A definitive overview of habits to keep you sane whilst working remotely.
There is no magic pill when getting working done from home, and if you are looking for one you won't find it here.
There is no magic pill when getting working done from home, and if you are looking for one you won't find it here.
To be frank, it isn't that different from your regular job.
- Get up, get dressed.
- Commute to work.
- Do work, eat lunch.
- Leave for home.
As a remote worker the lines are blurred there isn't a commute and actually being productive at home can be difficult to commit to.
It can be difficult to actually switch off and stop working.
Thankfully if you are used already used to the structure of a 0900-1700 you'll find it a (little) easier to actually finish on time.
Following are a list of subjects which I've gone in-depth into and found particularly useful over the course of my career.
- Finding and investing in a dedicated workspace
- My personal setup, tools crucial for productivity
- Making and committing to decisions beforehand
- Giving your day a consistent structure, knowing when to stop
- Making sure that your relationships at home stay strong
- The pressures of productivity and procrastination
- Getting outside and out of the work environment
- Communication with your teammates
- Eating well and taking care of your body
As I've been fortunate enough to work remotely for my entire career some of these will be out of reach and possibly impractical for your situation.
Note that some of these following items have taken me years to dial in, getting them to a stage that I am happy with.
Finding and investing in a dedicated workspace
As I don't have children yet and I live in an area where the cost of living is low I have my own study.
It is about the size of a small single bedroom, it has a door, which I can close if I am having meetings.
In previous homes I have shared a studio space but the challenge had been trying to balance the privacy of having a meeting and not disturbing the life of those around me.
I highly recommend at the very least to get your own desk, and a chair where you are sitting up. You can use a flat surface like an island in a kitchen but this can be difficult as your knee may hit, be uncomfortable and mess with your posture.
Working on a sofa, working with your computer on your lap will not work well for you. Your body will tighten up, you will find it increasingly more difficult to work and it will become a chore.
If you are uncomfortable you will be unproductive, you will be unhappy, you will start to be easily irritated.
If you aren't careful you might lash out at those that don't deserve it due to your frustration and stress.
Try to find a place where you can work from, that you can separate from your life from work. Preferably where you are sitting upright and you can relax your shoulders.
If space is a challenge and you are unable to find a dedicated space try this technique:
- Sit on a different chair with a table, or flat surface, but sitting up in a reasonably comfortable position is key.
- Move the table or chair that is in a different position then you would usually sit on.
- Every day for work keep sitting in the same spot, make it a habit.
Doing this will help your brain understand when it is time to work, continuing this habit will help you mentally switch your homelife with your work.
When I am traveling at Christmas, I stay with family, I use a similar technique to simulate an office setting. I sit at the head of the table when it is pushed against the wall of a room.
This provides me with a kind of mental isolation to concentrate even though it is in an open room, my habit to work is locked in due to a ritual of sitting in a particular spot.
The problem is that working from home the line between work and life is blurred, you need to come to terms with the distractions. The postman will knock at your door, your help will be requested from family and friends you will be disturbed by life more than at a workplace.
You need a place where a switch will toggle in your mind, getting you into a state of productivity to get the ball rolling again.
Finally, if you are working in your bed don't make it a habit but make sure you are sitting up and you have enough pillow support on your back — especially for your lumbar.
My personal setup, tools crucial for productivity
This my current setup. A list of the items with prices, to get to this point it took around 3 years.
- Late 2015 5k iMac 27" - Around £1800, including separately purchasing an extra 16GB of RAM. Paid off over 2 years on a 0% credit card
- 27" Samsung monitor - Approximately £300-350, certainly cheaper these days.
- Herman Miller Aeron - Second hand from ebay around £330
- Generic office deck - Around £100
A little back story.
For my first full-time developer role I worked with a company that provided all equipment. As an employee it is commonplace to get all the essential equipment you need to get the work done to the best of your ability.
When I joined them I even negotiated an office desk which I still use to this day, it is a key part of my setup.
A couple of years in with the role I was becoming increasingly frustrated that the equipment that was loaned to me, a mac mini wasn't up to scratch, the times to compile code for native mobile development was becoming increasingly slower.
Long story short my equipment was becoming a bottleneck in my productivity.
A slower computer leads to longer feedback cycles, a lower rate of dopamine release, a higher chance of breaking out of a flow state.
In early 2016 I personally invested and purchase the equipment I desperately needed.
As I didn't want to use up the majority of my cash reserves at once I got a 0% credit card to pay for the majority of the purchase. I deposited £400 onto the credit card as a down payment as I couldn't get a credit line for the full amount required.
From then on I slowly paid off the balance for over 2 years, approximately £50 a month.
One of the benefits of the iMac is the inbuilt stand, giving you a little bit more ergonomics.
The benefit of this approach is that the equipment was mine, I had control and ownership. When I moved on to a different role I didn't have to worry about sending back more equipment than necessary.
Lowering all hurdles and loosening potential future issues on copyright, I can prove that extra work I do in my spare time, personal projects belongs to me.
As a consultant purchasing your own equipment is paramount and as an employee there is less onboarding cost to get you ready to be productive.
Making and committing to decisions beforehand
Waking up and taking action in the morning can be a challenge, especially if you know you don't have to catch a train or be on the road to get to the office on time.
It is easy to slip into bad habits such as giving yourself permission to not get dressed, or if you work with flexible hours sleeping in longer when needed.
Adding little rituals in the morning prepares your mind for the start of a workday.
The night before work I like to think of myself in two states.
- Before sleeping, a tired person but can make decisions and carve a plan for the morning with the ability to influence the future self.
- In the morning, a person with good intentions but may have forgotten decisions from the night before and potentially vulnerable with distractions.
Making any decision, no matter how small, will have an effect on your future self and in a negative light you will be deferring the problem for the future.
Think of making any purchase with future implications, let's say a new contract for a flagship phone.
Such a phone may cost £50-60 on the high end a month, this by itself isn't a bad thing, you can receive the benefits that come with the device but your cash flow will be reduced.
Its all about balance are the benefits really worth the impact of the loss over 24-36 months.
Digging deeper, if you don't have much money and taking care of your home is a struggle that amount could pay for a bill, or contribute to the delivery of groceries.
We live in a society where instant gratification is glorified over delayed rewards.
If we apply this thinking to remote work, how can you help yourself?
Make the decision and influence yourself the night before:
- Get your clothes ready and fold them on your chair you work from the night before, in the morning this obstacle of your
- Going to the gym? Do the same as above but with place your towel and your bottle of water with the clothes.
- Do you love coffee? Set up your machine, Aeropress or French press the night before next to your kettle.
- Do you have a todo list you don't want to forget about, write it up and place it on your desk or keyboard.
- Taking a trip in the morning? Set up all of your bags, make sure your laptop is charged up
Commit the night before, make it easy to follow through to take action.
A lot of this preparation will become automated habits. What this means is that your life will end up being less stressed and you'll feel less pulled in different directions.
I firmly believe that every day we have a set number of decisions we can make before we run the risk of becoming mentally exhausted, I noted this in my article what does it mean to be a senior developer.
Giving your day a consistent structure, knowing when to stop.
Working from home provides flexibility but with that we must develop a level of discipline.
By not having social paranoia of someone potentially watching you in an office we are required to have a degree of personal accountability.
The work that we do and by extension the overarching result we deliver is intrinsically tied to our discipline.
I believe that structure around the hours that you work is vital for remote work, otherwise, you will run the risk of losing control and sight of when to stop.
One of the biggest fears you should own is knowing that by overworking you will be at a much higher risk of burning out. Every time you spend an extra couple of hours on a task when you should there be a cost that will need to be paid at some point in the future.
The journey of work, building projects, and delivering is a marathon, not a race nor a sprint.
In some cases, you may feel that I need to start work earlier and sleep less, and while it is true that temporarily reducing sleep could yield
That is one of the reasons why I disagree with some of the vocabulary that is outlined in agile methodologies, such as sprint. For less experienced developers it is easy to think that a "sprint" means that I should work as hard as possible with godlike heroic efforts.
That is untrue, agile is focus around measuring the process of development so that a business can more accurately gauge their capacity for software outcomes.
Admittedly I personally know that occasionally I work more then I should, and it is interesting as for a lot of my work these days I enjoy the process of development
Even so my work structure is around 0800-1700, I may start at 0830 or even earlier, but the aim is to stick as closely to your hours as possible. At the same time being aware of your limits, and being aware of the future cost to yourself.
You can use similar a process for yourself, but what is important is knowing that you need to actually stop every night and committing to it.
Making sure that your relationships at home stay strong
By not sticking to the commitment of your personal work schedule you can run the risk of damaging your close relationships, especially if you have failed to effectively communicate the problems you have been facing.
We all know that some weeks and months are going to be easier then others but sometimes you'll need to work longer in order to deliver.
If this is becoming a habit that is having an effect on your relationships you need to be stricter with your time.
We can use the pre-decision technique as described earlier, these are some ideas, the aim, in this case, would be to set the times within an hour of when you are finishing your workday.
Making you stop and focusing on actual activities that will actually enrich your life.
- Setting a time to go to the cinema.
- Booking a reservation to go to a restaurant.
- Scheduling a call after work, with a friend a co-worker.
- Pursuing personal projects in your spare time.
- Going to the gym, getting outside and doing something enjoyable, like skateboarding.
A trap I see looking into people that work on-site is that it is tempting to be dragged into going to the pub or having a drink with colleagues. This is something which although is nice occasionally you have to be careful to not make it too much of an ingrained habit.
The pressures of productivity and procrastination
There could be some days that you don't feel like yourself, you feel as if you are in your own bubble. Sometimes the work doesn't click and does don't achieve what you set out to do.
In these cases, morning meetings, stand-ups, with your team can fill you with anxiety. Sometimes to a point where you feel that you have failed yourself and your team. We forget that others are just trying to do the same, figure out problems and solve them, we forget that others struggle as we do.
This is one of the larger problems with remote work, we lose face-to-face insight into how our team is progressing through a given project.
The only real remedy is to be open and transparent, be honest and not hide the fact you couldn't achieve what you set out to do in such a short timeframe.
After all, you have completed the work you have finished, you have the toes that you have.
I've felt it and it is likely that you have too, the isolation of being separated from the team can be heartwrenching, especially if your role is supposed to be someone who has more experience.
If you feel this way you need to open up, raise a concern, sooner rather then later.
No one is perfect, everyone will struggle at times.
By extension I consider procrastination is more of a symptom to a larger problem, and in many cases linked to this invisible pressure. It could be down to a reduced drive or direction and the leadership that we all require.
It is perfectly ok to reward yourself after you complete a task, but there will certainly be days that you are unable to focus or even get anything done.
At this time, a personal retrospective might be required, ask yourself these questions.
- Have you been putting in too many hours?
- Have you been able to switch off at night?
- Have you gotten the sleep that you need?
- Are there personal issues that are having an impact?
- Has all motivation left you, perhaps your mind is racing with thoughts, making you unsure of your next steps?
Sometimes even working from home everything can become too overwhelming. You need time to rest and take care of yourself. In these cases reach out to your manager and notify them that you need a break, maybe you need a holiday or perhaps a day to rest to clear your head.
Your manager and the team are there to support you to do the best work you can, it shows strength and awareness that you are able to understand your needs.
In a small team, like a start-up, you are all in it together moving the needle toward a common goal.
Over time you'll slowly learn to believe in yourself and the others around you.
On the other hand, sometimes you need a little push to get your ball rolling and boost your mood, music can help with that.
Getting outside and out of the work environment
It is not uncommon to feel like a zoo animal pacing in the four walls of your home, sometimes you just need some fresh air for a few moments to help your mind.
I've found that traveling to the supermarket occasionally at lunch to do a couple of household chores can aid in temporarily separating yourself from work.
It gets you out of your environment, your focused mindset.
Sometimes you can be so focused that you can have tunnel vision and you'll lose sight of what is around you.
In addition to this, if you are fortunate enough to have a gym close to you take a moment to have a quick work out and get those endorphins rushing through your system.
What tends to happen is if you let go, and give your self permission to relax you'll undoubtedly be hit with a potential solution that you'd have certainly would have missed previously.
Communication with your teammates
Researching anything to do with communication with remote teams is this idea of asynchronous communication.
The theory goes is face-to-face you can chat, and work on issues in real-time.
One of the largest shortcomings is that you aren't going to have that same response, especially over different timezones.
This lack of synchronicity and being able to react based on facial expressions with a team is difficult to adjust to, I believe that is one of the reasons that have previously pulled companies from supporting remote work.
It is hard to combine an onsite team of with a couple of developers that work remotely.
Over emails or slack there will be a delay in a response, while this is true I don't think that there too much of an issue.
My recommendation is to make it a target policy that team members that you are connected to complete a task can be reached quickly through a video call, outside of times when there is a meeting.
This has to be somewhat flexible as everyone has a different capacity to work remotely. Flexibility, awareness, and kindness is needed on both sides of the fence.
Here is a list of video call software that I've personally used and has been helpful.
This should be bolstered with 2 default technical team meetings.
- The stand-up. To share your work from the day before, what your plan is for the day and any blockers that could be in your way.
- The exit chat. This is more of an informal chat to close the page of a given day, think of it as a tool to remind each other to stop and rest.
You can use many of these tools to pair programming by just sharing your screen, in many cases I have found this process to be better than sitting next to a colleague's monitor.
One item to add, you can feel isolated working, remember that these calls don't always need to be work only. Sometimes it is perfectly acceptable to simulate watercooler chat.
In some of my roles I'd occasionally help other members of my team research for mobile phone contracts or do smaller off-work tasks while on a call. These kinds of activities can help break up the day and help to build up friendships.
Eating well and taking care of your body
We've previously touched on going to the gym, getting physical exercise to help but being aware of your eating habits is crucial to feeling good.
It is easy to fall into a habit of starting remote work, getting tired of hitting a wall and grabbing some snacks as a distraction.
We've all been there and it is something to keep a close eye on, if it becomes a repetitive habit consuming those additional calories consistently and it could be hard to break.
You don't want to be in a position where you have a comfort mechanism to eat if you become frustrated or tired with work.
This is still something I struggle with myself today.
We'll revisit this topic in the future, but I've found that preparing food in advance makes it easier. Make the choice of eating prepared food easier than grabbing crisps or sweets.
By eating junk food your mood can change, you can feel tired and exhausted. Sometimes I feel surprised by how much better I feel just by eating healthy fruits and vegetables.
Now it is your turn, give these tips a try.
This is a relatively decent overview of how to get started with personal habits to help you deal with working remotely.
There is always more to learn, and all of these take time to process but after a while you will get used to your new environment and you'll find a rhythm that is fits you.
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