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The intense research around the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t limited to the molecular variety. Social scientists are carefully studying the effects our unprecedented “new normal” is having on our mental health and interpersonal relationships. As a productivity specialist, I’m particularly interested in research around professional productivity, and specifically how working from home (WFH) is impacting output. What I am seeing – both in the emerging research and personally within my own networks – is that many of us are defaulting to work when we have “free” time. As a friend recently said to me, “These days it is far too easy to work too much.” But, defaulting to work can be costly. Collectively unbalanced without boundaries, our overworking is triggering real consequences. And yet, I think you’ll find the prescriptive advice to offsetting these costs encouraging.

It’s Easy to Become Unbalanced in Our “New Normal”

Back in March, when most everyone suddenly went virtual, the concern for many managers was potential lost productivity. Aside from all the technology and connectivity challenges, employers worried that distractions in the home would pull team members off-task. I doubt few anticipated that working too much would soon become the real threat of WFH. In fact, studies have shown that the average U.S. employee worked 2-3 hours more per day during the early weeks of the pandemic. And, recent data is confirming we are still working longer days, with the average being just over 45 minutes more per day. Think about your recent work habits. How do your hours compare to this average? Maybe you’re liking the output you’re achieving, but regularly defaulting to work can be costly.

Balance Requires Not Only Setting Boundaries, But also Respecting Our Boundaries

Way back in February (which feels like years ago, doesn’t it??), we had lots of events, obligations and traditions to delineate our calendars and punctuate our activities. The “new normal” has given many of us more time to dedicate to our jobs. There is no commute time. No coworker interruptions. Many children’s extracurricular activities have been cancelled, or heavily altered, opening up afternoons and evenings. Additionally, working norms have shifted as the home has become the office. After hours calls seem more natural. Jumping in on just one more task before calling it a day is more doable. But doable isn’t always right.

Setting boundaries for our personal time is critical. Boundaries protect our energy and safeguard our productivity. Importantly they also protect our personal relationships. No matter where the office is, it is our job to define an endpoint to the workday and transition over to our personal lives. Try instituting some time blocking to fortify your boundaries. Getting your intentions on the calendar will help keep you accountable.

Vacations Don’t Have to Involve a Plane
(or a Car for that Matter)

The pandemic may have forced you to cancel your summer vacation. But, this doesn’t mean your need for time off has gone away. Studies have consistently confirmed that time off pays off in productivity. Though the CDC provides some travel guidance, what we deem acceptable risk exposure during the pandemic is uniquely personal. A flight overseas or cross country may be out for you, but a road trip to a private vacation rental on a regional lake might make sense. A couple of days committed to only doing things you love at home can be a vacation as well.

All work and no play not only makes Jack a dull boy, it will also impact his relationship with his spouse and his relationship with his children. It will show up in his ability to focus and think creatively. And, it very well may turn something he loves doing into something he dislikes. You don’t win points for not using your time off. Get creative with what your “vacation” will be, if you must, but commit to taking your personal time off. Don’t let work be your default activity.

Unbalanced Impacts Personal Relationships

Speaking of our personal lives, let’s talk significant others as it relates to the “new normal.” Many have predicted, and early research is suggesting, an increased rate of divorce filings associated with the pandemic. Certainly related, studies are showing the stress of the pandemic has impacted intimacy for many couples. Marriage requires work, even on a good day. I’m certainly not a marriage counselor, but I like the advice shared in this article.

The pandemic has served up unique circumstances that can strain even the strongest of relationships. We may have vowed “for better or for worse” but no one ever said, “FOREVER AROUND EVERY DAY, ALL DAY.” Many of us now have lots of time together. All day. Just us. Even if it cannot be face-to-face, connecting with others outside of the marriage is important for the marriage. And, each of us still needs some alone time to recharge.

Many couples are also dealing with vastly altered education needs for their children, and are struggling to fill in gaps left as a result of extracurricular activities being canceled. Let’s be honest, our “need to get some work done” just might be a disguise for a much-needed reprieve. But, is it the right choice? Spouses still need support with child-rearing and domestic responsibilities.

I’ll throw in one last piece of relevant advice here: don’t take the “no need to get dressed up for a virtual day” too far. Take the shower. Brush the teeth. Trust me, you’ll feel better. Not only will this impact your overall productivity, but also, importantly, those you live with will appreciate it.

Balance and Boundaries Are Key

It doesn’t take much to become unbalanced, especially when WFH when there are few pressing obligations outside of work. But, the results of defaulting to work can be costly. Time off may seem elusive at times, but there are ways to safely “get away” even if “away” is your backyard. Personal relationships can suffer even when (in fact, I’d say, ironically, especially when) normal distancing events and activities have vanished. Balance and boundaries are key to maintaining personal productivity, but they are especially important to our well being in this “new normal.”

Sara Genrich is a Productivity Consultant, an Evernote Certified Consultant and the creator of the Organizing@Work for Success Workshop.  She’s committed to providing real-life solutions so her clients have time to focus on the things that really matter.

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