I've been working remotely since 2014. In that time, I've tried many set-ups and daily practices to find the optimal way to work. I've worked from cafés, co-working spots and from home and have tried many different daily schedules.
Although I still don't feel like I have everything figured out, there are some basic things to think about if you're just starting to work from home, which I've found all hinge around the topics of environment, productivity and your health.
I don't think of myself as a remote working expert but I do have five years of experience. I'm aware that the below pointers may not work for everyone, but you may just find something that helps tweak your current routine or makes you rethink how you go about working from home. (You may also notice that the tips work just as well in an office environment.)
Tidy your desk
I try my hardest—despite my magazine collection and the near-constant supply of new drawings from my kids—to keep my desk clear. Currently I have a lamp, a mug and coaster, my phone and computer and their two charger cables.
Fewer things create fewer distractions, and your mind will be more settled with fewer things lying around.
I try to re-organise my desk in the evenings so that I can bring a mug of fresh coffee with me in the morning and just get going.
Shut out noise
You may not be the only person at home while you are working. I've had children at home for a lot of my five years of remote work (my children are 8, 6 and 4). You may face noisy neighbours or your roommate/partner working from home, too.
Whatever your situation, strive to get disconnected from the noise around you. You can close doors, sit in a quiet part of the house or listen to music. I listen to music reasonably loud, so I can easily zone out from the goings on in the house.
When my house is quiet (for example, when the children are at school), I take the the opportunity to work from the kitchen bar or outside on the patio. I do love my desk as it's the only spot in the house that I can claim as “mine”, but working from different parts of the house really helps break up my day.
I also find it helps to change location when shifting tasks, like going from coding at my desk to answering emails on the sofa.
Plan your tasks the night before
It's easy to get distracted when working from home. You may have children at home, get sidetracked by home chores or Netflix or experience excess noise. Because of this, you may get derailed from your work more frequently than you're used to.
Most of the time I find distractions make me far less effective and I am prone to jump around different tasks rather than setting yourself up to knocking things out one by one. This creates an uncomfortable—and sometimes overwhelming—feeling of not knowing what you should be working on, what to do next or what you have already completed.
To combat this, try to sit down every evening to think about your tasks for the next day. This way, you'll have a pre-set task list so you can be laser-focussed on getting things done. A succinct list of 3–5 items for every day will make you more effective, your mind will be more at ease throughout the day, plus it makes work more rewarding as you check off those tasks.
It helps to set specific work segments throughout the day. If you're more productive in the morning like me, then block out a 3- or 4-hour window in which to get most of your tasks done.
I like to get started at 7am or 8am and push on fast with my work. My current job sees me four hours ahead of the rest of the team, so the afternoon is when they come online, and therefore when I'm active on Slack and have calls. My mornings are far more useful for getting my individual coding tasks completed.
This split is really handy for structuring my day. And because I can rely on this happening every day of the week, the overhead of planning my work and interruptions from colleagues are greatly reduced.
Working from home needs to be balanced in order to decrease stress and burnout (you can't “leave work at work” when your home is your workplace). So introduce fun breaks into your schedule. Throughout the day, give yourself time to play Animal Crossing, read blog posts you've saved to Pocket, or watch a 20-minute YouTube video.
As breaks like this are probably not a “thing” in your typical office environment, this may feel weird at first. You have to allow yourself space between your tasks to help reset and keep calm.
Stand up frequently
I often forget to move around when I'm working at home. There aren't any meetings to attend or colleagues to go for coffee with. I tend to sit for hours on end. This is not healthy.
“Prolonged sitting increases the risk of all-cause mortality by 49%.” (source)
In order to combat some of the health risks, try to stand up frequently and move around. Break up longer sitting periods as much as you can. You can use an app like Stand for useful reminders.
Do quick exercises
The next level up from frequently standing is to do small exercises during your day. Apart from the obvious health benefits, I find this also helps to relieve stress or help “reset” for the afternoon after a busy or overwhelming morning.
There are numerous apps for working out at home like Freeletics or Streaks Workout (I've used and can recommend both for people of all fitness levels). Also check out Wakeout, which contains exercises you can even do at your desk.
Listen to calm sounds or music
Sound is an amazing way to help focus and get things done. You'll find plenty of apps and websites that offer background sounds like waves crashing, a river rushing or other calming sounds.
Like I mentioned earlier, I listen to music to zone into my work, and I find it also helps me stay sane and balanced. Some Spotify playlists I can recommend are Lo-Fi Beats, The Wind Down or Peaceful Piano.
I hope these few pointers have helped or sparked some thoughts about how you could optimise your environment or tools around you for a better work day.
If you have any feedback or any other tips you can recommend, I'd love to hear about it on Twitter!