Making the transition from office life to remote life can be very difficult at first. You have traded the standard office distractions for home distractions. And the latter can be difficult to handle alongside the demands of work. You might have kids in need of snacks, a broken kitchen appliance, home chores beckoning to you from across the room or from the backyard.
For many people, working from home can be much more challenging than working from within the confines of the office. But fear not.
Working from home provides you with more control over your environment. Practice some time-tested work from home techniques, and you may find working from the house can be a surprisingly pleasant and productive experience.
- Set up routines
- Create a work space
- Try block scheduling
- Separate “Deep” work from “Admin” work
- Have a shutdown ritual
You may even find that some of the tips you put into practice now will still be there for you when you return to the office.
The Important of Routine
When first embarking on your work from home journey, it’s easy to miss the first hurdle: routine.
The importance of routine in work from home situations cannot be overstated. It is the make or break point of failure that trips up the novice.
Routines are not as simple as deciding when to work on what. Having a solid routine involves rituals and context.
For example, if you decide to start working and then realize you’re craving a coffee you have to stop work and make a coffee.
Instead, set up a ritual around work and coffee. If the smell of a hot cup of coffee, and the jolt of energy provided by the caffeine, gets you in a mood to work that’s because coffee signals to your brain that it’s time to get down to business. So, in this case, making the coffee is a ritual to encourage the habit that supports your work.
For your brain, the signals may be different. Maybe turning your phone on silent or logging out of social media signals that it’s time to get to work. No matter what the signal, setting up the right ritual to support your habit is key.
Pro tip: there are browser extensions that can limit your time on certain sites.
In Cal Newport’s classic productivity book, Deep Work, he suggests alternative scenarios for creating rituals and habits that may differ for different kinds of knowledge work. A novelist may enjoy the luxury of taking as many undisturbed hours as needed to complete a day’s work. Conversely, a breaking news reporter will have to schedule moments of concentration in a more dynamic fashion.
The point is, you have your own rhythms and rituals and habits. The key is to identify them and put them into practice.
Make Some Space
Nearly as important as finding the rituals and habits that support your work, you’ll find that preparing your environment for focus poses other challenges, but also valuable opportunities.
Many of you may have the luxury of a home office already installed. If not, you may need to create something on the fly. Here are a few tips to get you started.
- Choose a spot with adequate sunlight. If you have to work in your basement, fine, but try to pick a spot near a window. If this is simply not an option, be sure to schedule regular breaks to absorb some sunlight. If you work a night shift, go ahead and skip to the next step.
- Don’t work from your bed. It may be tempting to sit in your comfortable bed with a laptop and quilt keeping you warm and cozy. The reasoning behind this tip is all about associations. When you’re involved in your work, your mind is an active state, firing off all kinds of neurons in all different directions. Your bed is the place where you sleep. So either you’ll stop working and go to sleep. Or, worse, you won’t be able to sleep as soundly because you’ve associated your bed with work. This is a “heads I win, tails you lose” situation.
- Avoid choosing a heavily trafficked area of your home. For some, this might mean the living room, or a den near the kitchen. Try to choose a more secluded spot, if possible, where you can fully absorb yourself in your work.
Try Block Scheduling
For many knowledge workers, slicing your day up into manageable chunks is difficult, but it’s one of the best ways to make sure you are getting a bird’s-eye view of your commitments and next actions.
Block scheduling is a time management technique meant to give every minute of your day a job through the use of blocks.
At the beginning of your day, write down each hour you intend to work, in order. Block off each hour with a chosen task.
Make sure to schedule breaks in the activity. Rookie mistake is to schedule every hour for a difficult task. Divide your energy into manageable chunks. Schedule the most difficult tasks for the hours you are most alert. Schedule the more redundant, administrative tasks for the hours in which you’re usually running low on energy. Some people have bursts of energy sprinkled throughout the day while others are most alert and able to focus during certain specific hours. But everybody begins to fade at some point over a standard 8-hour day. So plan accordingly.
You may be tempted to block this out in your digital calendar. That may work, but paper tends to work better because you can scratch out and shift your blocks around as your day changes. It’s always possible you’ll have to re-arrange things on the fly. But as you get better at this kind of scheduling, you tend to require fewer corrections.
Block scheduling helps you get a better view of your daily commitments and provides a reliable context in which you can best accomplish your tasks.
Separate Admin Work From Deep Work
As mentioned above, block scheduling helps you get a better idea of your daily constraints and a pathway to work through them. But how do you separate admin tasks from “Deep” tasks?
This will vary based on what kinds of work you do. But if you’re working from home, it’s safe to assume you do knowledge work, which means you get paid to work from a seated position and probably use a computer. Nothing wrong with that. Whether you’re a writer, or a coder, or a designer, you’ve probably never divided your tasks by any specific context. Or maybe you have, but you had trouble sticking to it.
Remember, context is key. Otherwise, how will you decide when it’s time to concentrate on a difficult task, when to make phone calls, or when to check social media?
“Deep work” time
A good starting place is to look at your daily tasks and identify the ones that require unbroken concentration to get the best results. These are your “deep work” tasks. This means shutting off the TV, or the phone, or otherwise eliminating every possible distraction you have control over and giving 100% focus to that single important task. No multi-tasking during this time.
Deep concentration is difficult. It’s even more difficult in an office. But simply put, it gets the best results. So now that you’re working from home, you have the golden opportunity of using deep focus to your advantage.
But start slowly, deep concentration is difficult. Try to slowly build up to a half hour, and then work your way up slowly–minute by concentrated minute. Don’t feel bad about starting slow. You’ll be amazed at how much you can accomplish in a short burst of focused intensity.
The rest of your day should be dedicated to “admin” tasks, which are important nonetheless but don’t require a nuclear level of focus.
Many knowledge work jobs require various administrative duties such as progress reports, data entry, etc. There are also admin tasks you do for yourself like updating and clarifying lists of tasks, making phone calls, scheduling meetings, or processing notes.
Just like you schedule your deep time, schedule your admin time as well. All of your work is important, but different tasks are best accomplished with the right context and tools.
Have A Shutdown Ritual
Finally, at the end of your day, it’s time to transition back into home life. Working from home is all about balance. You don’t want home bleeding into work and you don’t work spilling over into home. But since you’re in your home it can be difficult to separate when work begins and ends.
This is why it’s important to have a shutdown ritual. The shutdown ritual is just as important as your work rituals. A shutdown ritual allows you to close any open loops, defer tasks you weren’t able to complete, and basically get clear with your outstanding commitments.
Be creative. Your shutdown ritual can be fun. It’s like putting a bookmark in your work day so you can resume tomorrow feeling refreshed with all your mental energy restored.