Six Things I Learned Working From Home
Today marks six months of working at Breaking News from my wonderful Chicago apartment. Working from my home has led to me being an overall more productive and healthier person. But it’s taken some work and experimenting.
Maybe these six ideas will seem obvious, but after spending most of my adult life working in offices, they were kind of a revelation to me. So I thought this could help someone.
So, you’re probably asking yourself, what’s the first thing you can do to make working from home a success?
Put On Pants
And a shirt. When you do simple things, such as putting on clothes, it switches your brain into thinking, “Oh, I’m about to go do that work thing.” But if you just sit around in your underwear, sometimes your brain doesn’t pop into drive, and you’re left in park.
This signals to your body to switch from “watching silly videos of rap battles on Facebook” mode to “get work done” mode. And because you’re working from home, the idea is you should be getting work done. Little switches like this help make your brain work the way you want it to work.
Now, does this mean I take a shower every morning? Nope. I do brush my teeth in the morning, and sometimes splash water on my face. But I save my shower sometimes for after I get back from my lunch break walk.
Which reminds me, you know what you should do a lot?
Leave Your Home
Our brains can become complacent if they sit and do the same thing all day, and they sometimes can’t make those random, fanciful leaps of inspiration without a little help. I try and structure my day toward giving my brain time to go off in weird, non-work places, to help me actually get work done.
I start most of my days off with a two mile walk to grab a Red Bull and some cheese (yeah, that’s my breakfast, I know, I’m weird). I walk one mile to get my breakfast, then spend the walk back eating the cheese and drinking the Red Bull. Usually I listen to a podcast, and this helps clear my brain. Also, it’s exercise, and exercise, in addition to making you healthier (duh), also gets your brain going.
And then I come back and I sit at my desk and try to do work for a few hours, which is what leads me to leaving my office for lunch, grabbing food somewhere and maybe reading a book or listening to a podcast before taking another 30-minute walk before coming back to my desk.
What happens when you get away from your desk, especially if you’re working on a hard problem you need to solve, is your brain is still working away at that problem. And what can happen to you — and it happens to me all the time now — is the solution will come to you while you’re doing something else, like walking or reading.
This is why I try to leave my apartment at least twice during every work day, even if it’s just a walk to the Walgreens down the street for a snack or late afternoon Red Bull. It makes your brain go into a different mode but still think about the problem you were having in the background. And then sometimes, poof, the answer comes.
Also, if you stay only in your home, you will start to get a little weird. Trust me. I have no significant other, and my cat doesn’t talk back to me (yet). And I’ve gone weeks without leaving my house when I’ve been deep inside my brain for work and post-work projects. And guess what? I got strange.
After working from home for awhile, I went to hang out with a friend after not really talking to anyone face to face for almost a week. I didn’t know what to do. It was like I had forgotten how to have a conversation.
Anyone who knows me will understand it has never, ever been my problem to talk to others. But it seemed after going a week without real human contact, and relying mostly on emails, text and instant messaging, my brain went to mush.
A mushy brain doesn’t help you do your job effectively, especially when it involves communicating. And it can sometimes stop those fanciful leaps of imagination that leads you to answers.
You know what else helps getting those answers?
A Dedicated Work Space
We are creatures of habit. If we continually go to the same places to do the same actions, our bodies will start to adapt. If you have a chair that you sit in to watch television, if you sit in it, you will probably want to watch television and your brain will turn off. If you have a certain pair of shoes you only wear to go running, your body will start to think “we’re gunna go for a run!” as soon as you put them on.
The same thing happens when you have a dedicated work space. I took a writing class awhile back, and the teacher talked about having a sacred place to do your work. This helps to get your brain thinking, “Ah, we’re in that place. It’s work time!” So have a desk in your home where whenever you are sitting there, it’s business time.
If possible, have a separate office that can allow you to close the door to, I dunno, your annoying goddamn cat. I do not have this luxury yet, but when I move, you bet I will have a second bedroom just for this.
My dedicated work space took a bit of time to create. I bought a standup desk, then never used it. I started by just sitting on my couch all day, and after two or three hours of this, my neck would hurt, my wrists would be angry and I would feel sleepy.
So I switched to using the standup desk and a pretty precarious setup. After awhile, my wrists and neck still weren’t having a great time. Guess what I decided to do next?
Get A Comfortable Chair
At my last job, we had Herman Miller Aeron chairs. It was the greatest chair I had ever sat in. Before that job, when I left for the day my wrists would be a mess. And as someone who spends a lot of post-work time writing or holding a microphone, I need my hands to work.
Thankfully, the Chicago Tribune knew that if its workers are forced to sit for a third of their life, they should do so in a way that’s comfortable and with less stress on their bodies. That means happier workers and lower health costs, which more than offset the ergonomic costs.
After a month or so of the standing/couch-sitting, I checked Craigslist and found many people selling Aeron chair for 1/3rd the retail price. After one morning meeting up with a dude and feeling pretty sure I was about to be murdered after I told him his chair wasn’t what he advertised, I found an actual Aeron chair for about $300.
Now I try to stand whenever I am writing emails, or taking phone calls, or doing communication-based work. Whenever I need to sit and write code, or write words for my after-work projects, I sit. It still makes me stand for part of my day, but when I need to dive deep into some code, I can sit in my comfy chair and my wrists and neck can be happy.
I also bought some wrist pads for my keyboard and mouse and I put my bluetooth keyboard on a book, and it’s now at perfect typing level. My neck doesn’t get annoyed, my wrists don’t make me hate myself, and it allows me to be more productive.
Know what I needed to do to become more productive?
Get Rid Of Distractions
I used to sit in the middle of the 8th largest newspaper in America. Behind me, the police scanners would squawk. Reporters next to me would make phone calls. And I sat next to the men’s restroom, and yes, I know the “schedules” of many Chicago journalists.
Fun knowledge for the whole family.
Because of this, I spent most of my day in headphones. With my new job, I was excited to work from home and no longer have these distractions. But I discovered working from home has so many other distractions.
For one, my cat. He is an asshole 96 percent of the time. My working from home makes him very excited. It also makes him quite needy for attention. I’ve had to combat this by starting my day by playing with him so much that he gets tired of me until the afternoon.
The internet is also a huge distraction. Facebook, Twitter and so much more are constantly a few keystrokes away. StayFocusd is a great Chrome plugin, where you can enter information about which websites to block, or to allow yourself five or ten minutes a day.
If you find yourself running out of time during the day, set yourself to having five minutes on Facebook or Twitter. Your productivity will skyrocket.
Your phone is also a great distraction. My friends like texting me cute and/or funny things all day. If I’m in the zone, one cat photo sends me back into can’t-get-shit-done mode. Easy solution: Airplane mode. And then I turn iMessage notifications off on my laptop. Sounds easy, but it’s surprising how long it took me to figure this out.
Another way to help get your mind right and make distractions go away?
Set Daily Goals
At my last job, we broke down every complex task into as many smaller tickets as we could. You don’t just “build a website,” you have to create the repo, set up a base template, set it up to deploy to the staging and production environments, create S3 buckets, make this button click and do this thingie, make this other button click and do this other thingie, etc.
It always helps to break things down into smaller and smaller pieces, that way it’s not a giant behemoth problem you’re trying to slay, it’s these smaller bits. And when you do the little things, you can have a sense of accomplishment while the big project still isn’t done.
So I try and break down what I’m going to get done that day into a list, and then I add a “done” next to it when I — get this — get it done. I usually try and make weekly goals, which I discuss with my team during our weekly check-in, and then from that I break it down into daily goals.
Making lists and then getting those lists done has been the main way I’ve accomplished anything in adulthood. If it’s in a list form, I know what I have to do, and then it’s just a matter of checking things off. If I’m more lackadaisical in my approach, I never get anything done.
To take a cue out of Michael Pollen’s rules for eating: Make lists, break them down, finish them.
I used to get sick a lot, about every two or three months. I changed my lifestyle drastically because of this — I stopped drinking, I became a pescatarian, I go for my 10,000 steps a day. I lost about 40 pounds and felt overall better. But I kept getting bronchitis, sinus infections, or upper respiratory infections every few months.
Then I stopped working in an office. In the last six months, I have been knocked-on-my-ass sick once. That’s the least I’ve been sick since graduating college in 2009.
While I’ve done no scientific testing, I do know that I’m no longer in a building surrounded by other potentially sick people, or traveling on a train every day with potentially sick people, or having to breathe as much recycled air in a building that’s more than 90 years old.
Sometimes I will work from a coffee shop to change my brain up if I feel I’ve been too stagnant at my apartment. They’re usually overpacked with terrible sketch and improv teams discussing how hilarious they are (this has happened three times in the past week), but they can be a good way to change your surroundings and thus change your way of thinking.
Have your own thoughts? Am I doing things wrong? I’d love to hear what you think. Yell at me on Twitter.
Oh and here’s another cute photo of my cat.