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How to Stay Productive and Happy when Working from Home

alli profile image Alli Teration Updated on ・5 min read

UPDATE: I started writing this a while back and intended to publish it later, but with an influx of people working from home for the first time, I got it out sooner. The concept was intended for people who were working remotely by choice. I want to say that this situation is far from normal. Normally, we're not trying to watch kids and work at the same time (not possible). Normally we can head to a coffee shop when we need to get out of the house, and now they're either closed or they won't let us inside (for good reason). There's a lot of far from normal things keeping us from being productive, and many things keeping us from being happy. If you don't want advice right now, that's totally valid. And if this advice doesn't work for you for whatever reasons, that's valid, too. This is far from work as usual, and we're in this together.

I’d planned to write this post at a future date, but given recent events I‘m getting it out early. I’ve been working remotely for two years now and through some trial and error, I’ve figured out how to keep myself productive and happy.

1. Find a place to work

Have a home office? Good, you’re all set. If not, you’ll need to find another place. If you don’t have kids, a central area like the kitchen counter might be fine. If you have kids around, you’ll want a room with a door you can close.

If working from home is a long-term plan, I highly suggest setting up a permanent desk and workspace, so you have a sense of being “at work” even though you’re still at home.

2. Get dressed

Working in PJs might be tempting, but I’ve found that getting dressed in clothes like I’d wear to the office helps me feel like it’s time to work, not time to laze around. Particularly if working from home is new for you—-you’ll want to trick your brain into thinking it’s time for work. Clothes will help.

3. Remove distractions

Think about what might be distracting for you and get it out of your vision. If you think you might be tempted by naps, make sure you can't see your bed from where you're working. If you think you might be tempted to play video games, hide your controller or mouse and keyboard. Limiting distractions might mean keeping other people and pets out of your office. My cat Wally will claw at me and even bite me if I don't pet him enough. After a while, though, he'll curl up on the chair and nap. Sashimi (cover image) doesn't come into the office as much, but when she does she likes to walk all over everything. Here's Wally, about to ask for some love:

Ginger cat Wally wants love

I understand that with current circumstances like closing schools, staying completely free of distractions might not be possible. Do what you can.

4. Get up and move around

In Deep Work, Cal Newport talks about a technique where he'll pick a problem to focus on and go for a 15 minute walk. I love this idea. I also take walks when I've been focusing on a problem for too long and need to clear my head. Walk, or stretch, or do jumping jacks. Just remember to move.

5. Find ways to be social with your coworkers

Working in an office means your coworkers are around. You see them, you make small talk, you discuss whatever show everyone's watching. Avoiding people takes work. At home, it can be easy to forget you even have coworkers. If remote work is new for your company, hopefully your company is already figuring out what video conferencing tool you'll use for meetings. It's good to see other people's faces. If you use a chat tool like Slack, I suggest having some channels for non-work-related conversation. At Seller Labs, we have a bookclub that has a slack channel and meets once a month over Google Meet to discuss a book we all read. It's been a great way for me to get to know some people at the company I wouldn't have talked with much otherwise.

6. Set aside time for focused work

If you're in an office and someone physically comes up to you with a question or request, it can be hard to say "I'm busy right now, but I'll take a look at that later." It's easier on Slack: do it. I like to give a time frame for a response: if someone wants to pair program with me, I'll suggest a time and put it on our calendars. If someone has another request, I might tell them when I'll be able to get to it or that I'll do it by the end of the day. Then I follow through.

My company also encourages people to go off Slack for a while if they want to focus on something. You might want to see what your company policy is about how quickly you need to reply to Slack messages or email.

6. Find ways to focus during meetings

If your mind tends to wander during meetings at work, it's going to be even harder to focus on them when they're over video chat. I find that meetings that require me to speak and participate a great deal are easy to focus on, but those where I'm mostly listening are a challenge. One tip is to keep your camera on: it's less tempting to start playing a game on your phone if everyone else in the meeting can see that you're doing it.

I also knit. I discovered that knitting mindless patterns helped me free up my brain to actually focus on the meeting. It might not work for you, but maybe something else to occupy your hands like a fidget spinner or some play dough would help. I wrote about knitting during meetings here if you're interested.

7. Get out of the house

Ignore this one if you're working from home to avoid catching or spreading coronavirus. I'm including it anyway, for anyone reading this in the future when there isn't a pandemic. (I'm being optimistic.)

Sometimes, particularly in winter, I'll suddenly realize I don't remember the last time I left the house. Don't do what I did. Schedule time to leave the house.

How do you stay productive and happy when you work from home? If working from home is new for you, what are you planning on doing to make it work?

Discussion (1)

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Jordan Whiteley

Nice article, (it's getting shared around the office). I'll add that doodling all over everything is my ADD coping mechanism.