How to Work Productively from Home
Working from home is challenging if you’re not used to it. How do you work from home and get things done? That’s what we’ll focus on in this tutorial.
What we’re going to discuss:
- How apps can help you stay productive
- Why it’s smart to do try-outs and experiments
- Sage advice: structure your day
- Learn to work & get results anywhere
- Don’t stick to the 9-5; do what works for you
- Dealing with procrastination and distractions
This tutorial is written specially for:
- Software developers, desktop producers, writers, bloggers, etc.
- People who are working from home by choice, or b/c of outside events
- People who’ve taken a day (or 2) off to work on a side project
- (Those working from an office can learn a thing or two too!)
Table of Contents
Find Out What Works
I’ve worked from home since 2009, when I started out as a freelance software developer. Many a website, app and project were built from living room/kitchen tables!
I’ve also worked from coffee places, airports, co-working spaces, outdoor cabins, trains, hotel lounges, and so on. Since mid-2019 I’ve got an actual home office, but I still tend to roam around the house…
The key to working productively from home is finding out what works for you, based on the values and goals you set for yourself.
I know I get restless if I work longer periods from one place, so that’s why I switch spots often. I also figured out that I work best if I focus on one task for 3-5 hours at a time, so I organize my day around those time periods (see deep work below).
It may also help you to discover and observe what kinds of rules you’ve set in place for yourself. Presumably helpful rules like “I need to work 8 hours a day” may cause you to be less productive, because you might stress out all day about needing to put enough hours in.
What follows in this tutorial are my own experiences with working from home. Your mileage may vary. What I want to do, is give you some pointers to think about, and figure it out on your own from there.
Structure Your Day
I always get annoyed with people, experts and my mom that tell me:
- Go to bed/wake up at a regular time, consistency counts!
- Start your day at 9 AM and work until 5 PM
- Your body needs consistency and a regular schedule to function well
I’m about to give you the same advice that I despise so much: it helps to structure your day. It’s your day though, so it’s perfectly fine to structure it however you like. Starting work at a different time every day is a kind of constant, too.
Here’s what I recommend:
- Are you starting out with working from home? Stick to your regular schedule for a while. If you’re used to working 9-5, then do that. This helps you to maximize your work hours first, prior to optimizing your work/life style.
- Are you getting used to working from home? Vary your work schedule according to your goals/values, to figure out what works best. This helps you maximize both work hours and work/life style goals.
It’s important to emphasize that working from home doesn’t need to be the same as working from an office. We’re working from offices because it’s easier to communicate in sync with co-workers. Working from home is naturally async, which means you can benefit from not needing to be in sync with others.
A few examples:
- I like to walk outdoors for 30-60 minutes during the day. If I do that around lunch time, I meet a ton of office people. If I walk around 3 PM, I don’t meet anybody – nice and quiet – because everyone’s inside. Choice is the real luxury!
- A similar dynamic happens when shopping groceries. Peak times are early morning, lunch time, and right before dinner time. If I shop right before evening closing time, or around 11 AM or 3 PM, the shops are quietest.
- I try to schedule meetings (online/offline) on Thursdays and Fridays. This gives me Mon-Tue-Wed without distractions. I also work most productively at the beginning of the week, which designates Thu-Fri as less productive days because of meetings and errands.
Right now I can hear you say: “Yes, but you’re a freelancer/entrepreneur! You can do whatever you want. You don’t have mandatory meetings.” Well… I’ve got some bad news for you! Most meetings could have been an email. If it’s mandatory, someone f-ed up somewhere. Your boss doesn’t trust you to think for yourself. (A rule of thumb: Never attend a meeting without a pre-set agenda.)
I also have different values and goals, compared to yourself. Perhaps you enjoy meetings, being in sync, chatting around the watercooler. I don’t, so I’ve organized my work and productivity around those values/goals. You don’t have to have the same values/goals. But I do recommend you figure out what you value, and organize your life/work around that.
I wrote this tutorial right in the middle of the corona/COVID-19 virus epidemic. Most countries are on lockdown or close to it. It’s surprising how many people are able to work from home, even though their bosses/companies said they couldn’t when it wasn’t absolutely necessary. Necessity is the mother of invention!
Deal With Distractions & Procrastination
A common question I hear about working from home, is this: “How do you NOT get distracted? I’d be playing on my Xbox all day, or do chores.”
It’s easy to get distracted by pleasant activities, such as reading a book or gaming or watching Netflix. It’s also easy to procrastinate by doing chores like laundry, the dishes, or fix that lightbulb you’ve been meaning to replace. In fact, I know plenty of people who spend their free day off doing chores, instead of what they want to do…
I want to share a few approaches to this problem.
First, let’s talk about distractions. I recommend a principle called Deep Work. First coined by Cal Newport, in his book by the same name, deep work essentially means working undistracted on meaningful work for longer periods of time.
A good example of deep work is a writer’s retreat. Imagine you’re writing a book. You get a cabin in the woods, isolate yourself for 3 months, and finish writing your book. That’s deep work.
You can do this at home too. Designate a period of 1-5 hours to a given task with a clear end result, and spend that time working on your task. Close your “office” door, or put on some noice-cancelling headphones, and jam to your favorite tunes. Take a break when you’re done (or every hour).
A few other, similar approaches exist. I use an app called RescueTime, which has a Focus Time mode. It’ll block distracting websites, but it’s also a simple timer that helps you “declare” a block of time as focus-only. The Pomodoro technique works the same way.
Managing distractions is the same as being disciplined and purposeful about the work you want to do. Paradoxically, discipline equals deliberate choice. This ties into procrastination, which we’ll discuss next.
Procrastination comes from the inability or difficulty to manage your emotions†. You put off important work because it makes you uncomfortable. Procrastination has little to do with willpower. I’ve never put off playing videogames, but I do avoid writing a blog post on a tough topic.
I do the laundry to avoid work, and I know it, but I lie to myself thinking I’m replacing seemingly urgent (laundry) tasks with important ones (writing). Why can I muster the self-discipline to play games for 5 hours, while avoiding a more important task? Because the videogame doesn’t make me uncomfortable, and it doesn’t put up a barrier I have to jump over to begin working.
Beating procrastination, and distractions by extension, comes down to:
- Get in touch with your emotions. Learn to recognize when you procrastinate, and learn to find the underlying emotion (or state). How does it feel to be uncomfortable? Can you stay a while with that emotion? Meditation and mindfulness can help a lot here!
- Think about your goals and values in your work. What do you want to achieve? What do you find most important in life? Get clear and real with yourself about what you find worthwhile. It’ll help you make the choices you need to make, when procrastination inevitably creeps in.
- Don’t try to get your ducks in a row. Yes, you need to do laundry. Yes, you still need to wash the dishes. Yes, that lightbulb has gone unfixed for 3 months. Designate 30 minutes tonight to do all 3 of those tasks, instead of running around the house for 3 hours right now, avoiding work.
Learn To Work & Create Results Anywhere
In 2013 I traveled to Thailand. My flight had a layover connection at Hong Kong airport, which was too short to get out of the airport but too long to hang around Starbucks doing nothing. So, I did what I always do: I flip open my MacBook, and got to work.
Over the years I cultivated the ability to work anywhere. Better said, I cultivated the ability to get to work anywhere. For me, doing work actually consists of starting to work, and then keeping working. I don’t think of work as a task with a set beginning and end – I merely think about starting, and not stopping for a while. This makes working much clearer, less daunting, and easier to keep doing. It’s a shift in mindset.
Do I procrastinate? Hell yeah! Do I get distracted? Hell yeah! Does this work only for me (as far as I know)? Hell yeah! But it might work for you too. Maybe you can figure out a way for yourself to get value-focused, instead of needing to put in those 8 hours a day.
Let me put it differently. I’ve identified 2 types of workdays:
- A day where you get almost nothing done, but still get results because of one tiny pivot point during the day. This includes days where you sell a major order, get a terrific insight, finally fix that one bug. I call them short/sharp days. Another name would be a quality day.
- A day where you get a lot done, and get results because you worked focused on a volume-based task, for a longer period of time. This includes writing 5.000 words, fixing 10 bugs, or making major progress on a project. I call them long/even days, or quantity day.
A key insight here is to recognize one day for the other, and differentiate between the two. You feel good about a workday that yielded results, even though you feel you did “nothing”. You feel bad about a day in which you wanted to code a lot, and got a few lines done because of distractions.
What’s important is to become results-focused, but not too much. When you recognize what matters, based on your values, you can let go of the “Need to always code a lot” approach.
You learn to recognize a work day for what it is: a drop in an ocean of productivity. A great yield comes in the long term; you lose a few battles but win the war.
In the end, it’s more meaningful to steer a ship where you want it to go, than to fuss about whether or not the wind picks up. In my experience, when you just start working, productivity inevitably kicks in, if you learn to cultivate and practice it.
See!? I set out to write an article about working from home, and suddenly I’m almost 2.000 words in – and ready to write a concluding paragraph to wrap it all up. That’s how work works.
Here are some of the core principles we discussed:
- Figure out what works for you – and experiment
- Structure your day around deep work
- Benefit from working at home: shop & go to the gym at odd hours
- Manage your emotions to manage procrastination
- Differentiate between a quality and quantity day
- Learn to work productively anywhere, by letting go
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