We’ve always worked from home.
I mean, not always. Before Nicole and I were webinar people, we were teachers.
But since then, we’ve built a business around helping people connect from wherever they are. And we built it from inside the same building we sleep in.
At first, the transition was...well, probably what you’re going through, if you’re suddenly living the WFH life in the wake of COVID-19.
The irony is that now, after we spent years convincing people they can build their own businesses from home, everyone has to do everything from home.
So all we can do is exactly what we encourage our users to do: share our experience and expertise.
We sat down (not literally!) with our team of about 2 dozen developers, managers, creatives, and support personnel working remotely around the globe. We put together our best advice for everyone who suddenly has to turn the kitchen table into the office, without going completely bonkers.
This is our ultimate work-from-home guide, organized by the crucial areas you need to sort out so you can be productive, focused, and unstressed.
Let’s do this.
Work You vs Home You
This post assumes you have two goals: to be productive and successful at work, and to be sane, present, and free (from work) in your personal life.
In short, it all comes down to separation.
There must be a “work” you and “home” you. Even though both “yous” occupy the same body, and now the same building, they must be kept apart if both of “you” are going to make it through this.
Each can potentially impact the other negatively, if not kept in their respective corners of the sandbox. George Costanza explained it best:
He wasn’t talking about work and home, but the mutual autonomy of “relationship George” and “independent George” still applies. In the same way, we all have to protect “work” us from “home” us, and vice versa.
The Work Space
As I write this, there are about 7 billion blog posts coming out with advice on what the ideal home office should look like. This post isn’t about standing desks; the setup is up to you. But here’s what’s truly the most important factor about the home work space, from our years of experience:
It’s a separate space.
It will be invaluable — not just to your productivity, but to your mental health — to keep a physical barrier between work and home.
The only way to prevent a potentially harmful subconscious association between your home and your job is to keep them apart in your head, which starts with keeping them apart IRL.
I get it — not everyone has a whole room to devote to this. If you have a spare bedroom, a big walk-in closet, a garage with outlets, anything, use it. If you don’t...get creative.
Choose a corner of a room, and block it off with as much of a physical barrier as possible. Folding screens are a good option, but even if you don’t have any way to “block” the work space from the living space, you absolutely must define the work space.
Something as simple as a carpet or a wall hanging can represent the “border” between the home office and the living space. Whatever the “border” is, however symbolic, it has to be there.
In fact, symbolism might be the most important aspect. The barrier has to be firm in your head, even if it’s barely there physically.
Does this sound a little woo-woo? A little pop-psych? Don’t let that stop you.
By erecting a barrier, you’re addressing the number one challenge for the newly home-bound: mindset. Mindset is what will allow you to get business handled even though you’re steps away from your favorite distractions.
Holding the Line: Maintaining the Barrier Between Work and Home
Ask everyone (including your significant other and kids) to respect the physical boundary. When you’re in the workspace, you’re to be left alone.
Nicole and I have literally — literally — messaged each other from our respective workspaces in the same room, the same way we would if we went to separate offices somewhere.
We even have certain adorable nicknames that are banned from use in the “office.” I will spare you those.
Ask everyone in your household to treat the home office like an actual office; y’know, that place they’d never barge into unless there was some emergency. Your family wouldn’t stand outside the window of your office and yell up to you, right? Nor should they chat with you when you’re in your room, or corner, or section of carpet, or whatever.
This goes both ways.
Don’t bring your work into the “home” space. No paperwork on the couch. No conference calls from the bed. No webinars from the loo (I can’t emphasize that one strongly enough).
Understand that erecting the barrier protects your home and family from your work, not just the other way around.
You know that feeling you get when you’re back from the office, and you walk into your home, knowing the workday is over?
You can still have that. You need that. It all comes down to the barrier.
Work Time vs Home Time
Time is just as crucial as space when it comes to the psychological border between work and home.
Again, let’s think of this as not only protecting the time you should devote to work, but also as manning the gates of your personal and family time.
Don’t let work steal time from your life, and vice versa.Schedule everything. WFH can be weird for those who are used to having their time managed for them. You’ll have to schedule, and I don’t just mean “work from 9 to 5.” I mean schedule your whole day, in detail. What you’re doing, when you’re doing it, and how much time each task gets.
You’ll even schedule breaks (more on that below).
See this as a relief, not a chore – because it really is.
Schedule everything, because there’s no greater stress reliever than having your workday plotted out. You get to relax (and sleep!) knowing that you’ll handle whatever needs handling, because it’s in the schedule.
You’ll be amazed at how calming this is.
It’s common advice to write things down that stress you out, especially before bed, as a means of de-stressing. Something about the act of putting our worries down on paper compartmentalizes them — especially when that paper is an action plan.
Scheduling completely frees your mind from work during your “home” time.
Tips to Schedule for Focus
Work in bursts. One of the best productivity books ever written, Cal Newport’s Deep Work, recommends 60 to 90-minute bursts of focused, completely un-distracted work, with breaks in between. As I explained on this episode of my podcast, that’s exactly my system.
I start the workday with 90 minutes of intensive, focused work. Then I take 15 minutes to rest my brain. I take a walk around the block (when I’m not on forced quarantine). I stand and stretch. I breathe.
Then I get back to it for another 60.
I repeat the process until I’ve done about 6 hours of work — which by the way is all you should do. Studies of office productivity have shown that in 8 hour “workdays” people typically do as little as 2 or 3 hours of actual, fully focused, 100% productive work.
Does that stat really surprise you?
When you use the burst/break system, it’s a lot like a HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) workout. The breaks let you increase output during the bursts, resulting in higher productivity.
Your brain is no different from the rest of your body in this way; just as muscular or cardiovascular development depends largely on recovery periods, so too does focus.
Don’t multitask. Just don’t. Your brain does its best work one thing at a time, in a classic ‘master of one/jack of all’ effect. You will get more done by putting singular focus on each task for its allotted time. That’s why we recommend hyper-scheduling your day as much as possible, so you’re only ever doing a single task.
In other words, one track minds are a good thing.
Both Deep Work and Nir Eyal’s book Indistractable dive into the psychology here, but the gist is this: switching tracks exhausts mental energy, creates friction, and leaves you less productive. Every. Time.
The illusion of multitasking is that you’re getting more done.
Put first things first, to quote the 7 Habits crowd. For example, our Marketing Manager, Irena, schedules all of her meetings and conference calls on Mondays and Tuesdays. This allows her to plot out the week’s priorities, so she can give her full attention to executing those plans Wednesday through Friday.
This applies on the day-to-day level, too.
Our UX/UI designer, Irina (yes, we get confused too) always schedules the most creatively demanding tasks for early in the morning. When you’re freshest, at your most rested and energetic, that’s the time to spend that mental energy on the most brain-heavy tasks.
We both save the more menial stuff (checking emails, any sort of uploading or data entry) for later, when we don't need as much brain juice. In fact, I get about 80% of my most important work done before lunch. The rest is just breaking rocks.
Schedule the next day, every day. The goal is to not even think about work after work. This is why the last thing you do each day is schedule the next day’s tasks, in detail (think “Write first draft of Work From Home Guide,” not just “Blog”).
Again, this seems restrictive, but it’s totally liberating.
When tomorrow’s To Do list is complete, you are utterly free. Go hang out. Have that cocktail. Watch that show. Read that book.
Let work go, completely.
Self-Care When Working From Home
There are a few things you can do (in addition to building all the “barriers” described in this post) to keep your mind and body in an active, but stable, place throughout the workday.
Dress for success. This is Nicole’s favorite WFH maxim. I know those PJs are comfy. I know that robe is…liberating, in a way that’s as joyous as it is creepy. But it’s bad for your mindset.
Put on your grownup pants, literally. Comb your hair. Come to “work” the same way you’d come to work. You will feel different.
Again, this applies both ways: when you get out of your work gear, you’ll feel yourself shedding the workday like a snake sheds its skin. And that feels good.
Find your groove. Opinions vary on the value or detriments of music while working.
For example, Nicole finds an instrumental soundtrack focus-inducing. Me, I don’t even hear it, because I’m such an extreme mono-tasker that even the act of hearing becomes a subroutine of which I’m not aware. Other people can’t focus unless they have complete silence.
Find what works for you — but be honest about it.
Is your mind drifting away with that classical symphony or those ocean sounds? Or is it just enough pleasant background to ease the anxiety that actually drives distractability, as Nir Eyal points out in Indistractable? Only you can say.
But tell the truth.
For the pro-music crowd, DJ Nicole suggests a few excellent Spotify playlists, featuring music that’s interesting, but not distracting:
- Brain Food
- Lofi Hip Hop to Study and Work
- Workday Lounge
Be active. The human body did not evolve to sit in a chair for hours and hours each day.
If you’re suddenly working from home, this is a great opportunity to experience the benefits of not being chained to a desk. Nicole and I use adjustable desks that allow us to sit or stand as we please, changing positions throughout the day. This ability to engage the body and increase blood flow improves our state of mind, our work, and our overall health.
If you’re on a computer, get away from it regularly.
Don’t spend your breaks looking at your laptop or phone. Our content writer, Conor, struggles with the eye fatigue and the general fogginess of excessive screen time. To combat it, he writes all first drafts of copy on a FreeWrite.
On breaks, he walks to the beach and gives the horizon a good long stare. The time away from screens works wonders.
Working With Kids at Home
Working from home isn’t new. Working from home while your kids’ school is indefinitely closed…well, that’s a fresh challenge.
Fortunately, one of our team members has extensive experience with this particular challenge. Front-end developer James has home-schooled his two sons since well before coronavirus, in addition to working full-time from home.
For James, the key is to remember that kids can’t focus for too long on anything.
As any classroom teacher will tell you, no one under a certain age can reasonably be subjected to hours of focused activity, so it’s vital to break things up.
James uses half-hour activities, with the daily goal of completing a certain number of them in tune with the kids’ natural rhythms. Complete an assignment, then go run around for a bit. Read this passage and discuss, then play for a few.
It’s remarkably similar to the adult method of focused bursts interspersed with breaks, only with much shorter units of time.
As we mentioned in the ‘work space’ section, it’s crucial that the people in your household know where the boundary is between work and home. That includes the kids.
Even if you need to be able to see the kids, make sure they know not to cross the “border” into your work space. Use breaks for some “water cooler” time with kids, but keep to the schedule.
Finally, remember the value of freedom for children.
Myself, Nicole, and Conor were all full-time educators for years. From experience, we can’t stress enough the well-studied benefits of independent play, learning, and exploration. Even in today’s classrooms, teachers are encouraged to be the “guide on the side” rather than the “sage on the stage.”
In other words, the “sit there while I lecture” model has been dead for a long time, replaced by creating an environment for kids to explore, experiment, and engage independently — well before COVID 19 came around. One silver lining of the virus may just turn out to be the demise of the helicopter parent.
For some great websites and tools for learning at home, check out the “For the Kids” section below.
Here are the best books, tools, and apps for optimizing your WFH life, as recommended by our team:
Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success In a Distracted World by Cal Newport: As businesses are finally forced to abandon the clock, understanding what’s really valuable is key to protecting everyone’s precious time.
Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life by Nir Eyal. Nir visited our podcast as a special guest teacher, where he explained the basic premise of Indistractable: eliminating the things that take you off task, and an understanding that anxiety underlies much of distraction.
The Front Nine: How to Start the Year You Want Anytime You Want by Mike Vardy. The “Productivityist” himself explains how to move forward with any long-term goal, starting today, or whenever you’re ready.
The Alter Ego Effect: The Power of Secret Identities to Transform Your Life by Todd Herman - Herman explains how the best version of yourself is already in there, waiting to be unleashed on your goals.
The Five-Minute Journal: You can choose a hardcover journal or an app, but either way this tool helps you choose your focus for each day, and cultivate gratitude for everything going right in your life – something we could all use right now. A favorite of efficiency guru Tim Ferriss.
Freedom: Limits distractions by only allowing certain apps to run during your work hours. Bye bye, Facebook.
Rescue Time: Tracks how much time you spend on your apps, across all devices. The intel you need to realize where your day is going.
Trello: Fantastic project management tool that simply lets you create “cards” for each project and drag them through different “boards” or phases of the project. Great for collaborating on multi-step projects.
Qlearly: Organizes your website bookmarks and helps you keep the tab count down throughout the day.
Asana: All-in-one project management software that lets teams keep track of who’s doing what when. Great for managing workflows across multiple team members.
Basecamp: Another all-around collaboration forum for teams. This is the tool we use to manage our remote team across 4 different continents.
Forest: Lets you plant “trees” of focus during which you can’t use your smartphone without killing your tree. Includes optional pleasant background noise.
Milanote: Lets you organize your ideas and projects into visual boards; very creative-friendly.
For the kids
Verbling: Free live language lessons online.
Conde Nast Traveler Museum Exhibits, Symphonies and Operas You Can Enjoy From Home: Says it all in the title
Audible: Offers free online audio stories for kids
BrainPop: Huge collection of short video-based lessons on pretty much every subject, with accompanying activities and readingsReadWorks: Reading comprehension-focused articles and activities for all grade levels, adjustable by reading level
Putting It All TogetherThere it is, my work-from-homies. There's a lot of information to integrate into your life here, but it's worth investing a little time and energy into creating a stable, healthy, sustainable WFH situation for yourself. For those of you managing remote teams, check out these helpful tips from Venngage on effective remote team communication, as well as this guide for full-scale enterprise remote work from the good folks at Toptal.
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