Working from home: How to get sh*t done.

Coronavirus has forced a lot of people who normally don’t work from home to start working from home. I even have academic colleagues who, for the first time, have had to buy a desk and a chair and get a proper home office running.

I have been working from home for years now. What started as bad (workaholism) evolved into a practice of working from home 1-3 days a week on a regular basis depending on my tasks. My typical is probably 2, I will come down to 1 if there’s a lot requiring me on campus and I will come up to 3 when I need a higher density of solid blocks of focussed time (writing grants or a new course). I’ve learned a lot of lessons along the way, so here are some tips to those new to this game.

Initial disclaimer: Yes, I don’t have kids, and yes, I know not all of the things below work or can even be implemented by everyone. This is just what works for me, take what you want from it. I think the main point below is to find your own way…

No particular order on these points, mostly because they kind of tie in with each other in multiple ways.

1. Environment matters: Probably top of the pile for me, if your environment sucks your productivity will suffer. It’s hard at short notice, but try to build a working environment conducive to work. I long ago invested in a proper desk and chair, get the ergonomics right. If you can, try to get your IT set-up similar to work too. I have the same keyboard and trackball at home as at work, I also run the same monitor setup (2 x portrait side by side plus small landscape on the right — laptop at home, old monitor at work) and I run the same file system at both too (C: OS and D: my files, which I sync bidaily using FreeFileSync and a flash HD — nice side-effect, I always have 3 backups done daily!!). I run the same software on both systems too. Moving from home to work and v.v. is completely seamless for me and not reliant on net-stability. I can literally stop at work, sync, ride home, sync, and get started again.

Thinking beyond my desk, make sure you’re in a quiet area, good light, good airflow, nice outlook if you can get it, and most importantly, a place where you can minimise distractions. If you like silence, do what you can (noise cancelling headphones, earplugs, whatever). If you like music, get that set-up well.

It might sound like I invest a lot in this… yes absolutely. If your environment is unworkable, your productivity suffers and eventually your income will too. This really is spending money to make money, and we all know you need to do that sometimes.

2. Plan & prioritise: You should have a good plan even ‘at work’ but it becomes more important when working from home because if you don’t plan your time then no one else will. In the current Coronavirus ‘remote working’ world, with many things becoming asynchronous, your calendar will stop planning your time as well. This can be dangerous in many ways. Firstly, working at home it’s hard to keep tabs on your time — some will work a lot less, some (like me) will just end up working more, even to the point of working to burnout. Also, working at home, it’s easy to lose focus and devote time to things that don’t carry impact. Ultimately, you can easily be like the truck stuck in the mud, wheels desperately spinning, but getting no traction and going nowhere.

When you work from home, make sure you have day, week and month plans. Have ‘to do’ lists at all three scales and prioritise them. Tick things off when they are done. Not only does this help you know what to spend your time on, but it helps you realise how much you are getting done. One thing about working from home is that you save some time in your day from the commute to and from. For me it’s about 1 hour a day, possibly a little more. I tend to reclaim half of this as personal time and use the other half as planning time. One clever trick here: if you can, put your planning time on the end of your exercise time. You can then use your exercise time to work through all the thinking, and then just empty your mind onto the page once you get home.

3. Big blocks: I like big blocks and I cannot lie… in fact in normal times, my work from home days are my ‘big blocks’ days since they are the days where I can knock out most of my distractions. The need to do this in a coronavirus remote working scenario is even greater — with everything going asynchronous it means there’s always stuff flying all over the place and your time is always chopped to pieces. Without big blocks, you just cannot get major tasks done. You spend your whole life being reactive rather than proactive.

For me, on a ‘big blocks’ day, I have only two tasks scheduled: a main and a reserve. The main can take up the whole day, and my big blocks days are the days I’m most willing to work ‘over time’ because of the way ‘flow’ works. It takes time to build momentum into big block tasks, often 1-2 hours, and I don’t want to lose that investment while I’m still getting high output from it. I will attack that main task until it hits a wall, which will either be: a) I finished it, b) I’ve hit a roadblock I can’t solve today, or c) I’ve gone all day, my output is waning, and I need another solid block of time to finish the task. The reserve task is there for when this happens — if I still have enough time left in the day to put solid hours to the reserve I will switch to it and dig in. I won’t always switch to reserve though, if I can’t do it justice, I will often just turn the rest of the day into mopping up pieces (delayed emails, planning, etc).

4. Getting in the zone: Basically this is knowing how to find ‘flow’ and is particularly important on big blocks days. For those who don’t know what I mean by ‘flow’, it’s that mental state you get in when you are heavily engaged in a task — all the distractions fall aside, there is just you and the task and you smash away at the task. It is particularly useful for any writing task, almost to the point now where I don’t want to write unless I know I really do have several hours to push through the ‘flow finding’ phase to proper flow. What you need to do is learn how you find that place for yourself quickly. For me, it’s most effectively done with a) push out all distractions, b) 2-3 minutes somewhere quiet to prep myself for the task — what am I going to do, remind myself of the important bits, etc., c) get the right music going, settle in at the desk, d) either edit the few paragraphs before where I need to write (or if it’s a blank page write some rough rubbish close to the topic), and then e) hopefully I just slide on in to where the work’s needed and get rolling.

Finding the zone is like good running form or swimming stroke. You have to work on it. Find what works for you. Critically analyse your approach, work on developing it.

5. Cluster the small stuff: As much as possible, cluster all the little tasks together and most importantly, don’t let them chop up your big blocks. That doesn’t mean I completely ignore anything small in a big block, sometimes a tiny easy task is a nice ‘mental break’ but do them on your terms strictly — they are breaks not distractions. I usually keep at least one day for small stuff and usually that’s the day with the most meetings in it (currently Friday for me). I also keep a little block of it on Monday morning, partly to ‘shovel snow’ from the weekend and partly because easy tasks are a good way to ‘restart the engine’ after the weekend. The other place I like small stuff clusters is in a big blocks day when the reserve task isn’t viable.

6. Schedule start and finish: Perhaps obvious, but no, you probably shouldn’t sleep to 1pm working from home and you shouldn’t be going until 5am either. Try to keep somewhat normal hours for yourself. On a work from home day, I’m always ‘at the desk’ by 9am without fail and I will have a finish time for myself as well that sometimes depends on my plan for the day. I am in bed by midnight without fail also and rarely work right up until then, it has to be some really exceptional flow on a task that warrants running late. As a famous football coach once said, ‘nothing much that’s good happens after midnight’ it holds as much for work as it does being on the town.

7. Take breaks & get exercise: Still important and you should see working from home and the flexibility of schedule it affords as an opportunity rather than a cost. For example, I do some mix of running and swimming to stay in shape. In the normal 9-5, swimming is hell, the lanes are always most busy before 10am and after 4pm. I make my work from home days my swim days and my office days my run days. I then put my swim either 10:30 to fit between the morning crowd and lunch crowd or 2:30 to fit between the lunch crowd and afternoon crowd. Aside from getting a relatively peaceful swim in, I have the added benefit of being able to break up my day, sometimes use the exercise as thinking time, etc. I sometimes also even jam a nap into a work from home day, something I could never really do in the office. Set a 30 min timer on the phone, crash on the lounge, get back to work after. A key thing in working from home is learning how to maximise your energy and effectiveness in the process. Little things like building exercise and rest in well really matter.

8. Eat properly: Easy when working from home to not keep to meal times, snack all over the place, eat half the pantry as a procrastination tool… Might seem obvious and trivial but if you don’t stick to sensible eating, your energy and focus will lurch all over the place making you less effective not more. Stick to routines and keep some discipline on this aspect. I have my usual breakfast on a work from home day, and a scheduled lunch and dinner. I usually don’t have open snacks in the house to reduce temptation on this front — the open is important, if there’s nothing open it’s less tempting, still need something around if friends pop over.

9. Shut the world out: Really essential to minimising distractions and getting flow going. I never have the television on when working, ever, no radio or podcasts either. If it’s music it’s albums or streaming with no adverts and it’ll be stuff that doesn’t chew too much mental effort up, i.e., music I’ve listened to a lot before so the novelty of it isn’t drawing neurons away from task. If someone is talking about stuff in whatever I listen to, boom, the focus is gone. It’s why people have to walk into my office and scare the crap out of me at work — my noise-cancelling headphones are my tools to shut the distracting voices out.

I sometimes even take this to extreme levels as a focus strategy, putting a single album on endless repeat through noise-cancelling headphones just to ‘lock in’ to the zone. For example, my review on 0.7 anomaly was almost entirely written to Guns’n’Roses’ ‘Chinese Democracy’ album [high rotation for several months, I know every note of that album] and one of my ARC grants this year to Hole’s ‘Live Through This’, which I’m also listening to while writing this. Whatever album it is, it is on only when I’m working on that task, and it’s almost to the point where I train my brain like Pavlov’s dog that that music means ‘focus all to writing task’.

Blocking out the world also means the internet. Hide your phone in the back of the lounge, turn your email browser off, ban yourself from social media. Shut down the things that send pointless notifications (Teams is especially bad for this, I hate Teams). I’m sometimes a little relaxed on this, it depends on the task because it can also make a good mental reset for me, but it needs to be short doses. Sometimes you want none at all. Writing this post I haven’t looked at anything but the text on this page…

10. Brief & debrief: The first half is kind of obvious, give yourself 5-10 min at the start of the day to think about what your strategy for the day is. What are your main tasks? What are your priorities? What type of day is it? Big blocks, lots of little things? When are your meetings (if any)? What’s the smartest way to assemble the day?

The second half is often not. People get to the end of the day, and they just stop working without looking back at the day. When you finish up, find 5-10 minutes to ‘debrief’ your day. How did it go? What is unfinished that needs to be put into a future day? What did you get done and what was the most effective part of the day? What was the least effective part of the day and what lessons are in that to get better at working like this? Celebrate your little wins, just observe what didn’t work perfectly without being down on yourself for it.

Some of this is managing your own morale and expectations. Seeing that you achieved stuff at the end of the day keeps you feeling ok about yourself. It also helps you become more realistic about what you can and cannot achieve in a day.

I put this one last because this is going to be particularly important in the Coronavirus hellscape where we have to work from home every day, again and again. This is working from home ‘for the long haul’ and it requires some extra effort in mental management. It’s going to be really easy to feel demotivated, unengaged, unproductive and unhappy if you really don’t have good methodology for working from home. But it doesn’t have to be this way if you focus on evolving to a situation that you can work with.

Bonus 11. Try not to punish yourself when working at home fails: A big suggestion for beginners is to forget perfect on this, it never happens, even for seasoned ‘work from home’ folks like me. Some of my work from home days in the past have been epic. I’ve started 9am, get to 10pm and written half a paper, and jammed in my meals and a swim. I find my zone easily, the flow is fast and strong, everything seems to hang together. I wind down with an hour and a half on the bass and head off to bed feeling awesome about a massively productive day.

Others are bloody awful, the main task ends abruptly at 10:15am, there’s a book I need and it’s on my shelf in the office. Continuing without it is a waste of time. It’s super-annoying as I was primed for days to smash that task. I go for a swim to try and get over it, come back, start on the reserve task, get an hour in and I’m just not feeling it. Nothing’s working, can’t find the zone, want to smash something because my brain keeps stewing on the main task for the day. I can’t make my brain refocus, I ask nicely, it calls me a jerk. I go to small tasks instead and just pack it in at dinner time as the day is a write-off. Sometimes it just doesn’t work, the mojo isn’t there. Not much you can do.

Don’t rip yourself up about working from home being hard, there’s not much good in it. Just treat each day as a separate day and look at how to get better at it with time. Try to avoid the unrealistic expectations generated by HBR and inc.com and stuff on this… the management gurus and associated meritocrats are always looking to turn your productivity into their easy profit. Ignore them as much as you can for anything but tips that seem easy to try and abandon if they fail. The better approach is to just hold to a process of plan, brief, put in a day’s work, debrief, take your wins, sleep, rinse, repeat. Focus on the long game, try to put the little daily ups and downs to the side. You know what you want to get done, pick the important parts of that, divert as much productive time as you can to them, and try to stay positive along the way.

In the end, all you can do is all you can do, right?

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