Take five for a work-from-home headspace

583C213F-EDB1-469A-8A10-099B52C8F9C8Getting into a home-office headspace isn’t easy at the best of times. Making the readjustment when COVID-19 is dictating how we live, socialise and work is a real challenge.

Before taking on a full-time role two years ago, I spent 15 years working on major projects, both from home and client offices. Distractions, I’ve had a few. Especially during school holidays, when our five blended (and stir-crazy) young children created full-on havoc.

Along the way, I’ve picked up a few useful tips that might help your transition and improve your home-work productivity. It’s worth a shot, right?

  1. Turn up at the desk, preferably not in your pyjamas. I once heard about a woman who’d get into her corporate wear and walk around the block with her briefcase as if she was going to a workplace. Okay, we’re in lockdown and a skirt and heels don’t count as exercise wear. You could also be mistaken for an end-of-the-world salvation salesperson, but you get the point. Getting dressed, making your coffee or tea, and turning up at the desk sends signals to your brain that it’s work as usual – and that means being outcomes-focused not just checking in.
  2. Switch off for a productivity hit– obsessively checking your emails and social media is just going consume your brain and your day.

Emails: schedule in times for checking and responding, and stick to it. Turn off your email notifications and consider setting up an auto-responder so people will know they’re not going to hear from you straight away – and to call you if it’s super urgent. You might be surprised that most people are okay without an instant response.

Social mediawrestle that FOMO beast to the ground and have designated social media blackout times. Since 95% of posts are COVID-related, you won’t be missing much – except the anxiety spikes.

  1. Make a plan – On Fridays, write your plan for the following week. This helps to keep you on track and motivated, and there’s something satisfying about ticking things off as you go. Disclaimer: be realistic. Don’t put 30 things on the list if you can only achieve five.
  2. Forget multi-tasking – it really doesn’t work and, in the home office, it’s a disaster. You’ll get to the end of the day and not have a clue what you’ve done. So check your weekly plan, pick a priority task and block off the time to do it, then dive in and work on that concentration muscle (which will only get stronger).
  3. Keep active and connected – don’t skip your lunchtime chat, walk, crossword or whatever it is you do to break up your usual day at work. And don’t give up those Friday afternoon wine-downs over Zoom, Skype, Facetime, Houseparty or whatever your favourite platform is. Taking care of your physical and emotional wellbeing is always important – and it’s absolutely vital in these challenging and isolating times!

If the idea of switching off or writing a weekly plan makes you break out in a cold sweat, start small and build up to it, just like you would if you were learning to run. It takes two weeks to form a habit apparently – which is good because we might be in the home office for a while yet. So #stayhome, stay well and be productive. We can do this!


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Revealing layers of history: Ken Fletcher Park

Copyright: Louise RalphFor our first site visit to the former Tennyson Power Station site on the Brisbane River, we dragonflies were offered a long wooden stick each.

To beat a path through the long grass, we asked. No, to warn off the brown snakes, the site manager said.

It was the beginning of an interpretive journey which, while challenging, didn’t involve slithery encounters.

Copyright: Louise Ralph

river people, river connections…

Touched by floods, shaped by civilisation

It’s hard to believe that a relatively small tract of land not far from Brisbane’s CBD could have such intricate layers of history.

Like the river itself, the connections run deep – from Traditional Custodians and lost explorers, to mills and mansions, and from a power station to centre-stage tennis and an elite residential development.

A project like this requires the successful collaboration between the client, landscape designers, graphic designers, researchers and copywriters, and all the trades that go into its execution. But its success goes beyond that.

Copyright: Louise Ralph

Ken Fletcher (1940-2006) was arguably the best tennis player to come out of Brisbane.

It’s the people who share their stories and knowledge that make the difference.

To reveal the layers of history that have shaped this place, we talked with an Aboriginal Elder, community groups and individuals, a former power station employee, demolition contractors, the Queensland Energy Museum curator, historians and more.

Seeing a project like the Ken Fletcher Park come to life and being part of the process is always exciting.

Now, wandering (incognito) through the park, it’s fantastic to see kids at play and so many people enjoying the parklands – and stopping to discover the stories of this place.

Not just glancing at each panel and moving on, but actually reading and pointing things out to each other.

Now that’s what I call success…

Copyright: Louise Ralph

While civilisation shapes the landscape, floods remind us that nature has the ultimate power. Ironically, as I take this photo on 28 January 2013, the river really is rising in the background, and Brisbane prepares for another flood…

Copyright: Louise Ralph

Brisbane’s aquatic hotspot: Sharks could often be seen in the river here, basking in the warm exhaust water discharged from the power station.

Switch off for a real break

These days, most of us are ‘switched on’ most of the time, and that’s not great… for our health or our productivity. So let’s take a well-earned break this festive season – from all the addictive technology that makes our jobs easier, but can rule our lives 24/7/365. Here’s the challenge:

  • Resist the urge to religiously check your emails. It’s a good idea to set up an auto-responder so people will know they’re not going to hear from you straight away. If you really must check emails, schedule a time once a weekday and only respond to the urgent ones.
  • Take a sunset to sunset break from your mobile phone. Pick the easiest day when you’re least likely to have urgent calls coming in (although, with my kids, everything is urgent!) and turn your mobile phone off. Really off. Not even on silent or vibrate.
  • Give yourself permission to get some headspace, with entire days of work-free thoughts.
  • Wrestle the FOMO beast to the ground and have designated social media blackout days – that’s FOMO for ‘fear of missing out’. You won’t, because you’ll be too busy having a life.
  • Avoid the vegetative state in front of the television. It’s all re-runs or death, doom and disaster anyway.
  • Focus on getting out and getting active. If you can’t get away, explore your city or town like a tourist. Try something you’ve never tried before. After all, life begins at the edge of your comfort zone…

Are the excuses bubbling up in your head? I’m too busy, I have too much on, I want to use this time to catch up on everything, my kids might need me urgently, I can’t…

The truth is, when we die, our inbox will still be full. Isn’t it time to take these few days to switch off and really live?

If this challenge makes you break out in a cold sweat, start small and build up to it, just like you would if you were learning to run. Apparently it takes two weeks to form a habit. So practice switching off this silly season, and you may just be taking some great habits into 2012…

Multi-tasking – are you becoming a human tornado?


Give up multi-tasking. and get back your focus...

Sometimes I feel a bit like a human tornado – and I’m sure you do too. These days, we seem to equate busy-ness with being a success (if you’re busy, you must successful, right?). And we are busy – taking multi-tasking to a whole new level.  

Some researchers think women are better at multi-tasking than men. Perhaps. One thing is clear from the research – women are better at planning and strategy. Men tend to jump straight in. ABC Science talks about this and we tell you how you can join the experiment later.

But one thing at a time… The truth is, we all really, really suck at multi-tasking – we just don’t realise it. It might feel like we’re getting so much done, but I’ll bet you have a sneaking suspicion you could be more productive.

That email notification that just flicked up in the corner of your screen… it’s going to take you about 30 seconds to re-focus. The twitter feeder? Forget it. You’re just not concentrating on the task at hand – and you’re going to get stressed because you’ll miss your deadline. The phone calls and drop-ins at the office? Yes, they’re important but they’re also stealing your focus.

Fine, but what do we do about it? The first thing is to recognise that you’re multi-tasking. Then you need to start to exercise your ‘focus’ muscles (see our 50-minute focus post). You can block out times to do project work and have a goal. For example, to finish reviewing and commenting on that report, then send it back to the author. Tick!

You’ll be surprised how much you get done when you do one thing at a time.

You could also try being ‘disconnected’ for a set period each day (or at least for one day a weekend). If turning off email, twitter, facebook, your mobile or other social media makes you shudder like a junkie turning up to rehab, you really do need to do it.

When you do, you’ll be surprised how it clears your mind and eases your stress (once you make it through withdrawal). Maybe it’s time for a little retro-connecting – for private lives and catching up over coffee.

Before you go, find out what ABC Science says about our ability to multi-task – or not. And while you’re there, why not test yourself and join the experiment. University of Queensland scientists want to know what makes a good multi-tasker – plus you’ll find out how good you are at multi-tasking.

Take the test …but disconnect from those nagging bells and beeps first. Just for 30 minutes. 

Increase your productivity – at work and in life

Dean Jackson’s 50-minute focus finder is priceless. Have you got 50-minutes to watch his presentation?

With a healthy level of skepticism, I sat down to do Dean’s focus finder exercise (one of several he talks about). It’s really a brain dump, which you do for 50 minutes – listing every single thing that comes into your head.

After about 10 minutes, you move from the reactive zone (phonecalls, meetings, people to see, things to fix, emails to respond to) to the proactive zone (new ideas and approaches, new markets to explore, etc).

To my surprise, it worked. And I’ve already put some changes in place… others are on the list. So I’m a convert. It’s a pretty worthwhile way to spend 50 minutes…

Know who you’re talking to…

keep-leftDual lane roads in Australia once featured signs that said ‘Slow vehicles use left lane’.


Of course, that message had the opposite of its intended effect. Most people stayed in the right lane because, well, they weren’t slow, were they?


The traffic authority had a problem. How could they get people to use the left lane, and keep the right lane free for vehicles to pass (thus reducing road rage, minor dingles, and major crashes)?


The answer? Think about the audience and change the message accordingly. So the signs were changed to ‘Keep left unless overtaking’ and voila! The percentage of people using the left lane increased remarkably, once the ‘slow’ implication was gone.


Ah, but audience diversity meant that some still needed (and always will need) an incentive. This often appears in the ‘fine print’ (in 200pt font!) under these signs warning that penalties apply for ignoring the message.


On the road again… Do you remember those gruesome television ads from the early 2000s, featuring young drivers in horrific car crashes, gasping in agony as their life blood spread across the bitumen?


These ads were targeting young, and particularly male, drivers. But they overlooked one vital fact – young drivers believe it will never happen to them.

The ads barely caused a ripple in the psyche of young drivers, but it scared the wits out of their already stressed and worried parents.


Yes, it’s easy to lose sight of our audience when we’re caught up in a blur of creative fervour or are determined to get our message ‘out there’ (out where, exactly?).

Whether you’re giving a presentation, creating a display, writing a report or article, developing your website, or even seeking funding… you need to know who you’re talking to.


When you have a clear picture of your audience, you can design your message to fit their needs, interests and capabilities.

Putting together an audience snapshot sounds easy enough – until you sit down to do it! Try these strategies to get your communication on target:


Demographics make a difference: Identify your audience’s age, gender, cultural identity (ethnic background, religion, race), and social identity (groups they identify with such as sporting, political, and professional groups).


So what? Your audience wants to know what’s in it for them or how your message will affect them. Listening is hard work, so give your audience a reason to make the effort. 

Find common ground
: There is no such thing as an ‘average’ person. But some things resonate with all of us. As Victoria’s fires and Queensland Tropics’ floods in 2009 show, we relate to family, death, prejudice, displacement, tragedy and pain regardless of our personal experience. We also respond to friendship, freedom, love, play and celebration.


The power of one: Do more ‘hits’ really mean better outcomes? If we adopt a scatter-gun approach, we can end up touching no-one. Instead of creating generic and impersonal communication, try talking to one person. What is it they want or need? Why will they want to pay attention?


You’ll have a better chance of bringing your audience with you if you work out where they’re coming from.


After being the slightly neurotic passenger in four learner-driver cars (and one to go), I know exactly where kids are coming from. And I’m really looking forward to the ‘slow lane’. Clearly, ‘keeping left’ is as good as it gets for now…

The original version of this article was published in The Buzz, Dragonfly Ink’s inflight communication e-newsletter, in February 2005


Change: the silver lining

queenstown-nz-copyright-louise-ralphWe live in a world where change is constant, relentless. We change relationships, family structures, careers, how we live and work, and (if you’re up for it), even the way we look.

Most of us, and certainly our children, will never understand the meaning of working in the same job for 40 years and retiring with a gold watch… which is proof change isn’t all bad.

Organisations are constantly restructuring, downsizing, implementing new technologies and procedures, and relocating.

Change is threatening because we can’t control it. Often we are so overwhelmed with our change-demons that we don’t notice the opportunities change presents to us.

Yes, change has a silver lining. Change can:

  • kick you out of your comfort zone (and sometimes it hurts!)
  • present you with challenges that stimulate personal growth
  • make you reflect on what is important to you, what you want
  • get you looking for ways to improve your capabilities, networks, adaptability
  • open doors you didn’t even know existed, and
  • motivate you to try something new – like starting that business you’ve been thinking about forever.

Change is also a great wake-up call. It stops complacency dead in its tracks and means you will be better equipped to deal with change in the future.

When I was fifteen years old, I read some words about change I have never forgotten. The author’s name escapes me, but she said something to this effect:

For some, stability is the glue that holds their lives together, for others a rut can be so deep it becomes their grave.

Embrace change. There is plenty of time to be still later.

Bistaarai, bistaarai… slowly, slowly

bistaarai-bistaaraiWhen my partner and I were trekking in Nepal recently, and we hit some tough spots, our sherpas would smile and say ‘bistaarai, bistaarai’ – go slowly and carefully.

That’s not bad advice as we charge headlong into 2009, armed with resolutions that usually involve losing x number of kgs, spending more time with people we love, and doing more meaningful stuff with our lives (aka working smarter not harder).


Bistaarai, bistaarai… go slowly, or you’ll be dumping resolutions as quickly as you made them.


Look at the losing weight scenario. It might have taken me ten years to gain those (undisclosed!) extra kilos, but I want ’em off in 10 weeks. Talk about setting myself up for being a loser – and not in a good way.


Long term weight loss takes time…and so does changing those stressed-out habits. It’s also  pretty impossible to fit in time to hang out with the people you love, get more exercise, chill out, and get away more often… unless you make some space in your diary.


It’s a lot easier when you remember who controls your diary (um, you do).


Here’s some quick tips to help you slow down to an easy pace, work smarter – and have more time to keep those New Year’s Resolutions.


  • Exercise. The first thing you put in your diary every week is when you’ll exercise. That should be at least three half-hour spots, if not more. Because exercise gives you the energy and a sense of well-being that helps you deal with everything else…
  • Be realistic. Put six things (max!) a day on your to-do list. Get done what you can do, and the things you can’t get to either don’t matter enough, or go to the top of the next day’s list.
  • Start the day right…with a decent breakfast and at least 15 minutes ‘chill’ time. That might mean sitting doing nothing, reading, wandering through your garden – or someone else’s (slightly more tricky). The important thing is to allow yourself to do nothing – which is a tough one.
  • Back to the diary… schedule in blocks of  ‘project work’ time, where you don’t answer phones or emails. And when someone says they want to meet with you, give them two or three options, not ‘whenever it suits you’ (aka valuing your time, and you!).
  • Say no to 24:7 availability.  That means not always having your mobile/blackberry in your hip pocket, checking and answering emails as soon as they arrive, or having your office door/space ‘open’. People can and will wait. Really. Which leads to…
  • Stop driving the emergency response vehicle. Let others take some responsibility for their own stuff. If you’re always rushing to meet their needs or taking up the slack, you’re teaching them to be dependant and incapable. Remember this one? “Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine…”
  • Handle stuff once… from paperwork to emails. Process, file, chuck/delete. That’s it. It will unclutter your desk, your inbox – and your mind.
  • Delegate. You don’t have to be the master of everything. If you’ve got the resources, use them. If you haven’t, get them.
  • Breathe. No, it’s not an optional extra and we do forget to do it. You can usually tell you’re not breathing properly when your shoulders are creeping up around your ears (blue lips are also a sign). When the stress gets to you, stop, drop your shoulders and take a deep, deep breath…then let it out slowly, slowly.


Whisper it, shout it, but say it over and over: Bistaarai, bistaarai. Slowly, slowly…