Getting anything done requires some amount of time, physical energy and attention. It wouldn’t be so bad if they weren’t limited, but they are, and the way we use them makes a huge difference in our levels of productivity & performance.
One of the main reasons that remote work is so wonderful, is that it takes apart the structure of in-office work and replaces it with autonomy. And autonomy is a most liberating experience; you get your life back to shape how you want.
However, without shaping how you use your time, energy and attention, you may end up not getting anything done. The onus is now on us to motivate and keep ourselves productive. That can be tough.
So how do high performers use their freedom? By creating their own restrictions. They pay attention to themselves and their nuances, and create structure that keeps them motivated. Here are three major systems that keep remote workers on top of every day.
Building Stubborn Routines
If you despise routines, give them another chance. Custom routines aren’t special chains designed to keep you from freedom. Rather, a routine’s purpose is to create healthy habits.
Developing a custom routine helps you optimize how you use time, so that you can get to do the things you enjoy, and the important stuff as well. Without a routine, it’s too easy to slack off. And even when you’re a work machine, a routine helps you disconnect from work as well.
A routine should help you keep stress and relaxation levels balanced, since both of them are extremely valuable. You probably already know that stress isn’t always bad, and can improve the quality of your life. So, your routine should be very challenging but just as reenergizing.
That means being stubborn with the time you spend on healthy habits, work hours, sleep and wake times, breaks, de-stressing, personal care and chores. Busy doesn’t always mean working, it can also mean resting and recharging — a non-negotiable practice to prevent burnouts.
In working remotely, leaving the building is your decision. Previously, just getting up to go home was the ritual to disconnect from work. But for remote work, you need a ritual to turn work mode off, otherwise, your productivity could turn into burnout or even insomnia. These are things to integrate into a healthy remote work routine.
Time boundaries are non-negotiable too. If you don’t protect your time, you’ll lose either rest or work time, and be forced to sacrifice one or the other to make up for it.
That means being assertive and kind to yourself, and to everyone else asking for your time slices. Planning out a schedule helps you make sure you’re prioritizing what’s most important per time, every day.
With a routine, you can get more done. Cal Newport recommends a habit-building approach where you hit small goals that accumulate daily, and it works. Habit-building is a natural human trait, and at remote work, we’re either enforcing a work habit or a laziness habit through our routines. Deciding to pay attention to how we spend our time changes the game by a mile (or kilometer).
After all, if you decide to slack off all day, nobody will see you. But keep it up for a week, and you’ll find yourself slacking for a month. Considering that you’re an important part of your team, you wouldn’t be helping your company move forward. Your team depends on you to do your job.
If you’re going to be able to trust your routine, you need to make it trustworthy.
So, creating a superb remote work routine should be:
- Developed from a full audit of your priorities, goals, rituals, healthy habits, work and relaxation needs.
- Generous and effective, flexible but tight. It should include morning rituals, work mode rituals and rest mode rituals. Some things are better fixed, like bedtime & wake-up time, meal times, or work meetings.
Some others things could be flexible, like modifying your work periods to suit your tasks per week. For example, working 2 periods of 4 hours each for two types of tasks.
- It should also be realistic, all the successful entrepreneurs who thought that they could work hectic schedules have realised their limitations. As Gary Vaynerchuk says, it’s not about how much rest you get, it’s about what you do when you’re working.
- It should be able to help you achieve your personal and work goals gradually.
How it ends up is left to you. Just remember to keep optimizing your routine to improve your process. And remember to be dedicated to your routine, because time is a limited opportunity to get stuff done.
Budget your Attention
One of the major drawbacks of designing tech for a short attention span, is a shorter attention span. Pretty disturbing to think about.
With the power of the internet and radio communication, our devices are constantly screaming for our attention. Being able to focus is now an extreme sport in the sea of beautiful distractions, and working remotely makes it so much easier to give in to the infinite feed of social media & entertainment (oh, the ecstasy!). But like every good thing, we need control or we risk an addiction.
Instead of helplessly responding to notifications and distractions as they come, be proactive with them. After all, your ability to focus is limited, so you need “attention economics” and budgeting.
Understand how much control you need. Keeping your phone on airplane mode before you go to bed is as close to cold turkey as it gets — if you know you have a big problem. That means waking up to zero notifications, and 100% of your focus.
If that’s too extreme or unnecessary, or you’ll need your phone to be connected, turn off the notifications on distracting apps and put your phone away. But if you need more restrictions, Just Focus is a Chrome extension that can help control your browsing behaviour. Do what you have to to protect your attention.
After getting your phone out of the way, it’s just you and your work — hopefully. If you’re not used to long, uninterrupted periods of work (like in Cal Newport’s Deep Work), you can work in shorter bursts, with the notorious Pomodoro technique.
Whatever strategies you use have to be based on your personal attention span. Scientifically speaking, you can improve your attention span with these techniques.
Proactivity helps you spend less mental energy on resisting distractions. For example, removing distractions from your workspace in the first place. Then, you’ll be able to use your work & recreation times to the fullest.
70% of workers admit that they get distracted at work. It’s safe to say you’re more susceptible than not. Distractions may not always be from your end with electronics and the internet, sometimes they come from family & friends. That means setting up some boundaries.
For example, try working with headphones on. Even if you’re not listening to music, most people will understand that you’re trying to focus.
There’s no proof that humans can execute more than 1 task efficiently. Do not multitask, my dear. In fact, there is proof of catastrophic failure from the attempt to multitask.
Keep your focus on one task per time.
It’s been proven (to their utter bewilderment) that humans do lower-quality work when they’re multitasking. Instead of getting one thing done, the human brain makes attempts (and fails at) shuffling between two tasks at once, as quickly as possible.
The result of that is a 50% increase in your error rate and a 100% increase in the time you use to get your stuff done. I recommend waiting until we can create auxiliary brains before you begin multitasking.
After paying attention to the tasks at hand, you’ll need to take breaks to recharge and prevent burnout or crying while working. Stuff that takes your mind to a state of rest helps to balance out the energy you spend working. Things like yoga, meditation, cooking, or creating art.
Keep your Energy Up
Energy is our ability to get work done. But energy doesn’t grow on trees (well it does, technically, but you get my point).
Energy is fundamental to get anything done in our universe. We’ve developed technology that needs energy to work, and we make sure to provide enough for it. But we don’t pay enough attention to recharging and replacing our life’s batteries.
According to Schwartz, human energy is:
- Physical (from food; the ability to move),
- Emotional (from an internal or external state; the ability to experience a situation),
- Mental (from interesting stuff; the ability to focus), and
- Spiritual (from a sense of purpose; the ability to desire an end goal bigger than ourselves)
All of these work together to give us the ability to get stuff done. Remote workers improve their energy levels through:
An Exercise Habit: I know, I know, you’ve heard it before. Your body and brain will thank you for obliging this time. Your emotional state gets elevated, and your blood circulates better, et cetera, et cetera. That means your body stays healthy and provides you with more energy per day.
I know, I know, you’ve heard it before. You probably even tried it too. Exercise works very strangely. By making a habit of it, you increase your physical, mental and emotional ability to do more work. That means your body provides you with more energy per day. It’s kind of like how new shoes stretch to fit you better.
If you find yourself fatigued, out of breath, more sick than usual, moodier or having trouble sleeping, your body is most likely begging you for exercise.
Exercise shouldn’t drain you. Just start with the WHO-recommended 2.5 hours of moderate-vigorous physical activity every week, and you’re well on your way to a more energetic lifestyle. As an added benefit, you become a more disciplined person, since exercise also trains your mind.
Once you get used to 2.5 hours a week, you can pick up the pace as you like. It’s always easier to start small and build up gradually — at home, with a friend or at the gym (once COVID-19 becomes a thing of the past).
Just do it.
Healthy Eating: Unfortunately, you don’t get to get away with eating just snacks and fast food. While a lot of healthy food could taste like cardboard, it doesn’t have to be so terrible.
While I’m not a nutritionist, I know that being intentional about what you eat helps you make some healthier choices. Also, by making healthier choices more accessible than others, you’re making it easier to eat more of what your body needs.
You probably already know that processed sugars are great for short term energy bursts, but that there’s a corresponding energy crash right after. That’s why it’s a good idea to snack on nuts and seeds for their slow-release energy that keeps you energized for much longer.
But if you’d rather store your energy as fat, that’s alright too. :)
Eat some more fruit and granola anyway. Oh, and drinking too much coffee actually does more harm than good, so please go easy on that stuff. Enjoy boring old water, or try some seltzer.
Quality Rest: Elon Musk has learned his lesson, and so should you. None of that work junkie behaviour, please. Scientists recommend 8 hours of sleep a day, so be very proactive about getting some.
Say goodnight to your electronics an hour before it’s bedtime, and ignore them till morning. If you can’t get 8 hours at once, take some naps.
If you’re not in tip-top shape, you can’t do your best work. Once again, Gary Vaynerchuck says it’s not about how much sleep you get, it’s about what you do when you’re awake.
Remember to take breaks to refresh after working for some time. A change of scenery always helps with recharging, so take a call outside, eat lunch outside or take a walk with a human or pet (or pet human).