This post is based on my 6+ years of remote work experience. This is a no BS post on how to ace your remote work game without losing your mind.
When you start working from your home, you could be distracted by n number of things like friends, family, social-media, traffic noises, notifications, door-bells, etc. Or simply by your desire to pick up and check your phone for no reason at all.
We can’t eliminate all our distractions but we can minimize them. Let’s see how to do that –
(1) Interruptions from family members
The easiest way to minimize this distraction is to add a visual cue to let others know that you are busy.
For example: My family knows I’m not to be disturbed when I’m wearing earphones.
If you need something more, try making a name-plate out of a sheet of paper; but instead of your name, just write “busy” or “dnd” on it. You can then place it on your desk to reflect your availability.
You could also use sticky notes and place them behind your monitor or laptop’s screen to reflect your status. The two useful sticky-statuses I recommend are: “busy” and “in a meeting”.
(2) Social media and the Internet
If you’re like me, you are probably doing more than just reading this post. You probably have 5 or 10 other tabs open. You may also be causally (and/or mindlessly) browsing social media on your phone.
All this requires a lot of computing resources but it also requires something more precious — your attention. The problem here is that attention is an exhaustible resource.
So how do you get your attention back to where you want it to be?
The best thing you can do to minimize the temptation of checking your phone is to keep your phone in a different room; not on your desk or in your drawer; but completely out of your reach.
You could use the Pomodoro technique to reward yourself 5 minutes of phone time after 25 minutes of focused work (though I recommend using those 5 minutes to take a break, rest, exercise or go for a quick walk).
Almost all productivity apps today (like Toggl, RescueTime, etc) have an in-built Pomodoro feature but the one I like the most is an app called “Forest”.
The idea is to plant a tree and focus on the task at hand. Your tree will take 25 minutes to grow; but if you leave the app, it will wither and show on your record. Since this allows you to literally see your progress in the form of a forest, it makes you want to do more of it.
Background noises will not only distract you but they may also cause interruptions in your meetings.
The free of cost solution is to lock yourself in a room, shut the windows, put on the curtains, and hope that it minimizes the noise to an acceptable level.
The expensive solution is to sound proof your room.
Fortunately, there’s an in-between solution: noise cancelling earphones / headphones; while they’re not cheap, they’re 100% value for money.
I recommend Sony WH-1000XM3. If you’re in doubt, go for these. I got them for 25,000 INR (about 350 USD). I have no regrets.
I also have AirPods Pro; they’re pretty good but the noise cancellation on Sony WH-1000XM3 is much better.
I use AirPods Pro regularly because of a cool thing called “convenience” but I find myself switching back to Sony WH-1000XM3 when there’s a lot of noise or when I need complete silence.
Remote work can be boring when you can’t meet or hang out with your team. There’s a very good chance that you might end up staying at home for days or weeks.
You may resort to Netflix and social-media to “feel something” but that’s not a good long term solution. All this will start to affect your health, and as a result, your productivity will go down.
Here are a few tips to minimize or avoid this problem –
Can you exercise for an hour everyday? No? How about 30 minutes? Still no? How about 10 minutes? I’m sure you can find at least 10 minutes a day to take care of your body (which in turn takes care of your mind).
You may think this is a waste of your time but this is non-negotiable. It’s not an option. You must move!
It’s even better if you go out. I recommend walking for at least 10–30 minutes a day.
Walking improves self-perception and self-esteem, mood and sleep quality, and it reduces stress, anxiety and fatigue. Physically active people have up to a 30% reduced risk of becoming depressed, and staying active helps those who are depressed recover.
Walking has a lot of benefits but the most important one is that it helps you clear your mind. To me, walking is therapy.
There are days where you’ll be too busy for a walk. On those days, you can still get some walking done by mixing it into your other activities (getting grocery, dentist appointment, etc).
I’m personally using the rings on my Apple Watch and apps like “Seven” to track my workouts. I really like to “see” my progress and these apps help me do exactly that. Here’s an example –
(2) Find reasons to go out
If you don’t find reasons to go out, you will end up staying at home in an endless cycle of “eat, sleep, work, repeat”.
There’s more to life than that. Humans are social animals. Even introverts, because introversion doesn’t mean you hate people; it simply means you need time to recharge.
Introverts lose energy from being around people for long periods of time. Extroverts, on the other hand, gain energy from other people.
Don’t assume others are going to call you or involve you in their plans. They may not. And even if they do, it may overlap with your work schedule. The best option is to make your own plans, call people, and create your own reasons to get out of the house.
Mind Your Busyness
“Why are you always so busy?” Your friends and family may start asking you that question. Don’t worry though, they’ll eventually move on and let you do your thing. But your “busyness” will burn you out.
So tell me, why ARE you busy?
Remote work was supposed to help you save time (e.g. commute, office breaks, unnecessary meetings, etc). So what went wrong?
You might say, you’re getting more stuff done. Sure, but what does that even mean? It’s not like you’ll stop showing up to work after finishing that project.
So the question is — how much is enough?
Enough is a funny english word.
It has a lower bound: have you done enough?
And when you are yelling at your kids, it has an upper bound: that’s enough!
- Howard Stevenson
The good thing about enough is that you can put an activity down with satisfaction. If you have a list, you can say “it was a good day, I got everything done”.
It seems counterintuitive but setting limits on what you want to achieve increases the chances of success.
I recommend that you set aside 15 minutes of your time at the end of your day to come up with 3 things that you’d like to get done tomorrow. Then focus on getting those things the next day no matter what.
I usually write these “tasks for tomorrow” in the stickies app on my MacBook so that I see those as the first thing when I open my laptop the next day.
“I’ll do it later”
Will you? Seriously? And when is later? “Later today”, “later tomorrow” or “Later, it doesn’t matter”?
The common mistake we all do while working remotely is distributing or spreading our work outside the 8 hour (e.g. 9–5) window. We then end up working all the time.
It’s much much better to get things done during your work hours (and you must define your work hours).
It helps you to figure out the answer to “what’s enough?” and “when to stop?”. It helps you to have the rest of the day to yourself.
Also, if something can be done in 5 or 10 minutes, don’t put it off for later, just do it. Don’t borrow your precious time from the future to avoid a minor inconvenience in the present.
Final Thoughts And Recommendations
(1) Task management
There are some amazing tools out there like Todoist, Asana, Trello, etc. I recommend Todoist since I use it all the time.
My process is to dump all the tasks into “Inbox” and then process them further at the end of the day (e.g. moving them into projects, setting their priorities, etc).
It doesn’t matter what tool you use, just remember that the tool shouldn’t get in your way, it should enable you to do more.
(2) Energy management
Energy is an exhaustible resource. If you fill up your day, like each and every slot in your calendar, it won’t allow you to achieve more. It will only lead to a burnout.
Instead try the opposite: schedule an hour of me-time and/or a few hours of free time.
(3) Set the mood
It’s hard to get in the zone. It takes a while for your body to realize it’s time to work. And with no boss around, your body is constantly telling you to take a 5 minute break which you know is going to translate into hours of procrastination.
The best way to deal with this is to set the mood. When you get up, get done with your morning routine, exercise, get dressed and get to work. Do this for a week or two and this becomes your morning ritual. It prepares your body for work.
If you’re up for a challenge, try cold showers in the morning. The shock conditions your body to get ready for the day.
A good night’s sleep should be your number one priority. If you can, please read the book called “Why We Sleep?” recommended by Bill Gates.
I won’t go into all the details here but here are two points that are important to me –
- Sleep helps to repair your body for free.
- Neglecting sleep can affect creativity, decision-making, problem-solving, learning, and memory.
Some paid apps which might be helpful for fixing your sleep schedule –
- Sleep Cycle (tracks your sleep only using your phone)
- Brain.fm and/or HeadSpace (for music that helps you fall asleep)
If you hate buying apps, here’s a free solution: Just stop using screens after 10 pm, dim the lights of your bedroom, and go to sleep.
Try reading a book if you want to fall asleep faster.
If you can, please consult an ergonomics expert to setup your office according to your needs. If you’re going to spend a major portion of your time at your home office to make a living, please makes sure it’s not at the expense of your health.
If you can, I recommend investing in a sit stand desk and an ergonomic chair. Investing in Idasen’s Sit Stand Desk and Herman Miller’s Aeron chair was one of the best decisions of my life.
Note that these are expensive (but totally worth it) so please check if your employer can reimburse these for you.
I have three book recommendations for you –
- Atomic Habits by James Clear
- Hyperfocus by Chris Bailey
- Indistractable by Nir Eyal
These will not only help you become better at remote work, they might help you change your life (for the better).
If you think this post has added some value in your life, please consider sharing it with your friends and family, and let me know your thoughts in the comments section.
What is your number one challenge with remote work? And what do you do about it?