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Finding Productivity and Sanity with Your Routine During COVID-19


rocks in balance

What have you learned about yourself since COVID-19 began? 

That was the opening ice-breaker question before Align’s most recent remote quarterly planning session. The question allowed our team to open up about the struggles of staying focused in our new environments and the strategies we’ve used to stay productive during the disruption

With recreation options closed, children home from school, and abundant health worries, few of us have managed to maintain a consistent schedule day-in and day-out. 

For most of us, the workday routine became a cobble of habits we developed, consciously or not, and ways to get work done even when everything around us is chaos. We have some good days and some bad. We’re making efforts to try new strategies and improve our ability to live happy and productive lives.

Whether you’re on the brink of burnout or holding steady, a new quarter offers an opportunity to reassess how well your habits and schedule are performing. Let’s look at the top strategies we’ve seen for staying productive and sane in the “new normal”. 

Combating Burn Out

Let’s face it. At some point since March, all of us have felt overwhelmed. 

Staying focused and productive while overwhelmed is an uphill battle. On days when everything seems to be working against you, prioritizing the basics becomes the best way to fight the emotional exhaustion that comes from being overwhelmed for too long — burn out. 

After one particularly grueling tax season, Ernst and Young hired Tony Schwartz, author and CEO of The Energy Project, to help their team reduce turnover. After months of late nights spent working against deadlines, burned-out employees were eager to bolt to jobs where they wouldn’t feel forced to choose work over personal life and well-being. Over half of a 40 person team turned over in the busy season prior to Tony’s arrival. 

The course EY implemented, as Tony described during last month’s Scaling Up Reignite Summit, was built around 5 simple renewal techniques:

1. Set a bed time and get at least 7 hours of sleep

2. Break every 90 minutes

3. Leave your desk for lunch

4. Get off digital devices at a defined time every day

5. Do the most important thing first in the morning for at least 60 min each day, no interruptions

With these practices in place, only one person on the team, down from twenty the year prior, turned-over at the end of the season, and employees on average left the office 90 minutes earlier. 

With the economy in flux and mounting responsibilities at home, many of us face challenges much like EY accountants did during tax season, feeling unable to ever step away. The proven solution involved techniques focused on our “Timeboxing”, the practice of allocating specific time to work, self-care, and personal duties, with an emphasis on restoring our mental capacity.

Getting the Most Important Thing Done

We love the metaphor of Rocks and Sand to describe this prioritization. Your most important work items and critical renewal practices serve as the Rocks. If all the other responsibilities we face in the day are Sand, we see that only by putting the Rocks in first and then the Sand, can we avoid overflow. An overflowing jar is a recipe for burnout, as we sacrifice more to accomplish what needs to get done.  rocks and sand

At Align, our CEO enjoys waking up early to exercise, check emails, and complete his most important tasks before the rest of his family wakes up. Our CMO, on the other hand, has younger children and sets aside time after they’ve gone to bed to complete the day’s most critical work. 

As these different schedules show keeping up with strict time boxing can be especially challenging with the chaos and distractions of working during COVID-19. While finding an uninterrupted hour first thing on your schedule may not be possible, blocking an hour at some point for your most important work each day is critical for maintaining productivity. We’ve found that writing down and sharing this top priority every day helps build accountability and improves the likelihood that you get it done. 

For employees at PWC, the best time for this focused work was first thing in the morning. As each of us adapts to our own conditions, we can all timebox our most productive hour for our most important work in accordance with our needs. 

Deciding What Matters

Once we begin structuring our time for productivity, we need to structure our work so we make progress on what matters. 

 David Allen, the author of Getting Things Done, has won countless followers with his method for breaking down what’s stressing us out into actionable items. Getting started follows five main steps:

1. Capture everything. Using whatever tool you’d like, write down every responsibility you have as it comes up. To-dos, ideas, recurring tasks, and everything else should be recorded immediately in the most convenient way. 

2. Clarify your to-dos. Break down responsibilities into actionable steps with deadlines. As Allen explains, defining this upfront means less time figuring out what tasks meant when it comes time to do them. Structuring to-dos in a SMART way can help you stay on target. 

3. Organize and prioritize your action items. Creating categories for your to-dos and assigning a priority to them will structure your work. In this step, you ensure deadlines are set and you’ll easily be able to determine what needs to be done first. 

4. Reflect on your list. Frequently reviewing your to-dos ensure that you’ve structured items clearly and effectively. This is an opportunity to determine whether you’ve structured work in alignment with your purpose, goals, and projects. 

5. Get to work. If you’ve effectively organized and prioritized your to-dos you’ll know what needs to be done and when. You’ve brought structure to chaos and are ready to jump in. 

While the GTD methodology has sprung a variety of practices and tools, these basic steps are critical to any system for structuring to-dos. When you have time to focus on productive work, you’ll know what needs to be done. 

Avoiding Distraction

As we work to maintain our productivity without sacrificing our sanity, we may find ourselves distracted. In a study conducted by Blind, 53% of respondents said productivity levels have been impacted due to changes in mental health while working from home.

In his 2019 book Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life, author and guest contributor to this blog, Nir Eyal breaks down the causes of distraction and how to address them in our lives. 

For Nir, distraction occurs when our to-dos are not in line with our values. “Instead of starting with what we are going to do,” says Nir in Indistractable, “we should begin with why we’re going to do it. And to do that we must begin with our values. Values are like a compass which points us towards the direction that we want to go.” If our objectives are not in alignment with the direction we want to head, we are more likely to get off track. 

To remedy this, Nir recommends reflecting on the question, “When in my schedule did I do what I said I would do and when did I get distracted?” Tasks we got distracted on were likely not structured in line with our values.

Does your calendar reflect your values?” Nir wants us to ask. “To be the person you want to be you have to make time to live your values.”

From Surviving to Thriving

Beyond productivity hacks, structuring your routine around your values and goals ensures you make progress towards what matters even when emergencies and distractions arise.

The coronavirus outbreak threw routines into disarray and forced us all to reevaluate how we prioritize and structure our time. As we struggle to balance our work, relationships, and mental and physical well-being, we also have an opportunity to build habits that will help us achieve our long-term vision.

Figuring out what the most important things are and when we can get them done is the first step towards better living our values. If we can successfully manage this, there will be a silver lining to the chaos.


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