Five steps to making remote work productive and peaceful.

I have had to work from home for the last three years. It was torture at first because I really wanted to get a “real job” and go somewhere and be part of an organization. This working online (I am a big Upwork-ophile now) was only a bit part before I could get back to work properly. I quickly realized that this was going to be my “real job” from now. This brought on adjustments to life and work that have been a real boon for me. I want to share my learning with you so this short period of coronavirus-imposed remote working time will pass more pleasantly.

First, create a calendar with four to five working hours. It really helped me to create time boxes in my calendar to tackle the different tasks I wanted to do. An empty calendar is the most frightening thing that a freelancer can encounter. It takes time to get the discipline to follow the calendar so please don’t get frustrated in the first few days. 

Some days, you will drift along like flotsam in an ocean of mundane tasks not related to your immediate work. You can end up feeling very guilty if this happens and you are working from home. It happens in the office too but somehow, we convince ourselves that the place of work justifies whatever we do there. 

Don’t feel guilty all the time. Relax! Follow the calendar as a guide, not a legal judgment.

Second, take a break every working hour. I get up every hour and walk around, read my emails or watch a video. There are many distractions at home, and you should give in to them a little bit otherwise you risk not being able to get that hour of work. 

People always advise us not to check email in real-time and set times for when to check it. A sound idea but don’t make it a fetish. Some days, you do have to monitor your email. I need to be very responsive to my clients when there is a fire happening, so I check email more frequently some days. 

Third, find the flow times and work those hours. All of us are more productive during certain hours of the day and can get a whole lot done then. Find those times for yourself. If you pay attention for a week, you will recognize those times. Think a bit and if you don’t remember looking at a clock at a certain time yesterday, that’s the flow time for you. 

Remember time is not just an interval between hours, it is also your experience of the duration. Focus on the experience. Somedays, my flow times are very small. It’s normal. Somedays, I can be in the flow for hours on end. That is normal too. On average, if you can find 4-5 hours of flow, you are killing it. Talk to someone who writes for a living. They are intimately aware of these rhythms.

Fourth, socialize with colleagues every day with an hour of meetings/chats. Extroverts will need it a lot. I find myself hanging on to phone calls with clients and later realizing that I desperately wanted to have a professional conversation. We are a social species and the isolation that is proposed to deal with this coronavirus is not normal. We have great tools to communicate now so get on Slack, Twitter, Skype and talk to your pals. Get some gossip in too! I know you miss that about work.  

Introverts need a bit of it too. They are probably more comfortable isolating themselves but sometimes they need the vibe of an office or the buzz of events happening around them. I would advise them to write to their colleagues more and use the chats that organizations provide to get some social time in. Get a book club/coding club together so you can create a context to chat about. I don’t think introverts are above gossip too. Indulge in it! Secretly, bosses love being talked about behind their backs. It’s true!

Finally, have a planned stop time every day. Of all the other points that I have talked about, this is the hardest to adhere to. I take on more tasks than I can handle every single day. I have become better at prioritizing but there are still days when a pile of stuff “can” be done before midnight. Desist!

Make sure the high priority work gets done and leave the rest for tomorrow. Working remotely, we want to do more just to prove that we are not wasting time at home. No matter how much you do, there are going to be people who think you are. Ignore them and keep your head around what you had planned to do. If you are done with that and even a few more things that were easier than you thought, then quit for the day.

I admit, there will be some days where deadlines are squished, and you must push. If they are not more than 10-20% of your workdays, you are doing well. 

There is an important caveat in all my advice.  Most of my learnings came about because I was forced to take a break. I had just gone through a blood cancer treatment. It went very well, and I just passed my 5-year period two days ago. However, it destroyed my body and I need to build up again. The healthy among you might be able to work more and with much more ease. So, put in a little more time but please don’t schedule ridiculous hours in a day. If you are at work for 8-10 hours, including meetings, you get maybe 5-6 productive hours a day. Why should remote work be any different?

My rough usual schedule during the day – It is flexible

  • Wake up for prayers at 5:45 am. 
  • Work for an hour and focus on thinking tasks. This post was conceived and written at this time.
  • Breakfast and exercise – I take two hours for this
  • Work for two hours – this is my flow time and I get a lot done. Any interruptions in this part of the day really slow me down.
  • Lunch and rest – At least one hour for this. Take your time. Let work pile up. It can wait.
  • Work for an hour – This is really the last flow hour of my day and my mind is really flying. I feel like a supercomputer. Any coding or logic work here.
  • An errand break or chatting with the returning school kids.
  • The last hour and wind up – What work is left over? If there is a lot, can it wait? Most clients of mine can wait another day. Schedule the next day’s calendar and send status emails to clients/colleagues/bosses.
  • It is done! Whenever I give in to temptation and work more, I make mistakes! Really silly ones! 

This is the go-home-time. So what if you are working from home? Start commuting from the workstation to the couch. Walk slowly if you really want to simulate it.

I hope this little write-up helps. It is hard to do and if you fail a couple of days, please don’t feel guilty. This is really hard work. It takes discipline and that takes practice. If you are a manager of teams, please send this to them. They have been conditioned to be supervised and will be conflicted about how to be by themselves.

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