Habits are often deeply entrenched. You greet each day with a bleary-eyed trek to the coffee maker or walk the same neighborhood loop. Then something shifts. Maybe you move, land a new job, adopt a pet—or a global pandemic breaks out. The change immediately disrupts your routines.
Sudden changes can be difficult, but they can also be eye-opening. For those of us who have the resources and ability, self-isolation is an opportunity to apply what Better Than Before author Gretchen Rubin calls “the strategy of the clean slate” to reset our work habits.
Before you spit coffee at the screen, this is not another admonition to make the most of COVID-19. Millions are ill and unemployed. Caring for yourself, your loved ones, and your community is the only true necessity right now. And it can feel natural to slide into a less stressful routine, opting to sleep in a little later and indulge in comfort food.
If you have the means and the desire, self-isolation is a chance to assess what matters: What occupies your work time? How do your habits align with your priorities? The pandemic has crumbled so many of our collective walls. Typical productivity hacks not only feel tired but utterly irrelevant. Now is the time to work with purpose.
To start off, reconsider your routines.
Habits comprise about 40% of our daily behaviors. These routines can be many things (positive, negative, or neutral), but over time, they shape every aspect of our lives. “Habits are the invisible architecture of everyday life, and a significant element of happiness,” says Rubin. “If we have habits that work for us, we’re much more likely to be happy, healthy, productive, and creative.”
Before you can change a habit, you need to recognize and observe it. A daily 3 p.m. chocolate binge clearly isn’t optimal, but focus on what’s in front of you. What about tackling easier tasks before the more intimidating ones? How about scheduling meetings earlier in the day?
Habits are also highly personal, so track your work routines and explore whether they serve or inhibit you. In my experience, your body holds the clues. Notice moments of friction and tension, and monitor how certain actions make you feel. If scrolling Instagram drains the energy you need for strategic thinking, it’s time to change things.
Develop a step-by-step framework
In his 2014 book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg shares a four-step framework for habit change. First, identify the routine. This is an autopilot behavior, such as scrolling social media when faced with a blank page. Then, ask yourself what triggers this habit: fear, discomfort, boredom, or confusion? And what reward does scrolling Instagram provide: relief, distraction? Next, experiment with the rewards. When you feel the urge to scroll social media, try closing your eyes and breathing in deep, or get up for a drink of water. Also a smart tactic: Set a timer for five minutes of focus, followed by a few minutes of earned scrolling. “By experimenting with different rewards,” writes Duhigg, “you can isolate what you are actually craving, which is essential in redesigning the habit.”
Isolating the cue is next. Duhigg says almost all habitual cues fit into one of five categories: location, time, emotional state, other people, and the immediately preceding action. In this scenario, a blank document cues the social media spiral.
And finally, Duhigg says create a plan. Decide what you’ll do when the craving hits, and stick to it. If your plan isn’t working, circle back and keep trying new rewards.
Put self-isolation techniques into action
I know firsthand that running a business, alongside managing daily life, tending to children, and supporting employees, is a different game now. We are also navigating uncharted waters. To help myself maintain better work habits in self-isolation, here are a few of my techniques.
Reassess your priorities
Even our to-do lists can become habitual. I spend a few minutes each morning, each Monday morning, and the first day of every month to list my top goals for the day, week, and month. I’ve learned that not all to-do items are created equal. During the current situation, try to be even more intentional about how you spend your work time. Make it count.
Minimize nonessential meetings
Meetings are tempting because they feel like productive work, when in reality, they are deceptive time wasters.
From team gatherings to virtual happy hours, a constant stream of video calls can devour precious time you need to focus and solve problems.
Video chats are also more tiring than in-person meetings, says Gianpiero Petriglieri, associate professor at Insead, because our brains work overtime to process nonverbal cues. “Our minds are together when our bodies feel we’re not,” Petriglieri told the BBC. “That dissonance, which causes people to have conflicting feelings, is exhausting. You cannot relax into the conversation naturally.”
Set your own targets and keep them
Work can be a welcome place to focus right now. Staying busy can feel comforting.
Even if you don’t have big projects underway or deadlines are tentative—establish your own. As writing partners Nicola Kraus and Emma McLaughlin say, crystallize a clear timeline: “If you say, ‘I’m going to hand this treatment, or proposal, or lookbook for the handbag line I’m creating, back next Friday,’ and type that on your calendar, you will do it. Your mental energy will naturally align with meeting that goal.”
Aytekin Tank is the founder of JotForm, a popular online form builder. Established in 2006, JotForm allows customizable data collection for enhanced lead generation, survey distribution, payment collections, and more.