How to be productive while working from home

August 08, 2020

Being productive in a standard onsite office is in itself a challenge, and working remotely is no exception. Not to say it’s always harder to be productive when working remotely. It’s often easier, but it definitely comes with its own set of challenges.

I have been working remotely for 6 years now, and although I liked it from the get-go, it took me some time to get the best out of it. I still struggle sometimes, but now I have a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t. This lets me cope with ups and downs more effectively. Let me share what I have learned over the years working from home.

tl;dr?

If I had to choose just a single thing from this article, it’s the sleep. Sleep for 8 hours every night and it will be easier to figure out everything else.

Keep a schedule

When I started my first fully remote job in 2014, I didn’t know the significance of having a schedule. Since I could do the work at any time, I ended up doing it literally all the time. Scattered throughout the day. I often started some work in the morning and finished it at night. Because of that, I felt like always being at work, even though I just did the standard number of work hours.

I was often working on Saturdays or Sundays as well. This is not necessarily a bad thing if that’s the schedule you decide on. But for me, every day was kind of different, unplanned, and reactive. Because of that, I was wasting a lot of time. Not to mention all the mental energy to make decisions on what to do next. I would end up tired by constantly changing my plan, getting distracted, or switching tasks way too often.

In psychology, this is called the decision fatigue. It means that making many decisions throughout the day negatively impacts your ability to make further decisions and drains us out.

I have decided to put in place a schedule and quickly learned that I can achieve much more. It allowed me to not only be more focused but also to fit many more things into a day and still have time remaining for leisure. It’s staggering how much time becomes wasted without planning.

Most importantly, when I’m able to follow a schedule - no-matter how laid back - it makes me feel like an achiever. It feels really rewarding when you manage to stick with a plan for a day.

I’m not always successful in sticking to the plan, but I’ve found that just having a schedule allows me to start the day somewhere.

Benefits of keeping a schedule:

  • Allows for less mental strain and slower build-up of decision fatigue.
  • Compacts the work time by removing layover between the tasks, so you end up with more free time or more work done.
  • You can achieve more things and things you really care about.

Establish a routine

Predictable actions that start your day or precede your work really tie back to the idea of habit-forming. You can put your mind at ease when your brain knows that a sequence of familiar things is going to happen.

For example, let’s say you always have your tea or coffee in the morning. This can easily become your routine to help you start the day. Initially, you might need to force yourself a few times to start working right after you’ve prepared your coffee. But after a while, sitting down to work after a coffee would feel like a natural progression.

Your mind will be much less likely to freak out and come up with hundreds of excuses why now it’s not a good time for work. Otherwise, it’s just too easy to venture into the procrastination land.

Putting on your “work music” could help too. As would sitting in a specific place at home. If it’s always the same spot, then the brain learns that it is a place for doing work. These associations do not develop instantly, but you will observe progress quickly, within days. Just come up with some kind of routine, and be consistent with it for a few days in a row.

Benefits of establishing a routine:

  • easier to start the work
  • helps to follow your schedule
  • reduces procrastination

Have a dedicated space for work

Dedicated space for work may improve your productivity. It helped me a lot. It’s not like I didn’t have a space to work when I first started working from home. I had a desk with a chair, and a second screen I connected to my laptop. But it wasn’t a space that I mostly dedicated to work. I used it to watch movies, browse social media, etc. Also, my desk was usually cluttered with printouts, paper clips, bills, pens, and just random stuff.

The key is to have a space that feels like a productive work environment, not a cluttered mess with a computer you use for everything. Otherwise, it’s hard to separate work from chill-out time. Your brain will constantly nudge you to watch some silly crap on YouTube instead of doing the work if it gets a chance.

I realize that having a separate computer only for work may not be possible. This is why having a dedicated physical space for work helps you to switch between work and fun modes, even when using the same computer.

Some ideas for splitting out work and fun on a single computer:

  • Never watch anything or play games on your “work” desk. If you have a laptop move somewhere else, like a kitchen table or a couch.
  • Use a different browser for work. I use Firefox for work and Chrome for fun and personal projects.
  • Listen to a specific type or genre of music only when working. This also helps your work starting routine.

Your working space doesn’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t have to be a separate office room with an adjustable standing desk and a gaming chair. Those things would help, but what’s crucial is that you feel good in that place and your mind associates it with work and being productive.

Benefits of dedicated space for work:

  • Fewer distractions make it easier to focus.
  • It requires less effort to start work.
  • Work feels like work, and as soon as you get up from your desk you are physically out of work.

Log your time

I would like to encourage you to log your time, so you know how many hours you worked per day and week. There are several benefits to time logging.

For the most part, logging my work time helped me a lot in being productive in general, especially when working at odd hours. When you work in the office, office hours provide the boundaries for your work. You know exactly when you are working “overtime”.

Working remotely is different. Since there are always things to do, you might very easily end up working too much. It happened to me so many times. In the short term, I might get more done, but in the long term, productivity just plummets and hits rock bottom until I recover. Logging the hours helped me to balance my efforts.

Knowing that I have worked enough it’s tremendously helpful in itself as well. When working from home, no one sees you’re in front of your desk working, neither your manager nor colleagues. You might feel a constant need to prove yourself, to not be perceived as a slacker. It can lead to an unhealthy number of work hours and constant stress. Having a hard-measured number of hours you worked written down can reduce this anxiety.

Because I log my hours, I always know if by the end of the week I’m running behind or I’ve worked too much. If needed I can push a bit more on Friday or catch up during the weekend. This is also useful during the so-called “crunch time” when we work overtime to finish the work before the deadline. Sometimes it happens that we work as much as possible for a week or two to meet the deadline. It’s still useful to log your work time then to see how much exactly did you work. After such a push, there naturally comes a dip and if you can see that pattern over and over, you don’t feel guilty that you’re not as productive as “usual”.

Tip: don’t rely on Crunch Mode. The thing is that overtime is not really increasing the overall output. It’s more like borrowing than adding time. Sure, it’s sometimes needed to meet a deadline. But relying on it all the time is not a good long-term strategy.

Crunch mode is a failure in planning and should be treated as such. Constantly trying to work as much as possible will drive you, or your team, to exhaustion and burnout.

Moreover, logging time is actually quite easy. Just get a punch-in/punch-out app on your phone. Press the button when you start working and press it again when you finish. It is especially frictionless if you only have one or two jobs.

Benefits of logging your time:

  • flexible working hours but still knowing when to stop
  • alleviates the anxiety of “not working enough”
  • overtime under control

Sleep enough and well

When you are constantly sleep-deprived, even a little bit, it adds up over time. Things that are usually easy, start to take longer to finish and everything just takes much more mental energy.

Many people say that they can easily get by on 6 hours of sleep or less. But it’s just that: getting by. Sleep-deprivation affects everyone negatively, with no exceptions. If you’re doing fine on 6h of sleep, think how much you’d be able to achieve with proper 8-hour sleep.

Myself, I’m just not my usual productive self when I sleep less than 8h. I can still do the work, but I’m much more distracted, I’m not generally happy about my work and I make more mistakes. Maybe sleeping fewer hours works for some people for some time. But you don’t have to wake up at 4 am and go to sleep at midnight to be successful.

It’s all about what you do with your time when you’re awake, not how long you are awake.

It’s extremely helpful to optimize your sleep but it is not that obvious how. At least it wasn’t for me. I did a bit of research, and it turns out we know a lot about sleep. Things like, how much sleep we need, what influences the sleep quality, what time best to go to bed, and more.

It’s generally better to have at least 8h of sleep opportunity and go to bed earlier rather than stay up late. But there is much more to healthy sleep. I would encourage you to do your research on sleep, which might help you to identify and correct any potential problems.

For me, a great resource was the book Why we Sleep by Matthew Walker, the director of UC Berkeley’s Center for Human Sleep Science.

I would encourage you to read or listen to this book, but here is a summary of key points:

  • Sleep 8h every day.

  • Room temperature of around 65°F (18.3°C) is optimal for good nighttime sleep.

  • Avoid using devices or LED lights in your bedroom due to blue light.

  • Limit alcohol, as it suppresses much-needed REM sleep. Getting drank has an effect more similar to getting unconscious than falling asleep and thus is not good to be used as a sleep aid.

  • Naps are fine but don’t take a nap after 3 pm.

“The number of people who can survive on five hours of sleep or less without impairment, and rounded to a whole number, is zero.”

Dr. Thomas Roth, of the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit

Benefits of sleeping well:

  • having a sharper mind and feeling intrinsically motivated
  • better focus and more mental energy
  • better mood and general level of happiness

Invest in your health

You know, the usual… no junk food, no smoking, no alcohol, and exercise. The usual generic advice that it’s kind of obvious by now, but not really at all helpful, as it does not come with a concrete plan.

I try to eat a bit better, and I make myself do some exercise. I started with little, and I add more when the things I have already added begin to feel easier.

Unsurprisingly this approach has helped, and it helped quite a bit. What I have learned though, is to be open-minded, and give something new a try. I have never liked sports. I did some running and martial arts before but never liked it that much. Recently I’ve given Olympic lifting a try and even though it’s hard, I enjoy having it as a part of my life.

Trying out a few different things to find the one you will truly enjoy is super valuable. It is easier to make yourself do the exercise you enjoy. The same goes for the food you eat and other “healthy” habits. Find what is enjoyable and improve things slowly over time.

There is no way around it really, to perform well you have to feel good and be healthy. To be healthy you need to cover the basics. Sleep enough, eat nutritious food (reduce processed foods and sugar), and exercise (find something you enjoy).

Benefits of being healthy:

  • high performance
  • better mood
  • more protection against stress, changes, and challenges

Change things up

Although a pleasant work setup at home is very important, it doesn’t mean we have to always work from your actual home.

I strongly believe in having a dedicated space for work, but on some days nothing helps and I don’t feel like doing work at all. On those days, I force myself to go out and work from somewhere else. I usually enjoy places like cafes (well… it’s usually just Starbucks, to be honest) or public libraries. If you don’t think cafes are a good idea, try coworking spaces. There are most likely some cheap or free coworking spaces in your city, so have a look around.

Going somewhere else with the purpose to do work is helpful in itself. Seeing other people working is additionally motivating. It almost feels like a real office, but with fewer distractions.

Trying out a new cafe or coworking space is also exciting sometimes. Like a tiny bit of an adventure.

Benefits of changing up your working space:

  • last resort motivation tool 😅
  • feels like a real office, if you miss that

Network often

We geeks are inevitably humans, and as humans, we are social creatures. Even hardcore introverts need contact with other like-minded people at least from time to time to feel their best.

Attend conferences, meetups, and discussion groups so you can feel inspired and energized with fresh ideas. Or just meet up with fellow geek friends to talk about the newest things. Whatever works for you.

Networking helps you to advance your career in a multitude of ways. It can provide job opportunities, business contacts, career advice, and new knowledge. So the biggest piece of advice I’d also give myself is to network more often, especially if you’re working remotely.

There is also more and more happening online nowadays, so make sure to explore these opportunities as it’s very important to maintain some social life. At my work, we had an online party last week to celebrate the launch of our new product. It was different than a face to face meeting but definitely enjoyable. Try it out.

The good thing about working remotely is that you can control how often you meet with people. Take advantage of it. Observe how often is too often and how often it too few. Then use this information to interact with on-line communities, sign up for meetups or conferences. Keep it regular rather than all at once (unless you are sure that all at once is your absolutely preferred way).

Benefits of networking regularly:

  • Keeps you socially connected.
  • Gives you a possibility to learn from others and recognize trends.
  • Provides you with connections and job opportunities to keep you on top of your game.

To sum up.

Working from home can be challenging, so I hope you’ll find some of the above tips useful. Have you tried any of them before? If so, how did it work for you? Would you have any other tips to share?

Written by Tomek Kolasa – full-stack JavaScript, Node.js and TypeScript.