Several of my students have asked for advice about how to stay on task while working from home, how to cope with the pressure of school during quarantine, how to complete college coursework when most of us are far away from campus and its resources, our peers, and our professors. So I’ve made a list of personal advice. But before I get into it, I want to remind you of one thing:
Go easy on yourself. This is the most important piece of advice here. It’s very hard to do, but crucial. This COVID-19 situation is not normal. Don’t expect yourself to operate at 100% efficiency right now. Some things are not going to get done, and that’s OK. The most important thing—seriously—is your physical and mental health, and that of your loved ones.
Believe it—because it’s true. Of course, you may be saying to yourself, “that’s great Ms. Ready, but I still have shit to do—I have profs demanding papers and exams and zoom meetings and I have to clean my house and go to the store for my mom and babysit my little brother and walk the dog.”
Because there is a lot we still have to accomplish here is my list of advice on working from home and staying on task.
Creating a New Normal at Home
- Make a home office. One of the reasons it’s hard to work from home is because our home space is our chill space. When we’re at home, our brains are programmed to be on weekend mode. So create a home office. This may look very different from your workspace at school, but I encourage you to get creative with it and work with what you have. Find a folding table and turn a corner of your room or the kitchen or basement into an office. Put all your books and cords and computer and everything you need. Put a pretty picture on the wall to look at and a potted plant. If you’re living with family, let everyone know that this is your workspace that you need to focus and complete your schoolwork like the badass you are. When you sit down at this workspace, your brain will recognize, “ah, it’s time to work.”
2. Minimize distractions. This is tough, because I know a lot of you are home with a large family, including kids and pets. Try to create your workspace in the quietest area of the home (even if it’s the basement or back porch) and try to identify the hours during the day when you have the most alone time. This may mean getting up early, staying up late, or it could mean working in short snatches when the kids are watching a movie. This will also involve having gentle conversations with your family to GTFO of your space.
3. Get dressed.
Treat your home office like an actual office. Wake up, eat, take a shower, get dressed. Yes—get dressed. Put on clean clothes and fix your hair. Then sit down at your workspace and get started with your day. This is going back to tricking our brains into thinking “it’s time to work.” I promise you, it sounds unnecessary, but it is one of the easiest ways to get yourself to focus on work at home. It’s also pretty good for your mental health.
4. Make a daily task list. Never underestimate the power of a list. Sit down and make a list of what you need to accomplish today. Now pay attention, because this is important: Do not put everything you need to accomplish in life on the list. Don’t include items that need to be done next week, or could be done tomorrow, or really don’t need to be done at all. This requires being honest with yourself and with the situation around you. What do I absolutely need to accomplish today? This is important, because if you put too many things on the list, you will inevitably fail at accomplishing them, and then tomorrow it will be even harder to get to work. Let yourself make several drafts until you reduce the list to just the things that have to be done today. Keep this list right next to your computer or on the wall in front of you.
5. Make a weekly/monthly task list. Once you’ve been working from home for a while, you can begin to create a weekly list of what needs to be done, and a monthly list. This will help you prevent assignments from piling up. But you have to follow the same rule as the daily list—don’t put a bunch of stuff on there that you want to do or hope to do or think you should do. Just what you have to do. Hang the list on the wall where you can see it and then have the immense pleasure of crossing things off the list. Tip: don’t try to do this right away if you’re behind and have a million things to do. Save this step for after you’ve accomplished the daily task list a few times.
6. Stay in touch with friends from school. On campus, you have classmates, friends, roommates—you are surrounded by thousands of other people doing the exact same thing you are doing. Being away from that environment makes it hard to remember how to focus, especially when you’re living with people with very different lives from yours. It helps to have a friend from school (or another school) to check in with. Even just talking to this friend about your struggles with schoolwork can make a huge difference in your motivation, so please call/text/facetime.
7. Find a Check-in Buddy. See if one of your friends from school wants to be a check-in buddy. One of my classmates and I have a video chat once a week to discuss our work. Then we hang up and sit and work for three-four hours in our own home offices. If we have questions while working, we can text each other, and we can joke and commiserate. Then at the end of the time we text about what we accomplished. This is a guaranteed three hours stretch of work, and I always get a lot accomplished because I don’t want to let them down! 😊
8. Take breaks. One of the reasons we fail when we work from home is because we actually take on too much. Because our time is unstructured, we make ourselves work too long with no break and then we crash and can’t do anything the next day. But humans can’t work without breaks, so just like you would if you were working in an office, when you’re hungry, stop for an hour and have lunch. Physically leave your workspace and take a break. Eat something, walk around the block (if you are allowed to), or watch a 20 minute episode of TV. Give yourself a set time to completely disconnect from your school work and focus on something else. You will return to your work and your workspace refreshed and thinking more clearly.
9. Take weekends. Same as above. We can’t work every day. Breaks not only help us relax, but when you return to work after a weekend, you’ll be able to focus better. Give yourself days off, hopefully two days in a row. On those days you are not allowed to think about school. Use this time to cultivate your island on Animal Crossing.
10. Eat normal meals and get some exercise. I am not an expert at this, but this is a really good way to help yourself feel “normal.”
Dealing with Professors
11. Reach out to your professors. If you are struggling with something in one of your classes, please email the prof. I can’t guarantee that anything will change, but there is a chance that it will. I thought an assignment I gave my students was easy peasy—but three or four people emailed me that they were struggling with it, so I ended up changing it. This would have never happened if nobody emailed me. Just be polite and professional. In emails to profs, it helps if you explain a specific problem or ask a specific question, and demonstrate what you have done so far to solve the problem, and what exactly you need from them.
12. Ask for extensions. If you need more time to complete some work, ask for it. This is an easy way for a prof to help you with an assignment. It requires literally no work on their part. Just ask. I know it feels embarrassing to ask (I feel that way too), but the very worst thing they can do is say no. If they do say yes, imagine how much more amazing your life will be.
13. Decide which tasks to throw overboard. If your profs can’t give you extensions to complete your work, and you know you can’t complete it, it is very tempting to just give up on everything. Trust me, I’ve been there. But if you find yourself in this situation, the best thing to do is take a hard look at your task list and just delete the least important stuff. This will involve some hard choices. Consider the value of the assignments (percentage of final grade), your current grade in the class, and how much of your time/energy the assignments will consume. You can’t do everything, and an important skill for a college student is educated prioritizing. If your prof is open to questions, this would be an excellent question to ask them, and they will likely be able to give you a clear answer (or maybe reconsider giving you that extension!).
You are all superheroes for accomplishing schoolwork in the middle of a global crisis. Please know that you are AMAZING, and that I am here for you if you need me.