It was the best of times, it was the worst of times

June 13, 2017

This post was originally published in April 2017 on Superyesmore as part of their Human In The Machine series.

Charles Dickens could easily have been talking about remote working here, rather than describing life during the French Revolution. If you’d have said to me earlier in my career that I could work from home for one of the world’s top open source companies, I’d have snapped your hand off, but in reality, as with most things, it’s not all hearts and flowers. I’ve been working remotely from home for 112 days, and some days that feels like an eternity.

I’ve always been someone who works more than 9 to 5. My work is a big part of my life and I tend to work whenever I need or want to. At my last startup, this would end up being a 70-80 hour week, which is pretty unsustainable in the long run, especially with a young family.

I thought working remotely would work really well for my mindset - giving you the freedom to work when you want, and to a certain degree it does. But there is also a danger here that you can end up putting even more pressure on yourself than when you work in an office - you’re less visible, it takes much longer to get buy in for your ideas from across the organisation, you don’t get the same level of feedback. You’ve also got a whole different set of context switching to deal with - your 2 year old wants to wander into the office in the background of a conference call, the shopping needs to be unpacked, the car needs to go to the mechanic, the list goes on.

So I’ve spent a lot of the last 112 days thinking about productivity - how to maintain it, how to focus and how to keep my sanity while doing it. I don’t yet have any definitive answers, this is most definitely a work in progress, but here’s some things I’ve learnt so far.

Be Mindful

The first and most important change I’ve made recently is to start doing some regular meditation. I’d been thinking about it for a while, and then I read Tim Ferris’ Tools of Titans, where it’s amazing how many successful people from all fields of human endeavour use meditation on a daily basis. I use the Headspace app, and 10 minutes a day has changed my life. In the morning I drink coffee, then a 10 minute session of meditation and this sets my mindset as I step into work mode. But more importantly mindfulness also encourages you to continue that practice throughout the day, trying to be present in everything you do. When you do a lot of context switching, this is an incredibly valuable tool to have in your armoury - clarity of mind and clear movement between tasks is my goal. Again this is a work in progress, but it’s helped me to keep my stress levels down and my focus on the stuff that’s important.

Hack Your Space

Build yourself a proper work environment, ideally in a room just for that purpose. There’s a whole world of Reddit and Lifehacker porn about ideal workspaces with a ton of ideas about how to lay things out. Honestly, if my workspace isn’t organised then my brain doesn’t work properly, although admittedly I am slightly OCD in this respect. It’s not necessarily about being tidy, it’s about having the tools of your trade accessible in the way that works best for you. Experiment, try things out, move things around until you get everything where you want it to be.

Reduce Your Interrupts

Email and social media are the enemy of productivity, and mostly deliver limited value to anyone’s work. Constant exposure to this stuff is slowly rewiring our brains to need the continuous interruption and context switching - read Cal Newport’s Deep Work for a great perspective on this. I’d ideally like to only check my mail twice a day, but that’s just not possible for me at the minute. As much as you can, close those tabs, turn off notifications, try to check just a few times during the day. Most emails do not need an answer within an hour of you receiving them. Your brain will thank you in the long run as you rewire yourself back to being able to concentrate more deeply on the task you’re involved in.

Make Lists

I’ve always made a lot of lists, and that’s increased dramatically in the last three months. I use Asana, and have a whole bunch of different lists on the go there. Asana works well if you’re used to using things like Jira, it’s basically the same mindset. I have long term and short term lists, lists for each project I’m working on, and lists for the stuff I need to get done in my personal life too. I still use paper, but I try and put stuff into Asana afterwards. I’ve also started sleeping with a pad and pen by the bed, as I find getting stuff out onto paper helps me to avoid waking up in the middle of the night with a bunch of stuff churning around in my head.

Plan Your Day

I’ve also started planning out my day pretty tightly. I have a Google Calendar where I split my entire day up into hour long chunks, and assign time out of that to specific things in my schedule. This includes right down to when I take lunch, when I should check email, when I do web research, basically everything I do regularly every day. Most days I can’t stick to this rigidly, but I find it useful just to have it there. I try to put transient activities like checking email, or web research, into the morning, and put deep thinking activities into the afternoon. That’s just the way my brain works, but I’ve found it useful to keep those activities separated so that your brain can switch modes more easily.

Relax !

Finally, try not to beat yourself up too much. Working from home tends to be working when the idea catches you, whether that be the working day, the evening or the weekend. So if you want to take a nap during the day, go for a run, climb some rocks or whatever it is that floats your boat, then try not to worry about it too much. A happy mind and body in my experience produces the best work in the long run.

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