Here at LivingSocial’s engineering department, we work remotely as much as we want. Most of our development teams are composed of people remotely distributed — all of them communicating, writing, and deploying code.
While working from the office, it’s hard to get quality work done every day. Doing it from home is even harder. I’ve been doing it for almost 10 years, and over this time, I’ve found some habits that have helped me immensely. In this article, I will share some of them.
When working from home, the line between my personal and professional lives tends to blur. After years of struggling with how to divide these two aspects of my day, I’ve found out that having a start-up ritual helps me a lot. It doesn’t need to be fancy, just something that you do every day before starting to work. Since we use hangouts extensively, I begin by making myself presentable. After that, I do what I call opening the cafeteria.
My ritual goes a little something like this: I turn some music on (usually something from Drinking Gourmet Coffee); I make some fizzy water with my SodaStream; I grind the beans I’m going to brew; I set up the Aeropress; I boil the water I need; then I bring it all home in my favorite mug.
With all of that done, I drink the sparkling water, get my mug, and sit down in front of the computer. Then I’m ready.
One of the best investments I ever made was a good pair of noise canceling headphones. Of course, you can use your earpods, but when the point is to make sure you can focus, you should look for any immersion techniques you can take. Good headphones and a long playlist of introspection-inducing music work wonders when you need to get stuff done.
Another important tool I use to eliminate distractions is a Focus flag. A flag is used to channel or represent something immaterial in the real world. In this case, the flag is a physical representation of your attempt to focus.
In my case, my pair of headphones is my flag.
Let’s face it — when working from home, we need to do more than the usual to get things done. Our entire place is an invitation to do something else or be with someone else. Be it my significant other, dog, or pet goat, there’s always someone asking for attention. That’s why the flag is so important; it tells others (and yourself) that you may be there in body, but your mind is busy creating zeros and ones.
If my wife sees me with the heaphones on, she knows I’m busy and would prefer to not be disturbed.
Your pet goat may not do the same, but at least you tried.
Say no to multitasking
So, you are finally ready — you’ve done your ritual, got your headphones on, and are ready to crank some serious code. Now it’s time for the next battle: making sure you don’t drown in the multitasking pool.
You should try hard to do one thing at a time. Answering emails and Gmail is being slow? Wait for it, just staring at the browser window. Do not alt-tab and go to Hacker News. Don’t open your Twitter client.
Anything that asks for your attention every 5 minutes will kill your focus. Close what isn’t directly relevant to the task at hand — especially stuff like social media, RSS feeds, and email clients. Shut them off as much as you can, but be reasonable. You don’t want to leave your coworkers feeling you are not there. I use bitlbee + irssi for IMing, so I set up a digispark to glow only when someone from my team sends me a message. That way, I can check other people’s messages whenever I have free time.
I make sure I have just one window open, full screen, most of the time. To accomplish this, I use a tiling window manager in full-screen mode. And when I need hyper focus, I pull out the secret weapon: a script that blocks Alt+Tab. Instead of switching between apps, it restrains my doodling mind by displaying a huge message with the “focus” word in all caps.
From time to time I need to sit down and work on something unpleasant. Not everything we work on is fun, but even so, we need to get them done. When we face these tasks, it’s even easier for our minds to wander about and try to find comfort in other places. That’s why we spend so much time on things like Hacker News and Reddit — they’re way more fun!
The only way to deal with this is to cut the supply. Block the websites in your hosts file, or at least use a browser extension to block them. I allow myself 15 minutes of Reddit per day.
Don’t work all the time
From time to time, I check with myself to see if I’m done for the day. Can I work for another hour or is my mind wandering? I try to be frank when doing that. Doing a bad job is (a lot) worse than doing no job at all.
Make sure you spend time with others. Face to face time is when the most remarkable things in your life happens, so make sure you have plenty of it.
It’s also very important to set aside some time for studying and playing. Make sure to always be learning something new — sites like Codewars and Khan Academy are good for this. Keep some time free for leisure too — sports, music, video games, wine. This will help you keep things in balance.
That’s it. You don’t need to do all of the above. Do what you feel is enough so you can get things done. If it feels like a lot of work, that’s because it is. Finding ways to make things happen when your personal and professional lives blurs is challenging, but can also lead to a more meaningful and happier life.