Pitfalls and Zen Mastery

Captain America’s Balls (Courtesy of Pottery Barn’s Interior Decor Wizards)

So when I used to get to work from home on this or that day of the week (or every once in a while), I’d pretty much always make an effort to go to the local coffee shop in the morning and chill and work there for a while. Needless to say, the novelty of that wears off pretty quickly, not to mention, if you have a nice home office, it’s actually much nicer to work there as a rule — faster internet, comfy chair/desk, bigger screen, control of climate and noise level (well, sorta on that last one thanks to the kiddos).

Now that I’m coming up on five months of full-time remote, I find that I still like to get out of the house, just to change things up, but maybe once or twice a week at most for a few hours in the morning. Even so, I feel like I have to factor in “lost time” — how spoiled am I?? Now that I have no commute, any time not sitting at the desk seems like lost time. Or maybe it’s a mental illness. :)

More seriously, it’s pretty easy to lose time if I’m not careful. What I’ve found is that when I have a specific interesting challenge I’m tackling, I have no problem focusing and really putting even too much time in. But when I’m in a lull, doing something uninteresting, tired or whatever, it does take extra self discipline to trudge through. It’s that much easier when “nobody is watching” to just while away time.

On the other hand, the other day.. or week.. I was feeling particularly muddle-headed early in the afternoon, so I decided to just go lie down for a bit. Now that’s something you really can’t do at work! (Unless you’re Thomas Edison, I hear.) So I lay down. I stink at napping, but I managed to go mostly unconscious for about 20 min or so. And after that I was able to get back up and feel energized enough to focus and knock some good solid work out for the next several hours. (I hear 20 min is the ideal nap duration. My problem is I rarely can actually chill my brain during the day to even induce napping…)

Not long ago, I would have felt somehow very guilty for doing that. It’s so ingrained in us — at our 8–3 school and then reinforced at our 9–5 office jobs — that you are supposed to clock in and work those 8–10 hours straight (with lunch and maybe potty breaks). Anyone who is caught napping becomes the butt of jokes.

But honestly, I didn’t feel bad or weird at all about taking this nap. Obviously, being at home helps with that, but even so, it’s taken some time for me to become one with the idea that I really do have more flexibility in my schedule — without that nagging feeling like I’m ditching school. It’s quite nice. I wish everyone could have that, and frankly, I think our companies could do more to promote that sense of freedom.

Naturally, with that freedom comes responsibility. I find that I do better at the responsibility thing if I think about this as if it were my company. When you’re literally your own boss, nobody is counting your hours. But if you don’t do the work, you don’t get paid. I was thinking about how strange it is that the workaday office culture is so disconnected from this fundamental reality.

We are conditioned to think in terms of what I call butt time. “Boss wants to see your butt in your chair so many hours a week.” Even when dealing with professional-level jobs, this mentality is still so prevalent. The boss feels reassured when people are there in their seats “when they are supposed to be there” and “for the right amount of time.”

This of course leads to the employee (usually) unconsciously thinking that as long as they show up, sit there, and don’t totally slack off, they’ll be okay. (I am of course massively generalizing here..) We might layer on top of that some kind of results tracking, but more often than not, what really seems to matter is just that you’re keeping a seat warm. And hey, if you’re not doing so hot, often the simple fact that you are keeping your seat warm can either drag out or indefinitely defer any disciplinary action.

Contrast that to the ownership mentality. The same mentality, I imagine, the vast majority of our ancestors dealt with. “If I don’t go plant the field, we’re gonna starve.” “If I don’t patch the walls, we’re gonna freeze.” “If I don’t go hunting or fishing, we won’t eat.” “If I don’t pick up this weapon and fight for my family and property, I will lose it.” And many less dire but equally concrete circumstances where inaction — not “doing your job” — leads to real, concrete consequences imposed by reality.

I’m not complaining that we have it so good that so many of us (probably anyone reading this) don’t live in circumstances where our laziness has serious, immediate concrete consequences. The consequences of slacking off may be looking like an oaf to our teammates or upsetting our manager. But we know we’ll still be getting a paycheck, as long as our butts are in our seats.

Of course there are high pressure situations in software, but one of the benefits of software being such a hot field, is that it’s largely an employee’s market. So there’s a lot more pressure for management to keep software makers happy than the other way around. So it’s really largely on us to hold ourselves accountable, and even more so when working remotely.

That’s what I mean about ownership mentality. It’s developing that mindset that what we do or don’t do has real, concrete consequences. We’re not “working for the man” so much as working with “the man” or actually being “the man.” In startup contexts, this is easier because it’s realer. In more established companies, the mentality requires more cultivation.

Ultimately, it comes down to the Golden Rule. If I were the owner, how would I want my employees to behave? Would I want them doing only the minimal (quantity and/or quality) work to stay under the radar and not get fired? I’m gonna say no on that one. I’d want them to take pride in what they are doing, to do it to the best of their ability. I’d want them to not worry about being in office for 8 hours a day but rather how what they are doing is going to drive company success and, by their being a part of that company of humans, put food on the table, gas in the car, clothes on their backs, and all the other necessities and niceties of life they enjoy.

So working to keep that perspective helps when your more on your own than not. Besides, it’s the right thing to do anyways, and it is in fact more or less the reality. Because we’re all in this together. And we all contribute to our collective success or failure.

Adventures in Remote Working

The glory and the pain of working as a remote.


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Ambrose Little

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Experienced software and UX guy. Senior Software Engineer at CentralReach. 8x Microsoft MVP. Book Author. Husband. Father of 7. Armchair Philosopher.

Adventures in Remote Working

The glory and the pain of working as a remote.