How to Stay Productive as a Remote Worker
Most posts about productivity as a remote worker read like a how-to on turning your home into a cubicle: keep business hours, dress for work, create a “work area.”
I take issue with advice like this, because it seems to point to the idea that the only way you can be as productive from home as you are from the office is if you … turn your home into an office.
Of course, I’m not arguing that everyone should change into pajama pants and lay out on the couch with a laptop1 at all times. Distractions abound for telecommuters, and we’re not afforded the luxury (?) of a manager checking if we’re on task — we have to do that ourselves.
So how do we, the Remote Workers of the World, make sure not to fuck up the cause and stay more productive than our cubicled counterparts?
I’ve tested dozens of approaches over the years — I’ve been a remote worker for over a decade — and come up with a list of traits that are common on my most productive days.
More recently I’ve been stress testing these practices: in January of this year, I sold everything I own to see how far digital nomadism can go.
As a result of following these practices, I’m working fewer hours overall, with higher productivity than my 2014 averages.
These strategies aren’t exactly a peer-reviewed study, but they work for me. And I bet — if you give ’em a shot — they’ll work for you, too.
1. Start with a Thorough Plan to Eliminate Wasted Time
Okay, okay — this isn’t exactly a remote working tip. But out of everything I’ve tried to boost my productivity, making sure there’s a clear understanding of the outcome is the single most important factor in what gets done on time, and what goes over budget (or doesn’t get done at all).
If you want to work effectively, you need to create a solid plan for every project.
With a solid plan, you can hit the ground running, and know you can keep running without interruptions.
Real-Life Ideas for Putting Planning into Practice
Start with a Shitty First Draft. A lo-fi prototype will help you refine the outcome before you’ve spent hours on design or development.
Start an article by writing all the headings. By breaking an idea into headlines, you not only make your job easier — just fill in the blanks — but you can quickly tell if a topic is too big and needs simplification, or if it’s too small and needs a broader approach.
Create a todo list from your email. If I go into my email to look for something, I end up reading new messages and losing my train of thought. To combat this, I now make an email todo list: I go through all my emails and compile tasks first — once that’s done I can work without opening my email again.
2. Group Tasks by Context for Better Focus
There’s a widely-referenced idea from Gerald Weinberg’s Quality Software Management: Systems Thinking that claims a 20% loss in productive time for every project you have to switch between during a day.
This isn’t just true of projects; it’s true of different types of work — communication, design, and development are all entirely separate contexts for working.
When I’m coding, I have to build a mental model before I can start actually writing code. The same is true of writing, design, and any other mentally demanding project: there’s a ramp-up period before I can actually start working. After an interruption, the ramp-up starts again — at least an abbreviated version of it — before I can get back into the flow.
That lost time shaves precious seconds off my ability to hunt for the best gelato in Milan, so it’s in my interest to avoid those interruptions.
Multitasking is a big, fat lie.
Real-Life Ideas for Managing Context-Switching in Practice
Choose days to only work on your biggest project. Don’t even open your email.2 Stay off social media sites — use an app to force yourself if necessary. Give the project your full attention, and know that you have a plan to handle everything else the following day.
Turn off all notifications. My phone only makes noise when it rings. I don’t get push notifications from anything except my calendar. I don’t get badges for unread emails or Facebook notifications I have. I don’t need the anxiety of knowing that there’s something I haven’t read yet. Instead, I focus on what I’m doing, finish it, and then check email and social media when I’m not in the middle of something else.
Create blocks of working time. Dan Sullivan recommends grouping tasks into context-specific days. The Pomodoro Technique recommends short, focused intervals. I tend to fall between two- and four-hour blocks, depending on what I’m working on.
3. Take (Real) Breaks to Boost Your Mental Energy
When it’s time to take a break from work, it’s important to stop working. No phone, no email, no computer. Go somewhere and sit with a cup of coffee for 15 minutes and enjoy it.
Let your mind wander for a bit and I guaran-goddamn-tee you’ll come back refreshed and ready to get shit done. Much more so than if you were to check your email from your phone on the way to the coffee shop and return immediately to your desk with a paper cup.
Real-World Ideas for Taking Breaks
Follow the Italian example. I got weird looks when I asked for coffee to go in Italy; “coffee to go” is just not part of their culture. Instead, Italians drink their coffee on the spot — often standing up at the counter — no matter how busy they are. Take a break by sitting down at a café and sipping your coffee slowly. The 15 minutes you spend away from your work is survivable, and the mental breather will help you fight burnout and stress.
Go for a walk. And don’t do the text-and-walk like a jerk. Actually walk. Going outside has positive effects on your mood, too. And that’s not just hippie bullshit: the chemicals we breathe in while walking in a forest or a fresh-cut lawn have proven to prevent stress damage to the hippocampus — it’s so effective that scientists made a perfume that smells like mowed grass to cheer people up3.
Actually enjoy your meals. There’s this game — maybe you’ve heard of it — where friends meet for a meal and all put their phones face-down on the table, and the first person to touch their phone buys the meal. I highly recommend you make that game the rule in your life. Even when you eat alone, try to leave your phone untouched.
4. Plan Days to Leave the Computer Alone
You want to be really productive? Then put your computer away and leave it. All day. No, I’m serious.
There’s nothing worse for productivity than dreaming about the things you’d rather be doing than working. And when you’re traveling, you need to go out and do things — otherwise, what’s the point of traveling?
In Barcelona, I wanted to have a coffee and breakfast, walk to the Picasso museum, explore the surrounding El Born area, drop in for afternoon vermouth, and have dinner at one of the Adriá Brothers’ restaurants.
I took the whole day off. I didn’t open my laptop or check my email, and I explored Barcelona. The next day I was chomping at the bit to tackle my to-do list.
Had I tried to fit work into my exploration, I would have most likely ended up either spoiling my day worrying about the time, or stayed up too late doing subpar work.
By choosing one day for adventure and other days for work, I’m able to enjoy the world around me guilt-free, and work the next day without feeling like I’m missing out.
Real-World Ideas for Disconnecting
Challenge yourself to a “No Technology” day. I dare you. I double dare you. Take a full day to just be with the people around you, experience the real world, and remember that there was a time not so long ago where it was pretty fucking weird to spend all day staring at the palm of your hand.
Be a tourist. (Even in your home town.) Give yourself a full day to go experience your city. If you’re traveling, go do some sightseeing. If you’re at home, go hit up the things that make your city famous that you’ve never seen, or that you haven’t seen in a long time.
Take a day for offline errands. Do laundry. Go get your hair cut. Go to the post office. If you’re anything like me, this stuff all piles up. If you try to fit in errands between working, you’ll end up exhausted; remove work from the equation and it’s a little more manageable. Relaxing, even.4
Remote Working Is About Balance
You’re good at your job. That’s why you do it. That’s why you’re able to do it without going to an office every day.
But if you’re spending every waking hour working, then what good is the freedom of working from home?
By creating a plan, grouping tasks by context, taking breaks, and giving yourself full days off, you can be incredibly productive while spending less time working overall.
I’ve used this strategy to successfully drop my working time to 4–6 hours a day, while finding time to take lots of Instagram photos as I wander around Europe. And if I can do this, you can do this — in 2014 I was putting in 70–90 hour workweeks.
Do you have any tips for staying productive at home? As long as you’re not going to tell me to wear pants, I’d love to hear them: shoot me a tweet and we can debate the finer points of pajama fashion.
- Full disclosure: I’m wearing pajama pants on the couch as I write this. ↩
- “Easy for you to say,” you scoff. Yeah. I said that at first, too. And then I planned a day not to check my email. And the Earth remained in orbit; no disturbances were felt in the Force; none of my clients fired me — in fact, none of them even noticed. So I made No Distraction Days a weekly occurrence. Now I only check email on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and I’ve set up an autoresponder letting people know it. I have more time, and not a single complaint. You can live without checking your fucking email. ↩
- Going outside actually has a lot of less ridiculous-sounding science behind it. Studies suggest going outside will promote meditative states, relieve mental fatigue, and boost your creativity. ↩
- I may be reaching here. But, hey, it gets you off the computer and lets your mind recharge. That’s important. ↩
Jason Lengstorf is an international man of development and a speaker at Future of Web Design London. Do not miss Jason's full-day workshop Supercharge Your Front-end Workflow at Future of Web Design London on April 27.
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