Illustration of a person’s home ecosystem in a sealed-off rectangle in a sea of particles and squid.
Illustration of a person’s home ecosystem in a sealed-off rectangle in a sea of particles and squid.
Illustration: Hoi Chan

Here’s a quick thought experiment: Pretend you’re an employee who started a new job six months ago. On your first day, your new boss led you to a weird, uncomfortable room, handed you a laptop computer, and set you up with an awkward schedule filled with stops and starts throughout the day. You’ve been trying to make the best of it, but your setup has made it hard to get any real work done.

These are fixable problems with a big payoff: the ability to do your job. Surely you would bring them up with your boss, right?

Right now, many of us are that new employee. We’ve been making do with an awkward work situation since March, living triage-style until things got “back to normal.” But it’s clear now that that isn’t going to happen anytime soon: Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and other employers have extended work-from-home arrangements until well into 2021, while a mid-August study found that 52% of students in the U.S. would be going to school virtually (at least at first).

So if you’d like to be productive long-term, survival mode needs to be over. Instead of hanging on and waiting for things to change “back to normal,” it’s time to make this new life work. Here are three ways to stop making do, and start making daily life doable.

Spend what you need to

Money is tight for many people right now, but if you’ve kept your job — or would like to — you may need to invest in tools to make daily life less challenging.

All spring, for instance, I handed over my computer and phone for an hour each day for my kids’ virtual school morning meetings.When we learned school would start virtually this fall, I realized how shortsighted it was to burn an hour of my own productive work time each day. I’m all for being frugal, but sharing my devices was costing me work time, and therefore getting pretty expensive. I sprang for an iPad, and a webcam and speakers so our old desktop computer can run Zoom.

Think about how you can pay some of your Covid-era problems to go away. If you’ve been multitasking kid supervision and work, maybe it’s time to allocate any money you’re saving on not eating out or commuting to a few strategic hours of childcare. Money is a tool, and knowing you’ll be able to focus can go a long way toward ending survival mode.

Speak up about what’s bothering you

In a crisis, people go along to get along. But since nothing is changing any time soon, it’s time to stop suffering in silence.

Take a few moments to identify your biggest pain points, and figure out who can help you address them. Maybe you and your partner split childcare responsibilities, but a particular colleague keeps calling you during your childcare shift. Don’t assume they understand what’s going on; explain it to them, and lay out how you need to work differently. Or maybe your roommate puts her calls on speakerphone and it’s driving you nuts. Make today the day you ask her to use headphones instead, or to keep the calls to certain hours.

These conversations can be awkward, but the payoff can be huge.

Get physically comfortable

Discomfort is distracting. If you started working from home suddenly in March, you might have grabbed any flat surface and any available chair. But you’d complain for sure if your employer stuck you at a break-room table for a year, and that may be what you’re looking at now.

Snap out of survival mode by setting up a real work station, one with a door and a window if at all possible. If you have to use your bedroom, think about using a screen to block your space and avoid, for example, an unmade bed in the background of your all-staff Zoom.

Get a chair you can comfortably sit in for eight hours. Adjust the height of your laptop. Clean up the clutter outside your window, or stick a flower box out on your ledge, so you have a view that makes you smile.

Consider getting physically comfortable by shifting your hours as well. Much work that can be done remotely can be done on a flexible schedule. If you work better by starting a little later and then working into the evening, or by taking a longer break to exercise in the middle of the day, why not try it out? Being able to run or walk regularly during daylight hours might be just the reward you need to enjoy this new iteration of normal life.

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management books including Off the Clock and 168 Hours. She blogs at LauraVanderkam.com.

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