Here where I live, we just passed the one month mark of physical distancing. I’ve been talking to friends who are working remotely for the first time and I witnessed them passing the “OMG, this is amazing!” zone, then the “OMG, this is terrible!” zone and finally getting to “I guess this is my new reality.”
I’ve been working primarily from home as an independent marketing consultant for a year now. I’d argue this makes me the ideal person to write a blog post about remote work practices – I’ve been in this long enough to test a lot of different approaches, but I started recently enough to remember how it all feels at the start.
So today I want to give you a different perspective on some of the common pieces of advice I see repeated over and over again.
A couple of important caveats: The sole purpose of this article is to give you a different viewpoint. These approaches work for me, but they might not work for you. There’s no universally best way of setting up your remote workflow, so you might just want to test things out and see for yourself.
Myth 1: Dress like you’re going to the office
This is probably the most common thing I hear and the one I hate the most intensely.
Most articles on remote work say dressing up is a great way to tell your brain “I’m going to work” even if you’re not actually going anywhere. I feel the basic premise is good, but dressing up for work is not the only trick to achieve that result.
In my office-dwelling days, I thoroughly hated the hassle of picking up office clothes in the morning. The only reason I never got to the Zuckerberg uniform of a grey shirt and jeans was that I didn’t want to feel associated with him.
And for a woman, there’s a lot of additional work. If you’re picking out work clothes, you need to decide what earrings to wear, and fix your hair and put some basic makeup on… I never managed to get this whole procedure down to less than half an hour and it always felt like time lost. Well, guess what? I’m super happy with my arsenal of leggings and t-shirts now!
What to do instead: Find your Clark Kent glasses
However, I do agree with one thing: it’s crucial to find out how to nudge your brain in and out of work mode. Just make sure you find the way that works for you.
Do you remember Superman? Sure, he had the flashy costume and all, but the first thing that made him slip into a superhero state was taking off Clark Kent’s glasses. No glasses = no Clark. Glasses on = no Superman.
This is a prime example that you don’t need 30 minutes to get in or out of your office superhero state.
I’m more fortunate than most because I have a separate office space at home. Passing the doorstep is enough to make me feel I’m starting my workday – even if I’m wearing sweats and no bra.
Some people achieve the same by putting on headphones (even if there’s no music playing). Others have a more detailed routine. I have a friend who swears she works better with her hair tied in a bun. Just find the thing that does it for you.
Myth 2: Split work time from personal time
The second most common piece of advice I read is you should follow your regular work schedule and cut personal tasks out of your 9-to-5.
You need some form of distinction between work hours and non-work hours so that you don’t get distracted when you should be working and you don’t constantly think about work tasks when you should be resting.
Again, I love the premise. But you know what? Real life doesn’t work like that and it didn’t even when you were going to a physical office.
Motivation and energy ebb and flow. Sometimes I can go crossing off task after task like an Energizer bunny. But other times I can’t put any work together and no amount of staring at the computer screen can change that. Does it make sense to believe I’ll just will myself into productivity or does it make sense to embrace distraction (gasp!) for a bit and try to recharge by doing something different. I’d definitely vote in favor of the second.
What to do instead: Manage your energy
The key here is to be aware of your natural energy flow. Me, I’m a morning bird all over. Any creative or high-focus work I need to do I can usually get done before noon. After that magical hour, I basically turn into a pumpkin for the duration of the early afternoon.
But if you know when your energy slump is, you can manage it (I’ve written about this before, too). Since I won’t be my best self after lunch anyway, there’s no harm in putting on the washing machine and taking out the clothes. I give myself permission to do personal tasks, like schedule a 30-minute workout. I return to my desk rested and replenished and I can do another long work session – and I can work until 7 pm because I don’t need to fit in a yoga practice before dinner anymore.
Knowing how to manage my energy gives me a productive workday that works for me:
- I wake up at 6 am (see below for early waking time), I read and meditate, then shower and get breakfast.
- I start my workday at 8 am with a 4-hour deep work slot.
- At noon, I get lunch and then spend a couple of hours of play and rest. I can exercise, do laundry, go and buy groceries, read, whatever.
- Rested and replenished, I return for another productive slot from 4 pm until 6 pm.
It’s hardly the traditional work schedule – and it doesn’t need to be.
Myth 3: Plan out your day the night before
This one goes roughly like this: don’t spend high-productive morning hours planning – take time to plan your day before closing shop the previous evening.
I’ve been struggling with this one ever since I got interested in productivity. I’ve tried countless systems, I’ve succeeded for short stretches of time – and then I failed, time and time again, gloriously and miserably.
What usually happens is that I have a ton of optimism the day before and this results in a long list of tasks that doesn’t take into account my daily focus and motivation levels. So if I wake up on a not-super-amazing day, I’ll see a long to-do list and I’ll feel even less-super-amazingly.
What to do instead: Take into account what the day looks like
What I’m doing now is planning my day first thing in the morning and adding as much or as little on my plate as I feel I can take that day.
This makes my workload much more manageable and it removes the “Oh, shi, I’m doomed from the start!” feeling.
Obviously, this same concept has a counter-side – if you wake up feeling like you’re riding the waves of motivation, you can be more generous with the tasks you add to your list.
Of course, there are deadlines and whatnot and you can’t just shrug everything off with “I don’t feel it today.” Planning tasks requires some healthy level of tension between what you need to do and what you want to do. But it’s not the end of the world if you’re kinder to yourself on off days.
Myth 4: Keep a clean desk
OK, I’m cheating a bit. I obviously agree that keeping a clean space is beneficial to everyone except house-mites and germs.
The reason I’m adding this point is that all the accompanying photos for this advice show just a desk and a laptop.
Do these people not drink water? Where’s the coffee? How do you even function for long stretches of time without a mouse? And, most importantly, what productivity devil did you sell your soul and personality to?
Having a clean desk and having a sterile desk are two completely different things. If you’ll be working from home for long stretches of time, you need to make sure sitting down at your desk brings some positive emotions.
What to do instead: Breathe life into your workspace
At the start of my freelance career, I worked from a completely utilitarian desk setup for 2 months. It. Was. Sad.
It wasn’t uncomfortable, unproductive, or anything like that. It was just sad. I didn’t feel good when I was doing it.
First came the plants. I’m no Master Greenthumb or anything, so I just settled for 2 small cacti. It may sound weird, but they feel like part of the team.
I then invested some money and a couple of hours of scrolling through my Camera Roll and I got some small photos printed. Friends, family, our volunteer Ratio team, great places I’ve visited and want to see again, and a ton of silly selfies me and my partner took during travels.
But if all of this disappeared in a puff of smoke and I had to set up shop quickly, I’d just opt-in for some tiny knick-knacks that put a goofy smile on my face – like a tiny owl figurine with a huge pink bow and a terracotta coaster with a Maharajah Cat on it. These are both real things I currently possess.
Just add a small reminder that this place is yours and that you have a lot to smile for.
Myth 5: Talk with your team even more than before
Overcommunicate. Jump on regular stand up calls. Write tons of emails. Ask questions. And hope you still have some spare sanity left for your usual work.
It feels like everyone’s solution to improving communication lines that were already bad is just adding more of them.
Does talking regularly with your team, partners, and clients work? Of course. Do you need more of it? Not necessarily. What you need, I’d argue, is better communication.
What to do instead: Set clear expectations and don’t hit Enter
You see, working remotely, especially with clients or teams that are usually all together, is difficult – no matter if you’re part of said team or a consultant like me. They are all used to being huddled up in the same office, clearly see who is available and who isn’t and just pop up for those dreaded “Do you have a sec?” questions that turn out to be an hour-long discussion.
So you need to do two things.
Point one: explain when you’re available and when you are not – no matter if it’s because you’re doing Deep Work or because it’s after hours and nobody should be obliged to reply to emails on a Saturday.
Freelancers dread setting up such boundaries – it almost feels like you’re not a great partner for your clients. But this is not a client issue, it’s simply a communication issue. I communicate really clearly when I’m available, what channels we’ll use to discuss work issues and what are the timeframes a client can expect a callback or a reply in. If you set the expectations right, it works.
If you’re working on a team, you can bring up the topic and you all can set these policies together. A startup I work with dedicates the hours up until noon to deep work and no one expects to get a Slack reply before that unless it’s an emergency. They give themselves permission to be unavailable in order to actually get work done.
Point two: set up asynchronous communication. What does that mean? Simply write as if you’re writing a letter, not as if you’re writing a chat.
We all know that if you write “Hey!” on Slack and hit Enter, the person on the receiving end can’t peel their eyes off the screen before they see what comes next. This is a terrible distraction you can go without.
I use Slack, Discord, Viber, and Telegram for quick discussions with clients. In all of these channels, I write in paragraphs, no matter what. If I’m sending you a message, you can bet your pants you’ll get all the information in one go!
The cool thing is you don’t need complex contracts or SLAs to do that. More often than not, people unconsciously adopt the same communication style if you stick with it long enough.
Myth 6: Substitute commute time for sleep
This isn’t often included in advice articles, but I see people tend to do it unconsciously. I’m basing my assumption on the completely unscientific observation of when people get active online.
You probably don’t miss the time you were stuck in traffic on your way to the office. That’s arguably one of the best benefits of remote work.
This means that you can start your workday at the usual time, but get up 30 minutes or an hour later. You’ll be in your office (i.e. kitchen table) in 2 minutes. A lot of people are taking this time and putting it back into sleep time.
Unless you’re chronically sleep-deprived, I don’t see a good reason to change your schedule too much. You’ll know if you’re really sleep-deprived… pretty much now, after 3-4 weeks of sleeping it off. If you’re waking up way earlier on weekends than you used to, you’ve already fallen into a comfortable waking-up zone and you don’t need more sweet sweet slumber.
What to do instead: Do something your body and mind will thank you for
Take this one with a grain of salt, because I’m very much a morning person. But I can argue that if you’re already used to your old office routine, it doesn’t make sense to spend more of your mornings in bed. We’ve all read countless research that demonstrates changing your wake up time is worse than being consistent and sleeping a bit less.
So take this “gift of time” and figure out what to do with it. You’ve always wanted to pick up meditation? Congrats, now’s the time! You have a ton of books you never get to? Spend 30 minutes reading. You can also just draw or take the dog for a longer walk. It doesn’t need to be all about improving yourself. It’s just a way to recognize new opportunities and make the most of them.
Myth 7: Take up online courses
This is not a terrible one. Hell, I’m upskilling like crazy and loving it. I even started writing blog posts again after a very long break.
But this obsession with productivity makes some people feel deficient, lazy, and anxious. And this needs to stop now. It’s the reason why I took so long to publish this post and why I think a lot of the advice online now is making us sick or sad.
We’re always in comparison mode. It’s just human nature. And when everyone is parroting the same thing, it takes a lot of courage to say “I’m just not gonna be doing this” and not feel like a lazy-ass failure.
What to do instead: You do you
Your situation is probably – hell, almost certainly – much different from mine. You might be caring for kids at home or an elderly relative might be relying on you. You might be living with someone that doesn’t seem like the right choice right about now. You might be sacked and wondering where your next paycheck is going to come from. You might be dealing with a mental illness on top of everything that’s weird in the world right now.
So don’t take my advice. Don’t take anyone’s advice. Make sure you’re creating a lifestyle that suits you and your needs.
Over to you
I sure hope some of the points in this article stuck with you and you’ll try something new today. I’d love it if you share how you’re making remote work work for you in the comments.