I’ve been a telecommuter for the whole of my adult life. Even being fully employed in a 600+ person global IT corporation, I always kept the freedom to work on my own, from any place I own (or don’t) as a prerequisite of employment.
During all this time, it’s not like I never felt the urge to procrastinate or never had goosebumps from a deadline looming over my shoulder. But unlike friends and colleagues who shared their ultimately failed attempts at remote work, I never considered telecommuting the stumbling block of proper work/life balance.
In hopes they may help you discover more of life through smarter work, here are the 10 habits I follow to keep work and personal life separate but flourishing.
# 1 Stop overthinking. Just do things.
Inner doubts are responsible for more failures than all external challenges put together. What places successful remote workers/freelancers apart from the crowd is their complete immersion, practically obsession with the task, minus the overthinking.
For example, you may love your freelance writing job but just looking at everyone else’s writing makes you dizzy that you’ll never find your place in that crowd. Instead of wasting time on what you’ll never know, close all other windows, open up your MS Word or “New Story” tab and start working before your thoughts get the better of you. Repeat daily.
#2 Make plans the night before
The complaint I most often hear from friends who tried and dropped remote work is, “I was working all the time and just couldn’t handle it”. To my surprise, this just implied that the person couldn’t self-manage their time and, minus the 9–5 schedule had the impression that they were working round the clock.
Avoiding this scenario isn’t tough. While for freelancers it may be hard to plan out a weekly schedule and keep it religiously, next-day scheduling is a realistic way to be flexible yet punctual about your work (plus, you can totally keep the early bird or night owl habits).
By taking just 10-15 minutes each evening to jot down tomorrow’s primary tasks and times, you’ll give yourself a clear plan of how to start the day. This will save anywhere from an hour to two of getting into “working mode” and pushing your still sleepy brain to swiftly reboot.
#3 Never say no to opportunities just outside your speciality
When world-famous violinist Yehudi Menuhin got a call asking if he could conduct the Brahms symphonies with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, he had no clue how he’d manage. Not only had he never conducted the Brahms symphonies, but he was also a novice conductor, having been a violin soloist for most of his life. “Of course I said yes,” Menuhin added, recounting the story.
Many a time life serves us opportunities that we pass just because they lie outside the circumference of our major. It’s precisely those opportunities that can be life-changing, especially for freelancers/remote workers whose career depends only on personal courage.
I can add that the best job (and life) choices I made were initially the scariest and way outside my ‘speciality’.
#4 Create a primary and alternative workspace
There’s a reason we love the minimalistic Macbook on white space photos that send unmistakable vibes to grab our own laptops and get to work. As humans, 90% of the information we absorb is visual, and so is the inspiration we get out of that information.
Telecommuters have got more opportunities than anyone to get motivated through beautiful spaces. For your primary workspace (home-office or co-working space), find a minimalistic but comfy place that’s suitable for your most important work. Balance that out with an alternative space (like a cafe) where you can brainstorm ideas, edit your work, and do less important tasks while sipping a cappuccino.
#5 Don’t treat your job as a pajama party (and don’t let others do so)
Longtime remote workers know this one, but it’s worth noting for novice ones. There’s a myth circulating out there that telecommuters and remote workers sit back in their pajamas and type away at laptops in bed.
While pajama situations do occur, it’s usually for good reason — like being sick or finishing up extra work during night hours (e.g. I’m typing these words at 1:30 am on a Sunday). The rest of the time, we’re seated at a desk, in comfy but casual clothes, with as much as a tea/coffee and cracker at hand. Just like the in-office guys.
To help stop the pajama myth from permanently germinating in your own household, remind your partner/family members to respect your primary working space. Even if your “office” is a 4x4 corner of the bedroom, keep it clutter-free and inspirational. Pass on the practice to everyone you live with.
#6 Set up both urgent and non-urgent communication means
Telecommuters need to pin down two communication methods: an instant one for urgent messages and tasks, plus a regular one for all the other stuff.
For urgent communication, collectively select a really popular messenger like Skype or WhatsApp, and stick to it. It’s hard to find people who haven’t (at least) one of those downloaded to their phones, so it will be really hard for you to miss an important notice from your team, manager, or client.
For non-urgent communication, go for the classic email. This won’t pesk your clients or in-office coworkers with constant phone notifications so everyone can work peacefully (especially in case of time-zone differences with national/international clients and remote teams).
#7 Align your schedule with family
If your partner and/or family members work the 9–5 office shift, they may have a bit of a subjective view towards freelancers (see #5).
Unless you want to relive the photo above on a daily basis, talk through your regular work routine with partners/family and be ready for occasional compromises on both sides. For example, you may need to put in extra hours of work in the evening or even at night, when your partner is back and dead tired from their own shift.
The alternate space rule (see #4 ) is really helpful and will save many a family conflict in case of non-standard freelancing hours.
#8 Fire up the brain with daily walks
Have you ever notice how ideas flow when you’re walking? For telecommuters, freelancers, entrepreneurs and everyone who isn’t nailed to an office chair, thinking while walking is a powerful creativity engine.
It’s a scientific fact that ideas just pop in at twice their speed when we’re walking. According to a Standford study, people become 60% more creative when just pacing on a treadmill. As to outside walks, the number of people who were able to generate novel ideas jumped to 100%.
Amidst the strongest advocates of daily walks, we find tech giants like Steve Jobs, brilliant philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche, and great composers like Piotr I. Tchaikovsky. So whatever your industry, as soon as you feel stuck with an idea, get up and walk around!
#9 Set yourself a social calendar
Since a telecommuter’s working hours are often variable (due to family circumstances, client needs, etc.) it may get tough to keep up a social life with the rest of the gang.
Like that evening when your friends are planning a long-planned get-together in a cafe/bar but you have a pile of urgent work from an important client… mention a reschedule, and you’re likely to get booed for breaking up the party.
To keep both your social life and work intact, set aside a special day or two for exclusively family and/or social activities. Talk it out with clients in advance but do everything to keep that day blank of all work tasks. Trust me, there’s very little chance you’ll miss the apocalypse on your day off.
#10 Go for 30-day learning/habit-forming challenges
A remote worker has no one to fire up their imagination and creativity except for themselves. To keep your mind sharp and eternally curious, read and study something new on a daily basis — and not just within your speciality! (Remember #3? Everything we learn will come in handy.)
Extending your knowledge base with 30-day habit challenges is a committed way to learn something new (and not give up five days later). For example, you may enrol in a course from one of the nation’s top schools like Yale (free on Coursera) or delve into that philosophy, foreign language, or particular art and craft you’ve always loved.
Just set yourself a daily hour before you start working devoted to 30-day habit formation. With a full-time remote job, getting up an hour earlier to do personal writing is the best option I found to balance professional and personal creativity.
Much like in sports, being successful at telecommuting/remote work is down to forming habits until they become second nature. Being your own coach, motivator, and the boss doesn’t come easy — but it’s a challenge that will make you more resilient and independent than any single habit by itself.