Remote work is an increasingly popular choice for employers and employees: employers get to enjoy the pick of the best talent from across the globe, and employees get the flexibility of working from wherever they like. For most remote workers (including me), this means working from home.
Stories about remote work from home often paint an incredibly bright picture: of flexible hours, being closer to family, and saving an hour a day on commuting times. These are some of the benefits of remote work, but this paints an inaccurate picture. Working from home can be really hard:
🙁 It can be intensely stressful, it can blur the lines between work and home (and result in working all the time, as Karol comments on this recent transparency report), and it can be lonely.
This post will explore this lesser-talked-about side of remote work, specifically tailored for the WordPress community (if this inspires you to start remote work, see this list of remote WordPress jobs). We’ll discuss how to be productive whilst working from home alongside specific tactics to stay sane.
Let’s get right to it:
Successful remote work from home is all about discipline and focus
There are two parts to this discussion: being productive whilst working from home, and staying sane. This first part can be boiled down to two specifics: discipline and focus .Discipline is easy. If you’re disciplined with when and where you work from home, you can be very successful with it:
- When. Having set working hours and specifically working through those hours goes a huge way to separating out work and home. You don’t have to set 9am to 5pm; you can take advantage of the flexibility, and set whichever hours work best for you. I like to take a longer break at lunch, for example, and don’t work at the evenings or weekends.
- Where. A designated work space is essential. An office in a separate room is ideal, but any dedicated space will do. Only work at your work space, and don’t use it at other times; this is another way of creating a clear separation.
Deep Work is a thesis by Computer Science Professor Cal Newport, and is probably best characterized as extreme single tasking. Deep Work says that prolonged periods of focus on a single, specialized, hard thing, are where you produce the big breakthroughs which make your work valuable.
The Deep Work thesis compares this highly valuable work to so-called Shallow Work, or “busywork”. This is work which takes up a lot of time but produces little or no value.
Often this takes the form of moving information around, be that via email, Slack, or social media. What’s more, this Shallow Work is typically highly interruptive. Slack or any of these apps demand your attention when anything happens, taking your attention awayfrom the work you were doing which creates value.
As a WordPress professional, your Deep Work might be writing code, and your Shallow Work might be indulging in #wpdrama on Twitter, general chat on Slack, or constantly checking your email.
As a remote working WordPress professional, you have an incredible opportunity to focus your attention on Deep Work, and block out the distracting Shallow Work until you want to deal with it.
Setting up your workspace to protect your attention and avoid distraction, whether through apps like Focus, News Feed Eradicator – or just keeping your phone in another room – lets you really focus and really get stuff done:
Just to be clear, you do still get to go on Slack, respond to tweets, and respond to emails, but the key point is you should do these at times convenient for you rather than on-demand.
Focusing on Deep Work can also keep you sane. Humans feel happier when they are making meaningful progress on meaningful work, and indulging in Deep Work when working remote from home is an incredibly effective way of doing this.
Staying sane whilst working remotely
You should now have achieved the status of productive remote worker, but this is only one part of the story. We can’t stop here, as working from home brings about a unique set of challenges, especially around mental health. It’s absolutely vital that you take this seriously and spend some serious time thinking about how you will stay sane whilst working remotely.
I’ve broken this down into five points that I’ve found really useful.
1. Go outside and do some exercise
You’ve got a fourteen second commute, you can fit in personal errands around work, and you’ve got your cat for company. An incredible setup, surely the envy of WordPress professionals the world over. And yet, it’s 7pm, you’ve only talked to people on Slack, and you haven’t left the house today.
Almost certainly the most important thing for staying sane when working from home is going outside, and doing some exercise. Work out what type of exercise works for you – a brisk walk, running, the gym, swimming etc – and build doing that into your daily routine.
Here’s an example of what I do: every lunchtime I go for a long walk to and around the local park. It’s a chance to process thoughts, have a chat with friends or family, and get some exercise. After that, I head to my favourite coffee shop, do an hour or so of admin (this is my Shallow Work), and then walk home to finish off work for the day. This routine ensures I always get out, I always get some exercise, and I always have a chat with some people.
Some people prefer co-working spaces to coffee shops; I tried the small handful of co-working spaces in the local area and didn’t like them. Find what works for you, and be disciplined about following a routine which keeps you sane.
Writing this out, this things feel obvious and unremarkable, but there have certainly been days when I don’t leave my flat all day, I don’t talk to people, and I don’t get any exercise. If I’ve had these days, I’m sure others have too, and I can happily attest it is absolutely not a recipe for staying sane.
2. Focus on the things that matter
With no co-workers around to bounce ideas off, it can be easy to get stuck “in” your work, as opposed to looking at the big picture and looking “at” your work. This is especially important if you’re working remote and running a business, but is also important if you’re working remote and building your career.
You should build an element of accountability into your routine: make sure you are working on the things which do make a difference and move you in whichever direction you want to be going. I like to do this by having a monthly chat with a friend: we have a recurring meeting set up for 10am on the first Monday of the month, and then take it turns to interview each other on how work is going, how life is going, and how progress compares to last month. My friend works a regular job with nothing to do with WordPress, so don’t worry about finding a “perfect fit” for your accountability system.
I was also encouraged by a great talk at WordCamp London to get more professional help on focusing on the things that matter. I’ve been having business mentorship more or less since WordCamp London, and have found it incredibly valuable. Whether you’re running your own business or remote working for someone else, getting that outside perspective of what matters and where you should spend your time is invaluable.
3. Use little psychology hacks for improved happiness
I’m as skeptical of the value of so-called “life hacks” as the next person, but I will happily accept the results of peer-reviewed research. It just so happens there’s a bunch of peer-reviewed “psychology hacks” you can use to make every day a little happier. Here are three things you can do:
- Gratitude journaling: popularized by Tim Ferriss’ advocation of a “five minute journal”, gratitude journaling forces you to think about the good things that are happening, and this makes you happier. I do this when I start work, and when I finish. Here are the questions that you should ask.
- Rate your happiness: on a similar line of thinking to the above, simply rating your happiness forces you to think about how happy you are. I’ve found this really valuable. You can use a free tool such as Moodscope for this.
- Try mindfulness: the benefits of mindfulness for improving focus, reducing stress, and helping with mental health have really been popularized in the Western workplace in recent years. For good reason, too: this really helps. An app such as Headspace offers an excellent introduction to this.
4. Attend WordCamps, but make tweaks in order to stay sane
We’ve talked about getting out and about day-to-day, but we haven’t touched on getting out and about professionally. The WordPress community has an incredible array of meetups, conferences, and events and attending these is incredibly valuable for your efforts to stay sane (and also, you know, grow your business).
Your local WordPress meetup is a great place to start: you can find this by searching Meetup.com or by entering your location to the News and Events module of the WordPress Dashboard. Local or regional WordCamps are also definitely worth attending.
A couple of caveats to mention here: if you’re a freelancer working remotely, you’ll need to be very clear about the costs of attending a WordCamp: you’ll likely pay to be there, but you’ll also pay the opportunity cost of not working whilst you’re at the conference. Some people address this whilst working at the conference, and this can work: if you think you can get the value you need from the conference whilst sneaking off to a coffee shop in the afternoon for a couple of hours of work, that can be helpful.
If you pay yourself a set salary (or a similar amount each month), you can work out how much it will cost your business for each day of non-work (take your salary and divide by the number of days you work to get a daily cost rate). This exercise can drive up the cost of conferences, and make all-the-more tempting to get straight back to work the moment you get home. I really would not recommend this; even if you arrive home energized and full of ideas, within a couple of days the reality of the travel will catch up. Much better to explicitly take an extra day (or two!) off after you get home for recovery, and then get back to work fully refreshed. This gives you more time to process thoughts, more time to recover, and a much higher chance of staying sane.
Bonus WordCamp travel tip:
I find travel moderately stressful. There’s the packing, the actual traveling, and the stress from being in a new place, potentially not knowing language or customs. And after this, you need to be on form to get the most out of the conference.
I’ve found the best way of alleviating this is to remove as much friction as possible. I created a checklist for everything I’d possibly need with me (and updated it when turns out I forgot to add phone charger to the list…). I duplicated small or inexpensive items so I can keep them packed and ready to go all the time. I’m prepared to be more lenient with budgeting, and spend money on taxis or nicer hotels where it makes things easier. All these little things add up to a much more pleasant WordCamp experience.
5. Schedule projects, leeway time, and time off
When you can work remote, whenever you like, this freedom often turns into work remote, all of the time. This should not be desirable, and is not productive. Being strict about how you schedule your time (and disciplined about how you stick to that schedule) is an excellent tactic for staying sane.
Remote work typically leaves you in much more control of your schedule, although this isn’t necessarily the case (if it isn’t for you, skip this point!). This freedom comes with the need for responsibility. I’ve found it incredibly useful to specifically schedule in my calendar what I’m working on, and specifically when. This lets me get into my Deep Work very quickly (as I’ve written about before), but also means it’s much harder to over-book myself; I can see where I have time, and where I don’t.
However, humans are very bad at estimating how much time something takes (known as “Planning fallacy”). You’re likely to estimate the time required based on your previous experience. This is great!
Except, you’ll take the best result from previous experience, and ignore the worst. If you’re scheduling in every minute of every day in your calendar, this very quickly leaves you with too much to do. The solution comes in two parts: accept you’re bad at estimating, and consider this when making estimates, and build in leeway time to your day. This should be unscheduled time where you can deal with whatever comes up. I like to set the latter half of my afternoons every single day for leeway time. Occasionally this does leave me with a free afternoon, but that’s fine! I can pick up whatever other tasks I like – or enjoy the time off.
Finally, make sure you’re specifically scheduling time off. Whether this is through your employer or with your clients, make sure you give yourself the time off you need – and actually stop working in this time 🙂
Reap the benefits of remote work (and staying sane)
Remote work offers an incredible opportunity. You can work from wherever you like, fit in other responsibilities, and really get down to focus.
You really do get opportunities that you just don’t get when working from an office. If my partner needs an errand or to be driven somewhere, I can do that; if I have a medical appointment or even a haircut, I have a much wider pick of times than if I had to be at a specific place working for specific times. If I need an extended break to fully regain focus, I can do that too!
In the moment these benefits can feel like nothing to write home about, but these are tangible benefits that you should absolutely take advantage of.
Yet, doing remote work – and staying sane – is hard. I would really encourage you to take the staying sane part seriously, and take the points here, from Deep Work, to exercise, to WordCamps, on board as you think about, start, or continue, your remote working journey.
Is remote work an important piece of the puzzle in your daily agenda? Feel free to share in the comments.
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