How to Work Remotely

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When the pandemic began to take hold in the US, I couldn’t possibly imagine just how much would change. I figured it’d be only a couple of weeks and then things would be back to business as usual. Heck, I didn’t even own a desk. For the first few days, my wife and I shared a coworking space at our kitchen table, laptops open, trying to focus, and meeting each other’s “work persona” for the first time.

Neither of us had any idea how much of a learning curve there might be to remote work, but well over a year later working from home has become a sort of new normal–a catchy, alliterative way of saying “something you should probably get used to.” While some companies have historically been leery of remote work, the pandemic forced their acceptance and many ultimately found it to actually increase productivity from the workforce. As a result, many forward-looking companies are considering these to be lasting changes, allowing their teams to either go fully remote indefinitely, or into a flexible split schedule between home and office. 

In our time spent at home so far, we’ve learned versions of what works and, equally important, what doesn’t work when working remote. I certainly haven’t come up with all the answers, but since remote work clearly isn’t going anywhere, it’s worth discussing some core strategies toward becoming a better remote worker. 

Keep your personal and professional life separate – literally

First, your physical environment can have a huge impact. When we’re working in the same place that we live, the lines between the two become increasingly blurred. We cease to transition between work and life, but instead do both simultaneously. We end up working when we should be relaxing, running errands when we should be working, and becoming distracted by whatever we just overheard on the news. 

If at all possible, it’s helpful to give each part of your day its own dedicated physical space. On his blog, productivity coach Jim Kwik writes that “using consistency helps the brain pick up on the environment to determine where to focus” and explains ways in which learning is done so contextually. Your brain wires to its surroundings, and builds deep associations between where you are and what you do. So, if you’re going to be working, have a surface and seat designated primarily for work. When you’re at your desk, you know you’re there to work–and whatever else ISN’T work will have to wait. And this helps to not only enhance focus, but also to disconnect from work at the end of the day. In this vein, make sure to keep the couch for leisure and the bed for sleeping. The more you create and stick to these boundaries, the more effective you will be at transitioning from one state to another. 

This concept of protecting spaces can also work in a virtual environment. If you happen to use the same computer for both work and personal matters, you may find yourself distracted at times, “drifting” into the other lane. To combat this, set up separate user profiles to maintain work and personal sandboxes. If your company IT policy doesn’t allow for this, you could at least do this in most web browsers. This barrier forces you to act with intention. In order to work, you must log in to your virtual office. And when you’re done for the day, the act of logging out is a satisfying signal that you can unwind and “go home.” 

So now that you’ve settled into your newly-christened “work chair,” it’s important that you establish business hours.

Set clear time boundaries and stick to them 

Without guardrails in place, remote workers tend to log longer hours. One reason seems to be that the lack of a physical commute eliminated starting and ending cues. With no train to catch or traffic to beat, it’s easy to just keep working. After all, it’s not like you have somewhere else to be, is it? Perhaps more challenging is that because everyone has been forced to create a schedule that worked for their individual situation (parents with children to look after, team members scattered across time zones…) AND has access to instantaneous asynchronous communication tools like Slack, Teams, and email, sending and receiving messages off-hours is no longer the exception but the rule, and the very concept of on- or off-hours seems to fade away. 

There will always be more to do. More tasks to complete, messages to answer, calls to return. If you don’t build a structure for yourself to gain control over your day, you run the risk of getting locked into a pattern of reactive responsiveness, rather than proactive action. Taking charge of your time is going to require you to have the necessary tools for capturing ideas and managing your schedule. At a minimum you’ll need somewhere to take and store notes, a list of your to-do’s, and a calendar. I use Workflowy to manage all of this (along with everything else I’ve got going on) and I highly recommend it as a place where you can organize your life. If you already have an app or service that you know and love, or simply want to stick to good ol’ fashioned pen and paper, that’s fine too–it’s the principles that will guide you toward success.

Pick a system and follow through

I’m a proponent of David Allen’s Mind Sweep exercise, a key element in his highly influential productivity book Getting Things Done. Alternatively referred to as a “brain dump”, the purpose of this process is to get everything out of your head and onto the page. Create a list of everything that’s on your mind and that needs your attention. As David says, “your mind is for having ideas, not holding them”. While a long list may seem overwhelming and provoke feelings of anxiety, you can take solace in the fact that all of this stuff is no longer bouncing around in your head. You’ve taken a critical first step in freeing up some head space for you to do your best work.

So you’ve got a solid list of WHAT needs to get done, now you need to determine WHEN you will do it. The best strategy I’ve found for scheduling is Time Blocking. I came across this method in Cal Newport’s book Deep Work, and have found it to be incredibly effective at reining in the chaos. To execute a Time Block plan, list out each hour (or half-hour) of the day and assign each block a “job.” Time Blocking relies on single-tasking and focusing deeply on one thing at a time before moving on to the next scheduled task. You can begin by defining when you’ll start and when you’ll finish your day, then fill in any scheduled meetings or other obligations you have planned. In any remaining open spots, you fill in your highest priority items from your Mind Sweep list.

A little self care goes a long way

I’d be remiss if I did not include a reminder to schedule in regular breaks! Adjusting to this new way of life and work is not easy, and it’s incredibly important that you take care of yourself. Since you’re in complete control of your at-home work environment, you have a unique opportunity to account for your self-care. In an office environment, you rarely have this much flexibility to balance your competing priorities, so make sure that you don’t work through lunch. Don’t forget to get outside for a bit (weather-permitting, of course). Eat well and drink enough water. Plan on taking PTO, even if you think it won’t be worth it if you can’t (or won’t be comfortable with) travel. Trust me, the time to yourself is worth it either way.

Oh, and DO put pants on. Real pants, too, like jeans or khakis or whatever you’re comfortable in. I know working in sweatpants is great (I did it for a year). But there’s some psychologically transformative effect to “putting on the uniform.” Even if no one but you will know, I promise you you’ll feel more ready to get down to business. 

What have you struggled with over the past year in adjusting to remote work? What tips or tricks have you found invaluable? Sound off in the comments below!

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Dan Parker
Dan Parker
16 days ago

As someone who’s worked from home for years I think this is a great post and I totally agree having not done these things that they are essential for your sanity and work life balance. Blocking off your time both for work and personal (even just lunch) is critical to not going crazy and sets boundaries for those you work with and those at home.

Adrian
14 days ago

Great post, Mike. Picking a “system” is really the key. I’ve been remote since 2010 and, thus, was quite well prepared for what 2020 gave us — thankfully.

My system is 3-tier … self-determined (i.e. not from well-known pundits):
1- keep things that must be done on a date together (nothing else there); I use ToDoist.
2- keep things that do not have a hard date together; I use Workflowy.
3- maintain a big-picture, macro-level “area” list that is attacked every day; I use an Excel grid.

The grid is like a program manager … helps to keep focus on each “area” I need to address.
Workflowy keeps all the ideas (for each area) grouped together …easy to maintain.
ToDoist is mostly for recurring tasks, but some date-driven info will be there too.

The grid is small (maybe a dozen items).
Workflowy has 100s of things there; sometimes brainstorming is found therein.
ToDoist has ~100 items.

ToDoist keeps me on schedule.
Workflowy helps to organize thoughts, ideas, tasks.
Grid is where I start each morning … what to attack today? And in what order.

Naturally there is overlap between Workflowy and ToDoist … you need a categorization system to help keep it all straight (e.g. use tags to your advantage). Most folks, I’ve found, prefer it all in one system. For me, bouncing between the two tools keeps my mind active on each area so I don’t overlook something (i.e. you’re always thinking about “have I missed anything”).

My 2 cents …

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