Finding motivation while working from home as a PhD student during the coronavirus pandemic

Stay productive by setting a routine, identifying a workspace and getting dressed, says Melina Papalampropoulou-Tsiridou.

Tomato timer on a red background

While working from home, you can keep yourself motivated using a number of strategies, such as the Pomodoro technique.Credit: Adapted from Getty

At the moment, staying motivated can be tough. Many scientists have admitted this on social media or in online meetings. I’ve struggled to follow a consistent routine and to be productive, thinking twice about getting dressed in the morning while wondering, “What’s the point?” This is especially true when we’re surrounded by distractions at home — a place usually kept away from work.

For me, finding a way to stay motivated involved trial and error, but it got much easier once I found a good starting point. What helped me was looking for ways to make the most of my home isolation. I read blogs and articles from people who have worked remotely for a long time, and tried to integrate their suggestions and tips into my current reality. I have not yet worked everything out, but here are a few tips that might be useful and are easy to apply:

Set up a daily routine

Humans are creatures of habit. Having specific times for sleeping and waking will help you to structure your routine. Embrace the flexibility of working from home and feel free to press the snooze button, but make sure you have set a certain number of hours dedicated to work in your day. To maximize your productivity, have a list of all work-related tasks and hold yourself accountable to it. It often helps to ask others to review your work regularly.

I use the Pomodoro time-management technique throughout my working day: I set a timer for 25 minutes and work non-stop without any distractions until the alarm goes off. Once the alarm rings, I take a five-minute break and then repeat. I find this technique useful because it creates a sense of urgency to be productive, but helps me to avoid the commitment anxiety that might come with attempting to staple myself to a laptop for eight hours straight.

 

Put your clothes on

Prepare to work from home the same way you would if you were going to the office, to set the appropriate mood for work. In my experience, working in pyjamas affected my productivity and my professional confidence.

Have a designated workspace in your home

Work and personal life will overlap now that they are both happening under the same roof. Setting a place for work sends a message to those you live with to avoid disturbing you, and helps you to make the mental switch from ‘home’ to ‘work’ — and back to ‘home’ once your day is over. The smaller the apartment, the more difficult it gets. My partner and I have divided our apartment: I work in the kitchen, he works in the guest bedroom. The bedroom and living room are now where we relax, and we try not to interact when we’re in the ‘working’ rooms.

Be positive and adjust how you communicate

In a working-from-home world, meetings are often replaced by e-mails, and personal talks by instant messaging. The way you respond to those e-mails or texts can affect how you approach working from home. Are you saying “I don’t think I will manage to finish this report on time,” or “Like everyone else, I will have to adapt to the new reality, but I will give it my best shot.”? In my view, the second approach leads to personal empowerment, and sets a stronger foundation for positive reinforcement and managing expectations.

Find out what motivates you

One reason I failed to stay motivated was I was trying to push myself using the wrong motives. Take some time to reflect on what motivates you. I’m motivated by two main factors: I like learning new things, and being appreciated. Through self-exploration, you can identify what factors motivate you, and reward yourself once you accomplish something or finish a certain task. I promised myself that if I got a good mark on my latest assignment for my business-degree programme, I would register for a new professional certification. I got the grade, and started a class called Data Analysis and Presentation Skills: the PwC Approach Specialization on the online learning platform Coursera earlier this month.

Take it easy and start small

Learn how to celebrate small steps, such as a finishing the weekly lectures of an online course or writing the first part of your thesis introduction, and reward yourself once you accomplish something. This ‘small wins’ strategy is a great way to break big problems into pieces and to highlight your small successes. Doing this will help you to avoid overwhelming yourself and to stay motivated, because you will have rewards all the way to completion.

Exercise

Exercising, whatever your ability level, will relieve some stress and produce some endorphins, strengthen your immune system, boost your productivity and energy levels and improve the quality of your sleep. From meditation and yoga to outdoor sports and working out in home-based gyms, you can choose which kind of activity will work for you (and which can be done if you need to social distance) and will best fit your new schedule. There are many free resources on YouTube to help you to get started. This part was very difficult for me: even before home isolation, I was not very physically active. I asked for help from my friends, and we set up virtual yoga ‘dates’. Now, I am exercising three or four times per week.

Keep in touch with your colleagues

Working from home under the current circumstances can be lonely, especially for those who live alone — so make sure to check up on your colleagues. I have been calling instead of texting, and skyping instead of e-mailing, which gives a more personal touch. Your co-workers are a great source of motivation because you can cheer each other up, and even hold each other accountable for weekly tasks. You might feel lonely but, for the first time in history, the whole world is facing the same situation: home isolation, social distancing and quarantine. Use the circumstances as an icebreaker to start a conversation and find out how others are adapting to the new challenges.

All of us need to work out the best approach to tackling feelings of negativity, and make the most out of this situation. Many of us are struggling to adjust because we have different fears to overcome and goals to achieve. Stay connected to your friends and family, and use this opportunity to invest in yourself.

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