As the COVID world has become the new normal, we find ourselves having to get work done that has been put on a long delay.

For some, this challenge is happening in a crowded space. Children underfoot or needing help with homeschooling. Dogs barking. Multiple zoom meetings happening for different family members. For others living alone, COVID can feel like an isolation that shrinks the walls and slows the brain. Old habits no longer work. The coffee shop is no longer an option for changing scenery.

What can successful work look like in a COVID world? While we might need to shrink our expectations of what work looks like in our new reality, we find ourselves needing to make progress. Due to external deadlines and also to feel a sense of purpose. Here are a few strategies for feeling a personal sense of accomplishment, no matter your set up.

Begin with your heaviest weight.

The best way to complete meaningful work each day is to begin with the tough stuff. Do the task that is your greatest stressor first. The one that matters the most–the one that is weighing on you. The tasks that leaves a pit in your stomach because you ignore it.

Pay yourself first in your day and do the hardest work when you are freshest. Do not check the easy items off of your “to-do” list. When you have your carved out precious writing time, do the hard stuff. Tackling that project will ease the anxiety, make you feel like you are in control of your destiny. You can make steady progress on your goals, visiting with your real work. Every day.

Conditions to set the mood. Notice the conditions that make your most important work easiest to do.  What conditions help you to work well? For example, music can help us to connect with a particular mood or mindset . Consider using the same playlist when working on a project over a few months It might be with particular music that helps you to focus. Or consider the same white noise if you do not like music.

I tend to listen to Pink Floyd when I can’t seem to be productive. I don’t even usually listen to Pink Floyd. But it gets my writing processes flowing and I am able to do the tough thinking stuff.

Also notice your blocks and barriers to successful work time. Notice when you make unnecessary rules that block meaningful work opportunities. You can write even if your inbox is full. Even if your kitchen is dirty. Even if your phone is ringing. Notice what habits or conditions pull you out of focus. Turn off the internet on your computer. Leave your cell phone in another room. Set a timer to reward yourself for staying focused longer.

Perhaps you find yourself in a funk. Change it up. Take responsibility. Write anyway but with a new habit. Save habits that you enjoy for rewards when completing a project. Savor the victory.

Taking on some challenges to alter your usual rhythms can provide experiments in how to improve writing quality and to shrink the amount of time necessary to complete your work. Some experiments to try:

  • Shrink your “meaningful work” windows. Finding time also includes changing mental models of how much time is needed for quality work, and especially writing. Research indicates that daily attention to the tough work you need to get done is much more effective than blocking out a giant chunk of time once a week. Challenge yourself to see how small of a time window can be used for meaningful work. Even a half an hour is enough to write one paragraph. Push yourself to break your own record in efficiency in small time periods. See if this strategy can work for you.
  • Ride the energy flow. Dive in deep for short spurts of time when you are feeling especially productive. When you find yourself in a period of time when your energy is particularly high and the work is flowing, honor this energy shift and write as much as you can. Ride the inspiration wave. Cancel other plans when possible. Ask for support from loved ones. Such a wave of energy will not last forever, so treasure it and slide into the flow of writing.
  • Create a “meaningful work” cocoon. Shut your office door when you are working. Place a post-it not one it to not be disturbed.
  • Create accountability structures. Rely on friends to ask you about your deadlines. Work in the company of others–online if need be. Ask colleagues to ask you about your progress. Set deadlines for others to read about your work. Hire a writing/life coach to help you to prioritize your goals and to stick to them.
  • End each “meaningful work” session with a note to yourself of how to jump in and get started substantively. Give yourself a question to answer for the next day. Note in your work where to begin the next time and give yourself a clear task as a starting off point.

Whether it be mastering your schedule, creating boundaries, or trying on new ways of writing, the goal is become a student of your habits. Notice what is working, what problems you create for yourself, and be brave to try on new habits.

Written by Dr. Dana Mitra

I am a life coach at Coaching By Dana and tenured academic professor at Penn State.

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