the backlog of mini-goals easily. I find having a list of things to accomplish focuses my energy, and prevents me from getting distracted from the endless other things I could be working on. For more information about the benefits of setting goals, go to the following links:

Now goal setting can go for any time, but when things are especially chaotic or when there are multiple possible distractions, it is especially important. When at home, there are always numerous distractions, so having a list of goals is very important to keep your mind on topic. I would recommend a pencil and paper for the weekly planning (I have a day planner) because, in that form, it is always easily accessible no matter how many browser tabs you have open.

Identify Distractions and Eliminate Them

The advice that I have listed here is what has worked for me in the past, but it is only a starting point for others. What one has to do is be introspective and find the distractions and productivity drainers in their lives. I do not have a playbook for hunting distractions other than timing how long it takes to do tasks and take notes about your work environment. I’ll include a sample entry below that would signify a productivity drain.

Background Task Time completed
TV on with the news, birds in the yard, cat sleeping beside the computer Completion of a Physics Worksheet 1.5 hours
birds in the yard Completion of a different Physics Worksheet 1 hour

As can be seen, a similar task took a shorter amount of time with fewer potential distractions involved. More data may be needed to figure out which distraction is worse, the cat or the TV, but my bet is on the TV. Keeping detailed notes such as these may be very instrumental in identifying distractions.

When distractions have been identified, it would be useful to eliminate them. For the TV simply shutting the TV off could be the best option, but sometimes it is not that easy. Some distractions are easy to slip into, and for those, it is required to add more friction between the productive state and distracted state. An example of adding more friction is those website blockers previously mentioned, or putting physical distance between you and the distraction (while at home moving to a quiet room, or outdoors is good).

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