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How to remain productive at home

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Now that we’re back at our childhood desks, using all of our willpower to do school at home, I decided to think of ways to make the most of online school. 

Although I try my best not to think about chemistry when I’m out of class, I can’t help but notice an interesting trend: Similar to how most chemical reactions need to overcome a barrier of energy to occur, I need to climb the same hill of procrastination to get myself in the working mindset. 

At home, however, the barrier only increases.

Given the close proximity of my bed, a kitchen with snacks, chores, journals from childhood to uncover for a good laugh, and parents who are all ears 24/7, it’s hard to be productive. And perhaps – without the physical presence of Stanford students that are hard at work – I can’t feel the usual reverberations of our campus’ hustle and bustle. 

At home, where there’s nothing to remind me of school, I often find myself just “chillin out, maxin, relaxing all cool” like the Fresh Prince of Bel Air.

However, I’m convinced that we don’t have to find ourselves in the shoes of Sisyphus, pushing a boulder up the hill only for it to roll back down. With discipline and a couple of strategies, I believe that it’s possible to overcome the activation barrier, get into the working mindset, and productively do school at home. 

Strategy No. 1: Don’t watch lectures or do homework in bed. 

Most likely, you’ll get sleepy when you’re warm and cozy, and possibly doze off when your professor is saying something important. Instead, it might be helpful to find an area where you can sit and work with no distraction. This will be your corner of the world for focusing. You can call it your focus zone workstation. After you designate where you want your workstation, make sure to keep all you need nearby and all you don’t need far away. You can even imagine the station as a library cubicle. Would you watch TV or migrate to your bed if you were at Law Library? By pretending like you’re at the library, you can successfully change out of your PJs into something nice, wash your face, get coffee and enter the working mindset.

P.S. A great way to prevent migrating from your workstation to your bed is to make your bed first thing in the morning.

P.S.S. If you’re able to have multiple workspaces and if you have lectures back to back, you can watch one lecture at your workstation and another on your living room TV. This way you can get a change of scenery and experience a class that feels more “real life.” 

Strategy No. 2: Use the Pomodoro Technique when doing homework. 

The Pomodoro Technique uses a timer to break work down into short, 25-minute long intervals that are spaced out by 5-minute breaks. This time management system helps focus and be consistently productive with short sprints and regular breaks to keep you motivated. Rather than feeling as if you have all the time in the world and losing yourself in distractions, you can make the most out of your 25 minutes with an old-fashioned timer or app. Essentially, this is how it works:

  1. Set the timer for 25 minutes and start your task. 
  2. If a distraction finds its way into your head, note it down, and return to your task.
  3. When the timer goes off, take a 5-minute break. You can use the bathroom, grab a drink, stretch, or think about the distraction you noted down.
  4. After four 25-minute intervals, take a longer break! The technique recommends 30 minutes.
  5. Repeat.

Yay for ultra-focused, large blocks of time for work and breaks! 

Strategy No. 3: Plan your day out in the morning. 

I’m a big fan of the T-Chart. My grade 10 math teacher showed me this much more sophisticated version of a to-do list. It looks like this:

By listing out the tasks you need to accomplish each day, you can have an easier time staying on track, and you can note your progress as you check tasks off. Moreover, with this T-Chart list, you can prioritize the most important tasks and focus on those. You can also plan your day out by the hour – but make sure to leave some room for spontaneity!

Another suggestion would be to figure out the ebb and flow of your productivity throughout the day. By figuring out when you’re at your most productive, you can use those moments to do homework and the other moments to do chores and easier tasks. 

Strategy No. 4: Set boundaries with your family and friends, and even with yourself.

I believe that if you share your class schedule with your family and friends, they will understand and give you space. Perhaps you can set up some signals. For instance, if your door is closed, it means that you’re listening to a lecture or in the middle of a Pomodoro. This way you won’t be distracted from your class or train of thought. 

However, as the saying goes, your biggest enemy is often yourself. Since most of our homework will be done on our computer, it’s likely that we’re going to face distractions on the internet. If telling yourself to not check social media during work time doesn’t succeed, you can use website and app timers. 

Strategy No. 5: Read books, watch movies, exercise and go on walks. 

Staying at home for the past few weeks has made me feel confined to a suffocating cube. However, there are many ways to step outside of this cube. You can read a book or watch a movie and live vicariously through the characters. So far, I’ve danced with Anna Karenina, drove with Baby Driver and went to see about a girl with Will Hunting – and I can’t complain. 

Another way would be to go on a walk. You can also find a place to run or work out in your backyard. Although ambitious, maybe you can squeeze in a 10-minute workout from the Nike Training Club app in between your class, because now we don’t have to bike from one place to another. By stepping away from the screen, taking breaks and breathing, we can keep our minds fresh. 

Strategy No. 6: Have plans to look forward to, and be positive. 

Whether you plan Zoom calls with your friends or movie marathons with your family, make sure to do something fun! This will help you get through a week packed with classes and counter the loneliness of social distancing. 

Moreover, being at home may be a special opportunity. My dad always says that this might be one of the last times we’re together for this long. Although I’d rather not think about it, I believe him to some extent. When the wave of COVID-19 recedes, we’ll once again be leaving home for internships, school and to explore the world. We must not take our time with family for granted. 

On top of this, we’re back in the places that shaped us into who we are. Sitting at my childhood desk, I can’t help but think of where I’m coming from and of the aspirations I had before college started. So far, it’s been sobering. The values I have lost sight of amid problem sets, expectations, and numbers are coming back, and I seem to remember and appreciate everyone who has helped me along the way to college more. I suppose if I could just take this clarity and all the knowledge Stanford has taught me so far, I can better reflect on who I am and what I hope to do. 

And now it’s time to listen to listen to my own advice.

Contact Helena Zhang at helenaz ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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