How to keep productive as a remote developer

Ekin Öcalan
May 23, 2018 · 10 min read

I am a software developer. For the last 3 years, I work remotely at the Interaction Design Foundation. It’s a great company to work for — not just because you can work remotely but because it values productivity at the highest level. It allows you to explore the ways you can be the happiest while working and it encourages you to be in the state of “flow”.

I already had written an article on productivity almost 3 years ago. In that article, I shared my ways to be as productive as possible. There were good advices like waking up early and there were some hacks like cold showers. What’s changed in those 3 years? A lot. I found not just new ways to be productive but I learned to live a productive life. It’s no longer limited to work; it’s a way of life for me now.

Keep work & personal life separate

As a software developer, I spend most of my time in front of my computer. My IDE is always open. There is a project board blinking at me any time I’m using my browser. I have Slack and Skype pinned on the dock. iBooks is minimized — showing the latest book I’m reading on software development, business, entreprenurship, or economics…

But what if I want to order something on internet for home? What if I want to watch a movie? What if I want to respond to a friend of mine who texted me? What if I want to read a fiction book? I’m doing all those things on the same computer — but with a different operating system (OS) user.

I have 2 users on my computer: One is called “Ekin” (my name, obviously) and the other one is called “Ekin IDF”. The idea is coming from a celebrated computer science concept:

In computer science, separation of concerns (SoC) is a design principle for separating a computer program into distinct sections, such that each section addresses a separate concern.

The user “Ekin” does not have anything related to work in its desktop. No Slack or Skype is pinned to dock. Work-related books do not exist on the iBooks list. Its browser is using the personal email account — so it doesn’t login to web sites with the work email. Basically, it doesn’t know anything about “Ekin IDF” which is my work user.

When I want to do work, I use “Ekin IDF”. When I’m not working, I use “Ekin”. There is also an added benefit of using two different users: It adds friction. I’m not using social media anymore, but if I was, I’d have to change my user to “Ekin” just to see my Twitter feed; because I wouldn’t be logged in to Twitter on “Ekin IDF”s desktop.

Be more offline than online

I stopped using social media more than a year ago. I also stopped consuming news. It was hard, believe me. Especially if you live in a country like mine, there isn’t a single day going without a shocking news. But I found out that if something really important happens, you’ll be told anyway. A month ago, my country decided to have an early general elections. After a couple of hours, a friend had already filled me in. Positive side-effect? We’ve chatted over the topic with my friend. Not in a Facebook feed — we’ve had a real conversation.

I don’t get bombarded with news stories that just consumes my time anymore. Same thing with social networks: No more Facebook likes and Twitter retweets for updates that don’t have a context. I don’t really have 500 friends like my Facebook was used to show me. I don’t want to be informed about what they’re doing all the time. I talk to my friends face to face. I don’t use my phone either, if possible. That’s only possible with a fraction of that number 500; but the outcome of the conversations are meaningful. Instead of getting more likes, I build and maintain relationships that last.

Don’t get notified

Notifications kill my flow. Be it work or leisure, they interrupt me and get the joy out of what I’m doing at that moment. There are already a lot of discussion and visualizations on how interruptions kill productivity at work. Working remotely definitely helps me having less interruptions; however I still use apps like Slack & Skype. I have them on my computer and smartphone. I have a phone number which anyone can call anytime they want. Basically, I’m open to interruptions at all times.

So what do I do? I close all instant messaging applications. My phone is on silent mode. I’m unreachable when I’m working. Of course work does not happen without collaboration and communication; but most of the time, I’m not needed to be responsive as soon as someone tries to reach me. I check my GitHub and Slack accounts three times a day and this allows me to be as responsive as possible.

Work aside, I’m doing the same thing in my personal life as well. If I’m having a conversation with a friend, I don’t interrupt the talk by responding to a phone call. I can always call back the person calling me. Let’s say I’m reading a book. Then I have to be in the flow as well. I don’t check my phone, emails, or anything else. I just read the book.

What about emergencies? They don’t happen often but better safe than sorry. I got my wife’s old phone, got myself a prepaid phone number, plugged it in and set up a high-tone ring bell. The phone is always on when I’m home. I provided this emergency phone number on my work’s contacts list and then also gave it to my close relatives like my wife and mother. I ask everyone to reach out to me from this number should they need me urgently. That’s how I stay in the flow and have the peace of mind that I’ll get notified in case of an emergency.

Organize smartphone screens in a productive way

I don’t actually like smartphones. They take too much of our times. Even when socializing with friends, I go mad when someone picks up their phone from their pocket and start swiping through Instagram while I’m talking. Even if we’re not talking at the moment, I just stare at my friends if they are responding someone on WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger. I’m a bit too fed up on this. I know the conversation is not boring — it just became a habit for everyone. They don’t want to spend time doing nothing and as soon as they start doing nothing (e.g., my sentence is just finished), they turn to their phones. I hate this!

As a way of positive encouragement, I don’t do the same thing. When someone picks up their phone in a group, others start doing the same thing as well. They even show me posts from Instagram while I’m trying to have a real conversation. I ignore this behavior and don’t encourage it. Why? Because it doesn’t lead to a meaningful talk. As soon as they show me the post, they continue swiping and even if the post is something meaningful, we don’t get to talk about it.

This behavior of mine is of course related to me not being a social media user, not allowing notifications on my smartphone, and completely silencing it. But I took it a step further: I added friction to my smartphone usage. Whenever I pick up my phone for some reason, I don’t get distracted by an app that I did not wish to use it at the moment. Check out my home screen:

What I see when I unlock my phone

I use my phone to track my runs, that’s why I have Runkeeper. Audible and Podcasts are also directly related to my runs because I’m using them only when running. So almost half of the apps in the screen is related to running — which is also a gentle push for me to run. I have Slack to check work when I want to have a quick look or conversation when outside. Pocket is the thing for me what Instagram, Facebook, 9gag etc. to others. If I really don’t have anything to do at the moment and if I don’t want to spend my time doing nothing (while alone), I open Pocket to read articles that I saved before. Mi Fit is only for creating vibration alarms for myself to wake up early. I downloaded it recently and after it’s automated, it will find itself in this next screen:

Other apps on my smartphone

I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t be using smartphones. They are life savers. As you can see from the screen above, I have tons of apps. Some used often, some infrequently. But they are packed in little categorized containers so that I don’t find myself browsing through an app that I don’t want to use. I use them when I need them. Period.

Get rid of everything not used in the past month

Not just last month, actually. I use different intervals for different stuff. If we are talking about smartphone apps, I delete them if it’s not been used in the past month and I have no intention to use it in the future. I also bookmark links both on my browser and on my Pocket. Let’s say I did not read it a month after it’s saved? This means I don’t really want to read it. It goes to trash immediately. It’s important for me to keep a clean desk.

On the other hand, I also have this principle for physical goods — especially for clothes. We have all 4 seasons throughout the year in Turkey; so I have clothes for cold weather and for warm weather. Let’s say I haven’t worn a specific t-shirt over the summer. Then it means that I don’t like that t-shirt anymore. Haven’t worn a specific coat or a shoe during the winter? Means that I don’t want to wear them anymore. I give away all of them.

By applying this principle throughout the years, my wardrobe became simple and clean. I don’t pile up clothes and shoes; I only have things that I actually use. By use, I mean really using them. I use a simple queue structure in my wardrobe. I have a drawer full of t-shirts, for example, and left-side contains the t-shirts I wear outside while right-side with the ones I wear at home. T-shirt coming out of the washing machine are placed at the end of the t-shirt queue so I get to wear all my t-shirts (FIFO).

Allocate time & resource based on importance

You know Mark Zuckerberg wears the same clothes to work everyday, right? The idea is already famous and I think it’s a brilliant one. Having a t-shirt queue already saves time since I don’t spend time deciding what to wear. I also buy exactly the same t-shirts when I find a t-shirt I love — sometimes as many as 10. That’s how I also save myself time from shopping. Of course I decide to save time from these because I don’t fancy shopping or fashion but they are merely things that need to be done. That’s perfectly fine to spend time deciding what to wear for someone that deeply cares about it.

Another thing I do is that I generally pay more than normal when buying something. That’s not because I love spending money. I just want to make the best purchase so that a shoe or a computer, for example, will last for a long time. I don’t want to go shopping every couple of months to buy a new pair of shoes. I buy one of the best with a premium price but then it lasts for 10 years. This gives me a peace of mind — because I don’t need to think about when the shoe will wear out or should I be careful and not go into the mud with it.

The idea can be extended to any level. I decide on the importance of something and then I allocate time & resource (money, mental capacity etc.) based on that.

Experiment: Early mornings, intermittent fasting, siesta

This is not very generic but something that I’ve been experimenting for a long time. I’m always more productive in the day if I wake up early. These days, I wake up at 6am and start working almost immediately. The joy of having completed a couple of things in the first 2 hours of the day is energizing.

Since I’m also doing intermittent fasting, I don’t get interrupted by the need of food in the mornings. I just brew myself a good cup of coffee and work fully-focused until lunchtime. Then I have my breakfast and take a 1–2 hours of siesta based on the hours I slept the previous night. I wake up totally refreshed and ready to continue the day.

If I got a full night of sleep, I might skip siesta but that often makes me tired. Instead of that, I try to sleep 5–6 hours in the night and then 1–2 hours after lunchtime — totaling around 7 hours of sleep a day.

Sunset at Lapseki — the small town we live in by Dardanelles Strait


Productivity is not just for work — it’s for having a more meaningful life. The ways I’ve written above work for me very well. It may differ for others but I think the general idea stays solid: Keep productive by being in the flow for whatever you’re doing. That’s how you achieve success and have fun along the way.

Ekin Öcalan

Written by

ex remote back-end developer, ex co-founder @referbase, translator @TEDTalks & a full time lover.

Ekin Öcalan

Written by

ex remote back-end developer, ex co-founder @referbase, translator @TEDTalks & a full time lover.

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