Well… here we are on what feels like day 957 of quarantine. In all seriousness, if you feel like time is standing still or that your days are jumbling together, you are not alone. For many people, working from home full time is a new experience that comes with a lot of trial and error in learning how to manage the day. And particularly with the current stay-at-home orders, weekdays and weekends can start to blur together, leaving no boundaries that separate work from personal time.
Prior to COVID-19, I worked remotely for our PR agency for more than four years before opening our Denver office. The most invaluable lesson I learned working from home all those years is that structure is the key to a productive, harmonious work (from home) life balance.
Why is structure so important?
Quite simply, structuring your day gives you a roadmap of what you are going to accomplish and eliminates the feeling you get when you wonder “what did I even get done today?”. Having that roadmap in place not only provides you with the stepping stones for accomplishing your work goals in a set amount of time, but it also creates a healthy (and much needed) place to peel yourself away from the workday and “turn off” for the night.
Another less-obvious benefit of structuring your day is that it can actually reduce stress and anxiety. Anxiety, at its core, is the fear of the unknown. And one of the best ways to quell anxiety is to create a detailed plan of attack. If you stick with it, daily structuring eventually becomes consistent and routine, squashing at least some of your daily unknowns.
Lastly, structuring your day helps you stay focused and on track. All it takes is a little bit of discipline and planning to keep your mind and body from giving in to distractions and boredom for too much time. Rest assured, you can (and should) still build fun things into your daily schedule to break up the monotony, like a 15-minute meditation or a walk with your dog! Little mental breaks throughout the day are not only good for you, but they are good for business too.
How to structure your workday
We now know why it is so important to structure your day, but how do we do it effectively? For starters, you will need to get very specific with your to-do list. We are a PR and digital marketing agency, so a lot of our days are spent pitching media, reaching out to influencers, and creating social content for our clients. However, it is not enough to make broad line items for these robust and cumbersome tasks when making our to-do lists. Rather, we need to define specific, actionable, and measurable line items to be able to map out on the calendar. Here is a good example of a line item: “Research and pitch 25 reporters who cover baby gear (2 hours).” By clearly defining what needs to get done in a set amount of time, you now have the first part of your planning done.
The next step is to determine which of your tasks require the most brainpower and creativity, and which ones are simple to execute. You’ll want to plot each of these tasks on the calendar according to your brain’s optimal time to complete each. For me, I know that I am most creative around 9:00 AM, and especially on days when I know I don’t have too many calls on the books. I also know that my brain is at its least functional point on Thursday afternoons, so I always make sure I haven’t plotted something major into my calendar at that time.
Once you have your tasks specified and grouped for optimal brain time, it is time to get out your daily/weekly calendar. I personally like to keep a running Google Sheet formatted like an appointment book, with 15-minute increment slots from 8:00 AM through 6:00 PM.
- Step 1: Fill in all the calls you have on the books for that day/week.
- Step 2: Block off a few small chunks of time (no more than 30 minutes) in the morning, mid-day, and at the end of the day for emails.
- Step 3: Give yourself time every day for lunch. Don’t overbook this important break in the day.
- Step 4: Plot your to-do list into the remaining time slots where they fit most optimally for your brain function. Make sure to leave a couple of extra 15-minute slots open for mental breaks and/or for any tasks that run overtime.
- Step 5: Follow the schedule you’ve created for yourself as best as you possibly can. This will ensure that you accomplished all you needed to do by 6:00 PM (or shortly after) and can now confidently shut down for the night.
A few more best practices for keeping a structured day…
- Plot in slightly more time than you actually need for each task. This offers you a time buffer for any distractions that pop up or gives you an opportunity to jumpstart your next task a little early.
- Don’t fill in every single time slot of every single day. Leave yourself some wiggle room for new items that are sure to appear mid-week.
- Front-load your to-do list at the beginning of the week as much as you can – you’ll thank yourself on Thursday and Friday for the extra time to finalize any outstanding tasks.
- Be flexible. Your day and week will likely get rearranged several times to account for new assignments and priorities. And that’s ok! As long as you start the day and week with a solid plan of attack, it’s easy to move a few things around where needed.
- When you turn off for the night, really turn off. If you normally work from a laptop, either put it away in another room or physically log out of your work applications. If you keep your work email on your phone, toggle it off after a specified time. Relaxing and recharging is every bit as important to you and your employer as the hours you spend working.
Need a little inspiration for adding structure to your weekends? Follow the same formula as above! Write out in detail what you hope to accomplish, plot it into specific time slots based on how your brain and body like to work, and leave a little extra space for fun and relaxation.
What other tips do you find useful for keeping the days structured?