I've been working from home for four years - here's what I've learnt. 22 in-depth practical ideas to action today.
18 minute read - Hadleigh Fischer
While many people are now grudgingly getting used to the reality of working from home, it’s something I’ve been doing regularly over the last four years as I’ve built Resilience Agenda from just me to a team of four working around the world.
It hasn't always been as easy as it sounded, and staying productive and creating distance between your work life and home life requires constant attention. Having said that, it’s like anything in life – we get to choose our attitude to it. We either have to work from home, or we get to work from home.
For many people who were previously not permitted to work from home, this is an opportunity to explore what they felt they were missing out on. Sometimes we have to be careful what we wish for.
And so in these strange and turbulent times when so much seems up in the air, I wanted to share with you what I’ve learnt and hopefully there’s something for you to take-away.
One thing to keep in mind before you start. Many of us read lists all day everyday and then do nothing about them. As you read this, figure out what might work for you, how you might make a certain strategy a habit (not a once off), and as productivity guru Dave Allen says: “do something.” What that means is: ask yourself what first step will you take now to action your new intention, before you get distracted by the next funny meme, the kids screaming in the background or heading back to the comfort of Netflix.
1. Start the night before
It’s often the last thing I want to do before bed when I’m tired and just want to relax, but taking the time to focus on what tomorrow holds is vital for getting to sleep, effective prioritisation, and getting a good bounce the next day.
Whether it’s an important phone call, focusing on deep-diving into a creative project or difficult problem, or allocating time to brainstorm future direction for the business, its easier to achieve more when we pre-plan, rather than waking up and doing what we feel like (which often includes what’s easy and distracting like reading emails, checking the news, or shuffling papers.)
I like to review my online and paper diary, write a list of things that are important for tomorrow (calls, meetings, projects), and re-review the list first thing in the morning. And I set my pre-work routine (see below).
2. Set three priorities for success
We all know those days where things ‘come up’ and nothing you’d actually planned to do gets done. Just as common are those days where you really aren’t feeling it, and almost hope something comes along that does distract you from not really knowing where to start.
When working from a full house, its likely you’ll be interrupted by household or family tasks before you even get started. If something goes awry, it can be hard to get yourself in the mood to make a start.
Without a concrete sense of vision and ‘this is what I’m going to achieve today’ making that journey from the bedroom to the bathroom to the study can be hard work. Snooze can sometimes win out.
One way I like to overcome this is to ask myself: “If I achieved nothing else today, what would make this a good day?”
This means that instead of writing grandiose projects on my to-do list like ‘design new website’, which is vague and asking to be put off ‘til next year, I instead break it down into actionable chunks and next action steps such as: purchase domain name, write ‘about us’ text copy and start list of SEO terms.
At the end of the day I review what I’ve done and whether I tried to bite off too much, or if I made it work. Then I either savour the feeling of satisfaction, or plan a way to improve again for tomorrow.
3. Wear pants
That time between being at home and work is more important than we think it is. Sometimes our commutes are too long. At times like this, it can seem they are too short.
In practice, this means creating a space between getting out of bed and stumbling the ten metres to the study via the coffee machine.
For me this means having a morning routine that gets me into ‘work mode.’
First step for me is to make my bed. I read about this strategy from American general William McRaven, who says: “If you want to change your life or maybe the world, start each day with a task completed.” He's in the army, so he suggests making the bed. I do it, and it does feel good.
Building on this theme, I try to separate my home life and my work life to some extent. Even though I don’t believe in the idea of work-life balance (I prefer the much more motivational work-life integration), its important for my mindset to know when I’m starting a day’s work and when I can knock off and do other things without feeling guilty that ‘I should be doing more.’
One way I’ve found puts me in this mindset is to dress more or less like I would if I was going to work. So I wear pants. A pair of slacks, and a plain shirt of some sort.
No trackies. And somehow, on the days when I shave, I seem to get more done.
4. Where you work matters
I find that I have a different headspace and achieve totally different outcomes depending on where in the apartment I work. When I’m handling emails, customer queries and operational tasks, I sit at my desk. This is where my mind thinks ‘work’ happens.
When I want to write creatively or focus on strategic planning, I move to the dining room table which sits in front of my inspiring bookshelf. If I’m researching or browsing brochures, competitors websites, or reading journal articles, I’ll use the couch in my study, where I’m more comfortable and feel less rushed.
The key point here is that our mindset is influenced by our physical environment – an environment that prompts us to work rather than be distracted or relaxed helps to get more done.
Decide what works for you, and stick to it.
One rule I have is: “Never work in bed.” Bed is for other things. Not working in bed removes the association between overthinking or stress and falling asleep too.
5. Create a morning routine
Have you ever written down exactly what an ideal morning routine looks like for you? Do you even accept that at times routine can be a good thing? (I didn't used to until I decided I wanted to be successful and happy). Or do you get up and go with how you feel (a terribly unreliable way to make decisions!)
What comes first, exercise or breakfast? Do you deliberately check your phone first, or after you’ve had some time to yourself? Do you set aside any time for yourself between the alarm and clocking on? Is that time filled with meaningless distractions on websites that don’t actually make you happy?
There’s not necessarily a right or wrong way to start a day – however taking the time to think about it is vital, especially in times when other routines are being thrown out the window.
I’m not saying that I always do this (especially when I’m travelling, or when my wife is home with me), but here’s my gold standard morning routine.
- Meditate - Get up – drink two glasses of water and sit down on my yoga mat to meditate for 15 minutes. (The same mat I put out the night before so that I wouldn’t forget). If meditation is new or unfamiliar to you – let’s just call it sitting there doing nothing. It’s the highlight of my day.
- Go for a walk in the forest, go for a run, or do a stretching session. Basically, I try to get my heart rate up and my lungs full of fresh air…these days this takes less and less to achieve unfortunately!
- Sit down and write. I plan my day, I re-list all my key projects, prioritising them as I go, and might occasionally open up my journal to wrestle with a problem I’m facing or a plan I’d like to implement. Some days I’ll start with all the things that are great about my life. That’s gratitude.
- Sometimes Ill read inspiration books or websites – not the news.
- Eat breakfast and have the first of too many coffees.
- Start real work with a sense that no matter what happens, I’ve achieved something.
The key for me with all this is to avoid looking at my phone for the first 30 minutes of the day at least. There’s 23 and a half other hours for that.
6. Start with what’s important
If I’ve got an important piece of writing or planning to do, I try to delay looking at emails first thing. Usually they just distract me, take too much valuable energy and don’t leave me feeling like I’ve achieved anything.
Checking emails leaves me feeling reactive, and its then harder to decide what I should prioritise - my best laid plans, or someone else's current issue.
Building on the theme of setting priorities, I do what productivity gurus Dave Allen and Stephen Covey recommend by doing some that’s important, but not necessarily urgent.
Things are only urgent when you know about them. So if you have the discipline to do what’s not urgent, but important first, then you’ll find you’ll keep your mind clearer and get more done.
And very often, the truly urgent finds its way to you somehow eventually anyway!
Decide with your important contacts, clients and staff what urgent actually means, and when you’ll be available. Let them know that if they need to reach you in a true emergency, then you can pick up the phone.
7. Take proper breaks
Often, our home office set-up isn’t as ergonomic or comfortable as working in an office where you might have a monitor, fancy chairs and great lighting. This affects posture, which affects mood, which affects energy levels. Which affects productivity.
I like to have a system for working in sprints (ideally 45 minutes) then rest fully for 15 minutes. In that 15 minutes, I try my hardest not to check my phone. I try not staring at a screen of any type at all.
Referring to the graphic above, its urgent tasks (often not of our own choosing) that leave us feeling drained and exhausted. The result? We give our minds a rest with what’s not important, not urgent, and not restful or refreshing. That’s a terrible combination.
So what do I do?
Make a cup of tea. Do pull-ups or push-ups. Hang in a forward-fold for 5 minutes. Jot down some notes that have been on my mind for the last hour. Find something in the world around me to stare at and marvel, play guitar – it doesn't matter - pre-choose your go-to.
It’s hard initially, but leaves you focused, and wanting to return to your screen to energetically complete that next block of work.
8. Time Block
Most people have heard of Parkinson’s Law which states that: “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Which is probably why they say: “if you’ve got a job to do, give it to a busy person.”
The point is, focus and productivity fall off a cliff if we allow ourselves to meander throughout the day. Just think of how effectively you work when you stay up late the night before to complete a presentation, or how much admin gets done on the Friday afternoon before you leave for a long holiday.
We can re-create that everyday through a concept called ‘time-blocking.’ In a calendar or diary, you simply write down a task, allocate an amount of time for it that seems reasonable, and then actually stop working on it at the end. This will make you want to work faster and harder. At the end, evaluate where you got to and do it again.
In your calendar or diary, draw a box with that task inside it, and shade it a color that means you’ll respect it. Think of it like an appointment with yourself.
9. Avoid the news – or reduce it
Have you ever stopped to ask yourself whether you actually get a net benefit from the news? Of course there’s some benefit, but is it a net benefit, overall, on balance?
Most of us are starting to realise that its usually negative, often sensationalist and increasingly driven by behind-the-scenes agendas and paid advertising. But we keep watching because we believe we should ‘know whats going on.’
The thing is, these days, ‘the news’ isn’t the best place to stay on top of whats happening around us. There’s too much breaking news that isn’t news, very little thoughtful or in depth analysis, and far too little synthesis and cohesiveness that ties it all together and helps us to understand the world at large. Next time you read the news, take note of how many article links are rumours, not events.
These days there’s actually a movement devoted to watching less news. See Alain de Botton, Tim Ferris or Rolf Dobelli. They call it the ‘low information diet.’
Really, it should be called the ‘low irrelevant information diet.’ It doesn’t mean don’t read books, and it doesn’t mean don’t catch up occasionally on what’s happening by listening to podcasts, reading long-form articles, documentaries or checking in every now and then. It just means that ‘breaking news’ and updates aren’t actually that important. And they shatter mental clarity and effectiveness – making many people feel increasingly anxious and helpless in the process.
If you must, indulge yourself instead with set times to read the news later in the day, and look forward to them as a joy. Or forget it all together. No-one needs hourly reminders that the world is going to end.
Secondly, choose the news you are interested in. Don’t just browse whatever is ‘trending’ [read pushed by advertisers] on Facebook and if you don’t like celebrity gossip, choose not to read it. Identify your click-bait triggers, whether its Donald Trump, climate change or vegans and practice the discipline to avoid it.
A great step is to turn off the suggested news articles and notifications on your smart phone, choose a simple homepage like Google.com, and use the news as a reward, not a distraction.
10. Don’t forget to connect
We’re hearing a lot about the importance of human connection at the moment.
Text message or whatsapp is one thing, but the best way to connect with someone when you can’t physically meet them like this is to pick up the phone, or jump on Zoom or Skype, and call. You glean so much more from them this way about how they are really going, you tend to get them with some degree of attention to the present moment, help them disconnect from their work or other stresses or distractions for a while, and can have an (almost) real conversation.
Other options include writing letters, sending a card (even a digital one), or buy them a gift online. Surprises let people know you care.
If its hard to make it a habit, think about how making a phone call is like catching up with someone at the coffee machine, or going for a walk to the café together – so invest 15 minutes into it, and let the person know how long the call should go for so you can both relax that it won't take up the whole day.
Each day during my (currently allowed) morning walk through the forest, I pick up the phone and call someone. That’s the second best part of my day now
11. Accept distractions
If you’ve got kids, a partner with a Netflix addiction, or annoying neighbours doing renovations, you just might have to accept that distractions will be a part of life. Ideas to overcome this are wearing headphones to signify that you’re working, closing doors with notes explaining when you will have time later on, and removing the most likely distractions from your immediate environment such as TV remotes, smartphones and instruments.
Don’t beat yourself up if it takes a few weeks to get used to this. Gradual improvements each day are the key. Most importantly, don't fight what actually is. We are stuck at home. We can look forward to a time when we won't have to be, but it is how it is. Best way? Accept it, don't fight it, make the best of it. That's a whole another discussion.
12. Get outside
Depending on the local rules in your neighbourhood – get outside at least once a day. Don’t let the fact that you aren’t allowed to do things the way you used to stop you from doing anything. Not having a gym isn't an excuse not to stretch or do body-weight work.
Being adaptable, accepting change, and finding resourceful solutions to problems is a crucial part of resilience.
Take a walk, go for a jog, just do it smartly by avoiding groups, don’t shake hands and wash your hands when you come home, especially if you are living with older people
13. Take ‘Movement Snacks’
Movement isn’t just about what we typically think of as exercise. Has anyone been checking their Fit-Bit recently? I’d hazard a guess that we aren’t doing our 10,000 a day at the moment. That’s because we often underestimate those little moments of movement we get throughout a usual day. Running from the station to the office, getting up to go to the bathroom at work, going downstairs for coffee and fresh air, or having to visit a clients office.
That means we need to find new ways to build ‘movement snacks’ into our days. Get up from your chair regularly, use standing desks, walk around when on the phone, lie down flat on the floor when you are on the phone, or do stretches when you feel sluggish
14. Use the 20/20 rule
As someone who spends my day starting at a screen, sitting to write, read or play guitar, I’m super conscious of my posture, sitting too long and getting distracted or tired.
So try a simple rule – look away from your computer for 20 seconds, every 20 minutes (when you aren’t taking longer breaks). How? With your flight-mode enabled smartphone or a timer give yourself a regular reminder to look away from your computer for 20 seconds every 20 minutes. Instant refresh.
You can turn these into movement snacks by doing some deep breathing, some stretching or pushups on the floor, and of course, not looking at that other little small screen
15. Stand up to talk
One policy I have is to never ‘sit’ while on the phone to someone. I’ll lie on the floor and decompress my back, I’ll walk around the block or pace my living room, but I won’t sit.
This stimulates ideas and keeps you active for when you return to a computer based project
16. Lead with care
If you lead a team, make sure your people know that a) there is an EAP (employee assistance program if there is one) b) how to contact it c) what kind of things you can contact it for (it should be pretty much anything – including financial, relationship or mental health issues), and d) where they can go to get more support – [hint – as well as professional support services, this should include you]. Don’t know what to say? Click here.
17. Drink more water
There’s two approaches here – one is to put a jug or bottle on your desk, and you simply can’t help but top up every now and then. The other option is to put the jug somewhere else, say on the dining room table, and go fetch it from there. If you have the willpower to resist snacks and caffeine in the kitchen, well, good on you – that’s my weakness
18. Deep Breathing
Knowing a few techniques to change or calm your state of mind at will, or reinvigorate yourself can be hugely valuable, especially when we are feeling anxious, overwhelmed or cooped up.
One of the most effective is an idea called ‘Box Breathing’ where you deliberately breathe in for four seconds (through your nose), hold your breath for four seconds, breathe out slowly (through your mouth), and then hold your breath again at the end. And then do it again and again and again.
What makes it effective is ‘watching’ or ‘listening’ to your breath, and when you inevitably ‘think’ of something, just go back to watching your breathing.
This works because focusing on our breath isn’t something that comes naturally, and it interrupts our normal patterns of shallow breathing or holding our breath.
You just meditated. Well done
19. Be compassionate
If you lead a team or project, there’s a good chance you’ll be managing people who let you down, stuff up, or appear to be bludging at a time like this. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Expect people to be confused and pessimistic. Putting yourself in their situation for a moment is the cornerstone of empathy - one of the key pillars of our ability to have stable and positive relationships.
It’s your job as a leader to guide them through this and to show them a vision for getting through this and staying on track towards the big picture. If they don’t know what to do or how to adjust, its your responsibility to make things right and to show them the way
20. Set Boundaries
Just because you are comfortable checking and sending emails at 11pm doesn’t mean your team or clients need to be. Often we unknowingly clear our emails after hours which creates undue pressure on our staff, because they mistakenly think that an 11pm request is urgent, simply because you sent it at 11pm.
Tell your team that this is simply when you clear your emails. If it is urgent, say so, and let your team know that they can assume its not, unless stated.
A contact of mine has an automatic reply which says: “Here we work flexibly. That means I check emails at all hours. But I understand if you only check this between your normal business hours.”
How good is that?
It’s your job as a leader to be ‘seen’ walking the floors, just like you would at the office normally. This means reaching out to people, checking in on their work and especially their mental and emotional health, and asking them how they really are, with a real focus on listening.
I’m prepared to bet that the people who get promoted in the next five years will be those who made the effort to reach out to their teams, their colleagues and their bosses to ‘check-in.’ Why?
Because as the ‘future of work’ evolves, it’s not going to be the most tech-savvy or the most knowledgeable that rise to the top. It’s the people who know how to be human, how to lead, how to tell a story and to bring people with them.
22. Celebrate success, and eat cake.
One of the nicest parts of office life is when everyone comes together for someone’s birthday, grabs a quick slice of cake, tries to remember the new person’s name, and then sleeks off back to work feeling good about the world.
Don’t forget to encourage, shout out exceptional effort on behalf of your colleagues and don’t forget recognition is one of the most important factors driving on-the-job engagement.
That’s it. Tell us what you think, and keen to hear more of what you think.
Hadleigh Fischer is the Founder and Managing Director of Resilience Agenda - a fast growing Mental Health awareness social enterprise. He holds a MSc and is a qualified Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) Instructor.
Resilience Agenda aims to 'Change the Meaning of Mental Health' so that it's more positive, proactive and preventative, by making it more relevant, engaging and inspiring.
"Imagine if we thought about Mental Fitness just like we did our Physical fitness?"
Building on an inspiring story of resilience and overcoming obstacles, Hadleigh's mission is to make Mental Fitness into something each of us do each and every day, just like taking care of our physical health.
Over the past four years Resilience Agenda has become a global trend-setter in the mental health conversation by offering thoughtful and practical gifts and lifestyle products that promote the life-changing Mental Fitness message. During COVID-19 Resilience Agenda is now bringing their popular and down-to-earth workplace seminars online (with no payment necessary until January 2021).
To learn more visit www.resilienceagenda.com