Last update: 11/02/2021
Hi there Zen Organizers,
With the pandemic still going on, many people have been obliged to study or work from home. For many, not having the structure usually given at school or work makes it difficult to set their own work routine, find motivation, and understand what you need to complete first. This situation is relatively new for many people, so it's completely understandable to feel lost, unproductive, and unmotivated.
However, fear not – I know what you are going through, and I think I can help!
I studied online during the whole length of my 3-year bachelor’s degree, so I'm going to share with you some tips that helped me successfully – and not too painfully! – complete it.
In this first article, I'll give you tips that involve mostly time management. In the next one, we'll cover goal setting and task management.
Let’s get started!
1. Know your biological rhythm and exploit it
You probably know that everybody has a different biological rhythm. Some people are early birds and are more productive first thing in the morning; others are night owls and are perform better in the evening or even at night. Most people fall somewhere in between these two extremes.
I won't dive too deeply into this topic here (read this article to discover your chronotype and the way to plan your tasks accordingly). However, I highly recommend you read The Power of When, by Dr. Michael Breus, if you're interested in learning about biorhythms and the best time to do everything more efficiently throughout the day.
Whether you read the book or not, try to understand the moment in which you tend to be more rational, focused, and energized, and the one in which you are more creative and better at problem-solving. You can use the energy-level tracker in the Chronotype Workbook to find out your energy level patterns throughout the day and the week.
For example, I am much more concentrated mid-morning, whereas I tend to be more creative in the afternoon. Therefore, I try to exploit these periods efficiently: from 10 to 12, my peak in terms of concentration and rationality, I focus on tasks like reading textbooks, researching, and editing essays. In the afternoon, when I am more creative, I work on writing, brainstorming, and problem-solving.
Of course, this is an ideal situation. Unfortunately, there are some periods where you can’t follow your rhythm. For instance, when the finals were approaching, it didn’t matter what time was best to study; I had to study all day long to prepare for the final exams, so that’s what I did.
Nevertheless, generally speaking, knowing your personal rhythm and working with it instead of against it will make you much more productive and lose much less time and motivation.
2. Set a daily schedule
Once you have identified your peak times in terms of rational and creative work, try to determine a daily schedule – and try to stick to it as much as possible.
I think it’s especially important to set a starting time. Otherwise, you’ll be much more likely to procrastinate.
For example, I’m not an early bird, and, as mentioned above, my peak time is in the middle of the morning. Therefore, when I studied, my starting time was 9 AM. Even though some mornings, I was not motivated, I would sit down at my desk at 9 AM, and I would start studying.
The hardest part is to start.
Once you’ve started, it’s much easier to keep going. Therefore, determine your starting time and stick to it. After all, it’s the same as if you actually had to go to school or work – except you can stay in your pajamas if you want!
Then, try to set a time for your lunch break. I recommend taking a 1-hour break to allow your brain and yourself to rest and relax. If you spend most of the day in front of a computer, try to stay away from screens during your lunch break. Here again, set a time to start studying, or you might end up taking a 3-hour lunch break...
Finally, determine what time you want to stop studying. I think this time can be a bit less strict than the starting one. Some days, you might be very productive and finish more tasks than planned earlier than your finishing time. On the contrary, there might be days where you’re less productive than planned, so you might have to work a bit later than your set finishing time.
However, don’t study or work for too long every day. After six or seven hours of intense mental activity, it’s useless and unproductive to keep going. Give yourself – and your brain – a break. Your brain needs some time to process all the submitted information, so overworking it isn’t productive in the long run.
Consequently, when determining your ideal schedule, don’t plan on working for more than 6 or 7 – maximum 8 – hours a day. You need time to do other things like seeing your friends and family, doing some physical exercise, practicing a hobby, etc.
For example, when I studied online, my daily schedule was the following:
9:00 AM: start studying
1:00 PM: lunch break
2:00 PM: start studying again
4:00-5:00 PM: stop studying
This is what my ideal workday looks like these days:
3. Take regular breaks
This tip might seem pretty obvious, but we often forget to take breaks when we study or work at home. Whereas at school or in the workplace, we have external reminders to take a break, when we’re alone in front of our computer, it’s up to us to remember to get away from the screen every now and then.
If you tend to forget to take breaks, I suggest you try the Pomodoro Technique. I explain it in greater detail in this article, but it basically consists of uninterrupted 25-minute periods of work, followed by short 5-minute breaks. Then, after four of these series, you take a longer break of 15 to 30 minutes.
This method helps you to focus solely on the task at hand for 25 minutes, no distractions allowed, AND to take frequent breaks to keep your brain fresh and concentrated. Isn’t it marvelous!
Whenever you take breaks, it’s obviously OK to take a look at your phone, your emails, and your social media accounts, but also think about grabbing a bite and taking a sip of water to keep yourself hydrated and fueled. It’s also a good idea to stretch your muscles regularly to avoid tension building up in your body.
As mentioned before, I suggest you try to stay away from screens during your longer breaks. Your eyes will thank you! For instance, I liked to use these longer breaks to eat with my family, get some fresh air, exercise, and pet my cats.
Don’t make the mistake of bypassing breaks because you see them as a loss of time and productivity. On the contrary, taking pauses helps you stay productive and rested longer. It also allows you to process the information you’ve just taken in.
Moreover, breaks are the best solution when you’re stuck on something. In these cases, try going for a 15-minute walk. It’s almost guaranteed that you’ll find a solution to your problem.
Bottom line: don’t feel bad for taking breaks!
4. Plan a weekly buffer
Although you have your ideal daily schedule and try to stick to it as much as possible, there’s always something unplanned that comes up. That’s why it’s crucial to plan a buffer, which is a period every week you can use to complete unfinished tasks. This way, you won’t fall too far behind if an unexpected situation arises during the week.
If you study full time, you’ll probably have to plan your buffer period during the weekend. If that’s the case, I’d suggest you schedule it for Saturday. This way, you can enjoy the rest of your weekend without stressing about the delay you have accumulated. If you work full time, you can plan one evening per week or maybe Friday afternoon as buffer periods. However, this is very personal, and you should find the moment that works best for you. Here again, you might want to consider your biorhythm when choosing the best time for your buffer.
So far, I've given you four tips to be more productive when studying or working from home. These tips revolve mostly around time management. In the next part of this article, we'll cover tips that focus more on motivation, goal setting, and task management. Stay tuned!
I shared with you my tips to stay productive when studying/working, but I would love to hear about yours. Please share them with us below or on Instagram @zenlyorganized!
I wish you to be productive and zenly organized whether you study/work from home or not,