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I am becoming very unproductive because of working from home. It always used to be the opposite when I had an office job before the Covid. I used to request home office often so I can work quietly away from any distractions.


But now my job is fully remote, I always end up browsing Facebook/Reddit, checking emails, responding to texts from my friends, searching about a random topic or thought that pops into my head. I've been learning a new trade which would help my career. So I often end up reading/learning about this new trade than working during the working hours too. I am currently assigned to a project which I find super boring, which doesn't help either.

Few other things I should add:

  • It's a foreign company so no possibility of office ever.

  • Because of lockdown, co-working spaces are also closed.

  • I live alone in a small apartment away from family distractions.

  • I work very independently as a freelancer. There are 2 other people in the company who works, but I only talk to them once every 2-3 days, and that will be usually a short text chat.

  • I also feel very sleepy all day long. I get good sleep but perhaps, it's the high amount of coffee I drink. I have tried drinking less and more coffee but didn't have much improvement either way.

Today my boss approached me about my work quality and how slow I work and hinted about firing me if it stays like this since I am working incredibly slow.

What do you suggest I do so I become productive as before again?

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Kilisi
    Apr 28 at 23:00

12 Answers 12

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The most effective solution I've found to situations where my brain is not cooperating is to develop a routine and to make sure my environment is conducive to whatever it is I feel I should be doing.

I used to have trouble with insomnia. I have much less trouble now that I have a set time when I usually go to bed. We put up room darkening curtains, made the bed super comfy, and I no longer take my tablet/phone to bed with me. If I'm going to bed, I'm going to sleep, not to read. About a half hour before "bed time", I read something light that lets my brain wind down and right before bed I have an end-of-the-day routine I won't bore you with. The result is that I've conditioned myself to be ready to sleep when I go to bed.

It's easy to do everything except work when you're working from home. I've found that just trying to exert my will and try really hard to be focused is just like trying really hard to get to sleep when I'm having a bout of insomnia... I end up doing more of the behavior I'm trying to stop. Setting a routine for myself and setting up an environment where it's easy to stay focused works better, and has the side effect that I don't have to beat myself up for not having enough willpower.

All of these suggestions are meant to be "within reason". If you decide you're going to start working at 8 AM every day, you're not a failure if one day you start at 8:15 AM. The point is to train your brain to expect certain activities at certain times, not send yourself to bootcamp.

Step one: Get on a schedule. You should have a time that you start working, a time you have lunch, and a time you stop working. You should get up at about the same time every morning and have a few things that you do every day before you go to work: have a cup of coffee, have breakfast, read the latest from some media you like, etc. and when you're done doing those things, you go to work. My husband and I tend to the garden, and I do a daily quest for a video game I play. It can be whatever it is you like to do to start your day but it needs to fit between the time you usually wake up every day and the time you go to work. You should not roll out of bed and go straight to work. You should allow yourself at least 30 minutes of activities you do every morning.

On days I'm working from home, I start work at the end of the routine. On days where I have to go into the office, I start my commute. The point is, after my morning routine is done I'm in "work mode".

Step two: Set up an area where you work at home, and that's all you do there during work hours. If you want to check your social media, you should have to get up from that area and go somewhere else. It's easy for me because I have a work laptop that I can't do personal stuff on. If you are connecting with your personal computer, consider setting up a desktop or even a separate account that is configured just for work-related stuff.

Get yourself a comfortable chair, good lighting, a nice keyboard and mouse... set it up so that it feels like an office and you are comfortable working there. I realize in a small apartment, there may not be enough space to dedicate to just work. Do what you can to try to have a spot with a proper desk and chair and try to reserve it for work-like activities.

Step three: Try it for a week and pay attention to when you lose focus. I found around a certain time mid-morning I get restless, so that's now my scheduled break time and I get up, make some tea and get a snack. Notice what distracts you in your environment and make it harder to get to. I'm pretty good at ignoring my phone, but if you aren't, you might consider silencing it during working hours and setting up "VIP" contacts whose calls will always ring.

What will work is different for everyone. Try out a specific routine and environment, pay attention to what is working for you and what is not then keep adjusting it until you find the right balance.

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    Excellent suggestions all around! The "work-only laptop" was an essential ingredient for me.
    – Pete W
    Apr 21 at 15:02
  • This is solid advice, when reading the question I was thinking "tools problem". If there's no work laptop there are plenty of apps that will restrict your e.g. social media activity with time locks. Apr 21 at 21:14
  • Step 2 worked very well for me when I had a similar problem.
    – Andy Clark
    Apr 22 at 2:20
  • In one of the episodes of the podcast command line heros they mentioned someone having work slippers and private slippers as a mean to differenciate.
    – hlovdal
    Apr 22 at 9:55
  • "pay attention to when you lose focus": I've found that daily meditation helps a lot with this.
    – Aurèle
    Apr 23 at 10:01
76

When I was reading this question, I zeroed in on this statement:

I also feel very sleepy all day long. I get good sleep but perhaps, it's the high amount of coffee I drink. I have tried drinking less and more coffee but didn't have much improvement either way.

While this seems pretty innocuous, sleepiness and malaise would be signs of depression to me. This means that any "practical" advice on techniques for increasing productivity may not generate the long term results you're looking for. These things may show a slight uptick in immediate productivity, and ultimately you'll end up right back where you are except that you'll have no excuses as to why you're not productive. As per @ColleenV's comment, this does not mean those techniques should be ignored or discounted, it just means that ignoring mental health in lieu of "tips and tricks" may lead you down the same path.

I recommend you seek professional assistance to address potential depression. This can be a support group, a therapist, long honest talks with a friend. Depression is a real thing, and it happens to everyone. Ignoring it will only make it worse. I don't know what stigmas are attached to it in your locale. If it's not detrimental to you, I would recommend bringing it up with your HR department or your manager. Don't use it as a crutch or an excuse, ask for help.

Your manager is plugged into your productivity, so they're aware of a problem. If you can help them with the nature of the problem, they may be able to help you get through it. Reach out to your LinkedIn network as well. Finding support and assistance is really the only way to get through this and keep its impact minimal.

Depression is not just going to go away. It needs to be treated and taken seriously. Mental health is often the most overlooked aspect of any particular job. Don't mistreat yourself by ignoring it.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Kilisi
    Apr 22 at 1:52
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    This. One of the first things I thought of was depression. Apr 22 at 6:47
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    Sleepiness and malaise are also signs of other issues, so I wouldn't just zero in on depression. But I agree with the recommendation to see a professional (ideally a medical doctor).
    – stanri
    Apr 22 at 6:58
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    As simple as it sounds, this could also be a sign of dehydration - keeping a bottle of water near your desk could help a lot, especially if you're more used to having water nearby at work to drink while you work.
    – Zibbobz
    Apr 22 at 13:30
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    @Alex That's a joke, right? Of course you should see a professional. It helps immensely. Go find one now :)
    – Pedro A
    Apr 22 at 13:32
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Try the Pomodoro Technique and see if that helps you focus

You choose a task and then set a 25 minute timer where you focus completely on that task. Once the 25 minutes is up, take a 5 minute break, then set another 25 minute timer for the next task. Each 25 minute sprint is called a Pomodoro, once 4 pomodoros are done, take a longer break.

Use BlockSite to keep you from visiting Facebook, Reddit and other time-wasters

The plugin allows you to set blackout times, limit the amount of time per website, and plenty of other productivity boosting features.

Set a specific place to work

Setup a home office. If you have the space, set aside a room where all you do is work for clients. Take all work calls in this room. Don't have a TV or other fun things in here. If you're in a small apartment, arrange your work desk so you cannot view the TV or other fun activities.

When you want to surf the internet and do other fun activities unplug your laptop and leave the room to do it.

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Have daily meetings with your team. You just need short ones to keep yourself up-to-date with what's happening and where people are having blocking issues, etc.

Even if there are no blockers, you can still catch up and feel connected.

Hearing other people working on projects are a good way of getting motivated to get yourself working.

You could probably use a time management app to help you split your time up, but you'll probably end up ignoring it after a while. Speaking with your team helps generate competition (or at least guilt over you not pulling your weight).

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  • While this will certainly be motivational, it can have the side effect of moving the work/life boundary. One of the hard fought benefits of WFH for me (pre Covid) was not being interrupted at random.
    – Pete W
    Apr 21 at 13:21
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    Stand-up meetings should be routine anyway. They don't have to be long.
    – Snow
    Apr 21 at 13:23
  • Sadly I work as a freelancer in a small company with 3 peoples and there is very little communication between team members. It's not uncommon to have a short text chat in a week and then silence for several days again.
    – CodePanda
    Apr 21 at 13:51
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    I installed a time tracker. Let's hope it helps.
    – CodePanda
    Apr 21 at 13:51
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Get yourself a routine. Set your alarm in the morning, have a shower, get dressed, have breakfast, then go to work at a fixed time.

First thing you write down what you want to achieve today. In small portions, so you can achieve three or four things. After four hours, hopefully having achieved two things, you have a lunch break. Then back to work, check where you stand, another few hours. Then you get up, leave the house, have a walk. Relax. And next day, you repeat this.

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  • This is how it's done, establish a routine and stick to it until it becomes..... routine
    – Kilisi
    Apr 28 at 10:16
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Some ideas:

  • Periodically change location to anything that is not your own home. Coffee shops served this purpose pre-COVID-19. Last spring I found that another person's home will work just as well.
  • Actual coffee ... suggest limit one per day, however
  • Music. Something repetitive that isn't too new. If you are the kind of person who focuses on lyrics, go instrumental
  • Put away the phone
  • Go on a 15 minute walk every couple of hours
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  • Thank you. Good suggestions. Just wondering why you suggested a 15 minute walk?
    – CodePanda
    Apr 21 at 13:50
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    @CodePanda - hoping to reduce any possible feelings of being restless or stuck. And a little movement and fresh air is good for us anyway
    – Pete W
    Apr 21 at 14:49
  • Any form of exercise is generally good for concentration. But also gets him out of the apartment. I was sitting in my car for 30+ minutes a day watching tiktok just to be looking at a different location
    – Austin759
    Apr 21 at 16:55
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I've dealt with this same kind of cycle for many (many, many) years. Last fall, also working entirely from home, I did find something that made a significant difference for me.

Several answers have already said, "Get on a schedule" and "Get yourself a routine". This, but let me double-down on it in specificity. I've heard this same advice for decades and mentally had a vague right-be-conscious-of-my-time takeaway from it.

But what actually helped was to have a SUPER specific, hour-by-hour map of the week's activities set out in advance. A particular set time to sleep, get up, cook, have meals, exercise, work blocks on specific tasks, break times, etc.

Am I absolutely perfect at following this? Definitely not. But I have seen a major difference: Whereas for the rest of my life I'd set an alarm to get up in the morning ("I'm being responsible", I'd think), I'd wake up groggy, or sleep through it, and then the rest of my day rolled later, etc., rinse and repeat. I've found that by having more frequent tentpoles through the day to check if I was on-schedule (all the meals, nap time, exercise time, etc.), it's much easier to stay on track. Almost miraculously I've started waking up pretty predictably at, or before, the alarm goes off.

The thing that really hooked my on this is a free book by Eva O. Lantsoght, The A-Z of the PhD Trajectory. I do have an academic job, but I don't have a PhD nor am I pursuing one at this time. But it lays out in great detail techniques for managing time, energy, and focus, when you have basically a self-driven knowledge-based occupation.

So yes, I made a spreadsheet blocking out my time every hour and update that every week. I also keep a log spreadsheet of time-on-task in units as small as a few minutes in a couple different categories. This also (for the first time ever) allows me to think about budgeting my time in advance (what things do I really care about, and want to prioritize?), and keep records and charts on a daily and weekly basis to check how things are going.

Nothing is ever a complete silver bullet, but this has made a tremendous difference for me, having had the same kind struggle the OP describes for many years, when initially I was quite skeptical it could help me.

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  • But when you finally get into a flow state, you will let you interrupt by this routine(?). Apr 22 at 16:08
  • @PeterMortensen: My work blocks are set up in 4-hour increments in the expectation that will happen. I do have a wall clock in vision to be mindful if I go over; sometimes I go over by an hour and that seems okay. Last night I cut myself off from programming at 2 AM; that's better than flowing to 6 AM and being wrecked the next day. The key would be if you know you need long flow blocks, design the schedule for that in advance. Apr 22 at 16:14
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Go see a doctor.

In addition to depression, sleepiness and malaise are also potentially symptoms of other deficiencies, like vitamin D or serotonin. I recommend going to see a professional medical doctor to check if there isn't a physiological reason you are experiencing these symptoms.

Other attempts to fix things will not be successful if the underlying cause is not treated.

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Everyone hits this wall at some point to varying degrees. Different things work for different people and none of them work perfectly.

You need to stay motivated and focus.

It's not a new phenomena caused by Covid-19, it's just new to more people. The usual method is to have a home office setup which is a dedicated working space with no distractions. Then proactively forcing yourself to work whenever you notice you're fluffing around. Eventually you train yourself to handle it.

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Similar to what @Joel Etherton mentioned in his answer, I also picked up on this statement in particular:

I also feel very sleepy all day long. I get good sleep but perhaps, it's the high amount of coffee I drink. I have tried drinking less and more coffee but didn't have much improvement either way.

Cutting down on the amount of caffeine you consume is probably a good idea - and drinking lots of water is good for your brain.

One thing I'm going to suggest that differs to the other answers you've received (all of which are valid & good advice), is not so much a 'work adjustment/ change', but more a 'life adjustment'.

Obviously, I don't know what your job is or what your responsibilities involve, but given that you are home based, I'm going to assume it's a desk based job.

I know from personal experience that I get lethargic & struggle to concentrate properly if I'm not physically active for long periods of time - so I'm going to suggest that you change your daily routine to include physical exercise of some sort (assuming you don't do much already).

Prior to the first lockdown and working from home, I used to play various sports several times a week (football, badminton, basketball, etc). Since lockdown, these have obviously all stopped, so I took up running instead - and I'd suggest that as a good starting point.

Advice on starting to take up something like running if you don't already do it - don't bite off more than you can chew. Start with something small - maybe a couple of miles per day, and work your way up gradually.

Doing physical exercise releases endorphins, which will have a positive impact on your general mood & energy levels. I know from experience that I have more energy & find it easier to concentrate when I'm keeping active - it may seem counter-intuitive, but you definitely do have more energy the more you do physically.

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  • I VERY much support this answer. The effect of phyiscal inactivity on the overall productivity level should not be underestimated. Specifically, in the pandemic, many people reduced their physical activities, which were already low for the average office job worker, even further.
    – Theo Tiger
    May 14 at 9:04
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I've been learning a new trade which would help my career. So I often end up reading/learning about this new trade than working during the working hours too. I am currently assigned to a project which I find super boring, which doesn't help either.

Are these "super boring" projects are something that you would usually find absorbing and desirable? If so, then maybe you are depressed. But if you have just been stuck with boring projects of a type you dislike, it makes sense that you are overwhelmingly motivated to focus on a skill that could move you towards more interesting projects. And even if you usually have some tolerance for working on boring things, right now you are isolated from the sort of socially rewarding collaboration which can make working on boring projects tolerable.

Suggestions like making a schedule and Pomodoro can help you hang onto a job you need right now. But wanting to work on stuff we care about and not be alone are fundamental needs and they will keep popping up in increasingly urgent and inconvenient ways if you try to squash them indefinitely with structure and self control. This can and will make you actually depressed.

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I would like to focus on a different aspect of this issue. This may not be the case with the OP. But I am sure some would benefit from this.

You should pay attention to yourself and identify what are the actual problems you face while trying to be productive and solve them. And I do not mean lack of concentration or tending to be distracted more often. What I mean is specifically work related problems. Now, there are two parts of your question which I think are the main problem.

I am currently assigned to a project which I find super boring.

According to my observation, this usually means that you have a lack of product knowledge or a lack of skills (which is not bad) to efficiently work on this project. This usually means that you have to ask around (which some people do not like as they think it would make them look less competent or needing more assistance) or research more (which tends to become very boring for some people including me).

I work very independently as a freelancer. There are 2 other people in the company who works, but I only talk to them once every 2-3 days, and that will be usually a short text chat.

You need more communication. Specially when you have the "boring" problem. To help with the previous problem you need to communicate more both with your colleagues and your manager. So that you can communicate the blockers and ask for their assistance in understanding. Also talk to your manager and request him to have regular checkins with you.

I noticed from your question that you might have changed jobs and you are relatively new on this one which also doubles down on the above problems and further prevents you from seeking others' help because of your need to stand your ground and prove yourself in the new job. (Not for everyone, but yes, this is the case for some people.)

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