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I've worked from home for 11 years: These low-cost productivity tips help me focus

Nikolia Apostolou
Nikolia Apostolou shares the view from her home office in Greece.
Courtesy Nikolia Apostolou

As a freelance journalist, I have spent the last 11 years working from home. I'm now in my fourth week of self-quarantine at my home in Greece, and I've had to draw on what I've learned about productivity over the past decade to help focus during an uncertain time for all of us.

These strategies have worked for me and could help you adjust to remote work, especially if you haven't done it much before.

Routines to get you in the right mindset to work

I've found that instituting a routine makes it easier for me to get into work mode. For me, that means waking up at the same time every day, taking a shower first thing, and getting dressed in clothes that I like and feel comfortable in. 

I keep a weekly schedule of the things I have to do. I start a new list every Monday and continually update it throughout the week. 

I find that it helps me to physically write out everything I have to accomplish, even down to the emails I have to send out. When I'm done with a task, even the smallest ones, I strike it through, because seeing something completed helps give me a boost throughout the day. And at the end of the day, I write down all the milestones I completed.

One of the things that is always on my to-do list is keeping my work space tidy. After setting my schedule for the next day, I organize my desk before I stop for the night. In the morning, it makes starting work a more inviting prospect.

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Tools to help you reduce distractions

Over the years I've found that finding ways to reduce outside distractions make it easier and more pleasant to focus on the task at hand. Listening to music helps to reduce my stress during the day, and I'm a fan of having orchestral music in the background. My favorite is an album by the Greek composer Manos Hadjidakis called "Gioconda's Smile."

Through trial and error, I've also learned that I need to log out of all social media to keep my productivity up. Whenever I don't need the internet, I switch off my Wi-Fi. I'm also a fan of plug-ins that help pause your inbox, like Boomerang.

One of my favorite apps that I use to help me focus is Ommwriter. The app takes over your screen, offers different soothing backgrounds, and every time you type, makes it sound like you're playing music.

I tend to put my phone in the drawer of my desk, with notifications turned off, so I'm not inclined to check my messages or my social media feeds. I've found that it can help when you work remotely to let your friends and family know when you're on the clock, so they know to only get in touch during work hours in case of an emergency.

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Solutions for when you feel stuck

Find the time of the day when you are most productive. I have learned that I get the most done when I give myself time in the mornings.

I take a few hours to prepare my lunch and snacks for the day and then work out. For me, exercise is a great stress reliever. Before the quarantine, I'd swim every other day. Now, I've switched to walking for an hour and use YouTube video workouts, like Fitness Blender and Yoga with Adriene

I sit down at my computer around 12 pm and schedule time for breaks when I know my mind will be wandering. I'm also a proponent of taking a quick nap during the day if you need to calm down and recharge.

But the most important thing that I've learned throughout this experience is to be realistic about what you can accomplish. We've all had to go through a major change very quickly, and as we adjust to our new normal, remember to be kind to yourself when you need to step away and take a break.

Nikolia Apostolou is a multimedia journalist currently sharing her time between Kalamata and Athens, Greece. For the last decade, she has been writing, doing video, and producing documentaries based out of Greece for publications such as NBC, BBC, The Associated Press, AJ+, The New York Times, The New Humanitarian, and many others. Nikolia earned her master's degree in digital media at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. 

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