Work From Home 101

How to be productive when working in the lab isn’t an option
MAR 2020

Being a grad student is hard. Being a grad student during the coronavirus pandemic is even harder. We’re used to running between classes, meetings, and labwork; suddenly, we’re barricaded in our apartments with no access to our labs, coffee shops or libraries, and we’re somehow expected to still be productive.

While this situation is less-than-ideal, working from home doesn’t have to be a death sentence to your productivity. It’s possible to still make headway on your research and coursework if you implement a few tricks that make working from home work for you. 

1. Set a routine

Just like a normal workday in the lab is scheduled and planned, your workday at home should also be scheduled and planned. Try to wake up and go to bed at around the same time as you would when working in the lab; if this means you need to set an alarm, then do it. Working from home doesn’t mean sleeping in for half the day!

Likewise, working from home doesn’t mean working all the time. Part of setting a routine is setting aside hours for work and hours for leisure. For example, if you normally work in the lab from nine to six, then you can set the same hours for working from home. The actual hours are all up to personal preference; what matters most is that, even though you don’t physically leave your home to work, there are clear guidelines for when it’s time to work and when it’s time to relax.

Personally, I like to schedule my work-from-home routine around pre-scheduled meetings. I have lab meetings at 1:30 on Wednesdays and Fridays and teach or take classes every day of the week in the mornings starting at 9:30. I plan the rest of my schedule accordingly. This includes setting my alarm for 7:30 to make sure I can work out and eat breakfast before my first class, having a lunch “packed” in Tupperware so I don’t have to cook in the middle of the day, and leaving the afternoon open for doing other work-related tasks.

2. Separate work from your bed

I know it’s tempting to work from bed, but I assure you that the temptation to nap probably exceeds your desire to actually get any work done. Furthermore, working where you sleep and sleeping where you work can affect your sense of boundaries, leaving you stressed and worsening your quality of sleep. If you can, set up a workstation away from your bed. If you live in a small space and have to work in bed, I suggest making your bed in the morning and then laying on top of the covers while working. Having a nicely made bed reduces the temptation of getting under the covers and makes you feel more put together.

Likewise, don’t work in your pajamas! Working in the same clothes you slept in completely erases the boundary between work and rest, just like working from bed. Instead, change clothes when you wake up in the morning. I’m not saying you need to wear a three-piece suit or your finest blazer, just don’t wear your dirty PJs. I work from home best while wearing athleisure—I’m still comfortable, but if I have to get on a Zoom call with my boss, I look and feel put together. Find something that works for you, but make sure it’s not something you would wear to bed later that same day.

3. Plan your day and your week

This is a great tip for working both from home and from the lab. At the beginning of each week, I like to write down a list of tasks that I need to accomplish that week, as well as a list of tasks I’d like to accomplish but would be fine pushing back. Then, throughout the week, I make sure to delegate the “must-do” tasks to different days. If I finish all of my “must-do” tasks for a given day, then I work on my list of less time-sensitive tasks. I never put all of my “must-do” tasks on the same day—I find this incredibly overwhelming, especially if there’s no way that I can finish them all in one day, so I make sure to spread them out throughout the week.

4. Schedule breaks

Give yourself scheduled breaks throughout the day. When working in the lab or an office, it’s really easy to take impromptu coffee breaks with coworkers or zone out and watch a quick YouTube video. It’s harder to do that when working alone from a desk in a studio apartment. That’s why it’s important to incorporate breaks into your routine. Give yourself a coffee break to make yourself a cup o’ joe, take a walk around the block with a roommate or a friend, or do a quick meditation sesh at your desk.

An easy way to schedule breaks is to use a timer. I like to reward myself with a 10 minute break for every 50 minutes that I work, and will adhere strictly to the timers that I set. For some people, it’s easier to take a break after finishing a task rather than after a certain time frame, but if you’ve been working on a task for a long time, I recommend taking a sufficiently long break to clear your head. One rule of thumb to follow is to take a five minute break for every 25 minutes of work, or to take at least a 15 minute break for every 100 minutes of work.

5. Find a workspace that works for you

Need an abundance of natural light to feel alive? Work near a window. Can’t work without snacks? Stock up on goodies at your local Trader Joe’s and keep them near your desk. Need fast internet? Work near your router. It’s important to make your workspace work for you and your needs, so make sure your space accommodates what you need to be productive.

If you can, designate a space for work, such as a desk or a common area table. Try to keep your work area clean and clutter free, as a cluttered workspace can be distracting. To make your workspace feel more inviting, you can add a small desk plant or a nice desk light to your workspace. I’d also recommend a comfortable desk chair to ease problems like the lower back pain.

The coronavirus pandemic will pass, but there will always be times when it’s necessary or preferable to work from home rather than commuting to the lab. These tips and tricks will help you be more productive from home regardless of the situation.