With still no obvious end in sight, the pandemic has irreversibly changed the way we work. Time will tell if that is true but one thing is for sure – working from home is now a viable career option. In this post I want to write about some best practices for being more productive while working from home.
Pre-pandemic I had been working from home for about 5 years as a consultant. I did my sessions online so when the pandemic hit, it didn’t really have much impact on my work-life. Staying productive working from home was something I had been doing for years already.
Before getting into the details of implementing these practices, here they are. Three tools and three ideas to be more productive working from home.
- To Read List/Pile
- Daily List
- Meal Plan
- Schedule Email Time
- Location Matters
Read on to find out how you can use these best practices to fuel your productivity working from home.
Create a To Read List to Stay More Productive at Home
Regardless of what kind of work you do, you invariably get sent or find things you need to read. It might be an internal report or article by an industry insider. Or it could be part of a training course you are taking to upgrade your skill set. It could simply be something you wrote and need to edit.
Adding to this the reading you do for pleasure such as blogs, novels or non-fiction, you end up with a pile of reading material to get through.
Or do you?
In real life we rarely end up with a pile of reading material. We actually end up with a book on the shelf and one on the coffee table, a report in an email from 2 weeks ago, a blog post saved in your favorites in google chrome on your laptop and some course material in the top drawer of your desk.
Due to the variety of reading material we have to read nowadays, it tends to spread itself across our lives. This makes it especially hard to keep track of. We’ve all had those days scouring google trying to find that article we saw last week. We look through our search history and it’s not there and whatever we google that purple link just doesn’t appear.
It’s not only a chore trying to keep track of it all, it also makes it harder to decide what to read.
It’s 4pm and you’ve done your important tasks for the day. You decide that you have enough time to do some reading. You see the training material in your top drawer and you know that there is that report you need to get through in your inbox but you have a nagging feeling that there might be something more urgent or important that you should read.
Without all your options in front of you, you can never trust that you are making the right decision. Even if you do manage to remember all the things you have to read, trying to compare them all in your head is just too much of a feat of memory for our minds to perform.
The average mind can only hold 4-7 things in it’s short term memory. As soon as it tries to do any analysis with those things, something gets pushed out.
The solution is a simple ‘to read’ list. Every time you get some new reading material, add it to a running ‘to read’ list (along with where it is.) You could do this on your computer or phone but nothing beats the speed of pen and paper. Speed is what you need for a list like this, if it takes more than a few seconds to add an item to the list, you just wont do it.
If you keep a bullet journal with you at all times, create a ‘to read’ collection and bookmark it. If not, just put a piece of paper in the top drawer of your desk that you can pull out whenever you need to.
Use the 2 minute rule to make your to do list more effective. If it only takes a couple of minutes to read, read it then instead of adding it to your list.
You’ll never have to worry about where to find your materials again. More importantly, you will be able to make the best decision on what to read. With all your choices in front of you, you can compare and decide what really is the most productive use of your time.
If you keep strict work hours, you could separate your list between Work and Pleasure. If you’d like everything in one place combine them for a single master list.
You Need an Inbox to be More Productive Working From Home
One big difference when you start working at home is that there are less reminders of work. In the office, you walk past Jenny’s desk and it reminds you, “Oh right I need to finish that report for Jenny.” Or when the finance manager arrives late and you remember that you need to send in your monthly expenses.
An inbox can serve as your own personal reminder system.
An inbox is something I’ve used ever since I started GTD about 15 years ago. It is an amazing productivity tool that allows you to send messages to yourself, to delegate tasks to your future self and to capture ideas as they come without pulling focus from the task at hand.
But you don’t need to be on GTD to get the productivity benefits of an inbox.
Over the years I’ve used physical in trays on my desk and digital inboxes both on my laptop and phone. They can all work well depending on your own workflow. As I wrote the word “workflow” it gave me an idea to write a post on setting up a workflow which I just captured into my inbox in a few seconds and returned to writing this article. – This is the benefit of keeping an inbox.
Whenever a thought like that comes to me, I quickly note it down and put it in my inbox. But it’s not only potential ideas that I put in my inbox, sometimes I might just write a note to myself “Smile Today Greg.” If you don’t keep a todo list, you can also use the inbox to delegate to yourself.
If there is a task you just don’t have time to do today, note it down and put it in your inbox, future you will see it and do it for you.
The Real Magic of the Inbox
The real magic of the inbox doesn’t come from putting things into it though, it’s from taking things out.
More important than the habit of putting things into your inbox, is emptying your inbox and taking action. If you have tasks in there that you have previously self-delegated, do them or leave them for the next day. If there is a task that you continuously avoid doing, ask yourself if you need to do it at all.
Ideas and potential tasks that you quickly jotted down, will need to be fleshed out and defined before you can do them.
If you want to set this up an in-tray like this one is all you need. I even used a shoe box on the edge of my desk years ago. If you want to set up a digital version, any list management application will work fine. You could just as easily use a running text file or word document.
Be More Productive With a Daily List
Deciding on as much as possible in the morning when you’re still fresh will reduce the number of decisions you need to make later on.
Will power and brain power are inexplicably linked in ways that we still don’t completely understand. In Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, Baumeister shows how doing tasks and making decisions throughout the day weakens your willpower. This is why we are more likely to give into temptation in the evening such as ordering a less healthy option or having that post work tipple.
Conversely as you use your willpower throughout the day, making decisions becomes harder, we call it decision fatigue. If you’ve ever had a hard day and gotten home and just felt unable to decide what to make for dinner, you know about decision fatigue.
In the morning your brain power and willpower are at their strongest, which is why people rarely feel the need to drink or binge watch shows just after waking.
We can use the morning time to pre-decide as many part of our day as possible. One easy way to do this is to make a daily list.
What is a daily list?
A Daily list is a todo list on steroids.
Many people make todo lists but what they put on those lists is only a fraction of what they should. An average todo list might contain your most important tasks for the day. But what do you do when those tasks are done? What are you going to make for lunch? For dinner? What order are you going to do those tasks? And what happens if something else comes up, what is expendable on your list?
A daily list is a plan for the day which presupposes that you might get interrupted or asked to do something else. A daily list contains the things you have to get done that day, and the things you’d like to get done. It’s ordered so you know what to do first and what’s next. And it includes any other decisions you might need to make, such as what to have for lunch.
By pre-deciding all these things, you can save your brain power for doing your tasks during the day. We’ve all stared at a todo list not knowing what we should do next, the daily list solves this problem.
How to make a daily list
If you have a running action list or a projects list with your tasks or projects on it, get it out. As you sit down with your morning coffee look through it.
- Write your most important tasks onto your daily list. Don’t worry about the order yet.
- Add any other tasks you’d like to get done if you have the time.
- What other decisions could you make now to save yourself later on?
- What to eat
- Where to work
- What to do in the gym
- Emails to send
- Activities for your kids
- Clothes to wear
- Chores to do
- The final step of making your daily list is to order your list. Write a number next to each task and circle it.
This might be difficult the first couple of times but once you have made a daily list a few times you will have a good idea of what you can pre-decide and it will become a 2 minute job to create the list.
When you start work all you need to do is look at your list and start doing number 1, once finished go onto number two etc.
You’ll be surprised at how well this simple productivity hack works. I made a whole post on daily todo lists, take a look if you want to know more.
Plan Your Meals When Working From Home
Do you ever get to lunch time and realize you have nothing to make for lunch? When you spend the morning working from home, you don’t want to interrupt your flow by having to prepare lunch or even thinking about what to have. Meal planning is the answer.
Meal planning is essentially batch making or batch preparing food for future meals. This saves you some time but more importantly it means you can make/prep your food when you want to (like Sunday evening) instead of when you’re hungry (like Monday morning.)
You don’t want to waste your most productive time of day chopping and frying! Stay productive at home by working when your switched on and use your down time to prepare your meals.
I don’t pre-cook my meals (though many people do,) rather I portion my meals and freeze them. Each morning I just pull out a portion for lunch and work while it defrosts. By lunch time I just need to cook it (usually by frying) which only takes a few minutes.
Using this method of preparing my food I can prep a whole months worth of meals in under an hour. I have a large chest freezer to accommodate so many meals. Even just preparing a week’s meals is a game changer though.
Bodybuilder’s use meal planning because they have to eat so much to gain muscle. Even if you’re not planning on becoming Mr. Olympia any time soon, you can still learn some great tips from bodybuilders that you can use in your own meal planning.
Is it Healthy?
Meal Planning gives you the best shot at being healthy. According to this article on LiveStrong.com, the main reason people choose an unhealthy food option is it’s convenience. Often times there isn’t a healthy option conveniently available and so junk food becomes the easier choice.
Having pre-prepared or pre-cooked food ready to go at all times means you never need the unhealthy option. The healthy option becomes the easy choice! You become much more mindful of what you eat and if you want some fast food occasionally, feel much less guilty about it.
Don’t Keep Email Open All Day to Stay Productive at Home
For all the good email does us, it is by far the biggest distraction in the workplace, and it’s the same whether you are in the office or at home.
Hearing that received-email sound immediately pulls your attention away from whatever you are doing. And even if you don’t check what the new email is, something in the back of your mind will be wondering. The willpower that you use in not looking at the email will detract from your limited supply for the rest of the day, making you more prone to making bad decisions and giving into temptation later on in the day.
For many years I worked as an Application Specialist in an IT department in Beijing, most of my work came through email. But if I was working on something, there was nothing I could do about the email that just arrived in my inbox. I had a 24 hour turnaround time on urgent tasks so as long as I checked email at least once a day, nothing would fall through the cracks.
Setup an Email Routine
Unless email is the main responsibility of your job, you should keep it closed and pre-decide when you are going to check email. In fact even if email is your main responsibility, you may want to do this.
I set up a routine of checking email three times a day, once in the morning, once after lunch and once more about an hour before the end of the day. This worked well, and allowed me to stay focused on the task at hand.
Create a Space at Home for Each Aspect of You’re Job
Location Matters. There are very few people nowadays that have a one-dimensional job, so you probably wear multiple hats as part of your work. You might have to speak with clients on zoom but also write up your interactions. Or you may spend part of your day doing market research and the other part creating reports with suggestions for marketing campaigns. You may be a writer but also spend part of your day doing research.
A huge benefit of working remotely is that you are no longer tied to your desk, use that to your benefit! Create a space for each of the functions of your job. Create writing area with a comfortable chair and keyboard setup, if you need to do planning, the space that a dining table gives you can be invaluable for spreading out your ideas, allowing you to make connections between lists, mind-maps and other details all at once.
If you have a space for creative work and a space for more logical work, your mind will be able to quickly shift into the correct mode when you enter the space.
If you’ve ever fallen asleep while trying to read in bed you’ll understand this. Your brain associates the bed with sleep, not reading, so that’s what it wants to do there. If you always write while sitting on a certain chair, as soon as you sit down, your brain knows what is expected of it and reacts accordingly.
List out the main functions of your job and find a good space for each. At the very least, don’t work where you play. If you spend every evening sat on the sofa watching Netflix, trying to convince your mind that you should get work done on that sofa will be an uphill struggle. The same is true if you play video games on your work laptop, your mind will struggle to get into work mode when it could be playing World of Warcraft!
If you don’t have the space to create separate locations at home for work, you can also do this with lighting and music. Create a lighting setup or a certain playlist that you always listen to while working, your mind will quickly understand that when the music starts or the lighting changes that it’s time to get things done.
I recently made a post with 27 examples of music for productivity, concentration and deep work, if you’re stuck for ideas, check it out!
- Create a space for each function of your job
- Don’t work where you play
- Use difference lighting or music to ‘change’ a location
By just using one or two of these ideas you can really start to up your working-at-home game!
Originally from the U.K, Greg has lived in Asia for over 15 years. Fluent in a handful of languages, he ran a management consultancy before creating Face Dragons. He spends his time now traveling around Asia, writing, taking photos, and drinking coffee.