Tips for Working from Home

Posted by Hamish Macpherson on 18th Apr 2020

I’ve had the pleasure of working from home exclusively for about 10 years now. And it began entirely by accident.

In late 2011 I joined a start-up called Rewardli. At the time I was living in western Canada but they wanted me to move to San Francisco and work out their office in town. I was elated, but I quickly learned that immigration law and visas are complicated. I had no formal education and without that piece of paper verifying my qualifications, a work visa was nearly impossible to acquire.

So I worked remotely until we could sort everything out.

But… well, we never did sort things out. And so I just kept working from home. 🤷‍♂️

That was nearly 10 years ago, and it marked the beginning of my journey in the world of remote work — I never looked back, and I’ve been working remotely ever since.

Not for the same company, of course! I’ve had a few other opportunities between then and now. (For the last four years I’ve been working my dream job at Buffer as a Software Engineer!)

My tips

Here are some of the most helpful tips and pieces of advice I would give to someone getting started with remote working today.

Oh and one caveat before I start: some of these might be more relevant to you if you are also a software engineer, since that’s what I know best – but I expect they can be applied to a number of other remote job situations as well!

Create your space

You’ll be most effective when you have a place to work that is only for work. This helps your brain get into a work mindset and also ‘leave it at the office’ when you’re done working. This place could be a dedicated room, or just a corner of your living room. Ideally it’s a place where you can avoid distractions like food, or other people walking by frequently.

This isn’t always possible depending on your living situation, so you may have to adapt. I used to work out of a large den area in our house but when we realized it’s potential as a playroom for our growing children, I moved into a smaller room that was previously used only as a pantry. It’s actually working out pretty well! (And yeah, this breaks my rule about being close to food, but that’s adaptation for you!)

I find a room that has natural light is really helpful too. Somehow it makes me feel more calm. Opening a window for fresh air is really nice when the weather is agreeable. Unless my neighbour is smoking – then it’s just gross. (Dude’s got the worst timing, too!)

One last thought on your space; keep it tidy! This probably goes without saying, but I really believe that our environment affects how we think and work. I know I often feel mentally burdened and tired when my space is cluttered. Taking a bit of time after you finish working, or on the weekend to tidy your workspace goes a long way.

Find your flow state

I love the concept of flow from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. If you’re not familiar, it describes a state of "optimal experience" where whatever creative work you’re doing – whether that’s coding, designing, composing music, or writing poetry – comes naturally and easily, it may even feel like time has slowed or stopped completely. Basically you're "in the flow." Of course there’s a lot more to it than that, so if you’re interested I recommend reading out the book or watch Mihaly’s TED talk from 2004.

Finding your flow state is key to effective work. This can be difficult, but it gets easier with time. Here’s a few tips;

  1. Experiment with your environment
    Does a different location help you feel more or less focused? What about different lighting? Decor?

  2. Block out uninterrupted time to work.
    Consider using something like the Pomodoro technique to work in repeating blocks of time with small breaks in between

  3. Try using music or background/white noise apps.
    I’ll write an article on this soon; I’ve experimented with a LOT of music options and sound apps – with varying degrees of success.

  4. Invest in a good pair of noise cancelling headphones.
    Even if you’re already in a quiet environment the effect can is very calming and helpful for focus. I have Bose’s QC 35 which I love, but I’ve also heard great things about Sony’s WH-1000XM3

  5. Take breaks.
    Don’t try to work non-stop for hours on end. Take time to get up, stretch, eat lunch, maybe even go for a short walk! This pairs well with something like the Pomodoro technique I mentioned. Alternatively you can schedule a break directly into your calendar to help you remember.

Take care of your health

I want to preface this section by saying I’m not a health expert or personal trainer. That said, I have developed a few habits that have really helped me, especially as I’ve worked from home all these years.

  1. Start your day with physical activity
    With the current global pandemic, most of us aren’t going to the gym, but there’s a still a lot you can do at home. I’ve been doing at-home workouts with Beachbody for a few years now and I really like the programs they offer (I’m just about to finish P90X3 💪), of course this isn’t an ad, so find what works for you!

    There are apps and websites aplenty offering various programs. Some require equipment like weights or a pull-up bar; much of which you can find on Amazon, et al. While others just use the weight of your own body. Running might be your thing (I can’t stand it). The point here is try to get your blood pumping. It makes a huge difference!

  2. Drink water
    Maybe Im writing this point for myself more than you, because I can be really bad at this! My wife often has to remind me to stop and eat (thanks love). Regularly drinking water is great for helping you feel energized, also it forces me to get up off my butt and stretch since I have to use the bathroom more often. Win win!

  3. Get good sleep
    Working from home means you can do your work almost whenever you want. This is a wonderful blessing, but it can also lead to really late nights and poor sleep. Try to stop work at the same time every day and avoid working really late into the night. I try to take a break for dinnertime and to spend time with my wife and kids. If I do go back to work after, I try to have a clear time when I will stop and get ready for bed. For me, that’s 10:30 PM. Any later than that and I’m sacrificing precious sleep time. (I must confess that as I write this it’s already 11:07 PM — look at me breaking my own rules again! Guess I’ll finish writing this tomorrow.)

Balance your work and life

Work-life balance is hard. For me it might be the hardest part of remote work. When your laptop is right there and working is so accessible it can be hard to truly disconnect and be present for your significant other or kids. Here are some ideas that have helped me.

  1. Have a routine and stick to it
    The key here is predictability; for yourself and those around you. In my case this means waking up early in the morning, working out, making breakfast and eating with my family before getting to work. Taking a lunch with my family and carving out some time to play with my older kids is also a regular part of my days. Finally I try to finish my days no later than 5pm. Having this ‘hard stop’ helps my wife know what to expect and is a welcome relief on days where she’s feeling particularly tired or burnt out from child-care.

    This one will depend a lot on your situation, but regardless of whether you have kids, or your partner works, or you work by yourself at home, you can benefit from a routine. Decide what activities or habits are important to you and make sure they’re part of your daily routine.

    Oh, and remember, your routine doesn’t need to fill every hour of the day. I like to think of it as more of a skeleton that you can build on if/when you plan a more detailed schedule.

  2. Plan your week
    There are lot of ways to approach this. You might try a physical daily planner that you write in, or like me use Google Calendar to schedule in the important things you need to do in the upcoming week. What I like about Google Calendar is how easy it is for my wife and I to share calendars with each other as well as the ability to easily create repeating events for my regular routines and habits.

    That said, this is an area where I struggle. Planning takes time, and if you’re not intentional about making that time then the weeks will just come and go, before you know it.

    The Art of Manliness has a great article on weekly planning that you might want to check out. (Don’t be put off by the name, the tips there apply equally to everyone.) I especially like the idea of planning in your “Big Rocks” first, which is demonstrated by a story from the book First Things First: by Steven Covery that he also shares in the article:

    I attended a seminar once where the instructor was lecturing on time. At one point, he said, “Okay, it’s time for a quiz.” He reached under the table and pulled out a wide-mouth gallon jar. He set it on the table next to a platter with some fist-sized rocks on it. “How many of these rocks do you think we can get in the jar?” he asked.

    After we made our guess, he said, “Okay. Let’s find out.” He set one rock in the jar…then another…then another. I don’t remember how many he got in, but he got the jar full. Then he asked, “Is the jar full?”

    Everybody looked at the rocks and said, “Yes.”

    Then he said, “Ahhh.” He reached under the table and pulled out a bucket of gravel. Then he dumped some gravel in and shook the jar and the gravel went in all the little spaces left by the big rocks. Then he grinned and said once more, “Is the jar full?”

    By this time we were on to him. “Probably not,” we said.

    “Good!” he replied. And he reached under the table and brought out a bucket of sand. He started dumping the sand in and it went in all the little spaces left by the rocks and the gravel. Once more he looked at us and said, “Is the jar full?”

    “No!” we all roared.

    He said, “Good!” and he grabbed a pitcher of water and began to pour it in. He got something like a quart of water in that jar. Then he said, “Well, what’s the point?”

    Somebody said, “Well, there are gaps and if you really work at it, you can always fit more into your life.”

    “No,” he said, “that’s not the point. ”The point is this: if you hadn’t put these big rocks in first, would you ever have gotten any of them in?”

    Lastly, don’t forget to plan in time to take care of the important people in your life. For me, this means planning date nights and also taking time to think about upcoming special events (Otherwise I'm bound to be totally unprepared the day before my wedding anniversary, birthday, or other important holiday!)

  3. Don’t use work apps on your phone
    Do you use Slack? Do you have Slack on your phone? What about other apps (i.e, for company email, discussion, or project management)?

    If you answered yes to any of the above, ask yourself: “Do I really need them?”

    Last year after we had our third child I took a few months off for paternity leave; Three wonderful – often very chaotic – months of time away from work to just focus on my family. As part of preparing for my leave I uninstalled all work apps from my phone, no more Slack, company email, Jira, Threads, or PagerDuty.

    It was bliss!

    When I finally went back to work, I didn’t install them right away. In fact it was at least a few months before I caved into installing Slack, “just to check something real quick.” And only a few days after that where I found myself rolling over after my morning alarm, grabbing my phone, and almost without thinking opening Slack to see what I’d missed. Not the way I wanted to start my days, but I couldn’t help it!

    So I deleted them all again.

    And you know what? I don’t miss them at all. I’m less likely to pull out my phone early in the morning, or during dinner time, or when I should be spending time with my spouse. Yeah, there was a bit of FOMO at first – but you’ll get over that quick.

On working remote during a pandemic

These are difficult times. With many people being forced to work remotely due to restrictions on groups / gatherings as we seek to flatten the curve.

This could all be very new for you, and if you’ve never done it before, it can be a difficult transition. One thing I want you to know is: It’s not normally this hard.

Yes, there are still challenges when working remotely, but we’ve all got an extra mental and emotional burden right now. It sucks, but that’s the reality. So be kind to yourself. This will get easier.

Conclusion

I truly believe that working from home – in jobs where that makes sense – is a key part of the future of work as we know it. And now, circumstances being what they are, more people are shifting into remote, whether they like it or not. I hope everyone is able to adapt and learn to see the many benefits, and I’m also excited to see what happens as the trend of remote work continues to rise.

I’m far from being an expert at working from home. I have good weeks and bad weeks, like anyone else. But the ideas I’ve written in this article represent some of the most helpful tips, tactics, and techniques that I’ve used over the last 10+ years to make those weeks a little bit easier and consistently better. I hope they’re helpful for you too.

If this article was helpful (or not so helpful), I’d love to know. You can reach me on Twitter; @hamstu — thanks so much for reading!


Banner photo by Milana Jovanov via Unsplash