For the past three years, I’ve been working from home for the most part. During that period of time I engaged in a wide range of different activities: from freelance development and consulting, to production of video-courses and working on my own projects.
While remote work is being advertised like the best thing since sliced bread lately, I found out that it’s not that simple and there are trade-offs involved. In this post, I want to share my thoughts on remote work in a hope that it’ll help you maximize your productivity when working from home.
All People are Different
General disclaimer: I don’t think that my experience is directly applicable to every person out there. We’re all different and need different conditions to be productive.
For example, some people wake up, have a coffee, turn on their computers and get to work. I can’t do that. For the most part, my mornings start with either yoga exercise or a walk. Otherwise, I feel that my body is too rigid to sit down for prolonged periods of time. In addition, I need to warm up mentally, so I procrastinate a bit, which is non-optimal, but I quit fighting it for now.
Given that what works for me won’t necessarily work for you, please approach my recommendations below as ideas to try out, rather than strict prescriptions.
When people learn that I work from home, they often joke about me going out every day, waking up for lunch, working from bed, etc. It’s funny, but also very real because I indeed did most of that. However, I quickly learned that this is sure recipe for being unproductive and unhappy. Therefore, even if you work from home, you still need to have boundaries and follow a routine.
There are two types of routines that I try to stick to: daily routine and weekly routine.
Daily routine, among other things, covers the following aspects of my day:
- When I wake up at morning
- When I go to bed at evening
- Meals times
- Daily exercises
- No-screen time (preferably at least two hours before I go to bed)
Weekly routine is more high-level and operates on larger chunks of my time. It covers stuff like:
- Weekly days off
- Weekly professional obligations (e.g. write an article for my blog)
- Weekly non-professional obligations (e.g. shopping, cleaning my place, laundry, etc.)
- Weekly exercises
I tried hard to establish very detailed and strict routines, but it didn’t work for me. Maybe I lack in self-discipline, or, maybe, I just need a bit of chaos in my schedule. In any case, my routines are permissive. For example, I have a window of 2 hours for waking up. So, one day I might wake up at 7am and another day it might be 9am. Similarly, for going to bed at the end of a day.
However, in my opinion, you should still write a strict routine for yourself and do your best to follow it. Make exceptions only if you see that you absolutely can’t fulfil specific parts of your routine (and even then make sure that you’re not being too easy on yourself). A good way to get into a routine is to share it with a family member or a friend. For example, if you schedule weekly exercises with someone else, chances are that you’ll do them.
It can be annoying to commute to the office, but this also has upsides. You go outside. You walk a bit. Hopefully you get to breathe a fresh air. Maybe you even use stairs here and there. All of that is very important.
When you work from home, you can walk less than 100 steps a day, especially if your place is small. So, you wake up, sit for many hours, then sit to have dinner, sit to read, sit to watch TV or Netflix and then lie back in bed. Day after day. Given this lifestyle, it won’t take long until your body protests. Therefore, it’s crucially important to exercise.
Luckily, there is no shortage of ways to move your body. Have a walk before or right after breakfast. Do yoga. Stretch during the day. Walk the dogs for a bit longer than strictly necessary. Go to gym (just buying an yearly pass doesn’t count). Some super humans even hit the gym early in the morning, before breakfast. Martial arts, extreme sports, dancing, playing soccer, cross-fit, etc. – all of these are great ways to stay in shape. It might take a bit of time until you find the activities that fit you, but this investment is necessary.
In this context, also pay attention to the quality of the air in your home office. It’s very important to either have good ventilation in general, or ventilate manually several times a day.
Taking care of your physical shape is super important and automatically improves your mental state as well, but don’t stop there. There are more things you can do.
It’s very important to have access to sunlight. Yeah, I know that there are places where sunlight is a luxury, but even seeing gray sky is much better than seeing gray walls all day. If you can’t get sunlight at your place, go out more often.
Then, do you have plant(s) next to you? If not, go get some right now.
And don’t forget about aesthetics in general. Keep your home office clean. Make it visually pleasant: good curtains, some pictures, photos of your loved ones, etc. If needed, paint the walls. You’re gonna sit there for hours upon hours, so it’s worth investing time to make it as pleasant as you can.
For the past year I’ve been practicing meditation and found it very useful to improve my mental state. Give it a try and see if it works for you.
Back when I had worked at office I ate light breakfasts and serious lunches. When I transitioned to working from home, I noticed that for some reason this approach became non-optimal. So, I had to flip it over and make breakfasts more substantial, while making the lunches more lightweight. It did the trick and made me less tired afternoon. In addition, I had to change what I eat and drink. For example, I reduced the amount of coffee and sugar. Not saying either of that was simple, but I wanted to be productive and that’s what it took.
Maybe you won’t need to alter your diet in any way, but if you feel tired, sleepy or just find it difficult to concentrate, experiment and see if different diet helps.
Something that’s not being discussed nearly enough in my opinion is lack of interaction with other people when you work from home. I guess if you’ve got family and children, it’s less of a problem, but I’m currently single. Therefore, it’s one of the biggest problems for me. When people ask me what’s the biggest downside of working from home, I immediately answer: not having company for lunch. Really, even after three years of doing that, I still can’t get accustomed to the fact that I don’t sit for lunch with a bunch of colleagues and chat about stuff. I really miss that.
So, when you transition to this new mode of work, take care of this aspect of your life. How often will you talk to people face-to-face? How often will you visit family members and friends? Do you need to augment your routine to make sure that you get enough interaction with humans in real life?
Now, once again, I understand that everyone is different. Surely there are people out there who will only benefit from having less social interactions and obligations. That’s totally fine. All I’m saying is that you should consider this aspect and make sure that you don’t accidentally shot yourself in the foot by neglecting it.
Another very delicate, but important topic to discuss in context of working from home is addictions.
I’m addicted to computer games. Just to make sure we’re on the same page: if you like playing computer games for one-two hours a day, you’re not addicted. Addiction is when you sit down to play for one-two hours after work, and the next thing you know it’s sunrise. Or when you want to squeeze 30 minutes of playing after the lunch, and then play until midnight. That’s addiction and that’s what happened to me times after times.
I tried to fight this addiction in many different ways, but, eventually, the only thing that worked is giving up computer games entirely. Furthermore, I made an agreement with a couple of friends that if I ever install a game on my computer, I’ll pay them a considerable amount of money as a fine. This scheme has worked well for the past 2 years and allowed me to stop wasting time.
Now, there are people who don’t have addictions and don’t even understand how others get addicted to anything. If you’re in this category, forget what I said and skip to the next section. However, if you’re addicted to anything, be it drugs, computer games, gambling, social media, porn, etc., be very careful. Office environment and social norms will usually mitigate your addictions when you’re at work, but when you work from home you’re on your own.
So, if you know you have addictions, make a very specific plan for mitigating them before you start working from home. You can use various technological solutions, like website blockers, to augment your efforts. Involve your family and friends if needed. Under no circumstances shove your addictions under the rug because there is good chance that they’ll get out of there and ruin your productivity.
I don’t have children, so I can’t give any advice to parents who work from home. However, I do know that children can interfere with productivity.
I guess many people will be shocked by the above statement and say “well, then screw productivity; my children are more important”, but I doubt it’s that simple. After all, you need to make a living. You also probably want to be good at your work (or, at least, not to be bad). Lastly, you probably want to dedicate quality time to your children and not some partial attention while thinking about work.
Once again, I’m in no position to share any experience in this regard, but I’m sure that you can find a lot of tips for being productive in this situation online.
Track Your Time
The last piece of advice I want to give you is to track your time. There are many ways to do that and there is no shortage of software solutions to assist you. But what’s the benefit of doing that? Glad you asked.
See, when you work from office, you kind of assume that you’re working eight to ten hours a day, right? Unfortunately, that’s not really the case. You present at the office for that long, yes, but, usually, you don’t really know what portion of that time you indeed spent working (as opposed to, say, making coffee). In most cases, this metric isn’t even that interesting because even if you’d finish your work very quickly, it’s not like you’d stand up and go home at 2pm each day.
However, when you work from home, the situation becomes very different. Now you can really take advantage of higher productivity and free time for non-professional activities. However, to do that, you need some kind of “daily definition of done”. In other words, you need to have an indication that says: “I completed my daily amount of work”. That’s where time tracking comes into play.
Using time tracking I found out, empirically, that I can work productively for about 5 hours a day. You might be surprised by this low number, but I assure you that you don’t work more than that doing 9-to-6 at the office because this is “net” time. It excludes breaks, meals, interruptions, phone calls, etc. It’s really a considerable amount of work-time and if I work longer than that for several days in a row, it makes me too tired to be productive. So, this number, 5 hours of concentrated work, became my daily goal. When I reach it, I can stop working and my work day is over. If this happens at 2pm, then that’s what it is.
Additional benefit of knowing this number is that I started to value my professional time much more. For example, I spent 3 hours and 17 minutes on this post so far. It will take me another hour and a half to complete it, proofread, make some changes and publish on my blog. Therefore, effectively, writing this post will consume one full day of my work. Given it’s a considerable amount of time, I better be sure that what I write and share here really worth this investment.
On the more technical side, I’m using Pomodoro technique. It allows me to concentrate better, track my time and make sure I do breaks during the day. Definitely worth giving it a try.
So, these were my tips for people who plan to work from home, or already do that. Hopefully, these tips will help you to be more strategic in your planning and execution.
Working from home has its benefits, but it also has drawbacks. I’m convinced that it’s not for everybody, just like working from office is not from everybody. But you won’t know until you try, so go ahead and try it out if the opportunity presents itself.
Please keep in mind that what works for me won’t necessarily work for you, so don’t stop here. Invest additional time into this research and read about experiences of other people too.
As usual, thanks for reading. If you’ve got additional tips for working from home, please share them in the comments below.