Working Remotely: Tips from a Veteran

I have a total of eight years experience as a remote worker. I began my remote working career as a life coach for a distance learning startup before pivoting into a career as a software engineer which I was able to take remote in 2017.

While I love working remotely, it’s not without its challenges. Given the current global crisis which has a lot of the world suddenly working remotely, I figured I’d take a minute to jot down my top thoughts on remote work in the hope that they can help and encourage others during this difficult time when many have had remote work thrust upon them with little preparation:

Apr 2023 UPDATE: This book has really changed my life when it comes to productivity: Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. I’d recommend that anyone interested in increasing their productivity, remote worker or not, check it out.

Jan 2021 UPDATE: Hopefully the thoughts below will prove helpful, but if you don’t do anything else, please take 10 minutes and watch this video. It covers pretty much everything I wanted to say when I originally wrote this post but much better than I could/did and is just super fun and helpful and, honestly, life changing!

If it’s “read the blog post” or “watch the video”, def watch the video!

OK, here are my thoughts:

  1. Orient your life around abundance. I’ve discovered that much of my “procrastination” is actually a symptom of scarcity in my life. I often find myself thinking, “I never have time for _______” while I’m goofing off. I’ve discovered the answer isn’t to yell at myself but instead make time for whatever I feel like I’m lacking. For me, this has meant:
    1. Defining “abundance.” We all need to define what “a place of abundance” means for us and those in our lives! Know where you want to go and you can figure out how to get there.
    2. Making time for play. My focus on productivity and professional growth over the past 10 years has stifled other parts of who I am, so in an attempt at being a more whole person, I try to do something with no point but fun and enjoyment for at least 20-30 minutes per day. Additionally, my wife and I set aside one night per week where we’ve agreed to give each other space so we can each go enjoy something for ourselves for 2-3 hours. For her, this usually means catching up on some TV and reading some fiction. For me, I go lose myself in the world of Mass Effect, reconnect with my childhood (X-Men the Animated Series), or just beat up bad guys as Batman in Arkham City.
    3. Being present. I’ve made my phone as boring as possible and try not to carry it around the house with me. Instead, it lives on a shelf. I check it periodically throughout the day, and the rest of the time it’s not there to distract me when I’m working or with family and friends. I try to enjoy whatever I can about wherever I am, and this gratitude helps foster abundance.
    4. Caring for the whole person. My body needs food, rest, sleep, and exercise. My mind needs challenges, pleasure, humor, and space to reflect and process. My spirit and soul need connection with Jesus/God and others. I work to meet these needs for myself and for those in my family. When both I and those in my life are getting our needs met, it’s amazing how much more I have to devote to my work and other responsibilities.
    5. Starting small. When one is overweight and wants to slim down, one doesn’t start by running a marathon. In other words, we didn’t get where we are all at once, and we can’t instantly get to where we want to be either. Making one or two small changes each week is the best way to begin living from a place of abundance.
  2. Create boundaries between work and the rest of your life. These boundaries should be:
    1. Physical: Set aside a dedicated work area. It can be a room, one end of a table, or even a specific chair. Try not to do anything besides work in this location. The goal is to get your brain to think “OK – now it’s time to work” when you are in this space.
    2. Relational: Clearly communicate work schedules with the important people in your life. For me and my wife, this means having two possible daily schedules: an ideal schedule and a backup schedule. The ideal schedule runs when we and our three-year-old all get a good night’s sleep and I can get started with work at 7am (my ideal start time for maximum focus and productivity, learned after many years of trial and error). The backup schedule runs if we have a bad night and can’t get as early a start on the day. Both schedules have definite start and end times which allows my wife to plan her day and helps keep us all on the same page.
    3. Personal: Set work boundaries with yourself. For me, this has meant:
      1. Don’t give myself all day to work. Much like sleep compression is an effective means of dealing with insomnia, I’ve found that compressing my work hours helps me get down to business because I haven’t given myself all day (and night!) to get my work done.
      2. Make space for living. This means having time to relax (i.e., doing something whose sole purpose is refreshment, not productivity) and time for self care (exercise and learning are important things I try to spend at least 5 minutes on every day).
      3. Don’t relax and work. If I find myself mindlessly scrolling, I’ve discovered that it’s a sign that I need to ask myself what I can do instead that will really, truly recharge me, go do it, and then come back to whatever task with a mind that’s operating from a place of abundance.
      4. Separate your digital work and personal lives. If possible, use another computer for personal stuff and only use your work-issued laptop for work. If that’s not possible, create multiple users on your work computer – one for working and one for personal stuff. Make it so that you have to switch users to do anything non-work related.
  3. Practice flexibility in all of life. Rigidity is the opposite of flexibility, and we often resort to rigid thinking in times of stress or change. Thus, for me, practicing flexibility as a remote worker has looked like:
    1. Trying different approaches to being productive. It’s OK to acknowledge that, “Wow today sucked, I wasted a ton of time, and didn’t get much done.” Rigid thinking says just try the same thing harder tomorrow. Flexible thinking realizes that sometimes the cause is deeper than a lack of effort and keeps experimenting with different approaches until it finds one that works. Rigid thinking stays within itself and spirals deeper into a sense of failure. Flexible thinking voices a need for help and seeks out advice to try. Also, flexible thinking isn’t afraid to throw out an old approach once it has stopped working and find something new!
    2. Creating a new narrative. Sometimes I get in my head and find myself thinking, “I’m going too slow” or, “I don’t have time to sit and plan this out I just need to get to work!” But these are narratives that were handed to me from an early age, and I’ve had to learn to replace them with, “OK – now it’s time to work on this project. What’s next?”
    3. Choosing what is going to dictate my life. Am I guided by a healthy schedule/plan for the day or do I allow a sense of being behind to direct my thoughts and actions?
    4. Refusing to be a perfectionist. I’m a perfectionist, probably with some OCD/OCPD tendencies. I often don’t want to write in a notebook until I know exactly what I want to write – I don’t want to mar the pages with a bunch of scribbles or messy writing! But wise voices in my life have helped me learn to ask myself, “Is it more important that my notebook is perfect or that I get started on this project?”
    5. Learning how YOU start. For me, starting is the hardest part of anything, especially when I need to be self-motivated and self-directed. I’ve found these strategies help:
      1. Break it down. You don’t have to see A to Z to begin a task. You just have to figure out A to B, and then B to C, and eventually you’ll work your way to Z. Think stage 1, stage 2, and so on.
      2. Map it out. Use a piece of paper, a whiteboard, or a notebook. Is it more important to write it out perfectly or to get started on the project?
      3. Walk and work. If possible, hop on a treadmill with your work laptop, set it to 1-2mph, and tell yourself you’re going to walk 2 miles while trying to get started on a task.

It is possible to be productive and work remotely, you just have to find what works for you and keep iterating until you do! Be forgiving of yourself when you fail and strive to make your remote work experience 1% better each day or each week. Little improvements are little victories, and be sure to celebrate them whenever you can.

See you around the digital water cooler 🙂

4 thoughts on “Working Remotely: Tips from a Veteran”

  1. Great advice, it’s kind of difficult at first but once you get the initial setup it’s time to work.

    I haven’t thought about a dedicated computer account it’s very practical idea.

  2. Very good advice. The only difficult one is about finding a physical space / location to work at home – particularly difficult when there is a full house.

    1. Absolutely! In such cases, the only thing that’s helped me is to work off hours (early morning/late night) so I can take advantage of the quiet. But very difficult to sustain, so a good pair of noise cancelling headphones may really be the only long term option.

      If you do go the noise cancelling route, the only thing I’d say is work with the people around you so they understand the headphones are a boundary and when they’re on it means you’re “at work” and they should treat you as such. Be firm but polite when the boundary is crossed and try to keep expectations clear about what it means when they’re on, when they’ll be coming off and you’ll be available again, etc.

      1. I found a small foldout table in the bedroom and noise cancelling headphones are must have when the house is full of people.

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