Melbourne Business School News The best time management tips for working from home during COVID-19

The best time management tips for working from home during COVID-19

Working from home during COVID-19 is an opportunity to debunk the multitasking myth, writes Professor Jill Klein.

Melbourne Business School Professor of Marketing Jill Klein on webcam

As an academic with a strong interest in leadership and resilience, I've learnt a thing or two about how leaders can maximise their time and wellbeing under pressure. These tips work just as well at home as in the normal workplace.

1. Do one thing at a time

We've all been tempted to check our email during a Zoom meeting, and maybe even decided to respond to one. You might think that you can keep track of a meeting while writing an email – but you can't.

Research shows clearly that we can't do two cognitive tasks at once. When composing an email, you're not engaged with what's going on in the meeting. If your boss asks you a question, you won't give a very good answer and you'll forget what you were writing in that email anyway.

What we think of as multitasking is actually task-switching, and studies show that it costs us time and cognitive capacity. When we try to think about more than one thing at once, we become slower and more stupid than if we just finished one task before moving on to the next.

So, if your child needs help with homework while you're working from home, do that and only that. When you've finished, you can give your full attention to your work again, and achieve more, more quickly, in the process.

On the bright side, we can use our inability to multitask to our advantage. When we're anxious, we tend to ruminate – that is, to think about the bad things that can happen, sometimes in vivid detail. We may often find ourselves doing this during the time of COVID-19.

Rumination is a cognitive activity, so doing another cognitive task will take your mind away from anxious thoughts. Counting backwards from 1000 in sevens (993, 986..., for example) makes it impossible to ruminate. If your anxiety returns, start counting again, and keep practising.

By the way, it is possible to do a cognitive task at the same time as a procedural task, such as cleaning the kitchen or taking a shower. Many of us actually do our best thinking while doing something active.

2. Prioritise

When everyone first started working from home, I thought: "Wow, I'll finally get time to do some important tasks that require deep thought and focus. I can knock out a bunch of chapters for the book I'm writing." And then the reality set in.

The demands of my job are now different – but just as high. I receive just as many emails as before, and my calendar is filling up with meetings.

If I want to get those chapters written, I need to take the advice of Tony Crabbe, who wrote the wonderful book Busy: How to Thrive in a World of Too Much.

Crabbe suggests planning out your day or week to put the most important tasks – those that will have the biggest impact – in your calendar first. A couple of blocks (at least) in my calendar this week should say "Write Chapter 3".

It's best to take on important activities in your high-energy times, when you are at your mental peak, and reserve your low-energy times for small, easier tasks, like responding to emails.

As some compensation, research shows that we get a little boost of the pleasurable brain chemical dopamine when emailing, which is just the reward you need when hitting send and delete in your low-energy periods.

3. Spend time on your wellbeing

Research also tells us that we do our best work when we feel happy and safe. Contributing factors to that include exercise and good sleep, which have a significant impact on our cognitive capacity and emotional state.

Experiencing positive emotion and giving and receiving emotional support also underpin resilience in the face of adversity.

Managing our wellbeing matters even in non-pandemic times, but with the world now shifting under our feet, it's more important than ever.

It's better to spend some time on yourself and your family than run yourself down by attempting to do too much. Not only will you feel much better, but you'll get more done with the time you devote to working.

Easier said than done, I know – but try to push back against unreasonable work demands that don't take into account your new circumstances.

4. Look after your team

If you have authority to place work demands on others, remember that you want them in good shape when the COVID-19 pandemic is over and the economy rebounds.

If you expect your team to be as productive as they've always been, they will probably try to meet your expectations, but might harm themselves trying to stay in your good graces.

To get the most out of your team, help them prioritise too. How big is their plate right now? Is it proportionate to their circumstances, such as home-schooling responsibilities? What do you want in the centre of that plate?

Your employees simply don't have the capacity to bear the full brunt of this pandemic's impact on your business. Your job as a leader is to help them deliver what they can, while functioning at an optimal level – which will benefit not just them, but your business too in the end.

By focusing on one task at a time, prioritising your most important tasks, and looking after yourself and your team, you'll emerge from this crisis with your work, relationships and happiness intact. It's just a matter of paying attention to what matters most.

Jill Klein is a Professor of Marketing who teaches Managerial Judgement, Decision Making and Resilient Leadership on our MBA programs. Visit her faculty profile for more information.

Jill is currently writing a book titled Thriving in Medical School to help medical students focus on their wellbeing.

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