How do I find motivation working from home during a pandemic?
About two years ago I started an internal blog within Amazon's wiki where I send an email every week sharing advice I've learned about being a leader at Amazon. The list has reached over 2300 subscribers and a few folks have asked to be able to share the blog with their friends. I'll start cross-posting some of the posts to LinkedIn in case coworkers want to share them or my ex-coworkers still want to follow along👋 Today's post was written and published on April 24, 2020.
Yesterday marked seven weeks of working from home for those in Seattle. I miss going into the office. While the office is full of fun distractions, I also miss the energy that comes from the constant activity and chatter. That energy was motivational, inspiring. A few mentees have asked how I’m staying motivated and how they can continue to focus on their career during a pandemic. While in the normal conditions I have fairly high energy, positive mood every day, that isn’t the case right now. From day-to-day, my mood swings far more. I try to be mindful of this and vulnerable with my colleagues on how I’m doing.
I can’t say I have a lot of novel ideas for you but I hope you find this post encouraging. We’ll get through this together.
Be kind to yourself and to your coworkers
Before getting into how I’ve staying motivated, I want to encourage you to be kind to yourself and to others during this time. Coworkers will miss deadlines. You’ll fail to meet some personal goals. That’s okay. We’re all trying to survive and do our part during this pandemic. Give each other grace. A few weeks ago my friend Dana Sasinowski shared with me this article by Basecamp’s Jason Fried on Remote work. I appreciate how Jason framed this: “The important thing is not to try to simulate what you do in the office, but pull back on the number of things you think you need to do. We have to curb our ambitions right now, and be empathetic about the situation we’re in.”
Communication and vulnerability are more important now than ever. If you’re feeling overwhelmed with expectations of you, talk to your manager. Reassess what really matters and what can wait. Give yourself the grace to ask for pushing a deadline back or asking for help in making a tradeoff between where your time goes. On my team, we’ve had a lot of empathy for each other because each person’s situation looks different. As my mom always taught me, you can’t get what you don’t ask for.
More focus on smaller tasks
On days when my energy is lower, I find myself returning to my to-do list more often. I review my priorities more often to see what I can say no to. While I usually hold a high bar for how I manage my time and priorities, this has become even more critical in the past two months. A lot of my work relies on others who aren’t committed to my work and persuading them to care and spend time. This is never easy but it's been harder during the pandemic.
While I used to manage my GTD (Getting Things Done) priorities a couple times a week, I’m now doing it twice daily. Whereas I use to be successful in tackling a large task over the course of multiple days with just one to-do, I’m now breaking big tasks into smaller ones. Smaller tasks give a greater sense of accomplishment for each one you complete, and it gives you more focus on what to do next. For example, we’re writing a new document outlining a set of considerations and improvement opportunities for Alexa. We’re getting feedback on the document every day. A simple task may be “review feedback and update document”. However, I can find that this same task sits on my to-do list for weeks because we keep getting feedback coming in. Instead, I make the task-specific to “Review feedback from X review”. If the feedback isn’t immediately actionable, I create separate notes for each feedback so I can implement it later with more thought.
I manage my to-dos organized digitally but my friends Lauren Blass and Courtney Artuso mentioned using pen and paper for the physicalness of crossing something off. Courtney also suggested the chrome plugin Momentum, which prompts you to set your focus for the day.
Avoid the news and find your self-care routine
I’ve spent a lot of time the past two months reading about working remotely and advice for living in a pandemic. There’s a lot out there. Who knew we had so many pandemic experts in the world? 😉 The two pieces of feedback that have best helped me cope is avoiding the news and exercise daily. I don’t want to be ignorant of what’s happening or pretend everything is great, but I’ve noticed a direct correlation to my motivation and news. Instead, I stay informed through conversations with people and will read some limited news sources on the weekend where I can give myself space to be less motivated. My exception is positive news: I’m really enjoying John Krasinski’s Some Good News.
Routine and self-care are more important now than ever. I can’t find motivation in my work if I don’t take care of myself, both physically and mentally. Self-care is what helps us destress, feel rejuvenated, and store our energy. There are a lot of ideas on this out there but here’s what I’m finding is helping me:
Exercise: I noticed shortly after working from home a drop in my daily steps from about 6-10K a day to 500-1000. Wow. The distance from my desk to the bathroom, kitchen, or around my house is significantly less than walking to/from the bus on my commute, around the office, and going to lunch with coworkers. There’s a lot of research on the mental health benefits of exercise. Our team has required that all meetings be shortened by 5 minutes to provide you a break between meetings. Or I put blocks on my calendar that I can use to take walks around the neighborhood I’ve found this to be a good point to stretch, do some jumping jacks, push-ups, or go for a walk if I have a longer break.
Stretching: Every night before bed, I try to do 20 minutes of stretching, which I did before the pandemic but have found even more important. I also ordered a standing desk from Fully, which has been great for breaks from sitting all day.
Get into nature: There’s a lot of research linking improved stress and anxiety when you’re around nature. I’m thankful for the many Seattle parks that help me disconnect.
Reading: I use to struggle with making reading a habit before I got a Kindle a few years ago. While I use to read about two hours a day during my commute and at night, I’m currently reading about 30-60 minutes a day before bed.
Connecting with friends and family: Because I can’t just grab coffee with a coworker during the day, I’ve been more diligent about scheduling coffee chats, calling family, joining our team virtual happy hours, or even just jumping on quick Zoom chat as a way of connecting with folks.
Give back to others more than ever
I’m grateful my situation is much simpler than my coworkers who are struggling with balancing schedules with their spouse and homeschooling their kids. Because of this, I’ve created more time to give back to my team, my wife, and my neighbors. At work, I’m mentoring more, helping colleagues when they need something reviewed, and offering to pick up new projects to help the team. I’m looking for opportunities to fill gaps, which keeps me motivated and excited about the work we’re doing every day.
So these are my tips for staying motivated:
Be kind, give grace to yourself and your colleagues, and be okay with losing motivation sometimes.
Take a hard look at what your priorities are and what needs to drop during the pandemic.
Look at my task list more often to stay focused on what matters.
Break larger tasks into smaller ones to give yourself a greater sense of accomplishment
Avoid reading the news, especially during the workweek.
Get outside every day and do stretches or exercises to take breaks between meetings.
Write down your self-care routine and make sure to take care of yourself.
If you have the bandwidth, give back more to your coworkers who have less bandwidth