3 Steps Towards Productive Quarantining

TLDR: Make ridiculously easy goals, build rock solid systems, and schedule breaks liberally.

It seems like the end of the world.

But we can also think of Covid-19 and quarantine as an opportunity to learn something new, build our existing skillset, or catch up on backlog work.

I didn’t always feel this way though

When school let out in early March, I was ecstatic. At first. But then the district kept extending the official school return date, and, soon, the governor announced the end of school for the entire state. What felt like a vacation quickly turned into a restless void of boredom.

Honestly, I had a difficult time figuring out what to do without being able to go out much or meet any of my friends. Unlike past summers, quarantine was qualitatively different. Heavy. Almost oppressive.

It felt like the perfect time to catch up on Netflix series and movies. But I realized that I wasn’t enjoying the series I was watching. When you spend the entire day entertaining yourself, it can quickly turn into a chore as well.

That’s when I started surfing the web and found that many people were taking advantage of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) to learn something new, and I thought, why not try?

When I first started, I failed. Badly. The courses motivated me for a day before I patted myself on the back and let myself take a break for an hour. Which turned into a day. Then a week.

The problem arose because I didn’t have the proper systems keeping me on track or rewarding me. Worse still, I expected to clock in ten to twelve hours of work after relaxing for weeks. No ramp up.

Disastrous.

But I’m slowly getting back on track, and I feel there are important lessons to learn in the process.

Of course, no one should feel obligated to be productive during a national crisis, but I think learning something new or sharpening existing skills is a useful way to keep yourself occupied. Learning and creating can be the best cures for the boredom malady. Plus, it doesn’t hurt to be productive.

1. Make your goals ridiculously easy

This is the most underrated strategy. Sure, we always hear about measuring our goals, setting a timeline, and making them relevant, but many people fall into the planning fallacy.

The Planning Fallacy tells us that we often underestimate how long it will take to finish something when we’re planning. So a project that should take five weeks might be planned on a three week timeline. Nobody is immune to this, but there are two goal-related strategies that have worked well for me.

First, make your goals super easy. This way, achieving them will give us that immediate dopamine boost and keep us motivated. It’s also hard to underestimate something that’s already easy. A ridiculously easy goal would be to walk outside for five minutes today. That’s it. Once you complete it, you can start building.

Second, use past projects as reference points. For example, if you set a particular writing goal, put your optimism aside and look at how long it took you to complete something similar before. Then use that as a benchmark. When you finish, figure out whether or not those two timelines matched up. Adjust as you go.

2. Build a great system

I built my personal productivity system around my calendar using a strategy called time-blocking. Check out my article on it if you’re interested in using it yourself.

The key aspect to any system is that it provides structure and makes it easy for you to track your tasks and complete them. That’s it. Your system could be as easy as a checklist or as complicated as a multi-app suite. It just has to work for you.

I found that time blocking has been particularly effective because I have complete control over my day now and limited appointments. With a blank slate for day, I can allocate time for certain activities that I care about. And within those periods of time, I only work on those activities.

3. Schedule Breaks and Take Them

It can be tempting to rush in and start doing a lot of work at once. Our initial motivation is a potent driving force. 

You’ll burn out fast, though. 

What’s key is scheduling more breaks than you think you’ll need and actually taking them. This way, you can fine-tune how long you actually need to spend in breaks, and you won’t feel guilty when relaxing because you planned ahead.

This also ties in with the 1% better idea popularized by productivity expert James Clear. If we become 1% better each day, by the end of the year we will be a whopping 3,780% better than we started!

Go slow. Don’t be afraid to let yourself relax.

These three strategies have been super helpful in improving my quarantine productivity. Most of all, they’ve brought new learning opportunities and meaning to an otherwise entertainment-filled void.

Want to know how to keep it sustainable? Check out the article in our productivity series on avoiding burnout.