My #1 tip for working productively from home

Working from home presents unique challenges. On the one hand, there aren’t bored coworkers who interrupt you because they want to chat. On the other hand, your kids or your pets might demand your attention.

On your way to the bathroom, you may notice some laundry that you might as well do right away. And the grocery store is close by, so why not run some errands right now? During the day the store is nice and quiet.

Being near your family and doing chores efficiently are lovely perks of working at home. But more so than at the office, when you work from home you need to be in charge of your work schedule.

How do you take advantage of the perks of working from home while getting stuff done?

I could write a comprehensive guide to working from home—actually, would you find that useful?—but today I’ll share my #1 tip with you:

Productivity doesn’t have to be linear.

If you charted your work output against time, it wouldn’t be a straight horizontal line. And it shouldn’t be. Instead, aim for your productivity to look like a medieval castle’s battlements.

When you work, work. Remove distractions and tell you housemates—whether human, feline, or canine—that you need some uninterrupted work time. This allows you to do deep work.

And when you don’t work, don’t consciously start thinking about work. In my experience this is even harder than shutting out distractions when you do work. If you do start thinking about your work while you’re preparing lunch, that’s not wrong or bad. But be aware of it and don’t do it all the time.

Do you sometimes feel guilt when taking a break? You might feel that you “should” be working. Either because you expect yourself to be working all the time or because you think your client or boss expects you to.

Feeling guilt like that is totally normal. If you feel guilt, start by simply recognizing that. Then realize that not all feelings are productive. It’s not always wise to act on your feelings. In this case, taking breaks is a good thing, because you’ll get more done in the end. So recognize the guilt, and accept it—but don’t let it trick you into trying to work for eight hours straight.

And when you are taking a break, do that laundry or run those errands. Get away from your devices, if you can. (This is a huge challenge for me, but I’m trying because it works.)

To make sure your work periods are productive, you can try the pomodoro method. Many people swear by it, although the one time I tried it, I didn’t like it. I prefer to schedule my work periods ad hoc. Just experiment and see what works.

Now, good luck and have fun working from home.

Yours,

— Peter

P.S. What’s your biggest productivity challenge when you work from home?

Getting your attention back

Something embarrassing happened to me the other day.

I picked up my phone to look at the time. While unlocking my phone, I noticed a message from a friend. I read it, responded to it, and put my phone back down—only to realize I didn’t check the time.

Oops.

I bet this never happens to you. 😉

We look at our phone’s notifications without being aware of looking at them. There’s nothing wrong with that per se; you’re probably not aware of turning off the tap after washing your hands either. No biggie.

But I find that these automated, subconscious reactions to our phones can destroy productive work sessions.

I mean, you can set up the most amazing productivity systems in the world. (I’m a fan of OmniFocus, a rather sophisticated task management system. In fact, I’m hosting a webinar next week to teach you how to get organized with OmniFocus.)

But productivity systems won’t do you any good if your attention is shot.

Now let’s say you’re on board with this. You know you’d do better work if you weren’t constantly distracted, particularly by your phone. How do you fix it, though?

First, don’t beat yourself up about it. That won’t do you any good.

We all get distracted. And it can be such a struggle to carve out uninterrupted work time. Whether that’s because you have kids, because you work in an open office, or because you reach for your phone a little too readily.

You can’t go from distracted to hyper-focused work sessions in one go, but you can head that way gradually. I like to suggest starting by setting a rule for yourself.

When you start your work day, set your phone to “do not disturb”, put it out of reach, and set a timer for 60 minutes. (If you’re working on a computer, set your computer to do not disturb, too.)

Then work on an important task until either you finish it or the timer goes off. Don’t touch your phone in the meantime.

If you find that subtracting this one distraction helps you stay focused, then add a second rule. Perhaps your second rule could be not to check your email until after you’ve done this first hour of work.

This won’t supercharge your productivity overnight, but it’s a start.

Yours,

— Peter

P.S. If you already have work rules that help you be productive, please share them. I could use a few more!

How many hours?

There’s a limit to how much work you can get done on any given day.

Beyond a certain point, working more hours won’t result in getting more important work done.

Will you get more of the important stuff done working ten hours in one day than working eight? Perhaps once. But day after day, you won’t be able to focus for that long. You’ll make lots of mistakes, which you’ll spend time fixing the next day. And the lack of sleep will get to you.

What about working eight hours compared to six? Six compared to four? What’s the optimal number of work hours in one day?

You might have seen articles that claim to have the answer: “This Swedish firm reduced its work days to six hours and its employees are MORE productive!”

I applaud firms who try shorter work hours or shorter work weeks. But listing a few examples is anecdata. We’d need a rigorous, scientific study to find out what the optimal number of work hours is for most knowledge workers.

Fortunately, you don’t need to wait for such a study. You can experiment with your own work.

Why not track how many hours a day you actually spend on important work? Perhaps track it for a week. What are the results?

When I worked more-or-less regular hours, there was a huge gap. If I were at the office for eight hours, I worked productively for three of them. Maybe. The rest of the time I filled with meetings, chatting with coworkers, browsing the Internet, snacking, playing card games, etc.

That doesn’t mean I can’t work productively for more than three hours a day. But I can’t do it while sitting at the same desk for eight hours straight. Can you?

Most people I’ve discussed this with come in around three hours a day too. What about you?

And if you do find that you’re only working productively a few hours a day, can you give yourself the rest of your work day off? Or can you change something to spend more time working productively and less time trying or pretending to work?

Yours,

— Peter

Tired of going back and forth on scheduling? Use Calendly

You, on Wednesday: “Can you do Monday at 4 or Tuesday at 2:30?”

Them, end of day on Friday: “Sure, Tuesday at 2:30 works for me.”

You, on Monday morning: “Actually, Tuesday 2:30 doesn’t work for me anymore. How’s Thursday at noon?”

If this scenario sounds familiar, you’ll want to check out Calendly. It’s an online tool that makes it super easy to schedule meetings with people.

You tell Calendly when you are theoretically available. For example, Mondays through Wednesdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Thursday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Then you send a link to a Calendly page to the person you want to meet with, and they can pick a time. Once they pick a time, an event is automatically added to your calendar for the meeting.

Calendly connects to your personal calendar, so that people cannot book a time with you when you already have something else scheduled. Plus, you can set handy restrictions, such as requiring that any meeting is booked at least x hours in advance, or that you always have at least y time between meetings.

All it takes is you sending a link, and your meeting partner picking a time that works. No more back and forth.

This is software at its best: it saves you time, it’s a pleasure to use, and it’s inexpensive. What’s not to love?

Go check it out.

Yours,

— Peter

P.S. If this sounds like an ad for Calendly, that’s because I think it’s great! I have no affiliation with Calendly—I just want to save you time. For more awesome services that can help you, check out my resources page.

When you have too much going on

Busy busy busy. Too much going on. How will you get everything done?

It turns out that the feelings of busyness and overwhelm have as much to do with the way you relate to what you want to do than to the quantity of quality of the work itself.

To learn to relate in a better way to your busyness, it helps to first notice what you’re doing.

So if “how will I get everything done?” is a familiar state of mind for you, try this:

  1. Sit down.
  2. Turn on “do not disturb” on your phone.
  3. Start a 5-minute timer.
  4. Close your eyes.
  5. Count your breaths. One, two, three… and when you reach ten, start over at one.

Notice when you get distracted.

Did you start thinking about how busy you are? About all the things you still want to do? Did you find yourself mentally planning the rest of your day/week/life?

If so, awesome. Noticing that is step one. Next time, when you notice yourself doing that, say to yourself “oh hey, I’m planning again”. And then move on with your day.

When you’re having a stressful moment, sitting down like this and paying attention to your thoughts is much more effective than throwing more hours at your to-do lists.

Don’t sleep less, exercise less, or spend less time with your family to try to get things under control.

Instead, realize that the experience of “busy” occurs in your head. And if you take five minutes to sit down and pay attention to your thoughts, you might feel slightly less busy, slightly less overwhelmed.

The external circumstances won’t have changed, but the way you relate to them might be a little bit healthier.

Yours,

— Peter

Keeping track with weekly reviews

Do you have lots of things going on in your life? Do you find it difficult to keep track of everything? Is the amount of stuff you want to do overwhelming?

Imagine knowing exactly where you stand on all your projects. Imagine being on top of your work and your personal life at the same time.

How can you get to such a magical place?

Enter the weekly review. This tool comes from David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) method, but anyone can use it without learning about GTD.

Here’s how to do a weekly review:

  1. Once a week, sit down and list all the things you are working on or want to achieve (projects/goals).
  2. For each project/goal, ask whether you still care about it.
  3. If you still care about it, ask whether you want to do it soon or later.
  4. Also ask whether you’d be better off delegating this project.
  5. If you still want to do this thing, or achieve this goal, and you want to do it yourself soon: list the one next step that you could take to move this project forward, or to move towards this goal.

That’s it. You don’t need a sophisticated task management system such as OmniFocus to do a weekly review. Just grab pen and paper.

The idea is to get information out of your head. It’s easy to slip into keeping copious mental to-do lists, and that can leave you feeling overwhelmed. It can also make it difficult to see what next step you can take to make progress on a specific project.

Finally, a note about balance. Weekly reviews can keep you organized and lower your stress. But you can take them too far. Making lists and checking off to-do items in itself won’t make you happy. So use weekly reviews, or any other task management tool, to work towards things that’ll make you happy.

And while weekly reviews are great for getting organized, it also helps to accept that you can’t control everything. Sometimes it’s better for your sanity to accept the way things are rather than to try to change them.

I’d love for you to try a weekly review—maybe do it this weekend. Just reply and let me know how it went.

Yours,

— Peter