Stay productive when remote

Chapter 20: How to stay productive and avoid burnout

Posted by Luke Thomas
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I recently had a conversation with someone who was new to remote work. I asked him what his biggest personal struggle was. He replied:

"I have so much more free time because I don't have to commute anymore, but I waste so much time, so I finish my day wondering what I even accomplished."

This statement perfectly describes Parkinson’s Law, which says: “work expands to fill the time available for its completion.” If you give yourself a lot of time to accomplish a task, you will procrastinate and wait as long as possible to do the work.

If you think about it, you have probably spent most of your life in environments where structure was created for you. As a child, you had to be at the bus stop at a specific time to make sure you made it to school on time. Your school day was already planned for you. You would need to rotate from room to room every hour. At the end of the day, you would take the bus home. Rinse and repeat.

In a work-from-anywhere environment, the lack of structure creates a feeling of newfound freedom, but it can also be overwhelming. Every day feels the same. You work where you live. You start working too early, end up spending too much time browsing Reddit, and end your day scrambling to get work done.

I’ve felt this, too. In the remainder of the chapter, I’m going to share how you can be productive and stop burning out.

Create structure & definition

The first and most important problem to solve is that you need to create structure to your day. You can’t rely on the commute to the office to help you ease into your work. You also don’t have observable signals at the office that encourage you to finish up your work and go home at a reasonable hour.

Create start and end times for your day

An easy way to create definition to your day is by reviewing your meetings and seeing when you could start and end the day. Reflect and write down when you are most productive and when you lose focus.

For example, I start my day at 8 a.m. and end at 4 p.m. most days. I know I’m most productive in the morning and least productive in the afternoon. I use my daily planner in Friday to quickly review my day and then use the data to see when I’m most productive.

Then, I will update my Friday profile to share the hours when I normally work. I will also update my Slack account to go into do-not-disturb outside of my normal working hours. This helps reduce notifications outside of my workday.

As a leader, your behavior sets the tone for others. If you don’t model this behavior, people will follow your lead and replicate what you do. If you ping people on the weekend in Slack, others will assume that they can do the same.

Force yourself to move, everyday

I’m sure you already know that physical exercise is beneficial for the mind and body. You don’t need to run a marathon before work starts, but you need to find time to move every day. It’s so easy to forget about this when you work where you live. There’s a gravitational pull to stay home and you must resist it.

Start a fitness routine with coworkers. Keep a fitness journal. Download a habit tracker app. Find ways to reward yourself. If you aren’t getting some amount of physical activity everyday, you aren’t doing your best work. It’s just that simple.

Be intentional about how you allocate your time and attention

Another tip is to find better ways to allocate your time and attention. Consider blocking off time on your calendar to focus, use a Pomodoro timer, or listen to focus music (I recommend Brain.fm). For example, I use the Friday chrome extension to block social media websites and mute Slack notifications so I can stay focused.

Feeling unproductive? Change your environment

When I’m feeling unproductive, I force myself to relocate to another location. I could move to another part of my house, or go to the local coffee shop, but the key is to change my environment to reset my brain.

Create work habits

Another tip is to create habits of planning and reflection. Create checkpoints to prioritize your work, and when the work is complete, reflect and think about what you can do to improve in the future.

For example, every day before I start work, I ask myself a few questions:

  • How are you feeling?
  • What are your must wins for today?
  • What’s on your mind?

I’ve done this exercise for years and find that it helps me establish a habit of doing intentional work.

Aisha’s Perspective

“When I first started working remotely, I didn’t know how to feel. On one hand, I didn’t have to plan my day expecting to commute. That meant I could save time between going to classes and doing other activities. Because I was no longer in the office, there was no one to check up on me to make sure I got my tasks done at a certain time.

The fear of procrastination crept up a couple of times. I told myself that I’d do the work eventually, because I had so much time to do it. Or it was the other way around, where I did the work instantly, and then struggled to figure out what to do with my free time.

Working at Friday, I knew I needed to have a clear idea of how to tackle my work day. Without classes to force me onto a schedule, I had to come up with my own. My routine goes a little something like this:

I wake up and eat some breakfast. During this, I check my email to see if anyone messaged me. Then I check my workplace chat app to see team updates.

I do my daily standup, where I force myself to think about what I have to do for the day. Sometimes I’m able to do them all in a day, other days I can’t. This is just something to guide me.

If I have any meetings, I jump on the Zoom calls to connect with my coworkers.

At around noon, I take a lunch break. Sometimes I walk to a cafe nearby to clear my head.

After my break, I power through the last few hours of work, thinking of what I can finish and what I may have to do tomorrow.

After work I usually go do some physical activity, whether it’s going to the gym, doing a spin class, or just running along a trail.

This is just a basic routine I use. To help me focus during work, I usually put on a music playlist where I can measure my time spent doing that task.

Some tips I would give to people new to working remotely:

  1. Don’t force a schedule. The point of having a flexible schedule is that it can be flexible. Having something too rigid could lead to burnout.
  2. Take breaks. Even if it’s just standing up to get a glass of water, it can help for sure.
  3. Space out your work. Doing things all at once can only last you so long.
  4. Partake in icebreakers and communicate with your team. Learning about coworkers and speaking with them face to face is a nice change of pace from just working nonstop 24/7.”

The little things add up

One final point. Pay attention to the small details that help drive moments of productivity. For example, I know that if I stand at my desk or listen to focus music with my noise-cancelling headphones, it will increase my chances of doing deep work. I’m sure you have your own triggers, too, just make sure you pay attention to the little cues.

Want to keep reading? In the next chapter we share mental models for success.

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