One of the things I loved most about teaching English as a second/foreign language was the schedule. I taught primarily afternoon classes, so I could get up at a reasonable time for me (self-proclaimed night owl) and still have time to prepare for my classes before heading to the school. There were a few more hours of work after classes but then the evening was all mine. I soon realized that somehow my work was bleeding over in to the rest of my time and suddenly I found myself working nearly non-stop throughout the day. Finally sick of constantly working and not enjoying the few free moments of my time, I took a few simple steps to differentiate my work from my life and found myself not only more productive by also happier overall.
Get a time clock app
The first step to creating separation between life and work is to track when you’re actually working. If you work from home part or all of your day, it’s vital to clock that time just as you would in an office. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in a task or project and not realize you just spent 3 hours on one thing and still need to do all the other errands and chores in your life.
For my purposes, I downloaded “My Work Clock” to my Android phone. It had a great widget that I could easily click to “punch in”, “punch out” and “take lunch.” It wasn’t quite as satisfying as hearing the hard click of an old-school punch clock, but it certainly helped with tracking how much I worked. You could also review your punches in a daily or weekly report. Without even knowing it, I had upped my work from about 30 hours per week to nearly 60! That all changed when I was able to actually track my work and set clear limits on my time.
Focus on the task at hand
Another terrible habit I had developed was multitasking throughout the day. As lovely as multitasking sounds, it actually creates more problems than solves because you’re not able to focus on one project with as much efficiency and high quality work. So I decided I was no longer going to allow myself to grade tests or essays while watching my favorite shows.
This helped not only in getting the grading done faster and with more accuracy, but it also allowed me to have time to enjoy watching my shows. Rather than having to rewind a scene to pick up what I missed, I could fully focus on what was going on the first time around. Also, it helped me bang out those tests easier because I wasn’t starting and stopping to watch the show, then having to find my place on the test again.
Have a set space to work in
Obviously it would be fabulous to have a full office all to your own for work purposes, one that you could decorate with inspiring art or organize to your heart’s desire. Sadly, we aren’t all that lucky. However, that shouldn’t mean that your kitchen table doubles for eating space and home office. That’s another trap of multitasking in which different uses for a space aren’t really separated and thus it’s hard for the mind to switch from one gear to another.
Although I didn’t have a separate room for an office, I at least had a larger than needed living room. So I set up one corner with my desk, computer, printer and bookshelf with all my teaching materials. It was literally just behind the couch, but somehow having that specific corner for that specific use helped me focus better than dumping my planning notebook on the kitchen table. And I treated it like its own office space as well. I would “walk in” to my office through an imaginary doorway and settle at my desk as if all the other things in the room didn’t exist. Except my cat of course, he would never be ignored anywhere. So I gave him his own little bed under my desk where he could manage my work in comfort.
Take (quality) breaks frequently
In an office it’s fairly easy to take some breaks from your computer screen, whether it’s going to get your third cup of coffee or going to pick something up from the copier and then stopping by to talk with a co-worker. Working from home can be a blessing and a curse in this sense. Sure, you won’t get as easily distracted by the day’s gossip from the co-worker you can’t stand, but then you also don’t have anything forcing you to take a quick break and rest your mind.
Breaks are necessary to keep productivity up. Your mind, like any other muscle in your body needs to rest now and then in order to keep going. So set your alarm, “punch out” on the time clock if you need to, and get up to walk around for a few minutes. Be sure to take quality breaks though. Surfing Pinterest or Facebook for 10 minutes isn’t giving your mind a break, it’s just switching it to a different kind of work. Instead, take a walk around your house or apartment. Or take the dog out for a ten minute walk. He’ll love you more and you’ll get some exercise in as well. Win-win all around!
Have a set stop time and keep to it
Unless you get paid by the hour or are just a major workaholic, nobody wants to stay past their time. When I worked in an office, I had everything shut down at 4:58 and I was out the door at 5 on the dot. You should treat your work from home the same way, but maybe not leave the house, unless you want to. Set another alarm for whatever your pre-determined time that you want to stop working and be sure to punch out then!
When I taught, it was easy to stop my work in the morning as I had to actually get to class to teach. But after classes, I didn’t have anything stopping from working my night away. That’s where I had to set a specific time to finish everything up and if it wasn’t done that night, it could wait until the morning – just like in your office job.
Don’t be afraid to shut your computer down. All that work will be there for you again tomorrow. Trust me. But your precious time to go to dinner with friends or learn to crochet or whatever you want to do, that’s time that you can’t get back. So use it wisely to make sure your life is more than just what you do to earn money.
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