I hear a common refrain when I share my remote work situation with someone.
“Oh, I don’t have the discipline for that!”
The workday parameters are well defined when you’re in an office. You arrive before the majority of your colleagues. You don’t take too long of a lunch unless the entire group is going out. Heck, you probably eat at your desk sometimes. You stay in your seat unless you’re in a meeting or on your way to one. You never know when your manager may walk by! You wait for the moment your manager leaves for the day and then do the same moments later. That sounds like a lot of discipline, but when you’re focused on looking busy instead of doing work, you lose time and energy that could be spent more productively!
These artificial checkpoints disappear when you’re working remotely. Sure, you have to show up to meetings as expected, but everything else — including when you start and stop working — is largely up to you. The important part is getting your job done, and that takes some structure and preparation.
Set up Your Environment
You need an environment that’ll help you stay on schedule. If you’re already working in a comfortable, distraction-free space, read on. Otherwise, look critically at where you’re working. Are you distracted by another computer that has personal email and apps on it? Put it to sleep. Are people constantly interrupting you? Close your door. Is your device pinging you incessantly? Turn off notifications or put it in airplane mode. Is the silence deafening? Put on some good music or something soothing to help get you into flow.
Set a Schedule
Set attainable start and end times and respect those boundaries. You won’t be tempted to check your work email in the middle of the night when you have predefined working hours, and your family and friends can easily plan around your schedule.
It’s up to you to structure your workday effectively. You know when you’re the most focused and productive. Schedule important tasks during this productive time. Avoid the temptation to multitask. Relegate your other tasks to a list — analog or digital — so they won’t occupy space in your mind. There are plenty of methods and processes for segmenting your day: 1-3-5, time blocking, Pomodoro, and more. You can spend so much time looking for a perfect process, but it’s more important to find one that works for you and start using it. You’re unique, and your workflow is distinctly yours. Once you find something that fits the bill, use it.
Take Yourself to Lunch
Block out a full hour in your calendar and enjoy this midday break. Literally make an appointment with yourself to safeguard that time from last-minute meetings. Take time to smell the roses, whatever they may be for you. Go for a walk, play an instrument, or read a book. It’s important to schedule that time for yourself and protect it.
Take Reasonable Breaks
Laundry. Dishes. Cleaning. Groceries. If you’re not careful, every day could look like a weekend full of chores! It helps to work in a space away from visual reminders of “things that need doing” (e.g. in a home office or coworking space instead of your kitchen).
Processes can help, too. For example, set up a recurring chore rotation. When a chore’s designated day comes up, complete it and move on to work or other tasks. If you do a chore before your workday or during a break, you’ll feel that sense of accomplishment for keeping your place tidy and can focus your efforts on work.
Breaks are also helpful for rejuvenation or creative thinking. I commonly go for a lunchtime walk in the summer — it allows me to return to work refreshed and recharged. If I’m spinning my wheels on problematic code or a thorny design issue, going for a walk, hike, or run helps me focus on something else. Solutions pop into my head and I’m eager to return to try them out.
Discipline isn’t just about avoiding the things that siphon time and productivity from your day. It’s also about ensuring you do things that enrich your life and bring you joy! These passions may be fitness-oriented, social, or a hobby. Make the time to do these things and be disciplined about how much time you spend on them.
Deal with Digital Addiction
Digital addiction is real. If you have an unhealthy relationship with your phone, an app, or a game, the first step is to acknowledge the problem. When you’re constantly scrolling through photos or checking to see if your ex liked your latest post, you’re not working. But you’re not alone, and you don’t have to solve the problem by yourself. If these tips don’t work, seek outside help.
- Turn off notifications — curbing your phone’s ability to interrupt you, at least on a selective basis, can go a long way in cutting down how many times you pick up your device.
- Track your time — there are tons of ways to track your time. Apple’s latest update adds “Screen Time” tracking so you can see how much time you spend in each app. Just being aware might help limit usage. For desktop users, look into options like RescueTime. There are options to limit your access throughout the day, too.
- Make it uninteresting — The New York Times wrote about how switching your display to grayscale can help cut usage. It might work for you!
- Uninstall it — I used to play Need for Speed and Age of Empires earlier in my career. I realized that I was addicted and solved the problem by uninstalling them and discarding the media. It’s tougher now with digital downloads and apps on our phones, but you have to be vigilant. Recognize when your favorite game or app is hindering you and delete it.
If you’re having trouble getting things done, check out these practical tips to get back on schedule.
- Set a timer. Don’t stop working on a task until the time is up.
- Commit to complete one task before switching to another. Better yet, promise yourself a “reward” — going for a walk, running an errand, or refilling your coffee — when a task is done.
- Move to another location — another room or a coffee shop — and set a goal to complete the task before you get up again.
- Declutter your workspace. You’re not focused on your task if you’re distracted by something in your periphery.
- Get rid of visual reminders that you have other things to do.
- Turn off your phone’s notifications and place it face down. Better yet, use airplane mode.
- Quit apps on your computer that may distract you.
About the Author: Scott Dawson lives and works remotely in Trumansburg, New York with his wife Amy and two children. He’s a web designer and developer and moderates the weekly #RemoteChat on Twitter. Connect with him at scottpdawson.com or @scottpdawson. Scott wrote this post as a collaboration with Sococo. Connect with them at @sococo and read their re-post of this article.
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