Updated: Jan 4
How to keep yourself accountable, collaborative, and productive — even when working from home.
After years of working from coffee shops and personal home desks, there’s one thing I’m sure of — working remotely takes a lot of purposeful planning.
Working from home is fantastic… right up until your neighbour starts firing up all sorts of power tools and noisy machinery across the street. Managing your own time and choosing your hours can be incredibly hard if you don’t deliberately plan your day ahead of time.
Leonardo Da Vinci once said, “While you are alone you are entirely your own master.” When working remotely, you are more likely to spend half your time battling procrastination, distractions, or managing energy dips. If you give in to your distractions, you could wind up devoting productive time to fighting off the guilt that comes from giving in to those distractions.
In the wake of COVID-19, many people are suddenly finding themselves working remotely, and often in close quarters with young children, partners, and family. So how can you keep your focus regardless of your environment?
Start Work as Early as Possible Rising before the sun is a habit shared by most successful people. In a poll of 20 executives cited by Vanderkam, 90% said they wake up before 6 am on weekdays. This makes sense from a productivity standpoint — you will have fewer distractions and a close to a peaceful environment to focus. Believe it or not, one way to work from home productively is to dive into your to-do list as soon as you wake up. Merely starting tasks first thing in the morning before the rest of your family or roommates have woken up can be the key to making real progress. Plus, according to one study, waking up early can also make you happier. Some evidence suggests that morning light exposure, which results in a phase advance of the sleep/wake cycle, improves depressive symptoms in seasonal affective disorder.
Dedicate Mornings to High-Value Work Work on your high-value tasks first thing in the morning — cut the planning and start doing real work when you are most active. Don’t waste all that mental clarity and energy on planning what to do for the next eight hours. If you are a morning person, you can get a tonne done in the early morning hours. It pays to focus on essential tasks for the day during your morning. A plan from yesterday makes it easier to get started right away when you get up. Kenneth Chenault, the former CEO and Chairman of American Express, once said in an interview that the last thing he does before leaving the office is to write down the top three things he needs to accomplish tomorrow. Then he uses that list to start his day the following morning.
If You’re Not a Morning Person, Work When You’re Most Productive When you’re working from home, it’s important to recognise when you are most focused and energetic and to plan your schedule around that. Energy is the critical component we all need to consistently produce our best work, no matter where we are. For example, if you’re a morning person and are most clearheaded, creative, and productive from 9 am to 12 pm, use that burst of energy to get things done at that time. If you are a night-owl and need a few hours to ease into the day, leverage your afternoons and evenings. If you are productive between the hours of 3 pm and 11 pm, plan your tasks accordingly and make those your work hours. The point is that you can increase your energy by working with your body rather than fighting against it and forcing it to fit into anybody’s clock other than your own internal one. It’s better to concentrate your energy into a specific period than randomly insert it across chunks of time. To capitalize on your most productive periods, save your harder tasks for when you know you’ll be in the right headspace for them.
Prepare For a Successful Morning in Advance Planning your day the night before will give you back a lot wasted hours in the morning and lower your stress levels. The first quiet hour of the morning can be an ideal time to focus on meaningful work without being interrupted. Try this tonight. If you’re happy with the results, then commit to trying it for a week. After a week, you’ll be able to decide whether you want to add “night-before planning” to your life.
Structure Your Day As You Would Normally When working from home, you manage practically everything — calendar, projects, tasks, and breaks. Without a proper structure, you can quickly lose focus or burn out. “I make an hour-by-hour contract with myself that basically says, ‘When nap time starts, what are the two things I’m going to do?’” Martin said. “I write it on a piece of paper. A lot of people like to keep digital notes, but then when I sit down, there’s no question like, ‘what am I going to do?’” says Laura Mae Martin, Google’s in-house productivity expert. To stay on schedule, segment what you’ll do and when over the course of the day. Use an online calendar to create personal events and reminders that tell you when to shift gears and start on new tasks. If your mornings are for writing while in the office, use the same schedule at home. “Try to stick to some semblance of your original routine from before you started working from home,” says Eric Lam, a cross-asset reporter for Bloomberg. “Give yourself a little bit of time before you start to wake yourself up, have a coffee, make breakfast. Especially for those of us — like me — who are not morning types.” You could even dress the part and remind yourself you are in work-mode. That means comfortable work clothes — not pyjamas. “It makes me feel awake, fresh, productive, and less slovenly,” says Kristine Servando, deputy head of Bloomberg Asia digital. “It was part of the mental trick of demarcating between work and the rest of your life.” And remember to take breaks, refresh and recover. When you live in your office, it’s easy to overwork. Log off when you’re supposed to. And resist the urge to come back to your computer after dinner.
Separate Work Zones From Relaxing Zones When you work from home, it’s easy to curl up in bed with a laptop and pretend that you’re “working”. To improve your efficiency, build a separate home office/desk just for work. This sets your brain up for enhanced productivity — your brain gets spatially wired to think of the office as the place where work happens. “By working in the same space each day, your brain starts to associate that spot with working. If you work in a different spot every day, your brain has to retrain itself every day to get work done in that spot,” says Martin.
Cancel Noise For Focus The closest thing to magic for your money when working remotely is noise-cancelling technology. I bought my first pair of noise-cancelling headphones years ago. And I’ve never regretted the decision. Working from home may expose you to sounds that become irritating or unbearable over time: traffic and street noise that penetrate through windows, the tick of a clock somewhere, etc. If you have kids, they probably would be playing close to your workspace. Noise-cancelling headphones or earbuds are great at removing those sorts of sounds almost entirely. They can also dull the sound of talking if you’re in a place in which other people (like your family or roommates) have to also function. Combined with music, they work even better. The absence of background noise effectively enhances the music, and you can work without the distraction during your “focused” period.
Keep Socialising Connecting with other people is needed more than ever to stay healthy, productive, happy and sane. You can hold virtual meetings, jump on a phone call, or send a friend a text. Reach out and support one another — and laugh! “If you’re the kind of person who’ll miss your colleagues when you work from home, build opportunities for socialising into your day,” says Karen Eyre-White, a productivity coach and founder of GoDo business organisation, who recommends trying to call colleagues rather than using email or Slack messaging. Modern technology has made it insanely easy to stay connected. Use tools like Skype, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts, WhatsApp, Facebook Workplace and Trello to stay connected with friends and colleagues at work. Positive social support can improve our resilience in coping with stress. Check-in with your friends, family, and neighbours regularly.
Working from home can be challenging for many people. How you choose to face that challenge won’t just determine your productivity — it will determine your mental health and even your happiness.