Working from Home is Great
I have worked at home ever since I quit my regular pay check late in 2018. In fact, I’m practically a shut in. I currently live out in the rural West Country of England, with only my fiancée who works during the day and few friends in the local area. Don’t weep for me though, I love my countryside walks and the fact it seems there’s more pubs per capita than anywhere else in the world, goes some of the way to compensating my hardships. It also means I’ve become somewhat of a journeyman at working effectively from home. I’ve literally been living for this moment, and this blog post.
Working from home is obviously great and I don’t need to discuss the benefits here. When you first do it, it often turns to a lazy day on the couch, laptop open yet unattended, idly whiling away the day. It’s a real treat vs your usual busy schedule. However, when it becomes a main stray, suddenly those days of inactivity don’t get you anywhere and they don’t feel nearly as good. As well as the benefits home working brings, if you get good at it, it also makes an easy business case to your boss you should be able to do it more often, or if you’re forced to always work at home, you’ll reap the many benefits of being an effective and productive human being.
1. Silence is Golden
I am going to start with what is undoubtedly the piece of advice that will be least popular — avoid distractions! We all know working with the T.V. on or trying to get that last bit done while guests slowly gather at a pre-drinks never works. I propose taking it a step further, I don’t even listen to music. I used to but working in silence and in a sanitised environment has boosted my creativity, cognitive abilities and, simply put, my work is just much better, I get it done much faster and I am infinitely more creative.
It seems a little Spartan to forgo your most basic of worldly pleasures while working to get stuff done but hear me out. Your brain has a very limited bandwidth, while it is not necessarily constant, its max bandwidth (when represented as bits/second) is estimated to be around 60 bits/second. That’s crap, we currently measure download speeds in Megabytes (1 million bytes) or even Gigabytes (1 billion bytes) and a byte is 8 bits, so don’t forget to multiply those numbers by 8. 60 is pathetic, what chu playing at brain? That’s about the same speed as a skilled typist on a typewriter. The brain compensates for this limited bandwidth, i.e. the amount of information that can ‘go in’ at any one time, by constantly scanning and flicking between tasks to use memory to build a picture of multiple things, such as vision vs sound vs cognitive thought. If you track the eye you can see this flickering. It also has a reasonably good filter and most of the information you’re recognising is an estimate. For example, you’re not actually ‘seeing’ a lot of the things in your field of vision. Your brain estimates them instead, your extreme peripheries are virtually black and white pixels, your brain fills in the gaps. This makes your vision less informationally heavy and you ‘see’ only the important stuff.
Thus, when you provide extra sensory inputs like music, the television, family or friends, you’re forcing your brain to work overtime to build a picture of all the different things going on. It’s flicking between the song you like and the task you’re on. Put simply, those distractions are massively slowing you down, even if you don’t realise it. Not to mention the ‘hard distractions’ like the times your fave tune comes on the radio and you just have to get up and bust some moves! Or, the distraction to rule them all, Social Media.
Give it a try, what have you got to lose? Listen to your music on a walk instead when you can actually focus on it. Multi-tasking, for the same reasons and more, seems to just not be a thing. If anyone says they’re good at it, they’re lying to you and themselves. They’re just slowing themselves down. You will be rewarded for your silent working by finishing earlier, producing better work and creative inspirations that will knock your socks off! Then you can rock out unimpeded.
2. Motivation is Bullsh*t
For a long time, scientists have suggested motivation is a limited resource. We experience ‘willpower depletion’ or ‘Ego depletion’ over time based on several factors, as demonstrated by the famous chocolate chip cookie study. This has been disputed, and perhaps more alarmingly it seems believing willpower is a finite resource can actually reduce your ability to use willpower. What the true science is, is for the eggheads to argue over. However, anecdotally, we’ve all failed at sticking to a diet, gym plan or routine of any kind on willpower alone for a sustained period of time, it’s perhaps impossible even.
Willpower is important and it can definitely get you over a difficult hump, but it’s simply not a good long-term strategy. If you’re working from home, you’ll need more than motivation to sit down unsupervised and work effectively for your full 8-hours. So, what’s the alternative?
“Motivation is crap. Motivation comes and goes. When you’re driven, whatever is in front of you will get destroyed.”
- Navy Seal, David Goggins
You need to build a toolkit of several skills, tips and tricks that will sustain you. All of them require frequent maintenance and updating, but they will help you. I am only going to cover the two most important ones for working at home, but rest assured there are many, many more that I will write about in future.
Chief among these tools is habits. Forming healthy habits and eliminating bad ones can be a god send when it comes to having a productive day. The nature of habits is you perform them automatically, which is what makes the bad ones so annoying, however, for the good ones this means you can achieve the basic functions of your day with very little thought, effort or motivation. A habit might be as simple as clearing your desk at the end of a workday, not only does this reward you with closure and a finite end to your back-breaking labour; when you come to your desk the next day it will be clear and inviting. It will actually aid you in having a second productive day!
“What you know doesn’t mean shit. What do you DO consistently?”
- Life Coach, Tony Robbins
This includes habits in your thinking. We know from basic cognitive behavioural theory that thoughts can and do manifest themselves in your actions. You need to form the habit of talking to yourself in the right way. No, I am not crazy for talking to myself. Yes, I am literally suggesting you take ten minutes at the start or end of your day to talk to yourself and only yourself, because accountability is the next most important tool. Inside your head can be a quagmire of thoughts, so do say it out loud if you need to. It will help you organise your thoughts. For many home workers, there’s no boss to hold you accountable, not really. If you play video games for an hour, who’s going to know? In the short term, playing that game can be soooo rewarding, that’s what makes it so tempting, however in the long term it’ll usually catch up to you. The effect could be sooner rather than later, you might have to work late, maybe it’s in the future when you get held up for promotion for ‘low productivity’ or if you don’t have a boss, you will have clients whose needs aren’t fully met and you get a sleuth of bad reviews, leading to a downtick in business. Ultimately it could result in you losing that job or your business.
So, you’re the one now responsible for holding yourself accountable, accept that fate. You need to consider the consequences and the rewards so that you know precisely, before a distraction arises, why you shouldn’t succumb to it. You also need to be both tough and kind with yourself, but perhaps most importantly honest. Depressive questions like “why am I so shit at blogging?” are not only bad for your mental health, they’re not conducive to a successful relationship with yourself. You wouldn’t talk to someone else that way, don’t do it to yourself. A better question would be “why didn’t I write today?”, or “why did nobody read my blog?” might be tougher but nonetheless still important. You know the honest answer or you can resolve to find out. Then you can strategize so it doesn’t happen again. Through this process of accountability, come success or failure, you will not only become better at working independently, it’s also likely you will also become a more resilient person who talks to themselves kindly as a matter of habit. Then you don’t need motivation.
3. Plan to Succeed
Most people know the importance of planning and goal setting, however, it seems few know how to do it effectively. From the obsessive planner with their sparkly notebook full of celebrity crushes and pastel colour scheme, to the apathetic employee who thinks it’s hilarious to write “fart loudly and often” as a goal in their monthly review. Neither are very useful, however, just like different methods of learning there are many ways to set goals. The ‘correct’ one is dependent on the individual. It is important to find out which method enables you to work best and helps you to hold yourself accountable at the end the day/week/year. If you’re regularly not meeting your goals, its nearly always your fault and your fault alone. Your method could be the problem, perhaps that organisation chart written in glitter pen isn’t actually helping you to succeed? Maybe it is, but the four hours a day spent making it could instead be used to realise some of your wilder goals.
What is true is you will never meet your goals if you never even take aim. Even after aiming you must plan your trajectory, have armed yourself with the right tools and then focus or you’ll never end up pulling the trigger either. At best you take a wild shot that never had a chance. Then as a defence mechanism because you don’t want to blame yourself, you blame the world or your boss for limiting you. It’s better to aim, take a sincere shot and miss though, than to never aim at all. If you miss, maybe your tools need a fine tuning, maybe you’re not focused enough. You can dust yourself off, fix some problems and try again.
Dare to dream with your goals too, if you set the goal of owning a hot pink Lamborghini, and then embark on the task, in earnest, building a strategy what it’ll take to get one, then you have actually given yourself a chance of achieving it. There are many people who can attest to this, myself included. If you need more money, do you need a new job? What skills do you have to change into a higher-paying industry? Can you take classes? Set goals and realise some of your dreams or be doomed to remain motionless and on your death bed wonder where all the time went.
When it comes to working from home, it’s important to have these long-term visions and goals at the front of your mind. When your phone blinks at you suggestively you’ll be in a much better place to fend off the succubus of distraction if you’ve armed yourself with the outcomes. You can repeat them to yourself as an ad hoc mantra if the temptation is particularly strong.
Okay, so you have your long-term goals, you gots to have that hot pink lambo, you just gots to! You also have a realistic road-map to achieving it. On a daily basis though, how do you boss it and actually get stuff done?
When it comes to managing yourself, as a former engineer I am a fully indoctrinated student of the agile approach. A part of this idea means adding all your tasks to a backlog. Some have used the task bucket as an analogy. Over time you’ll empty the bucket and lighten the load. I find simply writing a backlog intensely liberating, the task is there, in writing and it will be pulled out of the ‘bucket’ when necessary. You can now forget about it and its huge weight off your mind. When we don’t, we unknowingly carry it around with us and it weighs us down. We all get those pangs at random of “I must remember to look up what synergy is,” or, “oh god! I totally forgot my passive aggressive reply to Susan!”. Don’t carry them unnecessarily, plonk them in the bucket, it’s already being taken care of simply by being there.
Your day-to-day tasks should have a long-term goal connected with it, that way it’ll also be automatically connected to a reward or outcome you want. It has a purpose, and one you care about. Prioritizing the tasks as you take them from the bucket at the start and analysing why some of them didn’t get done at the end is part of your accountability and improvement processes. In engineer jargon, this is called a sprint meeting, or scrum. Did I get distracted? How can I plan better to not get distracted? Am I doing too much? Did I not have the resources? Is there a person holding up the task? Can I delegate it to them?
When it’s not your ‘fault’, it’s far too easy to write them off as not your concern. Okay, but why didn’t they do it? Did they not have the resources? Maybe they didn’t know how to it? In a round about way, it is still your fault because you didn’t ask these questions to help your team to achieve and improve. Even if you’re not the team leader, being a good follower means helping the team as a whole achieve its goals. That’s not altruistic, for the ‘not my problem’ folks out there. If the team is high performing, targets will be decimated, it will get given better projects, you get more rewards and you all look like superhumans together. The analysis and feedback back into the system is a crucial part of the sprint, it’s what makes it a sprint and not just some massive list of tasks. (It also has many other components and benefits not discussed here).
4. Break it Down Now Ya’ll
It’s necessary to break down the tasks you pull out of the bucket. In ‘engineer land’ overall tasks are called ‘Epics’ and they’re broken into bite-sized tasks that can be completed within the sprint timeframe, usually a week. What exactly are you going to do this week? It may even be that because a task is so daunting, you’re putting off starting it. I’ve found this isn’t a conscious decision, it’s very much unconscious, however, when I analyse why I procrastinated on a task it can be as simple as not knowing how to complete it or start it.
Visualising a task’s completion and the method of doing it will help you get started and knock it off your backlog. Some, I’ve broken down into tiny tiny baby steps. Breaking down writing a book into “Write a title” might not seem like a big task, until you realise maybe it should be tested on an audience and coming up with a title is actually quite hard. Suddenly even that task needs to be broken down into a brainstorming session and a focus group. The mammoth daunting task of writing a book, that you’ve been putting off for ages becomes, “every day this week, starting tomorrow, I will for read 30mins on outlining fiction novels.” That’s much more manageable. It also becomes apparent the task of writing a title you thought might take 20 minutes, will actually take two or more days. Knowing this allows you to schedule more effectively, makes you more likely to hit your weekly targets and have a greater awareness of what you can achieve in a week.
Sprints should be realistic, if you continually miss the target because you’re overloaded, A. it’s depressing as hell and B. you’re not being honest and creating a steady work environment. What you can achieve in a day, when pushed to breaking point, is monumental. Over a sustained period of time, it’s surprisingly not that much. I’ve worked many an all-nighter, I’ve done several in a row. I’m proud of it, I consider myself a ‘clutch’ player. However, I also crash hard at the end, because there has to be an end. I will sleep for a full 24hours wake up for 6 and do another 24hrs sleep no problem. Then I have other pressing tasks to get on with. In all honesty, some of the all-nighters could’ve been avoided with a better work ethic and they cause future all-nighters because you’ve been taken out for a period of time. I’m confident as an entrepreneur there will be many a time an all-nighter is unavoidable and I’m glad I know how extreme my tolerances are, however, they should be severely limited because the end result is a stress belly and a pizza hangover.
5. You Done Good Kid, You Done Good
Have you ever gotten up late, done nothing but watch TV, cracked open a beer mid-afternoon, ordered take-out and just felt real crappy because you are a bloated waste of space who didn’t get anything done? Don’t worry, we’ve all been there. Conversely, have you ever worked yourself to the bone then opened an ice-cold beer as the sun sets on a successful day? Ah man, there is no feeling better! There is no guilt that comes with the indulgence and that makes everything sweeter.
Let a man walk ten miles steadily on a hot summer’s day along a dusty English road, and he will soon discover why beer was invented.
- Writer, Gilbert K. Chesterton
Rewards mean significantly less when they’re not earned. Enhance your rewards! Perhaps your poison is different, perhaps it’s a solid twenty minutes catching up with the latest #CatsOfInstagram while curled up in a blanket. Even the guilt of consuming a share box of McNuggets can be converted to childish joy by having them as a reward after an intense workout. Whatever it is, it’s a full metric zillion times better when earned. “Earn it!” has even become a mantra of mine when working and in the gym.
Furthermore, there’s some obvious credit to the notion that rewarding efforts is more powerful than punishing them. In certain scenarios it’s been suggested that’s not always the case, however, it’s fairly safe to presume it’s at least comparably effective. If you did something good it’s vital it’s rewarded, the sooner the better. Remember, you are accountable to yourself now and that includes patting yourself on the back. Delaying gratification, getting shit done and then rewarding yourself with positive experience will reinforce the behaviour, increasing your chances of doing it again. Even if your aware of the rewards mechanism this still holds to be true. A successful day is a series of tasks and planned micro-rewards.
This also means you need to cancel the reward if things go bad. That’s the real difficult bit, because often you were looking forward to it. I’ve found it useful to scale my rewards in advance. Okay, I didn’t earn my Papa John’s XL pizza, however, maybe I did enough to earn an Aldi frozen one. Maybe I don’t get to use Saturday as my mega all-day session on Empire Total War, but I still deserve 2 hours. Having no reward at all means you might not continue to reinforce the small good you did do that day or week. Talk to yourself honestly and reward yourself honestly. Sometimes participation is enough to earn a reward, but be careful, there’s no shortcuts and lying to yourself, rewarding bad behaviours or behaviours that don’t need rewarding, will be just as effective in turning you in the opposite direction of your goals.
Don’t punish yourself for good work either. One habit I had to turn off was ‘being in the zone’. If I had a really productive 8 hours, I would just carry on working. I was bossing it! In reality I was rewarding my hard-work with more work… not a good tactic. It meant I was less likely to be productive in future because my subconscious was well aware it meant a 16-hour day of slogging away. Procrastination isn’t always a habit, sometimes it’s your mind putting things off for good reason. A solid reward and a good night’s sleep will ensure you’re still in the zone for another full 8-hours tomorrow. In fact, the science suggests you’re far more likely to be. Suddenly you’re a powerhouse of productivity, doing enthusiastic 8 hours after 8 hours AND you’re enjoying life too! You have more time to exercise and your evenings are filled with the small rewards you’ve planned for yourself. Your relationship is better because your reward was a candle lit steak dinner for two and a glass of wine. Suddenly, you have it all. That can be you.
I hope these tips at least start you on a path that makes you effective at working from home, or at least sells you on the some of the benefits of getting good at it. Much of the above can be summarised as general self-betterment. It’s not just useful for working at home, but can be adapted for life in general. Talking honestly with yourself is a learned skill, and a valuable one. When you can do it well, you’ll also improve talking to other people in a way that gets results. As the old saying goes, you have to love yourself first before you can love anyone else.
Please be generous with your claps, if you like any of these tips, clap away and if you like the article be sure to give it a raucous round of applause. It’s free! And it’s valuable feedback for me on what people find useful and perhaps I can expand on it in future.
After writing, this article covers a lot of concepts that fill books worth of material. In order to keep it brief I’ve over-simplified, not been fair to certain concepts or not referenced the source material which is much broader in scope than what I’ve presented. I hope you will forgive me for this. However, if you’d like me to explain, discuss or to hear more about any the topics covered above, please do leave a comment or get in touch.
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This article was written by Cameron Readman. If you’d like to know more or receive notifications for future articles, please head over to the Website and subscribe at the bottom of the page!