Work from Home Tips: How to Stay Sane, Healthy, and Productive
As I’ve heard from friends and family members over the past few weeks of lockdown, I’ve gotten one question more than any other:
“How do you stay sane working from home? I get distracted too easily, or I get ‘cabin fever’ if I stay inside all day. And even if I still have a job, it’s so much harder to communicate with everyone remotely.”
I started working from home in 2008, just before the last crisis.
Over the past ~12 years, I’ve never gone to an office for work, and I’ve hired everyone via email and the phone.
I’ve never even met most of the team in real life.
I’m so used to this lifestyle that the past few weeks have barely been an adjustment for me.
I could probably write a book on how to work from home successfully, but I’ll keep this a bit shorter and separate it into individual productivity, co-worker/client interactions, and health/sanity:
I am assuming here that you:
- Are a “knowledge worker” where your job consists of producing documents, talking on the phone, writing code, creating content, doing design work, or something similar; or, maybe you’re a student whose classes have moved online.
- Are not in a management position, so you do the work rather than just review it.
- Are confined to your home or apartment, with limited opportunities to leave each day.
- Do not have young kids and do not have to look after young kids all day.
If you do have young kids, that is the equivalent of 1.5-2.0 full-time jobs, so you won’t be able to do anything else.
You do not necessarily have to be in “finance” to use these tips, as I’m making this list more general.
If you’re currently unemployed, most of the points in this list also apply – it’s just that you’ll be spending your time applying to jobs or freelance roles or completing self-study instead.
Work from Home Tips, Part 1: How to Be Productive as an Individual
With productivity, the biggest challenge is avoiding distractions at home: family members, Netflix, YouTube, videogames, and so on.
On the other hand, some people also struggle with working too much or attempting to squeeze in too many tasks each day, which results in burnout.
We’ll cover both problems here:
Wake Up and Get Dressed – Even If You Could Be Naked All Day
You do not want to contribute to that trend because you’ll be far less productive if you’re half-naked all day.
You’ll be tempted to sit in bed working on your laptop, which makes it even harder to concentrate on work.
Something about getting ready and wearing normal clothes – not necessarily a suit, but at least “business casual” – puts you in the right mindset.
Separate Your Spaces and Your Devices
It’s easy to get distracted with Netflix, YouTube, Facebook, WhatsApp, Reddit, videogames, etc. if you’re not separating your spaces and devices.
I have a small, separate room that I use only for specific tasks: Excel, PowerPoint, and video recording and editing.
I create an environment where distraction is impossible because my computer in this room doesn’t have games, streaming accounts, or social media accounts.
I can’t even use my phone because whenever I go into this room, I start charging my phone in a separate area.
For other types of work, such as writing articles and responding to emails, I have a separate space in another room and a different laptop.
Finally, I use my couch only for reading books, watching TV/movies, and playing games.
Yes, it’s harder to do this if you’re living in a 1-room apartment, but you can still use different devices and different spots for different tasks.
Schedule 2-3 Hours of “Distractions” per Day
It’s not possible to do 16 hours of high-intensity work every day and keep doing that for weeks at a time… all while you’re confined in a small space.
So, I accept that 100% productivity is impossible and purposely schedule a few hours of non-work activities each day.
My “distraction schedule” looked like this the past few days:
- Monday: Complete a 60-minute home workout; go for a walk; watch Homeland (Season 8, Episode 9).
- Tuesday: Watch Better Call Saul (Season 5, Episode 8); play 2 hours of The Witcher 3.
- Wednesday: Complete a 60-minute home workout; buy pet supplies; watch Westworld (Season 3, Episode 4).
Sometimes I make each distraction an “achievement” for finishing a specific task.
Work in 45-60-Minute Sprints
You’ll get much better results working from home if you do it in “sprints,” where you focus on one task for 45-60 minutes, take a quick break, and then return right after.
If you live with other humans, you could say hi to them during these break times.
You could also take a quick walk or play a simple mobile game for 3-5 minutes.
I sometimes do one of these, but I also take a few minutes out to play catch with my cat (who acts more like a dog).
If you’re on calls all day, you should be able to set up your schedule with breaks in between each call.
If not, you might need to enforce this practice by using a timer or one of my favorite apps for time-tracking, Toggl.
Make a To-Do List with One Too Many Items Each Day
Everyone says that you “need a routine” when you work from home, or that you still need to follow some type of schedule.
And I agree, especially when you’re first starting.
But how do you plan out what you’ll do each day?
My favorite tool here is Workflowy, which lets you make simple to-do lists.
Before going to sleep, I make a list of tasks for the next day, but I always include one more task than I’ll actually be able to complete.
For example, here’s my list for today:
I know with 100% certainty that I will not be able to complete that last task – writing notes and creating an Excel file for a new lesson in a revised course.
It’s probably a 3-hour task, so, at best, I might finish only part of it.
But that’s the point: partial completion creates momentum to finish the rest of it tomorrow.
And it immediately gives me the first task for tomorrow’s to-do list.
Work from Home Tips, Part 2: How to Interact with Co-workers, Superiors, and Clients
Communicating with people remotely is… different.
Interactions are lower fidelity, which means that you must use simple, direct language to make your points.
Online chats and emails are not the places for subtlety because subtlety requires body language and voice tones for proper understanding.
Overcommunicate with Projects, Deliverables, and Plans
Managers and clients often panic when they can’t see you in person: how else could they know if you’re working rather than watching Tiger King on Netflix?
The key is to overcommunicate what you’re doing – especially when you’re new to remote work.
Instead of weekly status updates, move to quick, daily updates.
If you won’t finish a presentation for another few days, let everyone know in advance rather than waiting for someone to ask you about it.
And don’t hesitate to send a “draft” version so they can at least see what you’re working on.
Pick the Right Medium for the Message
Everyone now seems obsessed with Zoom: in-person meetings have moved there, families do reunions there, and people have even gotten married via video (!).
Zoom and other live video chat apps have their place, but they’re often misused.
In 90% of cases, it’s more efficient to communicate via standard email, text-chat applications like Slack, and project-management software such as Wrike, Basecamp, and Asana.
- People like to ramble via the phone or video, but no one likes to type a lot, so text forces brevity and clarity.
- Text means that there’s a permanent record for everyone in your group to review – which is not possible with video or voice unless you pay for transcripts.
- When you’re working across different time zones, asynchronous communication is far more practical than forcing people to join calls at 3 AM their time.
We never use live video chat for internal work tasks.
Even when we do use Zoom, it’s usually for screen sharing, which is useful for sharing presentations and designs and getting quick feedback.
Assume That Everything You Say Online is Recorded and Archived Forever
That “permanent record” point above also has a dark side: everything you do online will be saved.
Therefore, you cannot make off-color jokes or controversial comments in the same way you did at the watercooler, or when you went out to get coffee or food.
Those comments could easily come back to haunt you when you’re up for a promotion next year, or when you run for political office in 10 or 20 years.
Keep all text-based communication factual, clear, and uncontroversial.
And if you have to say something sensitive or controversial, do it over the phone (yes, it could still be recorded, but the chances are lower).
Expect Blunt Comments Online, and “Discount” Them Appropriately
You might have noticed that the Internet is a cesspool of anger and negativity.
That happens for several reasons, but one big one is that there are fewer “barriers” and social cues online.
A random person might post a 3-page rant on Reddit explaining why XYZ is terrible and then rebut every single comment for hours.
But in real life, in an office environment, that same person would sit in a corner and never even bring it up because doing so would make them look ridiculous.
In work terms, this means that you’ll often get blunt, harsh feedback and comments.
It’s difficult to convey “tone” via text and voice – even video chat isn’t great at it – so people have trouble softening their messages.
So, you should apply a “discount” to these comments and not take them personally.
Work from Home Tips, Part 3: How to Maintain Your Sanity and Health
Finally, but perhaps most importantly, how can you maintain your mental and physical health?
Staying inside all day tends to produce “cabin fever,” but you can’t do much outside because of the quarantine.
Here’s what I recommend:
Allocate Skill Points to the “Isolation” Tree or the “Interaction” Tree
If you live alone, you are probably going insane because of isolation: even the biggest introverts need some amount of human interaction.
But if you’re living with your family, kids, a significant other, or roommates, you’re probably going insane because of the lack of breathing room.
If you’re in the first category, try to schedule 2-3 catch-up calls with friends and family members each week.
If you’re in the second category, find ways to create space for yourself and get outside the house occasionally (see below).
One simple strategy is to use “signals” that tell other people that you’re busy or cannot talk right now.
For example, wear headphones or close the door to indicate “Not Available,” or even put a small sign with your current status on the back of your laptop.
If you’re in a tiny space with multiple other people, you cannot do that much, but most likely, you’re in a home with at least several rooms if that’s you.
Alternate Between Sitting, Standing, and Kneeling
It is terrible for your posture and overall health if you sit in one spot for 8-10+ hours per day.
You could buy a standing desk, but it’s not necessary if you have some spare furniture: just create a makeshift desk.
I did this by putting a smaller table on top of a desk and then using a smaller stand for my keyboard and mouse, sort of like the $22 standing desk shown here.
But I don’t stand all the time: I have an Aeron-like chair right in front of my DIY standing desk, and I switch between standing, kneeling, and sitting throughout the day.
You might think this is silly, but it makes a big difference in back pain and other ailments, and it also burns hundreds of additional calories per day.
Switch to Home-Workout Routines and Still Follow a Reasonable Diet
I covered “investment banking fitness” in a much older article, and most of the tips there still apply (ignore the one about eating more frequently – it doesn’t necessarily help).
During the lockdown, you’ll be tempted to eat junk food all the time or to become an alcoholic.
As with distractions, it’s best to accept that this will happen to some extent and then plan it into your schedule so you can control it.
For example, I do not drink alcohol on weekdays, but I’ll allow 100-200 calories’ worth on weekends.
Exercise is much harder or outright impossible from home.
I live on the 4th floor of an old apartment building, and if I started doing deadlifts here, the floor would probably collapse, killing the 80-year old living right below.
You could order a treadmill, squat rack, and other gym equipment, but there’s a simpler and cheaper alternative: walk a lot (see below) and use furniture for strength-training workouts.
I’ve been following these two workout plans:
- ATHLEAN-X – This one is more advanced and requires a pull-up bar for the best results.
- Jeremy Ethier – This one is doable with a table, chairs, and bed sheets.
If you do either one legitimately, you can burn 300-400 calories in 60 minutes.
Go Outside Once a Day While Wearing a Mask/Other Protective Gear
Yes, yes, I know… #stayathomesavelives.
I’m not suggesting that you host a barbecue or complete a triathlon while a deadly virus is on the loose.
But if you stay inside all day every single day, you will go insane and eventually kill yourself.
So, put on your protective gear – I use a mask, sunglasses, hat, and jacket – and aim for 4,000 – 5,000 steps outside each day.
I usually take my walk in the middle of the day, in between Big Task #1 and Big Task #2.
Finish with Fiction
Most likely, you’ve been spending a lot of time reading every coronavirus-related story in the news.
If you do this too much, it’s easy to get dragged down into constant negativity and end-of-the-world thinking.
So, here’s a simple tweak to combat that urge: right before you go to sleep, read fiction.
This fiction should be an easy read; if you try Shakespeare, Dickens, or Dostoevsky, you’ll have to use too much brainpower just to process the language.
I’ve already read A Song of Ice and Fire cover-to-cover 3 times, so I’ve been alternating between other fantasy and sci-fi series lately.
You don’t want to be in “analyze the symbolism” mode or “we’re all going to die” mode right before you sleep.
Is Remote Work Here to Stay?
Even after the virus crisis subsides, “work from home” is here to stay.
Yes, more people will go back to their offices, but plenty of companies will realize the benefits of remote work: cheaper rent, less office politics, and lower employee turnover.
The truth is, in most “knowledge worker jobs,” you already act like you’re working remotely even if you’re physically at the office.
You might show up, email or call some people, work on a presentation, and then complete more calls and emails… so, why even bother going to the office?
Bankers are not going to close $10+ billion M&A deals without in-person interaction and meetings, but many parts of the process will shift online.
If you use this time as a practice run, you’ll be ahead of the curve for the move to remote work everywhere – and you might just maintain your health and sanity in the process.
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