Remote work

How to optimize for Deep Work when working remote

“One sec, I just need to get this finished!”

I grumbled at my girlfriend.

“You literally said that 4 hours ago.” 

I finally looked outside and noticed the sun was setting. I had just wasted another day getting absolutely nothing done, and it did not feel good.

This wasn’t an uncommon occurrence. In fact, it was a daily occurence. 

For years, my average workday looked like this:

  • Wake up, check email on my phone
  • Check yesterday’s revenue and traffic numbers
  • Answer Slack messages
  • Answer emails
  • Check today’s revenue
  • Check-in on product updates
  • Check Twitter, Facebook
  • Check today’s revenue
  • Start drafting a blog post
  • Check in with marketing team on last week’s A/B test
  • Start writing blog post
  • Edit investor presentation 
  • Answer Slack messages
  • Answer email 

I’m lying. That was an average hour of work. 

As a company owner who didn’t write code, working remotely with no structure or process in place - I was completely overwhelmed by the endless to-do list, and ended up getting nothing of value done. I killed many days doing fake work, and was eternally grateful for any deadline. 

My productivity falls into two categories: ruthlessly focused, and helplessly distracted. Without a direct task to focus on, I could find enough busy work to tread water for 10 hours a day - and it did not feel good. Stress levels increased. I hated my job. I was ready to throw it all away and go live on a farm on a weekly basis.

It wasn’t one thing that made me say enough, but the realization that life was too short to be wasting my days doing work I didn’t love. I needed to completely change how I worked.

Revisiting what work is

I was easily “working” 10-12 hours a day, but absolutely getting nothing of value done. I forgot how to focus, and the fact that focusing for even a few hours made my brain feel good. 

I forgot about Deep Work. 

Deep work is simply the ability to focus on a demanding task without distraction. It’s the only way to get valuable work done. With thousands of daily distractions and endless busywork, it’s harder than ever to sit down and produce anything good. 

Distraction kills deep work. 

On average, it takes 23 minutes to recover from a distraction. Just 10 distractions in a day and you’ve wasted 40% of your average working day. Scary, right? 

Think about yesterday. How many times did you check your email? Respond to Slack messages? Check your Google analytics? Read Hacker news? 

How many times were you in the middle of something important, when a notification popped up that you responded to, and promptly forgot what you were doing?

I started tracking how many times I switched contexts in a day, and the results were embarrassing - in the quadruple digits. It’s no wonder I often end a work day with a fried brain, twitchy eyelids, an abnormally high heart rate, and a short temper. 

Despite the awareness I couldn’t break the habit. I finally cracked last summer after wasting another beautiful day switching tabs on Chrome. My choices were to either throw my laptop off the balcony and move into the woods, or figure out how to create something valuable again. Enough was enough. I decided to commit the next week to figuring out how to be productive again.

I identified three categories of distraction that were ruining my workday, leaving me scrambling at 11pm to get that one thing done I promised I'd complete. Here are the steps I took to get my best work done at home, and how it could work for you.

Minimize digital distraction

You will never be able to prevent digital distraction, but there are ways to manage it. The main sources of interruptions for a remote worker are communication tools  - email, Slack, phones. There are also children, spouses, and pets (which are more complicated).

Track your productive time 

I didn’t realize how unproductive I was until I started to track it. There are numerous tools that will help you figure out how you’re spending your work day. Awareness is the first step towards action. Try downloading a time tracking tool and figure out how you spend your days. 

Take a weekly snapshot, and map it to what work actually makes you feel good. 

Services you could try include Rescuetime, Harvest, Holopod (that’s us!), and even something as simple as the Pomodoro technique. 

Batch your email

Set a goal to check your email at intervals. I’m not going to suggest checking it once/day - you’re not Tim Ferris. However, figure out the right interval for you. If I check my email mid-morning (after getting something done), and mid-afternoon - I can typically cover my bases. 

Go Airplane mode

How many times have you checked your phone when reading this? Even seeing the word phone makes me want to check it. To make sure i don't miss any important messages, I do periodically check iMessage on Mac.

Manage your Slack status

Though an extremely useful tool for remote teams, Slack can be distracting. It’s important to be available when needed, but not to spend your whole day playing defence. Try using Slack statuses to signal to your team when it’s best to contact you, or set their “do not disturb” feature.  

Choose video over text 

One huge drag on your time is going to be those half-conversations you get pulled into - you know the ones, where you’re messaging back and forth with someone for a few hours while you're both half working on other stuff. It feels like work, but is a complete waste of energy. Instead of getting caught in those, schedule a time for a 15 minute video call to discuss what something in detail, and then get back to the deep work. You’ll find with more video, you’ll feel better connected to your team.

Be intentional about deep work, and be intentional about conversations. Don’t start a conversation without a goal and an end game in mind.

Optimize your personal workspace

Working from home is great, but some days it feels like you’re not at work. It’s easy to feel like a failure when asked to wash the dishes when you’re supposed to be doing a massive partnership deal. 

Have a conversation with your spouse (and your puppy) about work day boundaries, and try to stick to them. 

Have a dedicated workspace 

If possible, have a separate room that you can work in with a door that closes. If you have a spare bedroom, get a wall bed and transform it into a personal office. If you’re not lucky enough to have extra space - ensure you have desk setup that is only used for your work. It’s still fine to work from the kitchen table or the couch sometimes! Do not work from bed. 

Get out of the house 

Start your day off by commuting to your home office. This could be anything from a walk around the block to a walk to get your favorite latte. If you have the opportunity, spend a few hours a day at a coffee shop or co-working space. Take breaks every few hours. 

Keep your space tidy 

Be diligent about keeping your workspace pristine. If this is your home, you’ll need to clean it. Treat your workspace professionally, and you’ll get more done. Hiring a cleaner to come in once a week is often worth the investment. 

Focus on physical and mental health 

The better you are, the better your work will be. Proper self-care makes it much easier to get your best work done. Here's what has worked for me to ensure I bring my best self to my remote desk every day.

Set working hours (and stick to them)

Your career is a marathon, not a sprint. Try not to work more than 8 hours a day, and decide how to optimally break those down. If I get 3 hours of deep work a day and an hour of calls, it’s a good day. I try to shut everything off by 6pm, unless I’ve consciously decided to work late - in which case I do it out of choice, not necessity. 

Avoid “working” from your phone 

Don’t check your email and Slack messages first thing in the morning while you’re in bed. Easier said than done, but the impact on your mental health is enormous. Surprisingly little work is actually done through a phone, but it does have the ability to make it feel like you’re working all day.

Stop pretending to work, and aim to have a few high fidelity calls once you’re at your computer instead of an all day Slack chat. If you choose to sit on your couch or go for a walk - do those things.

Exercise 

Remote work can save you hours of commuting each day, put that time to good use by getting a workout in. It doesn’t matter what you do, but find a sport you like and try to do it every day. Even 20 minutes a day will change your life, and your work day. 

Sleep 

Setting strict working hours will help you sleep better. Shut down your screens a few hours before bedtime, and try to practice a hobby that doesn't require a screen - playing an instrument, knitting, reading, or simply going for a long walk.

Eat 

It's easy to constantly snack when working from home. Personally, I've never managed to not finish a bag of chips if they're in the house. Unfortunately, it's hard to get back to work after inhaling a bag of Cheesies. To mitigate this, I buy healthier snacks like fruit, granola, and energy bars to help me solve the hunger pains without burning away my afternoon. If I feel the need to snack, I make a cup of decaf tea or drink a carbonated water instead.

Putting it all together 

Nothing in here is rocket science. Even if you're a rocket scientist, establishing these simple routines and habits will help you get more done at home.

Remote work is a privilege, and a powerful tool. If you figure out how to be productive in your home environment, you will open up many job opportunities around the world, and get back many hours in your day.