The Simple (& Obvious) WFH Hack That Instantly Improved My Productivity

Craig Blankenhorn/Hbo/Darren Star Prods/Kobal/Shutterstock

As the West Coast editor for The Zoe Report, I’ve always worked remotely (as our team is primarily based in NYC) to some degree, so the recent shift to WFH culture is not totally new. That said, I am not unaffected by the recent shift, as my previous day-to-day life was filled with outdoor activities related to my job. My routine has changed in that I now find myself at a desk or indoors for 90 percent of the day and much more vulnerable to the distractions that brings — laundry, my dog, the constant need to snack, etc. Luckily, I stumbled upon a work-from-home-hack that is incredibly simple (and perhaps obvious), but totally genius. In fact, it changed my work schedule for good.

Initially, I approached my new at-home work routine as I did my old regimen — haphazardly and with little to no boundaries. I checked emails on my phone as soon as I woke up (around 7 a.m.), and hopped online immediately, pajamas and all. I would simultaneously try to get some sort of home task done like laundry or washing dishes, keeping the TV on in the background to keep me entertained, and work meals and snacks in throughout the day (read: all day).

While this sort of unstructured pattern may have worked or simply not affected me a month ago when my schedule was a bit more scattered, the recent weeks have revealed my dismantled approach to be a recipe for disaster. My unestablished start and end times often meant I would work into the late evenings, and my peppering of home tasks would easily distract me and divert me from work for long periods of time (sometimes hours), further contributing to my late hours. Adding insult to injury were my poor eating habits, which resulted in bloating, sluggishness, and general unhealthy living (Swedish Fish are not a primary source of nutrition). I needed a change.


Work-From-Home Hack: Upgraded To-Do Lists

A good friend of mine, who also happens to work from home, recently informed me of a classic trick that she swears by for staying productive: written to-do lists. Now, this may seem like an obvious tip (and one many already adopt), but her approach was definitely an upgrade to the general/vague weekly to-do lists I compile regularly.

You see, she recommended writing down my daily tasks and breaking them each down by the hour — and getting as specific and granular as possible. For instance, my workday starts at 9 a.m., so I devote that first hour to catching up on and responding to emails. I also find that I'm most alert and focused in the first half of the day (thank you, coffee), so I typically carve out the time between 10 a.m. and 12 p.m. to write and edit important or urgent features and articles.

According to life coach Ciara Burton this "first things first" approach to to-do lists is crucial. "Pick your first things [and] do them well and do them right away," she says in an email to The Zoe Report. "If you're anything like me, you feel your best when you get a lot done in a day (because you know you can). [This] will not only help you get your most important tasks accomplished straight out of the gate, it will allow you to move through your work at a higher vibrational energetic state because you’ve put your best self in the game."

I also make sure to include breaks, meetings, and sign-off times in my to-do list, so I can have accurate snapshot of my whole workday. As I complete or finish a task, I physically cross it off, which gives me an odd sense of accomplishment and productivity. Because I schedule my important or urgent tasks in the first half of my days, anything that I don't get to as my work shift comes to an end is easily pushed to the following day and prioritized accordingly, keeping any feelings of being rushed or anxious to a minimum. "Train your brain to see all that you’ve done versus have left to do," says Burton. "Your best self is not that part of you that feels victimized by his/her circumstances, but rather rises above all challenges while maintaining a calm, cool, and collected state of being."

Since implementing this process, I've seen my productivity and stress-levels improve dramatically. In adhering to set start and end times, I find myself having more balance and time for self-care activities like working out, cooking meals, quality play time with my dog, organizing and cleaning my home (as my new rule is to avoid household tasks like laundry and cleaning during work hours).

Now, for me, I've found writing out my to-do list every day helps my brain retain the information and remember. However, others might find digital tools like Evernote or Google Calendar to be more ideal for keeping track of tasks. Whatever, your approach, I recommend working a to-do list of some kind into your daily routine.

"If you want to enjoy this 'break' in your routine and produce good quality work in less time, an unconventional approach to the to-do list must be implemented to avoid feelings of anxiety and uncertainty that may come during unexpected transitions," says Burton.


Bonus Work-From-Home Tips For Success (If To-Do Lists Aren't Your Thing)

If you've already mastered to-do lists or simply don't find them useful, there's a plethora of other work-from-home tips that might be a fit for you. Below, some productivity hacks for working remotely straight from TZR editors, career coaches, and mentors.

  • Sit at a table. "Sitting on a couch or anywhere else that's too comfortable inevitably leads to me scrolling through my phone for way too long or struggling not to doze off," says Anna Buckman, TZR's shopping news editor. "I find that when I'm sitting up and spread out at out my dining room table, I'm much more focused and alert, and willing to tackle more of my to-do list."
  • Wear headphones. "While home is comforting, home is also full of distractions," says Shannon Pfeffer, Founder of Syrup Coaching. "Put on focusing music or a white noise playlist and tune out the home."
  • Batching your work by day. "I've found that the most productive days are when I batch my projects," says Shannon Lutz, marketing coach and founder of Social Bungalow. "For example, if you're a coach, I would recommend making one day your 'CEO day' where you focus on tasks specifically for your business. From there, allocate days for creative work, client work, and admin/misc. work. By doing this you're able to focus and get in the creative state and energy of that specific task or project, which ultimately yields better results."
  • Be flexible. "Know that you won’t be consistent, and it’s OK," says Leadership and Executive Coach Sandra Voyadzis. "People set very high expectations when working from home, which is fabulous, but also often unrealistic. When you are in the office, chances are your productivity ebbs and flows throughout the day, it’s the same at home. Be kind to yourself, practice self-compassion, and be realistic."
  • Take mindful breaks. "Examples include, going for a walk, throwing your legs up the wall, having your meal be screen-free," suggests Kelley Hoag, M.S., behavioral health adviser and founder of Root to Rise Health. ⁣"Use your breaks (and your comfort) to your advantage."
  • Set out to accomplish three things every day. "These three things should be the most impactful, most meaningful items you need to get done first," says Sarah Adler, nutrition coach, and author of the best-selling cookbook Simply Real Health. "They move the needle forward and make everything else easier or not necessary — those three things should be your priority."