How to Survive the Chaos of Working at Home
I didn’t use to give much thought to classifying my work before sitting down to get things done.
Work is work. Right?
Of course, there were times that I knew that I needed to crank on some designs, work on a prototype, or finish a spec without interruptions. Trying to get work done under time pressure was a nightmare in an open office space.
Someone was always coming up to interrupt me. People were talking and taking calls. A myriad of other distractions ensured that I couldn’t focus.
So, I would leave to find a quiet room somewhere on campus. If I required a more massive block of focused time, I would escape the office entirely and find a coffee shop.
Sometimes, I would take a day off and work from home (i.e., blocking my calendar “WFH”) for better productivity. Funny, huh? Now every day is a work from home day.
Now you have your partner asking you to do something for them, instead of your boss. Your children distract you with their nearby play, instead of your coworkers chatting in the next cubicle. Your pet runs up and demands attention. Your neighbor starts blasting loud music.
However, things have changed a little this year, haven’t they? You can’t run back to the office to escape your WFH environment. Heck, in many places, you can’t even head over to your favorite cafe for an uninterrupted working session (e.g., they just closed again in California).
We all have to make the best of it. We need to adjust our working habits and processes to adapt to this new world. We must optimize our home environment to enable us to do our best work.
But, you aren’t required to do your best work every minute of every day. We have different types of tasks that we perform at any given time. Some activities don’t require a soundproofed isolation chamber, so there’s no need to use the same environment for every single thing that you do.
The first step is to categorize your work. Then, create a strategy for how you can be most effective for each category.
Categorize your work
I’ve been in the working world for a very long time. I’ve also been working from home on and off for decades.
It started with my first job at Apple way back in 1995. I worked remotely from my home in Texas while I was in graduate school.
Now, I’ve been working mostly at home for the past ten years. But, I think that I only fine-tuned the experience in the last five years.
I schedule appointments on my calendar for different work activities, not just meetings. I will block off entire afternoons or even days when I have something significant that needs my full attention.
I roughly categorize each type of work into the following:
- Mindless work
- Shallow work
- Productive work
- Focused work
- Deep work
I almost called “Mindless Work” busywork. But it’s not.
Busywork is a nonproductive activity people often do in an office or workplace to kill time and watch the clock run out. They are trying to look busy while they wait for the clock to read 5 PM so that they can go home.
I put tasks in the mindless work category when I can perform them on autopilot. I do them so often — maybe even every day — that it doesn’t take much cognitive energy at all.
Sometimes I find a way to automate a task like this, which is excellent! But, some tasks refuse to succumb to automation. As mindless as they are, they still require manual intervention.
- Flagging inbox messages as spam when they slip through the filters
- Deleting spammy messages on LinkedIn and social media
- Ignoring spammy connection requests (are you sensing a trend?)
- Moving files between devices and servers (e.g., kicking off a photo transfer between my phone and laptop)
- Quickly filing paper documents
- Flipping through paper magazines and journals to see if anything is interesting or useful (e.g., Harvard Business Review)
- Going through paper mail
For mindless work, I can work almost anywhere. When I’m doing these tasks, I like to be around my family in the living room or kitchen. I can engage in conversations and hear about their day.
Years ago, I used to go to my office for all work. Every single work activity and task was performed locked away and alone in a room.
However, I’ve stopped doing that. For one thing, it’s lonely, boring, and depressing to spend your entire day locked away in a room working.
Also, I found that I was missing my children’s lives. It was no better than when I had a job in an office outside of the home. The result was the same; I wasn’t seeing my family very much.
This is one of the big perks of our new working-from-home life. We can spend more time with the people we care about, even while we are working.
We can have our pets nearby, or in our laps. We can spend our days where we want and how we want. It’s pretty damn cool.
Cal Newport defines “Shallow Work” as:
“Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much value in the world and are easy to replicate.”
Whether we like it or not, much of our daily work probably falls into this category. Unless you are a lone creative genius, you work with others every day. You have to communicate and collaborate on projects and other work.
Similarly, if you run a business, you will be communicating with clients and customers. There will be a great deal of time spent in various messaging tools.
For shallow work, I typically sit in an armchair in my living room with no headphones on. I don’t talk much — unlike when I’m doing mindless work — but it is ok to interrupt me.
I can hold a conversation while I’m working. My wife would call it an “unfulfilling distracted conversation,” but I can do two things at once (I think).
This type of work includes:
- Checking email and messages
- Catching up with Slack conversations
- Posting and responding on social media
- Reading news and articles
- Sharing interesting content to my various channels
- Reviewing various analytics dashboards
Working at home effectively has been a process of communication and negotiation with my family. You will want to do the same if you share your home with others. You may even need to talk with your neighbors.
My friends describe making detailed weekly plans with their partners, families, and roommates. They have a shared calendar so that everyone knows who has meetings during the week and when people need privacy in a room or some peace and quiet.
They make arrangements for who will watch children at different times of the day. They decide who will take care of household tasks. They schedule a time to walk the dog, play with the cat, go for walks, exercise, etc.
When I need to be productive, I put on my noise-canceling headphones. My family knows that’s a signal that I don’t want to talk or be interrupted, except for an emergency.
Noise distracts me when I’m trying to be productive. I find myself restarting tasks over and over because I lost my train of thought.
Noise-canceling headphones are one of the best product purchases you could make during the last decade. I’ve dabbled in various types, but finally invested in Bose QuietComfort 35 wireless headphones.
The Bose headphones are expensive, but they’ve paid for themselves. I couldn’t work from home as I do without them.
For focused work, I can’t handle audio or visual distractions. So, I go to my office and close the door.
This process and the environmental cues have required trial and error over decades with my family. People used to come into my office and interrupt me, even when the door was closed.
When my children were younger, I finally installed a locking door handle so they wouldn’t barge in on a conference call. Now, everyone knows that a closed door means that I need to focus and don’t want to be interrupted.
It has also required some trial and error to agree on what an “emergency” means. We’ve reached a good point after many years of negotiating what needs my attention or an answer “right away” vs. later when I take a break.
Some examples of what I think requires my focused attention:
“The Deep Work Hypothesis: The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.” ― Cal Newport
Newport argues that we’ve allowed ourselves to be consumed by shallow work, and he’s right. I feel like 80% of my day in corporate workplaces was spent in mostly useless meetings and activities.
The deep work that moved the needle (e.g., product innovation, creative breakthroughs, and strategic thinking) was almost impossible to do in the office. It’s the most valuable thing we can do, but we rarely make time for it.
Newport defines Deep Work as:
“Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”
I wish that I spent more time in the deep work zone. It’s what moves my business forward. It helps me get unstuck and overcome obstacles.
Some examples of my deep work activities:
- Writing a book (I never spend enough time on this)
- Working on my long-term business and career goals
- Creating new business strategies and brainstorming
- Mapping out new business models, and synergies between my different businesses
- Exploring customer experience lifecycles
- Defining high-level product flows
- Designing websites, products, courses, etc.
For Deep work, I need to disappear. So, I leave the house.
I find a place to work with no interruptions at all, not even from my phone or apps running on my laptop.
In the past, I’ve rented a hotel room or Airbnb for total solitude. Sometimes, I’ll find a quiet spot outside where I know that I can work uninterrupted for a whole day or an afternoon.
Typically, I work on paper to avoid any possibility of digital distractions. I eliminate the temptation to check messages or social media. I won’t even bring my laptop with me, and I silence my phone.
I have a variety of paper notebooks and sketchbooks for that purpose. For example, I outline books, business plans, and product strategies in a regular notebook. I map out flows, lifecycle models, and do design work in a large sketchbook.
I need lots of physical space to explore and rapidly draw things. Planning the future doesn’t work well when there are boundaries and friction.
Don’t let digital tools hold you back.
The big takeaways
My biggest learnings from decades of remote work and working from home:
- Don’t treat all work the same. Some activities deserve your full attention. They need your 100% focus. Others do not, so don’t waste time and energy giving them that.
- Your environment can help or hurt you. Optimize it for the task at hand. Leverage your environment to work in the right place at the right time.
- Use the right tools for each task. We tend to lean heavily on our computers and phones. But, sometimes they get in the way of the work that we need to do.
- Working remotely is a net positive, whether you’ve realized it yet or not. It gives you more freedom than ever before. Make the most of it! Spend more time around friends, family, and your lovable pets. Spend more time working outside or wherever you enjoy being the most. You are no longer trapped in a cubicle or conference room in some office building.
- Carve out more time for deep work. We spend way too much of our time and energy in the shallow activities that don’t add the most value. The most significant steps forward in your work and your career will happen during those dedicated blocks of deep work.
What are your best tips for working at home?
How have you managed to be productive despite the distractions?
Please share your ideas in the comments so that we all can benefit. Thanks!
Larry Cornett is a Leadership Coach and Career Advisor. He lives in Northern California near Lake Tahoe with his wife and children, a Great Dane, a rabbit, and a needy cat. He shares advice that helps you become an opportunity magnet for the best things in life! You can also find him on Twitter and Instagram @cornett.