Taking Performance at Remote Work to the Next Level: The Psychological Environment

Walo Olapoju
Taking Performance at Remote Work to the Next Level: The Psychological Environment

Because of how important your state of mind is for everything you do, scientists created a whole field of study to understanding the human mind. You guessed it (hopefully), it’s psychology.


Getting into a mental state that enables you to produce your best work is crucial to levelling up your performance. This mind state separates the big dogs from the tiny, adorable puppies. Woof.


External and internal factors influence your psychological state. Super-performers know that and use both factors to their advantage. Because without knowing how to use it, freedom can be detrimental.


As you’ll know about remote work, getting motivated relies heavily on your internal abilities — not on external structures like office hours, dress codes or in-person teams.


Super-performers give back some responsibility to the external structures they design (here’s how to do it). With that, they maximise the freedom of working remotely.


So, to level up your game, you’ll learn how to make changes to these things:

  • First, your environment. In this sense, the multidimensional space where you take on your work.
  • Second, flow state. The mental state you achieve when your skillset/challenge matches your excitement.
  • Third, mental toughness. The ability to do stuff even when it’s uncomfortable. To keep pushing despite (internal or external) resistance. Habit.
  • Fourth, introspection. The process of continuously examining and giving feedback to yourself to make improvements. Gamify.


Your Environment

Is your work setup reducing your performance? Affirmative, if your desk is full of clutter and things you don’t need to do your job. As a work habit, take the time to empty your desk of unnecessaries before you begin.


Planning to work extensively on a couch or in your bed is a marvellously bad idea — they were built to help you relax. I’m not against relaxing (I’m a raving fan, actually), but trying to multitask relaxation and work isn’t exactly the best use of your time.


The goal of improving your work environment is to leave fewer decisions to your brain, mood and mind. That means using external things that can affect your mood to motivate you. In addition to this other blog, here’s what that looks like:


Designating Spaces

The single act of designated space for work has a tremendous psychological effect on your long-term performance. After all, one of the biggest issues with remote work is getting into rest or recreation mode.


I know not everyone has the physical space or extra room for it. But even if it means separating your office area from other parts of your room with a curtain/wall divider (and some wallpaper, perhaps), you’re good.


Changing locations allows you to simulate the same mindstate switch that happens in a conventional office. It affects our attitude and helps us get a break when we need one.


Recharging Zones

Work hard; play hard. When you take breaks from work, having a special area or corner for de-stressing and meditation feels like fast, wireless charging.


It’s always a good idea to find a space to calm down for a bit. Meditate, breathe and relax in that space. I use the Meditation Studio app to, well, meditate. I don’t do yoga, but I use my recharging space to work out. You could also use your space for recreation and hobbies.


So, if you’re thinking of building a treehouse or an outhouse, or you’re fine with a couch, beanbag chair or hammock and/or yoga mat at a corner — now’s a good time to mark some territory.


If you include stuff that helps you get more creative, it’s a more useful space. Stuff like figurines, prototypes, colours, plasticine/playdough, action figures — anything that gets your juices flowing.


Your brain and mind will reward you for it. Your abilities need to be rejuvenated from time to time to keep being creative.


Clothing, surprisingly

The theory of enclothed cognition says that the clothes we wear affect our behaviour; attention, confidence and abstract thinking.


It depends on the symbolic meanings of the clothes in our culture. If you wear pyjamas, you’re likely going to be less productive.


On the other hand, if you dress up a bit (just a smidge, formalish) like you’re going to work, you’ll get more work done. Findings of another research on formal clothing showed how important it is to recreate the office environment as much as possible.


It gets your mind in work mode and you out of bed too. That way, you do more work in less time from home, with better levels of focus.


Flow State

The United States of Flow come together to make distractions disappear, shift you into hyperfocus, convincing you for a short while that time doesn’t exist, and turning your work into pure excitement.


It’s also known as being “in the zone”. The flow state is a half internal, half external factor that can improve your work experience and output quality.


According to Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (couldn’t spell his name to save my life), flow state results from a perfect match between challenges and abilities.


In other words, if you enjoy what you’re doing, you’ll keep doing it. The recipe to enjoy doing your work is to alter the tasks or skillset to match each other.


Here’s a well-coloured (bringing out my inner 4-year old) chart to discover how you might feel about your work.


If you find yourself experiencing apathy, worry or anxiety over your work, you should talk to a doctor, but it’s possible that increasing your skillset is what you need.


I literally live and breathe online courses (you can call me Captain Flow). Still, mentorship from someone with more experience in your challenges will probably solve your problem in a shorter time.


Job Enrichment

An HR concept that uses industrial psychology to improve job satisfaction. Enriching a job means increasing the level of motivation in a particular position by improving the whole experience.


Skill variety, task identity, task significance, autonomy and feedback on the job are the metrics used to decide if a job is rewarding or not. Learn more here.


As an individual, if any of these metrics lower your performance, I recommend a video/audio meeting with HR to talk about how to improve your experience.


Once the quality of motivation for the challenge increases, you’ll be on fire.


Swapping the Goal

Another thing that can improve your virtual work experience is personalising the objectives of your work. Instead of starting your work on time because it’s your work, change the goal to something more relevant to you.


For example, you can work on time so you can have guilt-free rest. Or watch your favourite show. Once your reason for following a work schedule or structure becomes personal, it’s easier to follow.


Mental Toughness

Also known as willpower, self-control or mental fortitude. Mental toughness is an individual’s mental ability to stick to a choice. In this case, it’s to focus on your work and see it through.


Mental toughness has shown to depend on environment, childhood, life experiences, self-esteem and personal choices. The good news is that mental toughness behaves like a muscle, and can be built or get depleted.


Putting less weight on your willpower while you develop it is the way to go —  by shifting some weight on to external factors.


Here’s how to leverage mental toughness with minimal effort:


Build & Destroy Habits

Yes. Fix-It Felix and Wreck-It Ralph will be featuring in this.


Our brains try to automate processes to save space for other things. And sometimes they’re not always beneficial processes, such as a phone or drug addiction. However, the potential to use your brain to automate aspects of remote work is a goldmine you should be taking advantage of.


From The Power of Habit, a book by Charles Duhigg (a fine fellow), I learned of their sewper power. In summary, habits work in this order:


Cue-Routine-Reward


Once your brain receives a cue that you want a reward you usually get, your brain plays out the automated routine to get it for you. Think about how you pick up your phone once a notification rings. Or how you check for notifications regularly.


Your brain enjoyed the dopamine hit from getting a message or reaction and stored the recipe.


Dealing with habits requires you to be proactive.


So how do you wreck most bad habits? Change the routine. That’s why nicotine patches and gums exist, for people who want to quit smoking. So when they get stressed out, they pop the gum instead. It apparently works better than going cold turkey.


In some cases, you can restrict the cue. For example, My notifications go off automatically at the same time every day, thanks to Focus Mode on the Digital Wellbeing app on my Android.


And how do you build good habits? Repetition. Aim for the reward, set a cue, and keep repeating the routine. Thanks, Charles Duhigg!


Rituals, Rituals, Rituals

With the knowledge of habits, you’ll it’s a good idea to develop rituals for states of mind you want to be in. Usually, the biggest problem with being productive is starting, so writing your goals or to-do list out will help you get started.


Consider developing a ritual to start your morning, another to begin working, another to relax & destress and very importantly, one for going to sleep. Once you keep repeating them, using habit trackers and such, you’ll be able to shift between modes and stay in them longer and easier.


Introspection

Finally, we approach the end. Without quantitative introspection, we have no idea if we’re getting better or we’re kidding ourselves. Being able to pay attention to ourselves and our needs at every point is critical to hitting our goals even when we don’t feel like it.


When you catch yourself slacking off or procrastinating, ask yourself, “Why am I ___?”.


You may discover, for example, that you’re afraid of doing a bad job. Or you’re afraid of failing again after continuously failing at hitting a goal. Or your job is boring. Or something is more important to you at that time. Or you’re exhausted. Et cetera.


Write it down in your notes, or a journal.

Track your moods too, and provide reasons if you can for why they are. Then, at the end of the week, you can talk to someone (or to yourself), about how to respond to different situations.


Gamify, my friend

My favourite feature on Google Calendar for smartphones is the ability to gamify the rituals and habits I’m developing. With the Reminders & Tasks integration, I can see how well I’m doing every day. There’s also a Goal feature that comes with more habit tracking tools than just a checklist.


Once you input all the things you want to keep achieving in your week and tick them off, the dopamine hit feels great. Looking at my to-do list for the day and knowing I did all I planned to is a high like no other. I recommend it.


If you’d rather not input them on your Calendar, an alternative is to write out your routines and rituals on paper, paste them somewhere and tick them off.


And on your weekends, you can examine (with a friend or alone) how you did last week, reward yourself, and give insights into what you could improve or do differently.


That’s how to super-perform.