Giving yourself slack during busy workdays

It’s been nearly two years since the majority of those who could operate remotely began working off-site. But now life is shifting, you may be back in the office all the time or part-time. If you’re a parent, your kids are likely back in school. Overall, your world is opening up more and you feel the need for change.

At the beginning of the mass office exodus, I highly recommended having a very structured schedule to keep you from losing all boundaries between your work and personal life. Often, when humans confront an onslaught of strong emotions or a very unfamiliar situation, boundaries can help you find your footing and guide your path forward each day.

But now that you’ve learned how to work productively from home and beginning the process of learning how to be productive in the office again, the best course of action may be to relax a little. The most sustainable schedule can both help you get things done while still incorporating a bit of fun.

Here are a four ways to lighten up your mood during this transition while still focusing on what you need to get done.

Share meals with your coworkers

Working from home put the kibosh on the natural touch points that you used to have with your colleagues throughout the day. Random interactions that you often overlooked, such as when you crossed paths with a colleague in the hall, when a few of you congregated in the break room, or when you had a few minutes to chat after a meeting, may seem so enriching now.

During remote work, this lack of transition time increased “productive” time, but it also could have decreased the quality of your work relationships.

In order to rebuild rapport and a sense of community, consider taking your meals with your colleagues more frequently, or at least grabbing a coffee, and with more intention.

If you’re back in the office, you can do this in-person. If you’re still working from home, coordinate for a virtual meetup. Not only will connecting with your coworkers assist in teamwork, but also breaks built around socializing are some of the most refreshing to give you a fresh wind of energy for the day.

Get moving

As we approach next month’s winter solstice, marked by the shortest day of the year in the Northern hemisphere, it’s tempting to hibernate and lose healthy habits like taking time to exercise or being outside. If you’re back in the office and have a gym available, consider using it on your lunch break or during the afternoon slump. Or if you’re home, take a few walks to get some sunshine, movement and fresh air during the day. Yes, it takes a little time away from work. But the health and energy benefits can pay dividends in improved mental health and productivity.

Scroll just a little

As a time management coach, I don’t recommend falling down internet rabbit holes or spending an entire afternoon absorbed in Twitter. And if you are someone who has these information addiction tendencies, skip over this tip. However, if you’re able to exercise some self-control around online reading and scrolling, you can use it strategically throughout your day to add a little burst of intellectual excitement.

For example, I get news headlines emailed to me. Each morning, I give myself permission to read one news article on a topic that interests me. Staying informed on topics of deep importance to me gives me a sense of satisfaction and limiting my reading to one, makes sure it doesn’t turn into distraction.

I use a similar strategy in the afternoon. When I hit around 2 p.m. or so and am in the energy trough where motivation is lowest for most people, I do a quick scan of my social media channels. Again, I find looking at things I find of interest gives me an afternoon energy pick-me-up. But I try to limit that time to about 15 minutes and generally stay off social media until a similar time the next day. These little infusions of “mind candy” instantly brighten a day without sabotaging work responsibilities.

Tighten up your work hours

One way to relax your overall schedule is to tighten up your hours, or focus in on how well you utilize your work time. When there was very little to do after hours because most things were closed, the boundaries around work became a squishy. It didn’t seem to matter as much if you wrapped up on time because there was no train to catch, no happy hour to attend, and no soccer practice to run to. Now, as the pandemic conditions transform, your life may have changed and there are things you want to do and people you want to see after work hours.

To make that possible and to still make time like the fun activities described here, you will need to condense your work hours by planning acutely, such as by setting a strict end time. Before you start your day, know what you need to get done to be able to leave work on time; then do those activities first. For example, I start my day with planning, answering emails, and taking care of small, urgent tasks for about the first hour and a half of my day. Then I either go into a coaching call or go into the most important thing I need to accomplish for the day. After each call, I keep going back to my plan and seeing what’s the most important thing to do next.

The goal is that you’re focused on the most essential early in the day so that when it’s time to clock out, you can do so without stress. And that tightening of your schedule during the work day gives you a lot more relaxed schedule on the evenings and weekends. As a time management expert, I highly recommend you keep some structure to your schedule. But if you need a boost in motivation and engagement, the best answer may be to lighten up your schedule.