How to stay productive while working from home

In this article I will talk about various tools and tips to keep you in the productivity track. We are overloaded with a lot of information and it’s no easy task to stay focused. And now, when a huge number of people are working from home due to the COVID-19 outbreak, these tips may come in handy.

But these are not necessarily tips just for your regular work. You can follow them when you are writing your diploma thesis, working on a project of your own or in my case, when writing a blog. I love to procrastinate and I am often doing anything else, just not the thing I should do. That’s why I have started to use various apps and tools. They are supposed to help me focus, to plan and organize things and to make me more resistant to the unproductive temptations of the online world. These tips may also work for you, or may not. But why not to try. 

Put your smartphone away

The biggest attention-grabber is that little shiny thing you have always with you – the smartphone. It’s the biggest enemy of productivity. According to one research Americans check their phones 96 times a day which means every 10 minutes. I can only guess this number will be similar in a lot of other countries. So if you want to be productive, start with putting your smartphone away. 

Smartphone is the biggest enemy of productivity. Photo by Przemyslaw Marczynski

Turn on “Do not disturb” mode, turn off notifications from apps like Facebook or Instagram and put your phone on the table with the display facing down. Or even better, give it out of your reach. Because we all know how it works, you check your phone for one message and suddenly, ten minutes later you are still scrolling through Facebook feed. It’s for the best to give it away from your working area so you won’t get distracted and you can focus on work. Don’t let this productivity killer to stop you.

Plan your projects, create an outline

Putting away the smartphone is just a first step. If you want to start doing something it’s good to organize your projects. For this purpose I use Trello, a great tool for organizing projects of any type. Trello has a web version, but you can also download an app for your computer, tablet or a smartphone and everything will synchronize across all devices. 

It’s a simple and clean tool. At first you create a board for your project. In my case – it’s my blog. When you open this board (you can have other boards for different projects) you’ll see an empty space, which you are goint to fill. I created three lists, which represent steps in my workflow.

From left to right there are: Ideas, In Progress and Done. I am trying to keep it as simple as possible, so three lists are enough for me. Another step is creating a card for every task you are going to work on. If I get an idea for a new article, then I create a card for this topic under Ideas list. When I start working on this task, I’ll drag and drop card to the second column – In Progress. Once I am done with the task, again drag and drop, to the Done list.

This is how card in Trello looks like.

Cards are great because you can fill them with a lot of other details – description of the tasks, checklists, due date and if you work on your project with other people, you can invite them for collaboration. I always create a checklist as a series of things I want to talk about. And don’t forget to also add a due date, it might help you to finish the task rather sooner than later. 

Make a To-Do list

If Trello sounds like too much and you just want to have simple reminders so you do not forget something important, then one of many To-Do apps may come in handy. Or it can be a useful addition to the cards in your Trello. I am using the default Reminders app for the Apple devices.

It comes preinstalled in iPhone, iPad and Macs so there is no need for installing anything else. It syncs across devices and the latest update made it much better. But if you are not an Apple user or want to use something else, there are many options on the market like Todoist, Microsoft To Do or Any.do to name a few. They offer similar functionality, but it’s up to you to choose your productivity boosting To-Do app.

Reminders app from Apple is my To-Do app of choice.

I can create different categories in any To-Do app and then write tasks or anything I do not want to forget. Just put a name to it, create a due date, set a reminder for a specific date and time and set a priority so you know what’s more important. Once you are done with the task, it’s time to satisfyingly swipe it away or tap on the checklist to mark it completed.

There is also possibility to create subtasks for any task, recurring due dates and some other features you may or may not use. But you can be sure, when it’s time for the task to be completed, you’ll get a notification so you don’t forget about it.

Set a timer on your productivity

Now, when you have everything organized it’s time to actually start working. I am using an app Be Focused, which helps me to stay on track. It’s a very simple app resting in my Mac’s menu bar. The app uses Pomodoro technique which breaks down work into intervals separated by breaks. You can set work interval duration as you please, but I am sticking with the default 25 minutes. 

So how does it work? Let’s say I am about to work for three hours. I set up my target to six intervals with one interval lasting for 25 minutes. Then I set short break duration for 5 minutes and long break for 15 minutes. And I want a long break to happen after three intervals. When all is set, I’ll push Play button and countdown will start. After 25 minutes I’ll get a beep sound and it’s time for a 5 minute break.

Be Focused will break work into intervals and 1Focus blocks distracting websites and apps.

It’s a useful app, because I tend to be more productive when I am actually bound by a time telling me that I should be working. And it’s also for the best to make a short breaks when working.

Block all the distractions

Even with a timer, it is still far too easy to press Cmd+T (or Ctrl+T) so the new tab will open and I am again scrolling Facebook feed or reading the latest news. And of course, there is an app for that. With 1Focus you won’t get easily distracted by social media or anything else. 

It’s again a purely minimalistic app which role is to block any distracting websites and apps. With a few clicks I create a list of websites I want to block, for example Facebook, YouTube and Netflix. If you want, you can add any distracting apps too. Then I schedule blocking for a specific period of time. When I try to access one of the blocked websites, the browser won’t let me. I’ll only get information saying the site is blocked and one motivational quote as a bonus. 

Organize your files

Is your desktop a total mess? Well, that won’t help your productivity. I am trying to have my desktop free of any clutter and folders as organized as possible. If you work on some project, don’t save one file to the desktop, other to the Downloads folder, another to the Documents folder and fourth one… you don’t even know where you saved this one, right? Create a specific folder for your project and other subfolders within it. Then you can save files accordingly. 

I like Dropbox… a lot.

I am using Dropbox for my files organization. The best thing about it is that my files are stored in the cloud so I can access them from any device at any time. And if something happens with my computer, I won’t lose files I don’t want to lose. I also like the desktop app Dropbox offers and there is also a finder integration so it looks like a part of your OS. Sharing files is always just two clicks away, which is another convenient feature. And my files for specific projects are always in one place, so I know where to find them. 

These are my tips for working on any task you need to get done. I am using these tools and they proved helpful for me. It’s so easy to get distracted from work, that it’s almost necessary to create a routine of steps which are pushing you forward on a way of efficiency and productivity. Then you can reach your goal quicker and with less pain.  

And after you are done with all this work, just sit down and relax with one of these games.