With everyone in quarantine thanks to COVID-19 a lot of people are working from home for the first time, and it’s very likely that even after quarantines end many companies will realize the benefits of a remote culture and want to continue it. I’ve worked from home on-and-off for my whole career so I figure now would be a great time to share my experience for those now doing it for the first time.
I’m not writing this to tell you how you must do things however. Everyone is different, and you’re going to have to figure out what works for you and what doesn’t. I’m hoping this will just give you a few ideas and encourage you to think differently about assumptions you might have had. I’m certainly not the only one writing about this topic right now, so mix and match tips and strategies from me and others until you find something that fits your unique style.
Creating a work/life division
One of the biggest risks when working from home is falling into the trap of always being “on”. When working in an office it’s easy to draw a clear line between work and life because you are literally in a different physical space and your time is clearly divided by a commute. Without that clear division you run the risk of letting your work distract you from your life and your life distract you from your work; and having both suffer because of it.
Because of this you need to set clear divisions. Have some routine, or ritual, that you do as you’re starting work and as you’re ending it. This can be something like walking around the block, exercising, meditating, making a meal, or just pouring yourself some coffee in the morning. Then just be consistent and strict about when you’re working and when you’re not. I prefer a shorter routine in the morning so I can get to work quickly, but in the evening I have a longer one to wind down.
Another thing to think about is your physical space. It’s important to have a dedicated workspace. I personally find it helpful to sometimes break things up when I’m feeling stuck (in the past going to a coffee shop, now going to a different area in my apartment) but once I’m unstuck I return to where I usually work. It doesn’t matter too much where you decide your workspace should be, just make sure it’s somewhere you can sit for long periods of time. Do not work from bed.
Treat it like a real job (because it is)
Speaking of not working from bed, it’s a popular meme that working from home means not needing to wear pants. Don’t fall for that. Even if no one else is going to see you all day getting dressed as if you’re going into an office really does help you get in the right mindset.
So what about distractions? Dividing your day and dressing the part will help but in the back of your mind you’ll still know you’re home and when you lose focus it can be hard to regain it. Well the first step is to minimize the chances you will get distracted. I have “Do Not Disturb” mode set on my phone during my work time so I don’t get any notifications, then I put my phone out of reach so I can’t go to it absentmindedly.
Another thing that helps me stay focused is music. I have a playlist of fast-paced instrumental music that I only listen to when I’m working. Since it’s energetic sounding it keeps me engaged and the lack of lyrics makes it unlikely to ever distract me. I think at this point my brain associates that music with working so it’s even easier to stay focused when I’m listening.
One more thing I find helpful is having a notebook next to me when I’m working. Sometimes a thought will pop into my head; maybe it’s something not related to work I need to get done or just something I want to look up. Having a notebook there allows me to quickly jot the thought down and return to work, knowing I can get back to that thing later. If I don’t write it down the thought can keep nagging at me until I do something about it. Having the notebook is essentially a way to offload unrelated things I’m thinking about until later.
Dividing time and taking breaks
There’s a good chance you’ve heard of the Pomodoro Technique. If you haven’t, it’s basically just the idea that you should work in 25 minute blocks with 5 minute breaks in between. Apparently it works really well for a lot of people; I, however, am not one of them. Maybe it will work for you and if you haven’t tried it before it’s probably worth giving a shot, but for me at least there’s something I’ve found to work better. Rather than dividing my work into arbitrary chucks of time I’ll divide it into tasks that I estimate will take about 15-25 minutes. Then I focus until that task is done, and when it is I take a short break. The breaks are also not dictated by a timer; I’ll just get up and move around for about a minute and then get back to work. For some reason just not having that timer and basing everything around concrete tasks makes it much more effective for me. Both the focus time and break time also ends up being a bit more compressed.
Like everything else here, what works for me may not work for you so you’ll need to experiment. By all indications we’ll be in this situation for a while, and I expect working from home will become much more common even after it’s all over, so it’s definitely worth learning how to be as productive from home as you were when you could go into an office.