Creating Good Habits for Remote Work
This is a chapter from the upcoming book “Remote Work – The Complete Guide” which we will be publishing first on Simple Programmer. You can get the book for an EXCLUSIVE MEMBERS DISCOUNT, just click here.
Once you have convinced management to let you work remotely on a regular basis, you need to make sure you establish healthy routines for remote work.
There are a lot of concerns that you need to address over the long term. Generally speaking, these can be divided into two broad categories: those revolving around you and your home such as your health and your social life, and those related to the office such dealing with management and co-workers.
When it comes to the former, you need to make sure your routines help you avoid social isolation, keep you from getting sloppy with your health and physical appearance, and limit home interruptions.
With regard to office concerns, your remote work habits should help you deal with management, handle having to go into the office efficiently, and keep your skills sharp through regular training.
In today’s post, I’ll show you the biggest issues you’re likely to face—in terms of your home and yourself, as well as the office and colleagues—and, particularly, how good habits can help you deal with them. Afterward, I’ll give you detailed, in-depth instructions on how to come up with your ideal schedule to make your life easier.
While you can certainly use all of the time and money you save from working remotely to watch TV and go to restaurants close to home, you are probably better off making some other big changes to your life as well. It’s worth rethinking a lot of your normal routine when working remotely, as it’s an excellent opportunity to truly change your life for the better in a big way.
Creating Good Habits: You and Your Home
It’s best to try and establish a good routine for yourself as soon as you start regularly working from home. While you can certainly change your work habits later, it’s a lot easier to change your habits at the same time as you change your schedule. The quality of your daily habits while working remotely will determine your long-term success.
Working from home, there are several issues that can affect your work—and your life in general—that aren’t as present when working in the office. Let’s take a closer look.
Diet and Exercise
You should make sure to get at least some exercise every week. Exercise does several things for you.
First of all, it improves your health in general, which is important regardless of where you work. It will also generally get you out of the house and interacting with other people who aren’t your co-workers. These relationships are worth your time.
Exercise will also help you burn off a lot of frustration with work, which is still common, even if you are working remotely. I drastically improved my deadlift single repetition maximum weight during a particularly bad period of a previous job simply because I would go lift every time I got irritated.
Try for at least two workouts a week. and make sure they are intense enough to make you sweat, but don’t overdo it unless that’s something you find enjoyable. Like most things, there is an 80/20 rule with exercise. Twenty percent of the effort will achieve 80% of the results.
You should vary your workout so that you build strength, improve your cardiovascular health, and increase your flexibility. All three of these are beneficial in order to stay healthy.
If you are in particularly poor health, like many office dwellers, you may want to start out by simply walking a little every day. If you aren’t used to working out a lot, that’s OK. Just start by doing something small. If you get a little better every day and continue practicing, eventually you will become one of those healthy people who work out.
Also, be careful with your diet. When working from home, it’s really easy to get into the snack food more often than you might otherwise. Try to keep unhealthy food out of your house if possible. When you are stressed out from work, it’s easier to avoid excess snacking if it requires a trip to the grocery store.
While getting into a really solid diet routine is far out of scope for this section (there are thousands of books on the subject, and some of them are even good), generally just avoiding lots of carbohydrates and heavily processed food is usually enough to keep your health from rapidly declining. For a more thorough discussion of how to truly fix your diet for optimal health, see a professional.
Avoiding Isolation Over Time
One of the biggest problems with long-term remote work is how easily you can end up feeling socially isolated if you aren’t careful. While you will commonly hear that working remotely can be isolating (especially when talking to people who don’t like the idea), you won’t really understand how isolating remote work can be until you’ve experienced it for a while.
This is especially a problem for people who live in so-called “bedroom communities” outside of major cities where most other people are commuting into the office. Communities such as these feel surprisingly empty during working hours.
If you are like many of us (myself included), you probably have spent some time making sure that your house is a comfortable place to be. While this a reasonable goal, it can work against you when you are working remotely, as you have fewer reasons to leave the house.
I strongly suggest that you find a good reason to leave your house during the workweek for at least a few hours a week. Whether this means going to a gym, going to lunch with nearby friends, or just running errands during the day, it’s really important to get out and move around a bit.
It’s also a good idea to network with other people in the area who are working remotely. Try to go out to lunch once a week with another remote worker, both to get some social interaction and to build your personal network. Remember that at some point, you’re going to be looking for another job, and it’s a good idea to know other people in the area who work for companies that already allow remote work.
The first time I had a job where I worked remotely most of the time, I didn’t follow this advice. Instead, I didn’t leave the house except to run the occasional errand on the weekend. After a few months of this, I started getting very stir-crazy and tended to talk too much when I did talk to people.
While it’s not the end of the world if you do end up a little socially isolated, you’ll definitely enjoy the remote work experience a lot more if you regularly get out and interact with other people.
Additionally, you should make a regular habit of talking with your co-workers and other friends over chat about nonwork stuff. While you may be at home all the time, that doesn’t mean that you can (or should) be completely focused at all times.
People in the office aren’t completely focused on their work at all times, either, so it is reasonable to have some downtime when working from home. Just make sure that the way that you communicate is appropriate and allows other people to respond without disrupting their own work.
Also, be very careful about how frequently you are perceived to be chatting. Keep conversations brief enough to give you (and others) a break, but don’t spend all day in chat. Remember that chat conversations are easily archived and viewed by management even if you don’t think your manager will look.
Finally, make sure that you spend time with your family. It’s really easy when working from home to spend too much time in your home office. If your family is home during the day, make time for brief conversations with them. Remember that you are working from home, not serving a sentence in solitary confinement.
While you shouldn’t watch a full-length movie with your spouse while allegedly “working from home,” it’s entirely reasonable to talk for a few minutes here and there during the day. You can be normal and have normal conversations, just don’t forget that you have to get your work done.
Managing Home Interruptions
One consistent problem when working from home is managing interruptions. While in an office this tends to be someone else’s problem, at home you have to deal with it yourself.
Interruptions come in various forms, with the most egregious ones being the easiest to deal with and the more subtle ones likely to be a frustration for a long time. Some amount of interruption during the day is probably unavoidable in a home office (just like it’s unavoidable in a regular office).
There are a few common sources of interruptions in the home environment:
- People leaving or entering the building
- Small children and babies crying
- Loud noise from other occupants
- Loud noise outside such as leaf blowers and loud conversations
- Deliveries and door-to-door salespeople
- Phone calls, including telemarketers
- Random friends and family dropping by
You’ll notice something about all of these things: You don’t have true control over any of them. However, there are a few things you can do.
First, you need to make sure that the other occupants of your dwelling (if they are old enough to understand) have a way of knowing that you are trying to work. It can be as simple as closing an office door, but you need to have some way of signaling that you need to focus and cannot deal with an interruption.
This gets a lot of the simple problems out of the way, and when combined with good noise canceling headphones, can often do away with with most interruptions.
Additionally, if there are small children or infants in your residence, you need to make sure that you are not the caregiver. It’s really easy to take “just a minute” to go take care of a child and end up losing an hour or more of work time.
While your job isn’t your only focus in life, it does need to be the main focus during your work hours. Further, if you are trying to work full-time from home while caring for a child, you probably aren’t doing very well at either task.
Phone calls are also a problem. In general, my telephone is set on silent all day while I’m working. Co-workers know to contact me using email or other means.
I do not allow telemarketers to randomly interrupt me during the day. I suggest you do the same not the least because the model of interrupting people while they are working to try and sell them an extended car warranty is a really bad one anyway. If you have a cellphone, you can probably program it to only let calls from certain people ring through.
You are also going to have to make it clear to random door-to-door salespeople, family, and friends who drop by that you are at work and don’t have time to chat. A lot of people don’t really understand that remote work is still work and that they are putting your job in danger with interruptions. Make sure you communicate this clearly, and set good boundaries.
Loud noise from outside will be an issue in certain environments. In leafy suburban neighborhoods, leaf blowers and lawn mowers are frequent irritations during the day, while in more urban environments, mechanical noise, construction noise, noise from traffic, loud music, and noise from passersby can often be irritating.
Truly rural environments may include noise from heavy equipment and animals. In short, there isn’t really anywhere you can go to get away from it, so you’re going to have to take some steps to deal with it.
First of all, a lot of this noise occurs on a regular schedule. Lawns are often mowed on certain days, construction is usually daily for months, and even roosters start crowing at fairly predictable hours. You may simply have to adjust your work schedule so that you are doing something else when the noise is occurring.
For instance, most of the people around me and I use the same lawn service. When they are mowing, I go to a coffee shop.
It’s a little bit more tricky if there is continuous outdoor noise during work hours, however. About the most you can do is take a laptop to the interior of your residence, as far away from the noise as possible, and try to cover it up with background noise (if you can find anything that isn’t distracting).
The point is, you are going to get interrupted when working from home, and it will happen a lot. You need to identify likely problems and have a plan for dealing with them just like you have to have a plan for dealing with every other failure point.
You will also find that the interpersonal dynamics of your most important relationships change a lot when you work remotely. For starters, because most people don’t understand remote work, they will think that you aren’t really working.
The reality is that you’re going to have to be able to work hard and bring focus to bear on what you actually do if you want to be able to work remotely over the long term. Other people are not likely to spontaneously understand what it really entails, so you’re going to have to deal with recurring issues surrounding this if you want your transition to remote work to be a smooth one.
The following are some common assumptions you’ll face. Sometimes, people say these things, but most of the time, they imply them with their actions. We’ll go through these and explain what to do to counter this behavior in a way that should avoid extensive conflict. However, there will be some conflict.
Some of these assertions are extremely self-serving for the people that make them while being destructive to you personally. As a result, you may find yourself pushing back on other people, but you can usually do so in a way that doesn’t create destructive conflict, and you may actually improve some of your personal relationships once you set boundaries with other people.
One common assumption is that remote workers are available for chores—such as child care, pet sitting, or running errands—during the day. Relatives and close friends will often assume that since you work from home, you can do things for them during the day. And on occasion, you might even be able to.
Nonetheless, when it is on a regular basis and disrupts the workday, you simply can’t. It’s better if you point out early on that you can’t do things for other people very often during the day because you are actually working and are expected to show progress in your various work tasks.
For most people, simply expressing that will get the point across. However, for others you may find that you have to be a bit more blunt. In the latter case, it’s best to tell them “no, and stop asking.”
It’s also pretty likely, especially early on, that you actually will run errands for family members and the like during the day. It’s a small thing and is part of being a good member of your social circle.
Where it gets you in trouble is not having a good sense of when you have spent too much time on tasks for other people. You need to figure out for yourself what amount of help you can afford to give other people and then make sure that line is not crossed.
For instance, early in my remote work career, my wife frequently wanted me to go to the grocery store during the day and pick things up, often on short notice. On occasion this is fine, but when it happens three or four times a week, it starts eating all of your free time.
When I expressed that without being stressed out or exasperated, it was fairly easy to convince her that running to the grocery store all the time wasn’t tenable. Had I waited until I was already overloaded at work (and in trouble for not getting enough done), it likely would have led to a conflict. Fix these problems early, and you won’t have to fix them often.
Another common thing you’ll experience is that other people often believe that you can just take a break at some random time in the middle of the day with no warning.
Whether it’s because they show up at your house uninvited or because they call you on the phone (or message you on social media), some people simply don’t have good sense about what remote work is really like, especially if you work in a technical field that they don’t understand. System administrators and software developers often experience this sort of behavior from their close friends and family.
I’ve found that the best way to deal with this is to simply stop responding to people during business hours. You probably wouldn’t be able to respond to them if you were working in an office, so it is not at all unreasonable to avoid responding while working at home.
Similarly, if they just stop by, be polite, but tell them you have to get back to work. Remember that in every interaction, you are training the people you interact with how to treat you. Generally, being firm is enough to make sure the boundary is respected and that you are still friends with the other party.
When it comes to assumptions, people might think you can take care of small children while working.
Just say no. You might be able to occasionally change a diaper or something when working remotely, but you can’t be on call for small children. It simply doesn’t work. You might be able to take care of a 10-year-old, especially if the child is fairly self-reliant and respects the fact that you need to work.
This may cause a bit of friction, especially with your significant other. Many times, when one partner is able to work from home, the other partner assumes that there is no longer any need to pay for child care. This can lead to significant arguments, as child care isn’t cheap. This is especially annoying if you ended up taking a pay cut (or skipping a pay raise) as part of your negotiation to work remotely.
However, the fact remains: You cannot effectively care for small children while attempting to do real work from home. You’ll either neglect the work, or you’ll neglect the children. Given that you probably don’t want to have something awful happen and end up in jail, you’re almost certain to neglect the job.
The way to handle this is to point out how much you need to be able to concentrate and how expensive and difficult it will be when you lose your job for lack of performance and have to suddenly search for another job while trying to find day care at the same time.
This may not completely diffuse the argument, however. You’re going to have to stand your ground on this one. Just remember that the other person is trying to do the right thing, but they don’t understand the constraints you are working under.
When it comes to significant others, another odd situation could come up. When your significant other’s employer finds out that you work remotely, they might assume your significant other can now work more because they “don’t have to get home as early.”
I’ll start off by telling you that your working arrangement is no one else’s business, but most especially not the business of your spouse’s employer. Failing that, your spouse needs to stand up for themselves. Yes, they do have obligations at home, and no, it’s not relevant at all that their spouse happens to be in the house.
This can be a tricky thing to negotiate as well, as your spouse suddenly finds that they have a conflict at work because of a change in your job status. However, it is deeply unfair to penalize someone because of their spouse’s job situation.
Furthermore, a lot of times managers don’t realize how ridiculous this sounds until it is expressed that way. Before planning to start working remotely on a regular basis, it may be worthwhile to have a long discussion with your spouse about this issue so they are prepared as well.
A frequent refrain heard from the masses of captive cubicle cattle is that you are lucky that you work from home. This is usually thrown out any time that you are less than totally positive about something in your work environment or mention that your work is challenging.
It’s a very annoying assertion because the reality is that you probably had to put in significant effort to be allowed to work remotely, and you certainly have to put in a lot of effort to maintain remote work. You might have been “lucky” enough to get a boss who liked the idea from the start. Beyond that, it was all hard work.
You should probably correct people that say this and do so early and often. They need to realize that it isn’t a matter of luck. It’s a matter of planning ahead and proving yourself. This statement is equivalent to telling a bodybuilder that they are lucky, when the reality is that they put in the work—even if they did happen to have some genetic advantages, the effort is nothing to scoff at.
When your friend realizes the effort you put in to get this alleged luck, point out that they can do exactly the same thing. A lot of times, these sorts of statements are indicators that people wish they had what you do but don’t know how to start. You’ll be far less irritated by hearing this all the time if you realize what it really means.
When you are told that you are lucky in response to some legitimate criticism of your work environment, make sure that you don’t take that to mean that you don’t have a right to complain.
Suddenly allowing people to work remotely doesn’t absolve a company of their basic duty to take care of their employees. Otherwise, a lot of companies would do so. It’s a sign that they are on the right path and nothing more. Even fully remote companies have their problems.
You’ll also hear the assertion that any job you can do from home isn’t a real job, whatever that means. Just ignore these people. If you find your work meaningful and helpful to other people, you don’t need anyone’s approval to do it. In truth, the very fact that you are working remotely and getting paid to do so puts the lie to this notion.
You’re going to hear a lot of things from people who are stuck going into an office (or worse still, a retail store) about how easy your life is. And they are right. The point of this entire exercise is to actually make your life easier, better, and more fulfilling. Nobody else’s perceptions really count. Don’t let yourself be goaded into having to defend making your own life better.
So far, we’ve seen some of the issues at home that a good routine can help you with. Now it’s time to take a look at similar issues with the office and its people.
Creating Good Habits: Office, Management, and Colleagues
Although you have begun working from home, that doesn’t mean that dealing with the office and its workers is now a thing of the past. The dynamics have changed, but that only reveals that you need to have good habits in place so that you can deal with issues and situations such as the following.
While interpersonal feedback and expectations can be annoying and distracting, there is a kind of feedback that you need to have a plan for recieving: feedback from your co-workers and management. You should be regularly soliciting feedback so that you can spot problems and correct them before they become a real issue.
Being proactive about gathering feedback is important for remote workers. For starters, you aren’t in the office every day, so it’s really easy to miss things that are becoming a problem in the office.
The issue is further compounded by the lack of informal interactions where you can pay attention to other people’s body language to find out how people feel. Even if you are regularly in video meetings with the rest of your team, it can be easy to miss subtle clues that you would have picked up had you been in the office. People also tend to do a little bit more acting when they are on camera.
As a result, you need to reach out to your team. Tell them you’d like to get feedback on how you are doing when you are remote. Depending on the team, there are a couple of different ways to do this.
If you just started working remotely while the rest of the team is still in the office, you might consider simply being direct and asking what is working and what isn’t. If you phrase it by asking what they think the biggest problem is, people will often tell you. Many times, they’ll offer suggestions for how to fix it as well.
On the other hand, if you are in a fully remote team, this strategy will come off as a bit odd. Instead, you may need to get this feedback with informal conversations. For instance, you might ask, “What’s the best way to make sure that you know I’m working on the email you just sent me?”.
If the rest of your team is remote and is used to the work environment, they probably already have pretty good coping strategies for dealing with the idiosyncrasies of the rest of the team. It’s easier to borrow these than to invent them.
You should be more direct with your manager when asking for advice. You should never go into an annual review and be surprised by your manager’s perceptions of your work. However, this can easily happen when you are working from home.
What I’ve done in the past is to simply send an email directly asking what I’m doing well and what can be improved. Point out to management that you really like to work from home and want the process to be better for everyone, but that you want to make sure that you don’t have a blind spot in regard to your own performance.
Usually, if you don’t do this too frequently or at a bad time, you can get some really good feedback. Even if you don’t, it’s important to involve your manager in this process so that they feel invested. Don’t forget to do this—I’ve had nasty surprises in the past when I’ve failed to do it well.
When You Have To Go In to the Office
Even though you are working remotely on a regular basis, there are probably going to still be times when you are required to go into the office. Whether you have to do so a couple of days a week or just once or twice a year, you need to be very cautious about how you handle your office visits.
While your work at home is highly visible to you, it isn’t as visible to the people in the office. Therefore, you need to make sure that you present yourself well whenever you are in the office. There are a lot of factors here, and you need to get them right so that you can protect your ability to work remotely.
A lot of people fail to do this and create a bad impression that causes them problems later. Let’s discuss a few things that you need to make sure that you handle office visits well.
First, you should make sure that you dress well when you go in to the office. People are exceptionally good at seeing patterns (even if there aren’t any). If you present yourself professionally when they do see you, they’ll often assume that you are being professional when they don’t see you.
While this doesn’t protect you if you really screw up, it does have the effect of keeping people from looking at you too critically. Think of it as a sort of camouflage. You don’t want to be different from a hard worker in the office, because then your co-workers will start looking for other things that don’t align with being a hard worker.
Also, when you are in the office, make sure that you spend quality time with your co-workers, including going to lunch. Because the home environment is isolating, you need to spend extra time overcoming that. Repair relationships, build new relationships, and make sure that you have a good idea of the political situation in the office when you go in.
If you don’t, office politics will give you a nasty surprise when you are just trying to get work done at home. Be especially aware of new co-workers and managers—you need to establish good working relationships with them as well.
Time Off and Errands
When working remotely, you’ll probably still need to take days off and occasionally deal with errands and other obligations during the day. You need to make sure that your team is always aware of these things, as the last thing you need is to have your team waiting on you while you are drinking margaritas with your best friend on your day off.
Even though you may have applied for the time off with your manager, if the manager isn’t in the office and the team doesn’t know, it’s still a problem for you.
Remember, if you are working remotely, you don’t want anyone in the office (especially an authority figure) to be thinking “this would work just fine if they weren’t remote.” Do everything you can to keep that thought out of their minds even if it occasionally feels like you are justifying yourself too much to them.
Also, be sure to set an automatic response in your email client (and chat clients if possible) to indicate how long you expect to be out of your home office and who to contact instead. Make it really simple for your co-workers to know that you aren’t working—you don’t want them guessing about this.
When working remotely, it’s also important to keep your skills up to date. While your company may have some training opportunities in the office, a lot of companies don’t do a good job of training their remote employees on the latest technology. You probably should handle this yourself.
Generally speaking, you can get a lot of good free information using resources like YouTube and free online tutorials. You can also opt for some of the more expensive video training websites, but keep in mind that the information on these sites is often dated due to their slower production cycle.
Try to spend at least a few hours out of every workweek learning new things on your employer’s time. You shouldn’t be doing this on your own time unless you are trying to take your career in a radically different direction. Remember that learning new skills and techniques will make your work for your employer better and will often improve your productivity. Your employer should be paying for that, not you.
It’s also important to have a realistic training schedule. Try to pick a technology to deeply focus on every quarter or so, and really work on learning it well. It’s easy when working remotely to gain shallow knowledge of a variety of different platforms, especially if you find it interesting to learn new things.
Avoid broad but shallow learning, as this is a career mistake that limits your options. Remember that if you like working remotely and want to do so even after your current job, you are better off being a specialist in a particular technology, rather than a generalist.
Specialists can more easily set their own terms, whereas generalists usually can’t do so as easily. Structure your training so that it not only provides more value for your current employer but that you also build deep knowledge that the next employer is going to want even if they have to put up with you working remotely.
And now that we have seen what kind of issues can affect your remote work—related to both home and office—and how having good habits can really help, it’s time to see how you can build your ideal schedule. A schedule suitable for you and your individual needs is a major booster for productivity as well as quality of life in general.
A Day in the Life: Building an Ideal Schedule
When working remotely, it can be tempting to simply wear your pajamas and plop down at your desk like you would on a Saturday morning when you are playing games. You can get away with this for a while, but it’s not a good habit to get into.
I’ve known very few people whose work discipline was solid when they were dressed for sleep with their hair sticking up. While you should have taken steps to make sure that work doesn’t leak into your home life and cause problems, you need to do the same thing to make sure that home life doesn’t leak into your work.
Everyone has a different ideal routine when working remotely. Before we get into how to discover yours, I’ll show you what I do. I think mine works pretty well for me, but I’m always experimenting.
I wake up at 5:30 in the morning most days and have the coffee pot programmed to have a fresh batch of coffee ready at 6. During the first 30 minutes, I have time to get cleaned up, get dressed, walk the dogs, and do my daily planning.
Once the coffee pot starts, I’m usually in the kitchen practicing Russian using Pimsleur—I used to do this in the car, and the kitchen was the best place to fit it in my schedule once I started working remotely again. Once the coffee is done, I pour a cup and head downstairs to the office. I finish my Russian practice by 6:35 or so.
After that, I sign in at work, check my email, and start sending emails with any questions I have. Then I send a message to check in with my project manager and co-workers. At this point, I have a little over an hour to handle smaller work tasks while I dump coffee into my system.
At 7:45, I sign out and take my daughter to the bus stop, returning to my desk at about 8:05. When I return, I get another (usually the third) cup of coffee and sign back in. The first hour of the day is preparation for what comes next.
For three hours after returning to my desk, I play my music loud and work in short, extremely focused bursts, taking short breaks only to use the restroom and get more coffee. At 11 or shortly after, I sign out for an hour.
During the hour I’m signed out, I work on my own personal projects and eat lunch. Usually that is writing podcast outlines or content for books (this section was written during lunch). When the hour is done, I return to my desk, briefly check my email, and check back in with my team, then I try to get another three hours of extreme focus in.
Once that is done, it’s a little after 3, and I’m usually pretty tired. For the next hour or so, I handle smaller, less difficult tasks, and try to get ahead of anything that might be a problem in the next few days. Just after 4, I’m roughly done for the day, and I sign off.
I stay at the computer, however, usually working on my own stuff, but keeping my email and chat open in case someone needs me. At 4:45, my daughter returns home, and I disconnect from work entirely. After that point, I don’t respond to emails or chat messages unless it is an emergency.
Once my daughter is home, I tend to either go lift weights in my home gym or go upstairs for a bit to handle various home tasks. After I’ve made sure that she has started her homework and has had a snack, I tend to return to my own work while keeping the door open in case she needs anything.
At 6, my wife returns home and real family time starts. My time is fairly unstructured at this point and tends to alternate between working on my own tasks, playing games, and the occasional bit of TV. By 8:30, I’m winding down and programming the coffee pot for tomorrow. I spend another 30-45 minutes practicing Russian, and then read until I get tired. I’m usually out by 9:30.
My routine is ideal for me because I spend time every day on my major priorities. In addition to work, I am usually working on one or more writing projects, often have consulting programming projects, and have a podcast (which also requires a lot of writing and research).
Every day has dedicated time for these things, and I’ve shuffled my schedule so that I conduct these tasks (and my work) in a way that lets me fit everything in.
You might look at this and think: “Wait a minute, he’s only truly focused on his work tasks for six hours a day.” That’s entirely true. The other two hours of work are for administrative tasks and for making sure that the next part of my tasks are lined up.
You probably have a similar distribution of work (or worse) during your normal workday, but don’t explicitly allocate the time. By explicitly defining my “admin time” and my “heads down, working” time, I’m able to retain an appropriate level of focus for both.
I also avoid getting completely burnt out and exhausted by making sure that I don’t work more than three hours at a time in a highly focused mode. I also found that it was critical to have distinct periods of time during the day when I work on my own things, as I don’t plan to be a salaried employee for the rest of my life.
What I do during lunch and after work reflects that. I spend some time every day working toward a life where I am my own boss. Similarly, I have also highly prioritized learning a foreign language because it matches with other strategic objectives that I have, which I also spend time on every single day.
Now that I’ve gone into some detail on the schedule I’ve built for myself, I’m going to upset you by telling you not to copy it wholesale.
I built this schedule based on my own experience and by carefully setting goals, taking detailed notes about my energy level and productivity during the day, and considering the fixed requirements of my schedule (such as the time my daughter needs to leave and the time she returns).
There is almost a 100% chance that my schedule is not ideal for you. Never fear, however, as you can do the same thing I did and build a very workable schedule for yourself using the approach that worked for me.
There are five phases to the process of building a “perfect” remote work schedule for yourself. Be aware that whatever schedule you design will be fairly ephemeral—any slight change will cause you to have to rework it if you want to achieve your goals over the longer term.
Your goal in building up an ideal schedule is to make the most effective use of your focus and time and to use your body’s internal clock to your best advantage. Toward that end, you’ll need to collect data on the following and continually adjust until you get something that works well.
Here are the phases that you will go through:
You will determine your chronotype. Your chronotype simply tells you when your most effective working time is. While you probably think you already know what this is, your habits the night before and many other factors can play a huge role in this. It may be worth altering your nighttime routine so that you can more effectively leverage your chronotype for maximum efficiency during the day.
You will list your goals for the next six months. These will not just be your work goals but also your personal goals. These includes things like diet and exercise.
You will collect data regarding your mood and efficiency during the day, trying to get a picture of how your personal energy and focus levels for certain tasks vary. You will collect this data while noting your caffeine and food intake because these matter a lot.
You will take note of fixed events during your day that impact your schedule and cannot be avoided. This also includes meaningful interactions with your family, friends, and social circle, as those are not “optional” if you want remote work to be a sustainable part of a healthy life.
You will then construct an “ideal week” work schedule that allows you to work on your goals during the week at the best time based on your energy level.
After accomplishing these tasks, you’ll be well on your way to much better productivity while working from home. While you might try to simplify the process (I did initially), if you really want to maintain optimal performance, you’re going to need to do some extra work to see that this happens.
Let’s now take a closer look at each one of these five elements.
Almost all of us have come to the conclusion that we are either a morning person or a night owl. Some of us are even right about it on occasion. However, it’s really easy to be wrong about whether you are truly a morning person or not, simply because most of us don’t really test it.
If you think you aren’t a morning person (or if you think that you are, for that matter), think back to when you decided this. Did you decide it because you hated getting up in the morning in middle school or high school after you stayed up too late watching TV? Conversely, did you decide that you were a morning person because at some point you adjusted to getting up early and taking in a half pot of coffee before lunch?
If either those things sounds familiar, you don’t actually know what your chronotype is. Sure, you might have a good guess, and it might even be correct. However, if you really do some testing, you might also find that you get a result that you don’t expect.
I’ve observed a number of people who go through this process, certain that they aren’t “a morning person,” only to find out that they are actually extremely productive in the mornings but lack the discipline to go to bed early enough for it to matter.
I’ve seen others who thought they were morning people, only to find out that they were really more effective in the afternoons and evenings—they had spent years getting up early because they were “supposed to.” In either case, these people are missing out on significant improvements to their productivity and better use of their time.
To get started, take a couple of days and try to live as if you are a different chronotype. For instance, if you think you are a morning person, try going to bed later, getting up later, and working in the afternoon.
Similarly, if you don’t think you are a morning person, try going to bed earlier for a few days and working first thing in the morning. You’ll probably have to do this for a few days, but you’re certain to learn something interesting.
When I was young, I didn’t think I was a morning person. Even though I grew up in a rural environment and had to get up very early, I still wasn’t really noticing that my energy levels were better first thing in the morning than they were in the evenings.
This was partially because I was doing a lot of manual labor and partially because I was staying up too late playing video games most nights. As a result, during my early adult years, I was convinced that I was not a morning person.
That all changed when one of my jobs basically required me to get up and start the day early due to working with overseas contractors. I learned that not only could I get up early but that my productivity was far higher before 9 in the morning than it was at any time afterward.
Experiment for a couple of days, and test your assumptions about what time of day you have the most energy. You might be surprised. Make sure to allocate time to get enough sleep when you do this—your results will not be informative if you don’t. This can seem like a waste of time, but it will pay off in the long run, especially if you learn that you’ve been wrong.
Now that you have a rough idea of your chronotype, get back onto your normal schedule. While you should fix your schedule eventually, you want to make sure that any long-term change you make is both low stress and wildly successful. This will make it easier to make the changes stick over time.
At this point, you need to start doing a little bit of planning regarding your long-term goals. Working remotely is fine, but the real goals are to improve your quality of life, to allow you to achieve things that you wouldn’t otherwise, and to reduce your overall level of stress. So, it’s a good time to take a minute and start making longer term plans.
There are three main areas you should probably consider:
- Physical and mental health
- Career growth goals
- Family and relationship goals
These are all areas that tend to suffer when you are stuck in an office both because of the environment and because of the tremendous amount of time you waste in traffic. Once you are working remotely, you have the opportunity to start fixing some of the things that were damaged by being forced into an office.
Let’s break these areas down a bit more so that you can understand how going into an office might have created issues that you never considered.
Your physical and mental health might have suffered. Are you heavier now than when you started working? How do you feel about running a mile now compared to when you started working? Do you eat more junk food now than you used to? How’s your sleep? Are you tired all the time? Are you miserable in your career?
Your career growth can also be harmed by being in an office, especially if you want a career that is different from what you are currently doing.
Do you want training in something but suspect that management will react badly to the suggestion? Have you avoided learning something that you want to learn because you know you will have to use your personal time to do it? Do you feel comfortable asking your manager for training that might one day put you into a position to replace them?
If any of these questions make you cringe, it’s worth addressing them when you start working from home.
The health of your family and other relationships can also be damaged by working in an office. When was the last time you had lunch with your best friend (or your spouse) during the week? When was the last time you had to tell a spouse, child, or friend that you couldn’t attend something that was important to them because you had to work?
Worse still, when was the last time you took time off from work to do something important with one of these people, only to be stressed out because you were missing work? Have your children ever said “I think Daddy/Mommy works too much”? Do you have aging parents that you can only see once in a blue moon because travel has to fit around work?
I realize that the questions above are probably extremely uncomfortable to ask. However, the fact is these major areas of life can be improved for most people. The good news is that if you are able to work remotely on a regular basis, you are in a better position than most people to fix these areas of your life.
However, there is some bad news: I can only advise you on generalities, and you’re going to have to work out the specifics for yourself based on your own situation. Further, depending on how complicated some areas of your life are, it may be worth seeing a professional to get some help. But I can offer you some general guidelines.
For physical health, there are three main factors to consider: what you eat, how often you exercise, and how well you sleep. For optimum mental health, you need to take care of your physical health as well as consider a few other things.
In particular, you need to make sure that you regularly get a chance to unplug from work and participate in activities that you find meaningful. You also need to ensure that you have proper boundaries in your interpersonal relationships and that you manage stress in a way that is healthy.
For career growth, there are a few issues to consider. First and foremost, are you being effective at work? Second, are you actually happy doing what you are doing, and if not, what would you be happy doing instead? What are your goals 5, 10, and 20 years from now, and what can you do right now to start moving toward those goals? What skills and knowledge do you need to acquire for your next step?
As for family and relationship goals, do you get enough time with your spouse or significant other to have a meaningful relationship? If not, what would such a situation look like?
How about your children if you have any? Could their lives be improved if you spent more time with them, allowed them to be involved in more after-school activities, or simply helped them get a deeper understanding of their schoolwork?
How about your close friends? What if you could spend more time with them?
It’s hard to get into specifics with these issues because everyone’s life is different, and everyone has different areas that they need to improve. Further, giving advice is hard because sometimes it’s beyond the paygrade of someone who isn’t a professional.
Simply put, you probably shouldn’t be taking advice from a random guy on the internet on this stuff. Instead, what I suggest is coming up with a single goal for one of the three areas listed above and then planning out how to improve it within the next three months.
While you could take on multiple goals at once, you’ll get better results by fixing a single irritating, but easy area of your life first and then seeing how that changes things. You will often find, for instance, that a lot of work stress goes away when your personal relationships are healthier, or vice versa. Take a single goal or pain point of your own and follow along.
So let’s start with a single goal. Since I (probably) don’t know you personally, we’ll take an area that has been a struggle for me and try to come up with a way to improve the situation.
My biggest issue at the moment is how frequently I end up eating things that aren’t optimal for my health. I’ve got some food sensitivities that can be a royal pain, and I tend to eat far too many carbohydrates when I’m stressed out.
Further, these food sensitivities create additional stress in my life because they tend to upset my stomach and make me feel gross in general. I’m avoiding specifics out of courtesy to the audience, but I suspect you can imagine.
To fix this, what I have to do is to make sure that healthy food options are available and easy for me. This tends to mean that I need to spend a fair amount of time every weekend on meal preparation.
There are four main components that are required to make sure that you can correct an issue with your life. These are as follows:
Daily and weekly habits. You need to be addressing the issue on a regular enough basis that the process fades into the background noise of your life. While I don’t mind bulk cooking for the week (I actually find it relaxing), I don’t find deep meaning in it.
It’s something that needs to be done, done well, and done consistently for the benefit of the things that I do find meaningful. In this case, I realized that I need to prepare food in bulk on Sunday afternoons (weekly habit) and that I need to put food in the refrigerator to thaw every morning so that it’s ready in time to cook dinner (daily habit).
There is also another hidden assumption here, and that is that I will have the supplies on hand that I need before I start cooking on Sunday. This means another weekly habit of getting a grocery list together and going to pick it all up (I do this on Saturdays).
Removal of obstacles. You also need to make sure that you aren’t damaging your progress toward your goal. This means getting rid of things that can cause a problem.
For myself, with the diet, this meant that I stopped buying salty, carbohydrate-loaded snacks for myself. Instead, I kept snacks around that don’t cause problems for me. Essentially, instead of stocking potato chips, cookies, ice cream, and high-carbohydrate breakfast food (such as muffins), I now make sure I have a steady supply of mixed nuts, beef jerky, pickled eggs, sardines, and the like.
I generally don’t need a lot of snack food, but keeping these on hand makes it easier to eat something that doesn’t cause problems for me.
Tools. You may find that you need to spend a little money making it easier for yourself to fix a bad habit. In my case, the purchase of a vacuum sealer and a pressure cooker made bulk cooking a lot easier and faster.
You should spend some time thinking about how you can make your desired habit change easier—you don’t get bonus points for making this stuff harder, so don’t.
The feedback loop. You need to track what you are doing and carefully monitor the results. Ineffective habits are worse than useless in that they are discouraging and waste time. You need to collect whatever data you can to be sure you are headed in the right direction.
In my case, I could tell that the frequency of stomach issues was lower, and I saved a ton of money on junk food. The point of the feedback loop isn’t necessarily to make sure that you are complying with your habit (although that helps).
Rather, it’s to make sure that you are actually improving your quality of life. This makes it easier to justify maintaining the habit long enough for it to become something you don’t spend a ton of time and attention on.
With some goals in hand, we’re ready to start the next phase of the journey, which is the process of collecting data so that you can make more informed decisions.
Now it’s time to collect some baseline data to see what can be improved. While the initial data that you collect will be fairly extensive, you can usually get rid of most of it within a fairly short period of time.
Major problems show up very quickly if you are paying attention. Initially, I suggest doing a single week of tracking in Excel using multiple worksheets. You should try to write an entry every two hours that you are awake on one spreadsheet.
The leftmost column should be the day of the week, with the next column to the right being the hour block. For instance, if you get up at 5 in the morning, then you’d have a row for 5-7, 7-9, etc. On each row, after the hour is denoted, track the following items:
- What, if anything, you ate
- What you did during that timeblock
- Who you interacted with during that timeblock and how
- Any relevant physical sensations (hunger, headache, nervousness, etc.)
- Any physical activity you did
After that, rate the following on a scale of 1-10 (with 10 being the best) in terms of how you felt emotionally during this period in the following areas:
- Your level of fatigue
- Your level of focus
- Your level of anxiety
- Your level of irritation
- Your level of optimism
Add a blank cell after that for any commentary, and then set recurring calendar reminders in your calendar of choice to fill in this info every two hours that you are awake for a week.
Yes, this sucks and is a lot of work, but it’s important to collect this information as well as you can so that you dig into it. You’ll be ditching the spreadsheet after the first week, so don’t worry if this seems like a lot of work. It’s a short-term thing.
In another sheet in the same workbook, make an entry for each day, and track the following:
- When you woke up and how you felt upon awakening
- What you had for whatever meals you ate during the day
- How much alcohol you had as well as the amounts (and time of consumption) of any other substances that might have altered your mental state (this includes coffee, cough syrup, and drugs, whether prescription or not)
- Your level of financial stress
- What you planned to do that day
- What time you went to bed and what you did before sleeping. Also note how long it took you to fall asleep.
- Any workouts or other exercise (even if not traditional exercise such as heavy yard work)
- Whether you woke up during the night
- Any physical symptoms your were experiencing (headache, stomach ache, or allergies, for instance)
With this data in hand after a week, patterns should start to show themselves. For instance, you will probably find that you consume more caffeine (and more food in general) after a night of poor sleep.
Similarly, you may find that alcohol and television before sleep results in worse sleep and a worse next day. Similarly, you may find (as I did) that when you do a lot of writing during the day, you actually have a more pleasant day in general. You might also find that you feel extremely drained and unproductive (or inspired) after interacting with certain people.
Don’t overanalyze the data once you’ve collected it. This is not enough information to grasp broad trends in your quality of life. Rather, it’s an exercise in determining the things that make your life demonstrably worse or better. Pay special attention to anything that might be related to the goal that you chose in the previous section.
For instance, when I did this exercise for myself, I noticed that staying up late (or drinking alcohol) before bed tended to cause me to feel awful the next day. This was true for as little as a single glass of beer or going to bed only an hour later than normal. The next day, I tended to consume a lot more caffeine while spending the entire day fighting my fatigue. I was also more easily irritated and ate more junk food.
Then the following evening, after all that caffeine and frustration, I tended to have a hard time falling (and staying) asleep. On top of that, I found that I played video games more often, watched more TV, and tended to skip workouts as well.
The first time I did this exercise, I learned that I probably shouldn’t drink any alcohol during the week, that I should go to bed as early as I can manage, and that I should moderate my coffee intake if I didn’t sleep well the night before.
You may well find behavioral patterns in your own data that are insightful as well.Once you have this data in hand, I strongly suggest that you continue journaling. However, you don’t need to be so thorough. Instead, every day, simply keep track of three things.
First, keep track of the positive things that happened that day along with the things that you got done. Second, keep track of the negative things that occurred (or things that need improvement). Finally, write down a reasonable list of objectives for the next day.
Keeping a journal like this will give you a lot of useful information as you continue your journey while not requiring an exorbitant amount of time from you. As a bonus, this practice also gives you a convenient list of accomplishments should you need one later on (for instance, at your annual review at work).
Over time, you may even find that you can get away with tracking this information over a weekly or monthly period. I’ve kept a monthly journal myself.
The real point of this kind of tracking is that you will periodically get a hint that there are things you can improve in the way that you approach your work. If you keep a journal, simplistic as it may be, you’ll already have a lot of information on hand to help clarify whether your idea is a good one or not.
I spend 5 to 10 minutes once a month on journaling how the previous month went, and it has been one of the most powerful and low-maintenance self-improvement tools I have. If you want a little more detail on how I approach this, I did a podcast interview with OK Productive that really gets into the details.
Fixing Your Schedule for Good
When you are working from home, it’s easy to accidentally miss a meeting or other work event where your absence is likely to be noticed. Since you are no longer in an office with other employees who will stand up and walk to the conference room for a meeting, you’re going to want to make sure that you have a good way of keeping track of meetings, appointments, and the like.
You should also keep track of fixed items in your schedule here even if you think you will be able to remember them. It can be useful, especially when you are stuck on a call, to get a reminder that your child’s bus should be dropping them off in the next 20 minutes, that the garbage can needs to be taken to the street, or that it’s time for your yoga class.
It’s also useful to include reminders for things that need to be done on a particular day, including following up with other people.
Proper organization of your schedule is simple. Get everything into your calendar so that your computer (or phone) can remember. There is a tremendous amount of mental overhead involved in trying to remember this stuff, and it’s really not necessary.
I tend to use Google calendar for my personal calendar so that I can add additional calendars for any project that involves other people. Being able to share calendars is useful in certain cases, but I don’t like to share my entire calendar (it’s nobody else’s business).
Google calendar also allows me to toggle which calendars are visible to me when looking at the interface, which makes it easy to create speculative calendars for planning purposes but also easy to keep them invisible when they aren’t in use.
It’s also handy for your spouse or other family members to share their calendar with you, as it makes it easier to see what obligations other people in your household have. This can help avoid situations where you and your significant other both schedule appointments and aren’t there when the bus drops off your children, for instance.
If you haven’t already internalized the habit, it’s a good time to start putting things on your calendar to keep track of fixed and recurring events so that you can quickly look at the events for a given day and find out what your real commitments are. Things like annual doctor’s checkups, elderly relatives coming into town, or your dog’s next vet appointment are easy to forget.
Remember, your boss is expecting you to be productive when working from home, and they probably aren’t going to form a good impression if you consistently fail to meet your expectations because you forgot.
Similarly, when working remotely, it’s a good idea to tell management when you plan to be away from the house well before you are out. Being proactive about this helps avoid situations where your manager is frantically trying to reach you by phone (all the while cursing the fact that you aren’t in the office). Ignore this advice at your peril.
While not everything can be planned out in advance and communicated to management (if needed), management will often give you the benefit of the doubt if they otherwise believe you to be well-organized. You need to cultivate and protect that reputation as much as possible, and keeping your commitments on your calendar will help you do that.
Your Ideal Week
Now that you have some of the fixed items in your schedule listed on your calendar, it’s a good time to start thinking about what an ideal week looks like for you.
While you mostly will not experience an ideal week in reality, if you plan well you can often get pretty close. The idea is not for this to be a fixed schedule but rather for you to brainstorm about when you can do your most effective work in various areas.
This will help you in a day to day sense as you plan out when you are going to work on various tasks during the day. It will also make it easier for you to avoid situations where you attempt to do difficult work when you aren’t in a mental state that makes it easier.
For instance, back when I regularly commuted into the office, I quickly learned that trying to do challenging software development work between 1 and 3 in the afternoon was probably not a good idea. Not only was I typically tired during that part of the day, but it also tended to be a time period with lots of other recurring interruptions.
It was also a bit late in the day to be trying to dump coffee in my system in a vain effort to be focused. Instead, I learned to use that time period for things like documentation, writing unit tests, testing code, reviewing pull requests, and other tasks that were not (usually) as intensive as some of the more difficult development work that I had.
When I consciously took control of my schedule and started scheduling my work for when I was in a better mental state to do it, my productivity skyrocketed while the number of hours I had to work actually decreased.
To lay out your ideal calendar, make sure that you have your notes from the data collection exercise earlier. Make a brand-new, separate calendar from your main calendars in your tool of choice (I use Google’s calendar for this).
First, block out times for sleep, and make them recurring. Also block out times for your meals, and do the same. Next, block out time for any recurring obligations that you have. For instance, if you are taking a class after work, allocate time for it and make it recurring. Also make sure to allocate time for regular exercise, meditation, and whatever else you do to try to stay sane and healthy.
This is backward from the way most people work out their schedules. However, if you want to have a sustainable remote career, you have to put your nonwork needs first, and then fit your work around those.
If you do it the other way around, it’s really easy to neglect your own needs, so we should start with making sure that our own needs are met first. Your work will eventually suffer if you don’t take care of yourself—taking care of yourself will make you a better worker.
Now that you have all that stuff on your calendar, you will block out time for work. However, instead of simply making a block entitled “work” and moving on, you need to allocate time to your main work activities. These vary based on profession, and you’ll probably find that they change over time. For instance, here is the set of major activities I had at a previous job:
- Mentoring junior developers
- System architecture and design
- Software testing
- Writing documentation
When I did the data collection exercise described earlier, I discovered a few things. First of all, my optimal times for writing code and designing systems were between 6 and 10 in the morning and after 4 in the afternoon. The other activities were a necessary part of my job but were not the main things that management valued. Therefore, the other tasks had to fit around the optimal coding times.
With the data you have collected previously, you should have a rough idea of when you are most capable of doing certain tasks. While you will continue to refine this based on experience over time, you should have enough information to at least get started.
However, you need to be careful about how you prioritize your work activities. While your manager will likely tell you that everything is important, there are some tasks that they will prioritize over others.
In my case, while I was expected to write documentation and mentor junior developers, neither of those tasks ever came up during my annual review. Therefore, it was reasonable to act as if these tasks were lower value, since doing them well didn’t get me a raise, while doing other activities poorly probably would have hurt me.
Given that your work environment likely has similar dynamics in play, I strongly suggest you take a similar approach. Find the most important activities that are expected of you, and schedule them first. Give them time blocks that correspond to optimal work time, and then schedule the less critical activities during the other available time in your workday.
The point of this exercise is to give you a rough idea of what your typical day should look like. In reality, most days won’t be perfect, but you can use this calendar to plan your day for optimum efficiency.
If you do this correctly, not only will working from home be easier, but you will give the impression that you are working far more than you probably are. This is especially true if you didn’t go through this exercise when you were going into the office.
Keep this calendar up to date as you gain more insight into your optimal working time. When you have a particularly good (or bad) day, compare the work you did that day to what you had scheduled on your ideal week calendar.
You will often discover surprising insights. I certainly did. I learned that I felt more energized on average when I did at least some writing every day, and I also learned that I’m terrible at database performance optimization late in the day.
Keep this calendar on hand and refer to it often, adjusting as needed, and it will be an extremely helpful tool in your toolbox.
Habits Determine Your Long-Term Success
The key to being able to work remotely over a long period of time is to build up healthy habits and maintain them. There are many risks to a remote worker’s ability to work from home, with issues related to the situation at home or one’s personal health as well as issues related to the office and the people there.
Managing your work relationships and how you are perceived in the office is critical to your ability to be an effective remote worker. You’ll also find that a lot of social relationships change when you start working from home, and you will need to manage those relationships so that they don’t make your life more difficult.
Building appropriate remote work habits is your responsibility. While your employer and your social circle might be able to help, the responsibility for results rests on you alone.
But that’s a good thing—it means you can have control over your life. The difficulties in making a change are transitory; the benefits are long term.