Working Remote: The habits I developed after 618 days… so far

Frankie Ng
Mar 13 · 10 min read

So you’re going to be homebound for the next little while? Or maybe you’ve encountered a change in your life that necessitates a new working arrangement. Whatever the reason may be, being able to work remote is an increasingly important skill for today’s ever-connected and mobile workforce.

How do I know? Similar to many of you, I spent the majority of my working career in an office — and actually enjoyed that as my primary working environment. Being able to get out of the house, be surrounded by like-minded folks and having water cooler talk made work-life pretty darn swell. Not to mention we had free lunch and snacks in our office (thanks Shopify!).

Then came time for my international assignment. Long-story short, I was shipped off to Hong Kong to help grow our business in one of the most dynamics cities in the world. BUT, I would be the first-and-only employee in the market — with my closest colleagues being in Shenzhen and my direct lead in Singapore. On top of that, regular travel in Asia would mean that I’d be out of my usual element adjusting to new work environments like local coffee shops, various WeWorks, and taking meetings on the road in taxis (substitute Uber, Grab, Didi here as you desire).

At this very moment I’m remote and writing this article from Phuket, Thailand (March 13, 2020).

Ok too much ramble — essentially I work all over the place, alone (most of the time). So what habits have I developed that I think will help you?

  1. Start your day off right with morning rituals

Before jumping into work mode, you should be religious about conducting your morning rituals. Something that will get you mentally, emotionally and physically prepared to take on the day ahead. This could be a set of habits & procedures that will get you into your working state. For me, it looks like this:

  • Wake up
  • Meditate (20 mins)
  • Get Ready (brush teeth, wash face, hair etc.)
  • Prepare 2 Nespresso capsules
  • Boil 1 kettle of hot water
  • Drink 1 glass of warm water
  • Prepare my daily agenda (what I need to complete for the day, following the 1–3–5 Rule)

Other things you may include are: kiss your spouse + kids, have breakfast, morning workout etc. The key being that you are consistent about this — you can also look at this as a way to complete micro-tasks that help you achieve a personal goal (I tried 100 pushups, sit ups and squats every morning for a week… I did not continue that after).

2. Do not read your notifications first thing in the morning

This is one I feel is critical to starting your day off right — see how “reading notifications” is not in the list above. I started doing (or not doing?) this because I work regularly across timezones; Hong Kong and Toronto differ by 12-hours. So no matter what I know I’m going to have some messages come through overnight. Why reading notifications early in the morning is such a detriment to your day is that you immediately put yourself into a “reactive state”, when instead you should be proactive to dictate what needs to be accomplished. Let’s say something goes wrong in the workplace. Before you even make it to brush your teeth, your mind is racing with solutions, panic or blame that clouds your mind. You’re out of your rhythm. Then you spend the better part of the morning trying to resolve the issue and miss out on the clarity you could have had by leading your day, your way. Try this for 1-week, let me know if this works for you.

3. Set cut-off times for yourself

This applies both to your tasks and your overall working day. If you’re like me, you often find yourself working on tasks much longer than you originally anticipate because you fall into some other research tangent or calculate irrelevant data points you don’t end up using for a task. This can be especially common if you have a workday that doesn’t involve scheduled meetings — *poof* just like that it’s 5pm and you’re still hammering away on the same task. So anytime you embark on completing something, aim to have it done by X time or Y number of hours. Remember: “Done is better than Perfect.”* *asterisk: with reasonable quality of course.

As for your workday, you’re not meant to be working 12–15 hour days, especially at home. Realistically, you’ll encounter diminishing returns on what you put out — so accept that you need rest to perform your best. Everyone is different in what they can accomplish in a day, our CEO Tobi Lutke puts it nicely: “For creative work, you can’t cheat. My believe is that there are 5 creative hours in everyone’s day. All I ask of people at Shopify is that 4 of those are channeled into the company.” (@tobi on Twitter). Whatever your work may be, know when to shutoff for the day and spend the rest of your evening doing what you love.

4. Know your working rhythm

Maybe you already know this — but for those that don’t, understanding your personal working rhythm can help you make the most of your day. Are you more productive in the morning or the afternoon? Do you work well after a meal like breakfast or lunch? When do you need to refuel with a coffee break? A lesson I learned was that I suck at getting work done after going to the gym. Whether it was the morning or lunch time, intense physical activity pulls me out of my working rhythm. So I shifted away to only working out after 6pm on the weekdays. Another lesson was that I have the most creative and deep-thinking capacity in the morning between 9–11:30am. So the morning is when I tend to work on bigger tasks that require more mental capacity, while the afternoon is dedicated to more consumption of information, meetings and low-capacity tasks (emails, building presentations).

5. Share your wins, be open about your challenges

As someone that values acknowledgement or praise for a job well-done, I found that working remote really challenged that innate part of my personality. If we had a successful win in the market or new product launch, nobody would really hear about it unless I made the effort to share about it on our channels. It’s not that people don’t care, it’s that information like this doesn’t get shared as easily compared to when you are within in the same proximity or aligned on the same tasks at the same time.

Make a deliberate effort to share good news on Slack, Email or your preferred team channels to get that slight dopamine hit from a well-deserved praise or 👍🏻/🔥/🎉 emoji. (Bonus if you can share a photo!) Not only that, but being visible on team channels helps to build your personal brand within your organization and can inspire others to share their achievements (everyone wins!)

On the contrary, be open about the challenges you’re facing. The best thing you can do for yourself if you’re feeling isolated, uncertain or battling a bout of imposter syndrome is to talk to someone. Unlike good news, I wouldn’t share this in public team channels but instead with people you trust to listen and dialogue with. I had a hard time adjusting to being alone the first 3 months on assignment, feeling unsure about myself and filled with self-doubt. I spent time opening up to my lead and coach to speak about those challenges openly vs. letting them stew in my head as I tried to fight it off alone. Sometimes speaking your thoughts or doubts into reality can make them less scary — especially if someone is willing to help you (this is almost always the case, sometimes from people you’d least expect it from).

6. Take breaks

This one is pretty simple. Give yourself the opportunity to take breaks throughout the day using your best discretion. Just like in physical activity, long stretches of mental activity can be strenuous on your mind & body. I take a 15-min break every 2 hours to either grab a snack, go for a walk or quickly go on YouTube to watch a clip or two (just be careful not to fall into a YouTube content spiral and lose yourself for an hour).

For those that work across different timezone or have work that necessitates being online later in the evenings, consider giving yourself a mid-day break that will have you feeling more recharged in the evening as opposed to working all the way through.

7. Match your work with the right environment

Tech companies and co-working spaces have built themselves around the same idea that your environment influences how you work. That’s why you’ve got open spaces for collaboration, quiet booths to take calls and meeting rooms for your one-to-ones. Use this same principle when defining how you work remotely. In my studio apartment, I’ve got a standing area for taking calls or active work, seated area for deep-thinking tasks and sometimes head to a local cafe if I need to change it up by being around other people.

The other part of your environment is your “digital environment”, which I’ll define as what is running on your computer and phone at the given time. We get pulled away by distracting notifications and pings, which penalize us when we’re working away at something important —considering that there’s a reset time to get back top the task at hand. Take the time to mute or turn-off applications when you’re trying to work through something meaningful. Choose when and when not to listen to music in the background. One of the discoveries I had about myself was that music (sometimes podcasts) are a distraction when I end up listening to something I don’t like on a Spotify playlist. It pulls me out of my focus and then I get caught thinking “hmm… what do I listen to next”, “maybe I should change playlists”, “Oh what was that song on by Carly Rae Jepsen?” And finally, don’t be one of those “tab hoarders”, you know the people with 37 tabs open when they share-screen. Match your digital and physical environment to get the most out of your working time.

8. Be accountable

Consider that when working remote, nobody is there to see or judge what you’re doing. Whether you decide to leave your computer signed-in to show you’re “online”, take a 3-hour lunch or mid-day hike, that’s entirely up to you. But bad habits like this add up over time. You go from missing a few messages, to being late for meetings and end up with excuses on why you couldn’t complete XYZ. What you’ve done there is erode trust and proven that you aren’t reliable. Hopefully that’s not the type of person you are — so aim to be someone that does what they say and acts accountable even when no one is watching.

9. Set an intention to socialize with a minimum of two humans daily

The way I wrote that sounds completely robotic doesn’t in? But it’s true! Social interaction helps protect cognitive abilities like memory, combat depression and is a positive factor in long-term brain health (reference). I’ve had days without socializing with another soul and other ones where I have quite literally spoken to hundreds of people (conferences, events) — it makes a heap of difference. In today’s turbulent time, spending a couple extra minutes to chat up the barista, stranger on the train or the other regulars at the gym can make us all feel more connected to each other.

10. Have a hobby or interest to work towards outside of work

One of the best things I did for my work as a remote employee is spend time away from my work. Finding something that makes me completely forget about it for 30–60 mins at a time. Similar to taking breaks, finding a hobby or interest that gets you out of the mentality of working can be immensely refreshing. For me, that was Muay Thai or Thai Kickboxing. I’d spend four times a week at a local gym punching, kicking and elbowing my stresses away. It became something that I wanted to progress over time and in the moments that I was doing it, I wouldn’t have a single thought about work. Find that for yourself. Pick up something new and immerse yourself in it, you’ll see quickly how that improves your capacity to learn and develop skills that transfers over to your working self.

11. Be kind to yourself

We can often be our own toughest critic. When you’re working alone, your mind can race with judgement, anxiety and self-doubt. If you’re like me, you might feel like constantly working will remedy this — but it doesn’t. Choose to have the same kindness to yourself as you would your fellow co-workers and friends. Give yourself the chance to make mistakes and be forgiving of your faults. I felt the most frustrated when I ended a day without completing what I had set out to do, yet I still managed to be busy throughout the day, why was that? I’d feel anxious and guilty that I wasted the day. Sometimes it was unfounded self-criticism, but other times it was just an “off” day. We should all be giving ourselves some leniency to have an off day or two and get back on the proverbial horse the next morning. Meanwhile, we should be celebrating the small-wins and finding time to reward ourselves for a job well-done. By treating yourself with respect, you give yourself the opportunity to be a productive and positive contributor to your team, family and friends.

Working in the Future

With the way the world is changing, working in an office may soon become an antiquated norm. Think about the overall benefits from reduced carbon emissions, lower corporate overhead, more time back to employees — the list goes on. I hope there’s a few things in this list you can implement today, as we all need to future-proof our working habits to embrace the WFH- and remote-working culture ahead of us. Stay healthy, stay positive 💪🏻

Frankie Ng

Written by

Asian Market Development @ Shopify | Retail, Digital, and Everything In Between.

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