How To Stay Productive During a Pandemic

When I found out our campus would be shutting down due to the coronavirus pandemic, I was in a friend’s office with four other grad students. We were debating whether or not a major conference would be canceled. Yet, for some reason, we did not think school closures would affect us. We were not discussing what would happen if our campus closed.

At that moment, another grad student stuck his head in and told us to check our emails. The chancellor had sent a message extending spring break, asking undergraduates not to return, and telling graduate students they had until the end of the week to take anything they needed out of their offices.

It goes without saying (yet, here I am, saying it) that the pandemic has been challenging for everyone. While the average graduate student is probably not among the chief victims, the pandemic has taken what is already a challenging and isolating experience and made it all the more so. We have been barred from campus—unable to physically see our friends, colleagues and advisors.1 Zoom still allows for these activities, but there is a distinct difference between scheduling an impersonal and awkward video call versus walking down the hall to ask for help with a problem set.

Back in March, when I first learned we would be working remotely for the foreseeable future, I worried that this change would disastrously affect my productivity. I used to go to campus every weekday to work, see friends and advisors, and participate in departmental activities. It was part of my routine, a subconscious marker of work life versus home life.

Today, I can report that these fears were generally unfounded. Although the pandemic changed the look and feel of the workday, my productivity did not totally fall off a cliff. It just took time to transition habits I had developed on campus into working at home. With another remote semester on the horizon (hopefully the final remote semester), here are some ideas for staying productive during a pandemic.

Establish your morning routine

Every morning before I start working, I make a cup of coffee and read my favorite blogs and news sources. This hour is my favorite of the day. The coffee wakes me up (although I don’t know if that’s the caffeine or just the placebo effect). Reading my favorite bloggers gets me in the mood to write. And the news lets me know what’s going on—so I can stave off the desire to check in…for a little while.2 The day is just getting started, and it’s full of potential.

This routine has been a part of my life for a while—even before graduate school. And repetition has granted it special power. It sends a signal to my brain that it’s time to get to work and officially start my day.

There’s nothing special about these activities. Your own morning routine could be anything from 5 minutes of meditation to eating avocado toast (my friend Mike has a great blog post full of ideas). All that matters is that you set aside the time to do it and that you do it every day. Over time, it will create a means of easing into the work day, rather than having to get over the huge hump of getting started.

Think in terms of time not tasks

Each day, from about 9 to 4 (with an hour-long lunch and dog walking break), I work. I have a to do list, and I do my best to use that time to check items off. Of course, some days are more productive than others, and I take advantage of that energy to write as much as I can. On less productive days, I focus on tasks that are less mentally taxing, like coding or reading.

But I try not to make excuses. Even when I’m not entirely feeling it, I make an effort to do something productive and work related during those set hours. I do not simply amble into my home office when a due date approaches or when I have something pressing to attend to. Because when do we ever feel like working? Especially when we’re at home and the boundary between work and life is so porous. There is always some shiny object to distract you, whether it’s frivolous like Netflix or necessary like laundry.

While you can never truly eliminate those distractions at home, setting aside specific time for working—and sticking to it—can help you mentally create that separation—even when it’s all happening in the same few square feet.

Schedule checkpoints and check-ins

A lot of the advice thus far has been about holding yourself accountable. Creating a morning routine will put you in the working mindset, and setting working hours will ensure you actually get tasks done. However, holding yourself accountable can be tricky for obvious reasons. That’s where other people come in.

If you’re having trouble getting work done—especially if you’re done with classes—talk to your advisor (or a potential advisor) about setting up regular check-ins. It doesn’t have to be every week, and it doesn’t even have to be a Zoom call. Simply establishing a regular checkpoint at which you’ll send them work and get feedback is a great way to ensure you’ll make progress on your projects.

Alternatively (or additionally), you could set up a checkpoint system with a fellow grad student. You could make a pledge where, for example, each Friday you email each other at least one page of new writing or a summary of a book you read, etc. You can raise the stakes by promising to Venmo the other person $5 if you miss a checkpoint.

Alternatively alternatively (or additionally additionally), you can create a digital office. Two friends of mine meet on Zoom regularly—not to talk or discuss work in progress, but to write quietly. They chat for a few minutes and then leave the call open while they work silently to simulate an office environment and hold each other accountable.

At the end of the day, letting yourself down is easy to rationalize away. Letting someone else down is much more difficult. Create accountability by working with others and you’ll be more likely to meet your goals.

Practice forgiveness

Don’t forget—we’re living through a global pandemic. Life is challenging right now—for everyone, in different ways. Some of us are alone, with no social outlet. Others are tending to children home from school. Some are caring for family members. Even if the worst thing that’s happened to you is “just” that you’ve had to stay at home, that is still an unwelcome change and may be stealthily draining your energy. In this environment, it’s a little crazy to hold yourself to the same standards you held yourself to in 2018. Things are different.

If you have an unproductive day or week, that’s totally understandable. Forgive yourself, take a break, recover, and then use these tips to be a bit more productive next time. Hopefully, we’ll all be back on campus soon.

  1. Among the smaller indignities, the pandemic has made getting books from the library quite difficult and onerous! 

  2. The news can also be stressful and productivity-destroying. Author Austin Kleon has a good counter-take on why you should avoid the news first thing in the morning. You have to do what works for you.