Using smart triggers and associations to change habits and routines when working from home

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For most of us home is not associated with work. It is a place where we relax and put our feet up, grab a brew from the fridge and chill out. But the visual clues associated with home are now no longer the same. They have now become associated with work.

One of my PEP® training participants had a very demanding job. Home for him represented a much needed break from all the stress at the office. That had now changed and the stress at the office had now entered his home. No longer could he say to himself “finished for today” as he did before when he left the office. Or could he?

I find an enormous difference in the home working environments of my PEP® participants. This varies from sitting on the couch with a laptop balanced on the knees in a small apartment to a dedicated home office room with a proper desk and a large screen.

Ergonomics is more than a proper chair and correct table height, it is your overall physical comfort and well being as you work. One participant sat on a wooden bench during our first coaching session. I advised him to get a proper chair. Next session he still sat on that hard bench. Third session, the same. Eh? Then I noticed something in the room.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Oh, it’s a rowing machine I borrowed from the gym next door.”

Then of course it dawned on me. He would take regular breaks and work out on that rowing machine and, well, that wooden bench was no issue for him.

Best Practice number 1: take regular breaks and do some form of exercise.

One of the pitfalls of working from home is working 24-7. This is especially easy to do if you’re single. Years ago I had the habit of routinely working late at the office. Then one day my wife called me at 8 in the evening and said “If you’re not home in 15 minutes there’s no dinner!!” Now that was a really good trigger and it worked. Forget the 21 or 66 days to change a habit. A habit of many years was broken in an instant. The Dutch call it “keeping a stick behind the door.”

Knowing how triggers and associations impact your mind puts you in control. You become the boss!

Best Practice number 2: Maintain the same schedule as you did in the office.

Then take this a step further: dress the same as you did in the office. Put on shoes at the start of the working day and at the end of work take them off. Then turn the work table back into a dining table by removing laptop and screen. These are specific triggers to help you mentally differentiate between work and private in both space (your home) and time (your schedule).

Time Boxing here is crucial. Without it you are at the mercy of every demand coming from your environment whether business or private. “The day fills itself.” Unless of course if you fill it yourself..

Best Practice number 3: Plan your day and plan your week.

Time Box your most important activities for the week, leaving 30% of your time unplanned for unforeseen. This provides a degree of flexibility in your planning should a crisis occur. In order to be productive while maintaining a high quality level you need to work in a space without distractions. So disable notifications when you need to concentrate. If there’s a fire they’ll call you. Working from home is ideal for some people but for others, especially those with kids, it’s a nightmare.

Marianne, a single mom, works in Business Development for a training company. She has a 3 year old daughter who is now at home since the day care centre has closed. A major part of her job is maintaining contact with clients during business hours.

“It’s impossible!” she tells me. “I’m being interrupted 70 times an hour. Yes it’s true, I actually counted it.”

What hope is there for Marianne and others like her? Asking my participants with kids here are some of their solutions:

  • Have the grandparents help out with baby sitting.
  • Change your work schedule to after their bed time.
  • Offer a reward if they leave you alone for a specified time. And honour it.
  • Set up a mini workspace next to yours and put them to work.
  • As a last resort give them your smartphone but only if you choose what they watch.

Best Practice number 4: Be innovative and do what it takes to create moments when you can concentrate and work without distractions.

Working from home is not just coping with the current situation and hoping it will end soon. The first objective should be to create a stable base so that you can get your work done. Think about it. Could you work like this for 1 year, for 2 years, or for even longer? You might have to. The many advantages of having people working from home has not gone unnoticed by government, business or by the employees themselves. One of my PEP® participants told me she saves 3 hours a day, not by commuting, but by not having to drive from meeting to meeting across country.

Look what is happening with the environment. Where have the traffic jams gone? The Paris Climate Accord is suddenly within reach. Who would have thought of it? Office real estate? Masses of people commuting daily to inhabit office buildings not really needed, at least not at the current scale, when we already have the tools to work from anywhere. It doesn’t take a genius to see the cost and environmental benefits.

But then we have Habits! On the one side we have all the tools available for mobile working but then on the other side we have created a culture of work where the tools are not used as they can or should be. Not because we don’t want to but because of Habits, the comfort zone of the status quo, and it is so difficult to change. Especially a whole global culture.

Covid 19 is a terrible virus. I have lost one of my participants to it. So it is not so far from home. But what it has done is given us a wake-up call which was long overdue. As the lockdowns ease I believe that we will not return to the ways before the virus. We will have a different world when the virus has passed. And I am sure that it will be a better world.

Stay healthy. 

Eric Magnusson, Managing Partner PEP®worldwide – Europe 

Control your habits

PEP® is a registered trademark, owned and licensed by IBT Europe BV trading as PEPworldwide Europe.

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