It would be an understatement to say that there is a lot going on right now. And it would be a waste of time to sum up all the changes and fears you are probably experiencing right now. I’m experiencing them too, and honestly, I’m getting tired of talking about them already.
I’m a big fan of talking about what I know and shutting up about the rest. So I’ll tell you what I know. I’ve been working remotely since 2016. I started building websites in a 10ft x 8ft bedroom that I virtually never left. My “work/life” balance was non-existent; working was my life. It had a detrimental effect on my mental state.
Over time, I’ve inched my way into a pretty solid physical and mental remote work lifestyle. I learned how to say no, how to prioritize, and how to manage my time. I’m now fortunate enough to live in a 2 bedroom apartment where I can have an entire room to myself, just for work.
But I remember how hard it was to go from a bright, cheery office full of people to being completely alone in your living room day after day.
And so if you’re reading all the tweets and think-pieces on how to work remotely and not feeling like they speak to you, give me a moment of your time. A lot of working from home is about having a dedicated space and putting on pants, sure. But it’s about a lot of other things too and they all begin with you.
Remote work may not be for you.
That’s a scary thing to consider if you’re now being forced to work from home. If this isn’t for you, but you don’t have a choice, how are you supposed to move forward? How can you be successful at your job if you’re being asked to excel in a sub-par environment?
But you can be better at it.
The things that make someone good at working from home are all learned mindset behaviors. This may be an opportunity for you to look at the way you are and determine what you can work on about yourself to make remote work easier.
I can’t speak to the needs of individuals with kids or other responsibilities that are now encroaching on your work life. But I can speak to learning how to adapt from one environment to another.
Work on Discipline
Self-discipline is “the ability to control one’s feelings and overcome one’s weaknesses; the ability to pursue what one thinks is right despite temptations to abandon it.”
I have always lacked discipline when it comes to holding myself accountable to things. I don’t always control my feelings well, I’m impatient, and often give in to temptation. With remote work, maybe that’s goofing off or not sticking to the schedules I’ve created for yourself.
Working alone, without people around you to keep you on track, requires lots of discipline. Having other humans around us makes us feel grounded. Without that it’s easy to feel like a lone island, disconnected from others.
If you’re bad at self-discipline, first acknowledge it, then find ways to make it easier on yourself.
- Create rules for yourself and follow them. Publish those rules somewhere – either in your home or online – so you and others can see them.
- Connect with an accountability partner. Have daily check-ins with them where you set goals that you can reasonably expect to meet. Talk to each other about how you feel and how you’re coping.
- Co-work virtually with others via a Zoom call. Not being around other people can make focusing for long periods of time difficult. Even just seeing someone else working on your screen in real-time can make you feel more accountable.
- Schedule in break time so you don’t feel like you have an unending chunk of nothing but work in front of you. The Pomodoro method is great for keeping yourself focused.
- Reward yourself by planning fun indoor activities with your family or by yourself in the evening when you’ve had a productive day.
Work on Balance
Striving for balance is how I strive for happiness. But balance looks different to different people. With remote work, it doesn’t mean spending 50% of your day on work and 50% of your day on the rest of your life. Balance means monitoring how you feel and how you think and addressing extremes.
I think of it like a thermometer. There is a region in the middle of balance where I feel I have a handle on both sides of my life. If I am unable to focus on work and I don’t get enough done, the level falls. If I work too much and don’t get enough “me” time, the thermometer goes up.
Journaling about how you feel in the mornings and in the evenings can help you gauge your own thermometer. If you didn’t feel productive, maybe you need to reevaluate your schedule or routine. If you feel overworked or overwhelmed, try to work in more breaks or relaxing activities in the evenings.
Balance doesn’t just happen on it’s own. It takes consistent work and no one has it down perfectly all the time. Sometimes, you need to ask for help to achieve that balance and that’s okay.
Work on Structure
My favorite method for creating structure in my day is to have set times for set chunks of my day, with buffers and floats built in. For example, a day in my remote work life looks like this:
7am: Wake up and get ready for the day.
8am: Side projects/emails, sometimes meetings
1pm: Lunch/sometimes meetings
6pm: Side projects/emails, sometimes meetings
7pm: Start making dinner
7:30pm: Eat dinner
8pm: Leisure/TV/video game time
10pm or 11pm: Bed
I don’t stick to that schedule exactly every single day. If I need to run an errand at 10am, I’ll shift my work time down. Maybe I’ll work through lunch. Maybe I’ll order food or eat leftovers and have more leisure time. Maybe I’ll sleep until 8:45 and just make it to my laptop in time.
Regardless of how many little edits I make, this is the backbone of my day. When all else fails, I know what I expect from myself. I know that if I do stick exactly to this schedule, I will accomplish everything I need to in a given day.
Even within those 8 hours of “work” time, I create for myself, these are the same structures that I would have if I was working in an office. You probably had/have these workday routines already created. When working from home, it’s important to rely on them more than ever.
Work on Communication
I have found that one of the biggest problems people have with working virtually with others is communication. If you don’t communicate well, efficiently, accurately… you won’t be good at remote work. Miscommunication breeds contempt, resentment, frustration, and stress.
There are millions of books, courses, videos, and other resources about communication. It’s one of the most important parts of being human. I won’t pretend to be an expert on communicating. But here are some factors I find important in remote-work/virtual communication:
Being responsive to your team is incredibly important. This doesn’t mean you should be online 24/7 or constantly be sending out messages. But find a system that works for you for making sure you always follow up on every message.
Most email inboxes will remind you if you haven’t replied to something in a while. Slack will allow you to star messages, which I use as a “for later” tool that I check multiple times per day. Use this guide if you’re just getting started with a system like Slack.
Communication is 50% listening. Read, and sometimes re-read, messages you get. Think about what the other person is actually saying. What are they feeling? What is the context behind this request, question, or statement? Is the problem they’re having indicative of a larger problem?
Written text is worse at conveying tone and nuance than talking face-to-face. And sometimes a message can come off differently than it was meant. Always answer from a place of empathy, assume positive intent, and request clarification whenever you need it.
This may be harder to adapt to if you’re used to writing professional emails or depending on the industry you’re in. Be conscious of the tone of your writing, even for the smallest things. Make sure that your messages do actually represent how you feel.
- “Yes” reads differently than “Yes!”
- Emojis are actually your friend, when used sparingly/wisely.
- Lean into descriptive language and adjectives that more accurately express what you’re feeling.
- Efficient doesn’t mean sparse. “Thank you” is very different from “I really appreciate what you did, thank you for your hard work.”
When we are all remote, we crave humanity. We crave connection and emotion. Be the person to provide that for others.
Work on Introspection
If you’re feeling that you aren’t adjusting as well as you can to remote work, figure out why. Yes, it’s hard. It’s hard on everyone. But it’s possible. People have done it before and they’ll do it after. If you’re struggling, figure out what part of your personality or habits are in the way that you can work on.
I’m not saying change who you are overnight. I’m saying that focusing on learned behaviors and self-improvement will be more beneficial to you than just saying, “I’m bad at this, and I’ll continue to be bad at it, until I can go back to the office.”
Introspection and self-improvement requires a certain amount of personal accountability, humility, and honesty. Determine what your weaknesses are that make it hard for you to work remotely. Admit them to yourself. Talk them over with others. Then make a game plan.
Earlier I mentioned journaling. This is a great way to identify patterns in your habits and thought processes. Once you identify those patterns, you can address them. Journaling looks different to different people. It doesn’t have to be a “dear diary” type of entry. Use bullet points. Create your own “fill in the blank” or free write what you’re feeling. The point is to create an account for yourself that you can look at over time to reflect on how you’re doing. The mobile app Daylio is my favorite journaling technique – it sends you reminders, has tracking tools, and will even just let you log an emoji to mark your mood.
Work on Self-reliance
There are parts of our day that we rely on to “prepare us” for work. Maybe it’s the fact that you work in an office with people you like. Maybe it’s a commute to work you enjoy or spending some time at the gym in the morning. Whatever you relied on, you cannot fully rely on anymore.
What is it about that activity that you felt prepared you for work? Maybe on your commute, you liked listening to your favorite podcast. Instead, listen to it while you get ready in the morning. If it was the gym that got you in the right headspace, find workouts you can do at home.
Sometimes, there won’t be a substitution. So instead, you have to rely on yourself. You have to trust that you are what makes you good at your job, not your routine, not your environment, not other people. Those are all fantastic things with value. But consider the fact that you were hired for your skills and experience, not for your morning routine.
Overall, do the best you can
The key word here is “you.” The best that you can is not the best that someone else can, and that’s okay. Some people take to remote work like a fish to water. That won’t be everyone’s story.
Say no sometimes. Admit that you have a mental and emotional capacity that needs to be prioritized. You won’t be effective at your job if you’re paralyzed by uncertainty, stress, or fear.
Understand your own limits and boundaries. This comes from testing them. Once you have an idea of them, communicate them to others. Accept the limits and boundaries of others, even if they don’t fully align with your own.
Experiment with and learn about what makes you effective. Most people prefer working in a dedicated room, with no distractions, fully dressed like they were going out. But if that doesn’t feel right, figure something else out. Maybe you work better in the evening than morning. Maybe you need music, maybe you don’t. Determine what habits make you feel productive and follow those instincts if you can.
Understand that this is uncharted water for you. Make strong decisions when you aren’t sure what the right or wrong thing is. And don’t be afraid to change your mind if you need to.
The line between home life/work life has disappeared. You must create it. Share that line with others and don’t be afraid to speak up if someone oversteps the line.
Adapt. It’s what we’re good at as human beings.