My approach to career development is inner-focused. So I approach the issues that come up around working from home in the same way. We need to build a strong inner foundation to help us become more aware, more intentional, and more balanced.
This is a great way to naturally gravitate to practices and routines that support our outer work goals.
Search Google for “Working from home” and you’ll get dozens of breezy and superficial listicles (“list articles”) that give the top tips to successfully managing yourself. I think this needs to go far beyond simple mechanics and cheerleading.
There are some tremendous advantages to working from home – from the lack of commute to the comfort and familiarity of your surroundings, the lack of interruptions, the ability to schedule your day the way you want, and more.
Most people will say that focus is their number one challenge when working from home. There are just too many conflicting responsibilities and distractions.
It is difficult to seamlessly transition to working from home when our association with “home” is so diametrically opposite to our association with “work.” Home is where we go to unwind after work. It’s where our family lives. It’s where our other self lives – the self that has other interests and hobbies and books to read and projects to do. It’s where we recharge and clear out the stress or energy of work and prepare for the next day.
Three Themes for Working From Home
From a high-level perspective, I think there are three over-arching themes that characterize the challenge of working from home.
It starts with Accountability. There is no one else there to crack the whip. We do have the choice to work or to read comic books, play video games, or watch TV all day. We have to learn to be 100% accountable to ourselves for the work that we do and the results we deliver.
We also have to manage our Productivity. This is where most of the practical tips and tricks come into play. With no one looking over our shoulder, and no tangible team spirit, we need to create added support to hit our milestones and complete our tasks and projects.
For our work to be successful (and to avoid burnout), we have to also remember to create Enjoyability around what we do. We need to build appropriate incentives and rewards into our schedule.
Accountability is your ability to trust yourself. Without the interpersonal support structure of a traditional workspace, you are likely the only one giving yourself feedback. If you’re feeling pressured or distracted and feeling like you’re not getting your work done, you’re going to criticize yourself.
If you can’t trust yourself to stay accountable to your own self-directed goals, then you’re going to lose faith in yourself. This is a real danger and a real risk. Using accountability tools will help you stay on track and maintain and build greater trust in yourself. And when you are in a state of trust, when you know that you can count on yourself to deliver on your commitments, your success will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Track Your Habits & Activities
“What gets measured gets managed” (management guru Peter Drucker)
Start by putting together a habit tracker that you use every day to see how you’re doing with your daily tasks and rituals.
There’s no must-have or must-do formula for this. Include those habits, tasks, or rituals that are most challenging for you at the moment so you can improve. Think of this as a data collection experiment. Raise your awareness about your behavior patterns. Use the information to better understand yourself, and to make the changes you want to make.
You can do this on paper, with a spreadsheet, or an app. Don’t go overboard or get too ambitious, or the habit tracker will be the first habit to fall by the wayside.
Journal Every Day
I talk about this with everyone ad-infinitum, so I apologize if you are reading this for the umpteenth time. Start or end your day with a one-page journal where you:
- Set your primary work intention(s) for the day, and/or
- Review your day and set your goals and intentions for the next day, and/or
- Brainstorm a problem that you’ve been pondering or procrastinating, and /or
- Vent about something that upset you or challenged you and administer some self-support, and/or
- Celebrate a day well-spent and use your enthusiasm to dream bigger.
Keep Studying and Learning
Dedicate some concerted time every week to do some self-directed professional development.
Read for 20-30 minutes when you wake up in the morning over coffee, or at lunchtime, or in the evening after work or before bed. Make it a ritual but don’t become a slave to it. Make it a goal, not a duty.
You’ll find that it is an enormously reviving and inspiring activity. No matter what you’re reading (and feel free to read multiple books at the same time)j, you’re going to relate it to what you’re working on, who you’re working with, and the challenges and processes you’re facing.
Make sure to keep a note pad handy as you’re reading because you’ll want to take notes on the insights you’re getting from the text, as well as the follow-up ideas that occur to you at random intervals.
Activities like this help us take a step back from our main focus, which can actually stifle new ideas, whether managerial or creative. Taking the time every day to get out of our work heads, but still focus our minds, opens a door for inspiration to appear when we’re not expecting it.
My colleague Joey Hubbard, who is Head of Training for Arianna Huffington’s Thrive Global came up with an effective framework for building positive habits and guaranteeing success. Microsteps are well-defined, narrowly focused, repeatable action designed to deliver instant and persistent success.
One of my favorite microsteps is deceptively simple: drink one full glass of water first thing when you wake up in the morning. After sleep, your body is dehydrated so drinking a glass of water is something you can do for your health every morning.
Another one: don’t take your phone to bed with you. Park it in another room so it doesn’t distract you from falling asleep, or grab your attention first thing in the morning. If you need an alarm, buy an alarm clock!
Joey calls microsteps “too small to fail.” Their power lies in how ordinary and easy they seem. But don’t underestimate the cumulative power of doing something small and good day after day without fail.
Adopt a Task Management Framework
You may think that task management is about productivity (see below), but I think it has more to do with accountability. It is confidence-building to be aware of everything you’ve got on your plate. You’re never wondering if there’s something else you should be doing that is either more important or on a faster deadline.
To get to that zen state, you have to get everything out of your head and into your system.
Central to the process of task management is the ritual of the Weekly Review. Time management gurus from Stephen Covey to David Allen all highlight the idea that we should be reviewing and re-prioritizing our tasks every week. This allows us to both take stock of the work that we’ve done during the past week and to plan for what we need to do during the following week.
Sticking slavishly to start dates and due dates, especially when working from home, can be a trap. Work is always shifting and changing. When you are primarily responsible to yourself, you have to be willing to change up your priorities based on what’s actually going on in your work.
Look for a methodology that feels natural to you, that you can stick to and grow with.
Make a Daily Top-Ten Tasks List
OK, OK! You don’t have the time or inclination to learn and adopt a totally new methodology. I get it. Working from home is overwhelming enough.
Here’s one quick way to hack your task management. Keep a running list of the tasks that are top priority for you on any given day, and then review that list at the end of the day to see how you did. Revise it for the next day, taking into account any upcoming deadlines, meetings, or other responsibilities. Create a reasonably accurate and achievable checklist for yourself to follow.
Don’t over-estimate. Better to under-estimate. Build confidence and self-trust by building a habit pattern around checking off all the tasks you intended to complete on any given day.
This word has become a cliche in a digital economy constantly in disruptive overdrive.
I tend to think that productivity is what happens when you’re in your focus zone and not actually worrying about how productive you are.
Here are just a few foundational and tactical ideas to support you in getting out of your head while getting into your work.
Beyond the Morning Routine
If you’re following trends and ideas about productivity, you’ve most certainly come across the the idea of the morning routine.
Please don’t beat yourself up if you wrestle with the popular idea that you must have a specific morning routine in order to make working from home a successful experience.
There is indeed a ton of behavioral and neurological research in support of the value of doing your most focused mental work in the morning. In an ideal world, you would wake up and roll right into the most focused work on your agenda. That way you use your energy to maximum benefit and effect. When you get your most productive work out of the way, you are then able to address the more mechanistic, logistical, and administrative tasks. These don’t require the same level of focus and energy.
But life doesn’t work that way. If you’re working from home and taking care of kids and pets, or making sure the plumber arrives on time to fix that leak, you’re not going to be able to sequester yourself to write that big proposal.
While rigor and consistency are definitely important, holding yourself to an unrealistic ideal every day can actually set you up for defeat and discouragement.
Experiment with different routines and formulas and see what works best for you. Maybe you work best after a daily workout first thing in the AM. Maybe you sleep better if you work out in the evening. If you’re a news junkie, maybe you’d better read the paper and clear your head before you tackle that big project.
Here are three effective ideas that have helped me stay on track and get stuff done during the day.
Meter Your Email – Try checking your email only at set intervals. Never just leave the window open where it will become a distraction. This may be tough at first. FOMO (fear of missing out) will nag you to keep checking, especially if you’re waiting for a particular reply from someone. Keep working at it and try to extend the intervals. Start at 30 minutes, then move to 1 hour, then 2 hours, and finally get to the point where you check email maybe only twice or three times per day. People may be waiting for your reply, but the chances are that very few of your emails are that urgent.
Take Regular Breaks – There are many ways to follow what is also known as the “Pomodoro Technique,” named after the cute little tomato-shaped egg timer that inspired the idea. Again, neuroscience tells us that we can maintain focus and concentration for longer periods if we interrupt our process and clear our heads and move our bodies. The typical prescription is to work for 25 minutes and then break for 5 minutes (yes, maybe that’s when you check your email…). You can also break every 50 minutes and take a 10-minute break. Switch it up and see what works most effectively for you. Certain tasks may work in those 30-minute increments. Others may be better-suited to 1-hour blocks – or longer. Use an actual timer to keep you on track. There are many phone apps that can also list and track your tasks. That way you can also have a record of what you accomplished. Tracking how you use your 30 or 60-minute blocks also gives you more data to build your accountability. There are also music apps like brain.fm or focusatwill.com that play background music designed to promote mental focus. They include timers so you can listen to music and clock your time blocks. Just make sure you get the breaks in. Get up from your desk, walk around, make a cup of tea, step outside, make a phone call.
Minimize Interruptions – When you’re deep into a task and get interrupted, it can take up to 25 minutes for you to recover from the interruption. One of the biggest advantages of working from home is the likelihood that you won’t get as interrupted as you would at the office. Metering your email and setting up a “Pomodoro” routine help you get into your productivity zone. When you’re struggling to get through a task, or feeling antsy, it’s tempting to let an interruption take over and pull you off your center. This happens often when checking email and you see an email that seemingly needs your immediate and undivided attention. Think carefully before responding. Is now really the best time to answer? How much time will you need? Is this a rabbit hole you don’t want to go down? Consider using the “snooze” function in Gmail or Outlook to bump the message to another time that is better-suited to answering messages.
Master Your Communications
One of the most under-rated challenges we have when working from home is communicating successfully with colleagues. Effectively managing this process goes directly to how well we will be perceived as “managing up” and “managing down” with our virtual work team.
Here are some ideas I’ve suggested to clients to help them build stronger collaborative relationships with colleagues.
- Create a Dashboard – Build some form of central visual reporting grid for your current work assignments. Include top current tasks, milestone schedules, Gantt charts, and other stats on how you’re doing. You can use something as simple as an online Google Sheet that you can share with colleagues. Or you can use something more complex, like Microsoft’s Sharepoint or other project management software systems like Monday.com or ClickUp.com. Maintaining a dashboard is a great way to keep everyone who needs to know what you’re doing aware of your progress. By posting all of your updates to the dashboard (e.g. percentage of task completions, status updates, change orders etc.) you maintain an ongoing transparent window into your work process.
- Use Internal Messaging Apps – Important messages get lost with email. How many times have you had someone tell you they didn’t see your (important) message? Learn to use Slack (or Microsoft Teams) to customize internal messaging and categorize it into channels. If you’re working remotely, participating in group discussions can help remediate the separation and dislocation everyone is dealing with.
- Use Zoom (or other video conferencing) Effectively – Keep calls short and create agendas that you distribute before the meeting. Use screen sharing so that everyone has the agenda open and visible, and also use it to bring more visuals into your calls to hold people’s attention. Yes, this could be a PowerPoint, but it could also be a beautiful landscape photo or classic painting to set a mood for the meeting.
- Keep a Contact Tracker – Treat everyone you work with as if they’re a sales lead or prospective customer (even if they’re a colleague you know well). Keep a spreadsheet or use CRM (Customer Relationship Management) software to track every conversation and meeting, what you discussed, what the follow up is etc. This will help you remember everything you need to do (and integrate with your task management). It will also demonstrate to your contacts that you care about them and are paying attention to your interactions.
Finally, if you’re not going to be having fun at work when you’re working from home, then what’s the point of it all?
Having a good time and giving yourself a break (and multiple breaks during the day – see above) is essential. Allow me to offer some words of encouragement.
Get Your Gear in Gear
When the lockdown hit at the beginning of the pandemic, I realized this was going to be a long haul. I decided to indulge myself and outfit my workspace with some equipment to make my working experience more fun.
I’m a bit of a gear head, so maybe you’re going to want to indulge some other aspect of your psyche. The point is to make your workspace a place that you enjoy being and working in. I got myself a large 4K monitor to extend my laptop’s screen, and a 4k webcam for high-quality Zoom calls. I also got an articulated stand so I can move the monitor around ergonomically and not strain my neck.
You may want to change the lighting in your room so it’s warmer and more inviting. Put up a shelf so you can have some special family photos with you to feel good. If you’ve got a favorite painting in the living room, maybe move it into your workspace.
Being able to play music is important. It is an effective background to help you focus when you’re working. You also want to crank it up on breaks and dance around the house to blow off steam or celebrate a win.
If you’re not subscribed to a streaming music service like Spotify or Pandora, maybe now is the time to pull the trigger. No speakers in your workspace? Maybe now is the time to invest in a wifi or bluetooth speaker system. Create a nice musical cocoon around your workspace and envelop yourself in sound.
Your mood is worth supporting. Music can make a significant difference in making your day enjoyable and even memorable.
Distraction Can Be Good!
Why are we so harsh on ourselves about our distractions? Properly allocated and indulged, our distractions can and should become an integral part of our working from home protocol.
We all have our “weaknesses.” Food, of course, is the first thing that comes to mind. Set yourself up for success by having feel-good foods stocked and available to you to reward yourself on your breaks. No judgment here, but I would be irresponsible if I didn’t encourage you to find foods that support your energy and focus (i.e. minimize the sugar).
Other indulgences and distractions could be hobby-related. If you’re a cook or a gardener, take breaks during the day to indulge your passion projects. Make specific plans for what you’re going to accomplish in the break time that you allocate. Then set a timer so that your break doesn’t take over the rest of your day.
Finally, TV. Yes, the ultimate binge-watching rabbit hole. This may be a hard one to control, but consider taking TV breaks during the day to snack on news, YouTube videos, or an episode of Rick and Morty.
If you manage your TV watching effectively, and avoid getting sucked into the endless maw of programming available, it can serve as a great way to shift your focus and recharge your desire and ability to get more work done.
Bonus Tip: Wear Shoes
This may sound ridiculous, but I don’t take my work seriously if I’m barefoot, in socks, sandals, or sneakers. OK, maybe sneakers work.
Dressing for work is up there as a priority on most people’s working from home top-ten lists. And it is certainly an important factor in my experience.
To the extent that we associate certain behaviors with being professional, our identity is wrapped up and associated with how we look and how we present ourselves.
In the same vein as creating small successes that have a cumulative effect on our productivity and success, dressing for work every day is one of the easy things we can do to maintain our positive output and demeanor and attitude.
Call To Action: What is Your Next Move?
Even if you’ve been working from home effectively, are there any ideas or suggestions in this article that could move the needle for you and add to the edge that you’ve already built?
On the other side of the spectrum, maybe you’ve been struggling with effectively working from home and been reluctant to embrace it.
My advice: have more fun with it. It may be over in relatively short order and you’ll be back to the office. But maybe not. Maybe this is the new normal, and if so you’ll want to figure out how to get more comfortable with it.
Leave your comments below with some ideas or suggestions I’ve missed, or that have been particularly effective for you.