Interesting times have come. Due to danger of coronavirus spread many organizations decided to switch to the remote work model. Besides the influence on Scrum implementation, this might be a new situation for you personally. At first working from home might seem easy, but without a good approach, it might be difficult to get things done. I have worked many times from home and as Agile Consultants, in QAgile we are all part of a virtual team. A long time ago I noticed that I won’t get much done while seating in my comfortable chair in front of the TV. Thanks to my interest in psychology and coaching I quickly discovered what’s the trick. Let me share my personal experience, few techniques and tricks to be productive and keep work-life balance.
Why working from home is different?
It all boils down to a single and basic psychological mechanism. If you have worked in the office until now, home is associated with pleasure and relaxation. Office working environment has some distinct characteristics, a specific vibe. That makes it different than home. The mechanism which kicks in here is called anchoring or classical conditioning (if you prefer more professional name). Probably you have heard about it already. Classical conditioning was discovered by Ivan Pavlov. Basically, a stimulus creates an automatic reaction. This way your mind and body knows when is the time to work and when is the time to play. You watch the photos from holidays and you get that feeling again. You sit behind your desk and your focus and behaviour changes. You put your bunny slippers and you feel home. So where do you feel now? Home or work?
Build a routine and start your day well
I am always hungry around noon and 6 p.m. My stomach expects I eat at lunchtime and then dinner when I get back home. I remember working from home in my pyjamas. I used to get up between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. I would shower around noon, eat something and get back to work. I couldn’t get much done and I would stay busy till late. Not a very productive way to spend time. When I noticed that pattern I broke it by creating the same routine as for going to the office. I set my alarm clock to 6 a.m. than a shower, shaving, perfumes, work clothes, breakfast. But instead of walking to my car I would sit and start working. Usually, I was able to work the same hours and I got much more done. When I needed to “take work home”, I would break at 5 p.m. and work one hour more after 10 p.m.
Therefore use the same routine as preparing to go to the office. This way your brain gets a clear signal that it is now the time to focus and start working. The most powerful are the smell anchors, that’s why using perfumes or making coffee works very well. What smell do you associate with work?
Actually, for a good and productive day, it’s recommended to create a morning routine. You shouldn’t start a day by going through emails and smartphone notifications. This way you are already unfocused and distracted. Maybe even you will start with a bad mood. First, meditate, do for a walk, exercise, read something inspiring or do whatever that will get you in a good mood. After you can sit and work. If you work 9-5, you can reply to emails around 9 a.m. not 6:30 a.m.
Create a work environment
As I mentioned before, my comfortable chair is the way not to get much done. Why does it work this way? My mind and body associate the chair with relaxing and watching Netflix. The body will become more relaxed, mind will start wondering. Before I notice, I will start browsing memes instead of replying to that important email. Actually it can be the other way around. People who work from their bed have issues with sleep. How can you overcome that?
Create a place which is clearly associated with work. Ideally, it would be an office at home as a separate room. Of course, not everyone can afford it. Then a simple dinner table can be good enough. Convert it into a clear desk. Remove anything that is associated with fun, relax and pleasure from your line of sight. They all are the source of distraction. Do it even just temporarily. Use your company laptop even if you have a VPN or a remote desktop. When you open and close it, you give your mind a clear sign of starting and stopping work. When you work with own laptop create a separate desktop with different background for work. At least close all unnecessary applications and windows.
Take care of your body posture. Put your laptop at your eyesight. You can use books or boxes to do that. Sit up straight with feet flat on the ground. Bending over your laptop will create neck and back pain. Do you know why for meditation it’s advised to sit with your back straight? A straight spine is better for focus. If you don’t have an adjustable office chair. Test different chairs, use pillows.
Another difference between office and home is the ambient sound. Different sounds can distract you. You can hear sounds from household or neighbours. It’s had to focus when you hear grandma playing with the baby of neighbour testing his new additions to drill bits collection. The perfect solution here is noise-cancelling headphones. If you don’t have that just play your favourite music. Music with lyrics can be distracting. You can search for playlists on Spotify. Instead of music, you can try some soundtracks designed for focus. I use brain.fm. I am focused on the few first notes played. Actually I am listening to it writing the very post. If you listen to some radio station in the office, you can play it at home too.
On the contrary, no sounds can be very distractive too. Your brain will start focusing on the background noise and it will amplify it. That is very distracting. Some people also need some level of background noise to focus. You can use noise generators for that such as myNoise. You can also google “white noise generator”. There are plenty of options.
Organizing the work, making plans
It’s harder to organize work at home because of all kinds of distractions around, especially the nice kind. We tend to get done the things we have had no time for yet. Typical ideas are: plant some flowers, moan the lawn, laundry, shopping, watching just one online episode of series. Everything is in the vicinity and keeps troubling your mind. A big source of distractions can come from the family. Your spouse, child or cat wants to use the situation to their advantage and spend more time with you. However, the basic rule here is working from home is not being at home. Talk to your inmates and make an agreement “I need to work and I don’t have time for you”. By the way, if you would be at the office, they would need to deal with that somehow. In return you can have lunch together, you can spend your breaks together, you will be available more since you don’t have to commute.
In case you need to take care of the child, create a plan of the day with your spouse and child. Actually planning together with the whole family is a very good idea. Do it with your agendas opened. For example, I need 2h uninterrupted work from 10:00 and I have a call at 2 p.m., the rest is flexible. So I can cook the lunch today and play with the kid for till 2 p.m. This way you can spread the home duties and cooperate. Creating a plan in the morning leads to better expectations management and less frustration later. Of course, you can inspect and adapt on the way.
Create the plan of the day. A lot of people doesn’t like creating plans thinking it is limiting their personal freedom. the truth is quite the opposite. When you don’t make a plan for the day you end up in a situation of no work done and no fun. It’s hard to see the end of work and know when to stop. Create a plan that covers breaks at work, lunch break, the start of fun. The minimal option is to have at least a TO DO list. Seeing progress on the list gives the motivation to do further work. Input to the plan of today is the plan from (March 24, 2020) plus the new work identified i.e. from e-mail. But first, start with the goal for today. What is the single, most important thing you need to do today? You can think about it like planning one-day Sprints. First the goal, then the tasks, then ask yourself if you have the capacity to do anything more. Order the list and go from top-down. Looking at the list from (March 24, 2020) ask yourself if there is value in doing the undone tasks or maybe they are irrelevant today. Creating a longer and longer list by moving tasks over demotivates.
Create state of flow
You need to get into the flow state to do creative work. It’s hard to get into that state, but very easy to lose it. Distractions will get you out of the state quickly. Therefore, when you have a feeling like being in the flow, turn off notifications in your smartphone and laptop. On Macs, you can use the Do Not Disturb option. Let others know that you need time to focus. When you are in the state, work on the task until you finish it. If you keep breaking the state, the total time spent will grow. Of course, this can influence your plan of the day, so you should adapt.
Mark your progress by striking the items on TO DO list, moving post-its on your desk, moving virtual post it on a virtual board. When your brain sees the progress, you will have the motivation to work further. At the end of workday review your work, the plan and do a quick retrospective. Make notes for tomorrow and close your laptop.
Plan clear end of work, to boost your motivation with the vision of the end. Especially at home, the flow of new tasks won’t end easily. I own a company, so literally, I could work on new tasks 24/7. But when you are not rested well, you will see that your pace of work will decrease and you will start making mistakes. Good rest is very important for regeneration. You want to have also time for your family and hobbies. Working overtime is good for short periods. If you push to hard stress and wear will have the effect.
There are some more practices to organize your work. Sometimes just starting with something will get you going. Do something in the most unpleasant or lengthy task. If you have something unpleasant to do on your list start there first. Some say that when you start your day by eating a frog, the rest comes easy. If the task is overwhelming, probably it’s too big. Slice it to smaller. Finish writing book – too much. Finish a chapter today – better. Write one section in the chapter – easy. How to eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
If you see no progress at a task, take a break and refresh. You can also switch to a small, simple task and come back later. It’s called the Zeigarnik effect. Sometimes when I see it’s getting late and I can not get the blog post finished, I stop working on it and start again tomorrow. It works every time.
Watch your activity period. During the day we have different activity periods. Check when you are the most creative and plan accordingly. Do meetings and simple work in a different part fo the day. For me, it’s between 7 and 11 in the morning.
Take care of your body
Plan some breaks. If you have a smartwatch, which prompts you to get up every 1.5h, great. Do it. If not, plan it manually. It’s hard to focus for over 1.5 hours and your body fatigues from the sitting position. Sometimes the best ideas come in the shower, on a walk, or some other place where you do other stuff. You can use the pomodoro technique which lets you keep the balance between focused work and rest.
Take care of the water level in your body. Water is needed to send electrical signals in your brain and for the overall body chemistry to work correctly. We are built of over 70% water anyhow. If you don’t have a habit of drinking water, watch your body. Your lips are running dry, you don’t remember when you went to the toilet the last time? Drink a glass of water. Watch your coffee intake. Although coffee is made with water, drinking too much dehydrates your body. I noticed that when facilitating classes I drink water and juices only, I have more energy. On those days I drink coffee only in the morning and after lunch.
Peer pressure can be a source of motivation, for some, it’s a crucial one. You also need to feel like part of a team. Therefore, chat, call, video call with others. Knowing what others are doing or that they are waiting on you motivates. Do a little chit-chat, off-topic. Talk about news and sports like you would do at work at the water cooler. It helps to simulate working in a team. There is research showing that being isolated from others makes people feel worse and we are more likely to get sick. Talking to others daily is even more important in the current situation.
Efficient work from home is possible. There are many tools and techniques you can use. But most important, create an environment and take care of your self. Experiment and see what works best for you.