A Silver Lining of Social Distancing

How working remotely is a chance to test strategies for personal productivity.

Posted Mar 13, 2020

Amid the uncertainty and unpredictability of the coronavirus epidemic, the rate of innovating techniques for self-protection is astounding. This week in particular, we as a society have embraced social distancing.

Emily Balcetis
Social distancing during coronavirus.
Source: Emily Balcetis

We have holed up at home, shut our doors and windows, with the conscious effort to limit close contact with others. And we are swiftly evolving most aspects of our daily life to align with that goal. Universities are shutting their doors and opening their electronic chat rooms, holding classes, meetings, workshops, and events online rather than in person. Places of worship are broadcasting their services through streaming services. Grocery delivery services bring food to homes without requiring human contact.

Perhaps most dramatic is the shift in where we work. Facebook (40,000+ employees), Google (100,000+ employees), and Amazon (750,000+ employees), for example, have implemented work from home policies for most or all of its employees. I am writing this article, in fact, sitting alone at my dining room table and I take all meetings and classes through my laptop's camera.

While coronavirus is a looming threat of major proportion that might feel uncontrollable and scary, it is also an opportunity to reinvent ourselves. In particular, it is a chance for us to conscientiously consider how we spend our time. This new social landscape of how we work and how we play offers an opportunity to experiment with new approaches for how we approach our to-do list. Working from home when we haven't in the past offers a chance to try different strategies for how we structure our day that could increase or decrease our own productivity.

Well before coronavirus, I and a group of my students decided to be our own guinea pigs and experiment on different time management and goal setting techniques we suspected might affect what we accomplish in a day. At the start of one week, we wrote down an ambitious goal we were working to achieve that week. Someone was trying to finish up shooting a film she was directing. Another wanted to establish an exercise routine. A third was launching a new university event series. Each day, we planned what steps we would take to make progress on that goal. At the end of the day, we reported on how much time we spent on it.

The next week, we again set a goal, but also generated a complete list of what we needed to do to get the entire job done. On that first day, we also scheduled in times for the entire week ahead that we would work on items on that list. We made appointments with ourselves that we concretely committed to in our calendar for the next seven days.

At the end of the two weeks, we compared the effects of planning day-by-day against planning the week out in advance. On average, each of us spent 2.5 more hours in one week working on our project when we planned for the week rather than day by day. Thinking and planning using a wider bracket helped us find lost time in our day and commitment ourselves to spending that found time in a productive way.

After experiencing this for ourselves, we invited two hundred or so other students to try out these tactics too and report on their experience. They told us what major test or assignment they had ahead of them. And we randomly assigned them to either plan when they would study today or every day that week.

Of course, they reported it was harder and less enjoyable to plan out a week than to plan day by day. However, among those people who planned for the week, the students with higher GPAs were more confident that they could complete the assignment, felt more prepared, and indicated they had more time to get the job done compared to those students with lower GPAs.

In other words, stronger students reaped motivational benefits of planning for the week—of thinking about a wider bracket of time—compared to weaker students, and planning for the week might, in fact, be a source of their better academic performance.

Published research finds that wide brackets improve outcomes primarily because they help us to overcome our tendency to underestimate what it will take to get a job done. This planning fallacy is a common error of human judgment, and is the reason why the Sydney Opera House took ten years longer to build than architects anticipated. The completion of Boston’s Big Dig project—to bury a major interstate underground—took over nine years more than expected.

Wide brackets help us to unpack our bigger jobs into their constituent parts and see how each of these parts can be worked into our daily life. Anyone taking on a home fix-it project has learned that using wider brackets are useful. Going back to the home improvement center for advice or parts two or three times—rather than just once—slows progress, comes at a cost to the other things on our to-do list, and increases the odds the job just doesn't get done.

The take away here is this. Working at home gives us more flexibility in how we allocate time in our workday. With our lives going remote and the social distance we hold between others growing larger, this may be a rare opportunity for us to try to shake up our approach to personal time management, to learn something about ourselves and improve it. This might, in fact, be a silver lining of these unusual times.

LinkedIn Image Credit: Dejan Dundjerski/Shutterstock