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Staying productive in the new normal

In a Q&A, Michigan Engineering’s embedded CAPS counselors share tips for staying productive and adjusting to yet another “new normal.”

Nidaa Shaikh, PsyD and Kayla Douglas, LLMSW are Michigan Engineering’s embedded Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) counselors.

In the coming weeks, students on campus will return home for the remaining weeks of the semester, potentially disrupting productivity in new work environments. In this Q&A, Michigan Engineering’s embedded CAPS counselors Nidaa Shaikh and Kayla Douglas will share their advice to get the most out of our spaces as students adjust to yet another change this semester.

What are some basic ways to make our relaxing spaces at home feel more productive?

We’d like to start out by emphasizing the importance of taking some time to conduct an informal, quick self-inventory. Imagine a time and place when you were productive and try to identify what it was about that environment or situation that helped increase your productivity. How loud or quiet was your environment, what type of furniture and lighting was around you, who was there, what type of work were you doing, what was the time of day, were you sitting or standing, was your environment cluttered or neat? As we share ideas, be mindful that different strategies work for different people and each strategy won’t resonate with everyone. You may need to tweak or adapt to make them work for you.  

Identify your workspace

Chances are you weren’t anticipating that one day, you’d be working, living, and playing in the same space all day, every day. So although we may now be forced to work in spaces that are less than ideal, there are steps you can take. 

The first step is to identify our workspace, in order to create a separation between our work life and personal life. Maybe it’s an area with little foot traffic (for example, not in the kitchen), a corner in your bedroom, or a desk or table. Once you identify that space, try to “enter” it at the start of your day and then “leave it” at the end of your work day. Try not to “re-enter” the work space, to establish that sense of separation.

If you can, avoid studying or working in bed! Following good sleep hygiene means only using your bed for sleeping. We don’t want to associate our beds with stress or work, as that may make it difficult for us to fall asleep at night. 

Lastly, if the space you have to work with is small, it’s especially essential to stay decluttered, organized, and clean.

We all experience stress in our unique ways and it is important to learn how to identify when that’s happening and what our stress triggers are. Increasing our knowledge about how we respond to stress and how it impacts us can help us create a more resilient lifestyle, where we are able to predict and plan around stressful moments, or set aside time to recover. 

Creating routines and rituals is another strategy to increase focus and better manage stress. Here are a few strategies:

  1. Create a new routine to help you shift. Use your former travel time to do things you didn’t have time to do in the morning before, like work out, eat breakfast, drink coffee with others, or bond with your kids or a pet.
  2. Try to maintain aspects of your old work routine. For example, maybe you drank coffee, while checking and responding to emails the first 20 minutes of the day previously and want to continue with that now.
  3. Create a routine to leave your work behind. Maybe it’s closing your textbooks, notebooks, laptops, etc. Perhaps it’s taking a few minutes to jot down what tasks you completed and creating a rough list of things to do for the following day. Try setting an alarm 15 minutes before your work time ends, as a reminder to start wrapping up. 
  4. Once you leave work behind, try not to go near your workspace. Don’t check your email and change into more relaxed clothing. 

What are some ways to stay physically and mentally active while adjusting to another new normal?

Physical movement and sleep have been shown to be effective stress reduction strategies, in addition to increasing focus and alertness. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, there are numerous benefits immediately after engaging in a session of moderate-to-vigorous activity. These include reduced risk of developing depression and anxiety, improved sleep quality, increased cognitive acuity and executive functioning (which is associated with improved memory), balanced decision-making, and emotion regulation. 

After completing a task, reward yourself for a job well done. Ideas for rewards can include playing a quick game on your phone, texting a friend, watching 10 minutes of a show you like, or playing with a pet. Try to have a combination of indoor and outdoor hobbies so you have a range of activities regardless of the weather. 

How often should people take breaks while doing intensive projects for school or work?

Taking frequent planned breaks before feeling fatigued is vital and will help us renew our energy, creativity, and enthusiasm for our work. Oftentimes, we may take unintentional and unplanned breaks because we can no longer focus, and these may not actually help us recharge or improve focus. 

It’s important to give our eyes a break throughout the day as well, to prevent straining them. Try using the 20-20-20 rule, every 20 minutes you are looking at a screen, shift your focus to something 20 feet away, for 20 seconds. 

Since we are working or going to class from home, chances are we move a lot less throughout our work day. This makes it easy to stay sitting between meetings instead of getting up and moving around. Make a commitment to engage in some type of movement every hour — this can include stretching, walking, yoga — be creative. 

To relax, destress and even boost your energy, stretch throughout your work time. Try some stretches you can do right at your desk to boost your energy. Walking is another great way to improve your mood and overall physical health. One suggestion for connecting the mind and body is a mindful walk. A mindful walk can help clear and refresh your mind by staying present and socially distant. This can be done alone or with a friend and can improve focus and concentration when returning back to your work. 

Yoga connects physical movement and breathing. Basic yoga poses can help improve focus and productivity while improving blood circulation and reducing stress. Restorative Yoga is another form of yoga typically involving 5 to 6 restorative poses held for 5 minutes or more. These poses promote relaxation and rest and can be another great way to take a break during the course of the day.

Any other advice for people?

The last bit of advice we’d like to leave you with is to practice self-compassion and set realistic expectations. Although all of us would like to be productive and focused 100% of the time, that’s not realistic. We are people, not robots, which means we will get distracted from time to time and will have days where we are less productive and motivated. When that happens, instead of chastising and shaming ourselves, it’s important to treat ourselves with kindness, understanding, and patience.