Keeping up with work – Part I

April 20, 2020

Louis Tay

A frequent question that Purdue students raise is “How can I continue to be productive during this challenging time?” This question comes on the heels of the burdens of schoolwork, upcoming examinations, being confined at home, and feeling isolated. These new realities can dampen our motivation to work and lower our sense of well-being.

Here are three tips based on social science research and personal observations:

  1. Establish a Routine:

    In an interview with the National Geographic, astronaut Chris Cassidy shared his advice for dealing with a cramped work-from-home environment like the International Space Station. His reply was simple: "setting a routine ... is the biggest thing."

    Why do routines help? The familiarity and predictability of routines provides an important source of security – especially in times of uncertainty. When sticking to a routine, it frees us from worrying about whether we are doing enough – or too much – of an activity or a task. Incomplete work will be resumed the following day.

    In the book Deep Work, Cal Newport notes that when one works at the same time and place, we quickly move into states of deep work (i.e. distraction free focus that maximizes our productivity).

    Even for the most creative of work, routines help. David Brooks wrote in the New York Times, "creative people organize their lives according to repetitive, disciplined routines. They think like artists but work like accountants."

    I encourage you to maintain a regular routine for meals, work, exercise, rest, and sleep.

  2. Setting Realistic Goals:

    Any organizational psychologist worth their salt will encourage you to set specific and challenging goals to improve your work performance and productivity. This is based on the theory of goal-setting that has been well-established in research. Compared to vague goals (e.g., 'work more'), specific and challenging goals (e.g., 'complete this assignment by 5:00 p.m.') enables one to focus their efforts, work harder, and persist through setbacks.

    Given that Purdue students will likely seek to push themselves with challenging goals, I urge you to ensure that your work goals are realistic . Unrealistically challenging goals can create fatigue and burnout that will rob you of longer-term performance.

    In that vein, give yourself more time than usual to complete your work; these extraordinary circumstances require us to recognize and account for new challenges and interruptions. Practice saying 'no' to non-essential activities and responsibilities to give yourself space to pursue important goals.

  3. Negotiating Boundaries:

    Many students returning home have mentioned that it is challenging to work while having to share space with parents, siblings, and others all under the same roof.

    It is important to (re-)negotiate boundaries and expectations with others. Communicate early on the work routines you have in order to keep up with your work. For example, put up your work schedule on your door. This can reduce the potential interruptions. Be mindful of relationships too and make time in your schedule to interact with others. Try to keep these work and social roles separate. Past research shows that telecommuters who had clear boundaries had less work-family conflict.

    When expectations clear, boundaries can help you keep focused on your work; they can allay potential conflicts and improve your relationships. And remember, boundaries are never perfect and situations can change weekly (e.g., exam week). Be sure to be open-handed and expect to revisit boundaries from time to time.

Be well,

Dr. Louis Tay

Tay is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences. He has expertise in well-being, assessments, and data science. Check back each week for his wellness tip of the week!

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