Work and Study Efficiency in Difficult Times

Work and Study Efficiency in Difficult Times

Category : PROspective


I hope this message finds you and yours well during these difficult times. We have worked hard to keep open channels of communication with students and faculty and, in addition to concerns regarding physical and emotional wellbeing, a recurring theme has been a concern about the efficiency of the time they can allocate to work or study.

There is no single strategy to address this concern; though here are some ideas for how to take it on if you feel your efficiency could be better. It starts with reflection about the source of the self-perceived inefficiency. More than one of the below may be at play, and they may be weighted differently on different days or even over the course of a single day.

If you believe you could be more efficient with the time allocated to work or study, take a moment to think about which of the following may be operating and how to diminish their impact.



To start, it’s possible that your expectations of your efficiency are too high. Our schedules have been disrupted, we are grieving the loss or distance of our social networks, and we are all concerned about friends, colleagues or family who are not well and/or experiencing anticipatory grief about the same. It is normal to work less efficiently under these circumstances. Are your expectations of your efficiency calibrated to the reality of the current moment? Is some recalibration necessary? It’s also possible that you need to help your colleagues, instructors, and peers to recalibrate their expectations of you. External pressures that we cannot meet are uniformly demotivating, so do your best to avoid them or resolve them.



Second, it’s possible that you are distracted by more than the realities described in the preceding paragraph. When our ability to concentrate is diminished by circumstances, other distractions invade more easily, occupy more time and a higher proportion of mental reserves, and therefore have an ever larger than normal effect on our efficiency. Turn off the email, close the browser, turn off the television and music, keep clear of the kitchen. Duncan’s earlier PROspective article provided some great ideas for creating a productive work-at-home space.


Productivity 101

Third, it’s possible that you could be more productive with the time that you have available. There is a large literature on work productivity, most of which remains relevant even under new circumstances. Make a to-do list for the day that is realistic given the time that you will have available. Delete anything that is not important (aligned with your goals and values). Organize what is left into what is urgent (impending deadlines or helping someone else to keep working) and not urgent (chipping away at larger projects with later deadlines). Take on the urgent and important tasks first, working first on the ones that are least appealing to you. Be sure to save some time each day to work on what is important but not urgent, so that you don’t face unmanageable deadlines later. Work in short bursts without distraction (25 minutes is often recommended), and then reward yourself with a distraction (check email or Twitter or Instagram) for five minutes (no more). You can set a timer to keep the rhythm for you. Be sure, also, to optimize your productivity by eating well, avoiding too much sedentary time, and sleeping well. As advised in Duncan’s earlier PROspective, schedule time to give yourself a break; it’s too easy to sit in front of the work screen all day, even if that time is not productive.



Fourth, it’s possible that your motivation has truly waned. Lack of motivation may emanate from a combination of all the above, and is also possibly influenced by feelings of despair and loss of perceived control. To restore some of your missing motivation, start by addressing the first three. Also, find ways to restore a sense of control where you can. We cannot come back to campus for class, but we can organize our closet or write to a high school friend we have been thinking about for a long time. Taking on nonwork items that have been lingering on your personal to-do list will reassert your locus of control, and that will spillover to improve your motivation. Structuring your time will also remind you that you are in control: keeping a daily schedule will help to be sure you have regular sleep, diet, work, and relaxation.


Looking Forward

Feelings of inefficiency during times like these are normal, and some days will be more productive than others. On those days when you aren’t able to tackle as much as you would have hoped, give yourself some grace, and know that you’ll have another chance at it tomorrow. 

It might also be helpful to envision what success will look like for you in the long term. We will all one day tell the stories of what happened to us and what we did during the COVID-19 pandemic. You will want to say that you did your part and put your shoulder into it as best you could. Imagine your future self and the story you will want to tell, and then make it so.



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