Personal Challenges of Working Remotely

14 February 2014 by Mathias Meyer

Remote work is at the core of our little company. I've written about how we improve our tool set to foster and improve communication in our team and about our company values as a distributed team.

Working in a distributed team poses personal challenges too, and by jolly, I've been busy working through my fair share of them.

I've been working from home for all of last year, and I've done a few mistakes along the way that caused me frustration and decreased my productivity.

Embrace the solitude

The best part about working from home is that there are no distractions. We have a lot more room, compared to an office, to get work done.

The downside is that as attention-seeking humans, we tend to look for distractions if we don't have any.

If you follow me on Twitter (which you should, you'll know that tweets come in bursts. These bursts tend to represent times of boredom, times where I can't find any mental room to concentrate on working.

When you're alone at home, you look for contact with other people. The internet is a great place for that. There are things happening on certain news websites, on Twitter, Facebook, in IRC, in our team chat.

Of course, the worst offender of them all is email. Are you opening your email client first thing in the morning? Are you excited about seeing 50 unread emails waiting to be processed and replied to?

Me neither.

It's a weird reflex that we turn to email first, well knowing that what's expecting us commonly isn't urgent and drains creative fluids before any creative work gets done.

This has been the most frustrating to me in the last couple of months.

Cut out unnecessary distractions

I've started forcing myself to not open email before noon. I tend to be the most creative in the morning hours, and with the team slowly waking up throughout the day, the amount of other distractions increases too.

I've also found myself frustrated and mentally drained going through emails before doing anything else.

It took me a year to be fully aware of this.

So I started postponing email. It takes getting used to changing this habit, that's why forcing yourself to do it is all the more important. I also make my team aware of this, but expectations commonly aren't that replies should be sent within hours. All communication is asynchronous, and so is email. If there's something urgent, there's always the phone.

I've started doing the same with Twitter too. I love reading what's going on with the people I follow, but it sucks away concentration too.

For being in a creative workline, we have a curious tendency of actively looking for distractions where we could put the energy to much better use.

Avoid email and Twitter, anything distracting before work.

As Jason Rudolph put it, create before consuming. This way is much more fulfilling than trying to muster up energy to get something done after you've consumed Twitter, email and other distractions.

I've stopped reading emails on weekends too. I found my weekends much more relaxing since then.

Make small commitments

I went for months without having any specific goals. It was very frustrating as I didn't really feel I got anything done during a day. I probably did, but I forgot what it was at the end of it.

I usually keep a daily list of tasks around. Just a piece of paper and a pencil is sufficient.

Takes a few minutes in the morning to think about what I want to get done, but taking that time to think about it already gives you the feeling of having goals.

Being able to cross them off a list with a physical activity, like violently striking through the tasks, can be rewarding.

At the end of the day, you'll have a list of tasks you got done.

If you didn't get one of them done, maybe it needs to be broken down into smaller steps?

Big tasks kill productivity, as they appear to never be fully done.

Break them down.

I've started tracking things I've committed doing every single day with a little iPhone app called Commit. It's quite handy to track daily walks, writing and doing pushups every day. You'll be surprised how quickly you can ramp up the number of pushups you can do when you do them daily.

Escape the solitude

I love working in a remote team.

But just as much, I love being with and talking to people, even if it's just listening to their problems, listening to what news they have.

I've gone a month or so without meeting other people, which was rather depressing. I've gone for months just sitting down at the kitchen table, never getting up until 10 hours later. These habits are so easy to slip into, and they need conscious efforts to get out of.

Since then, I've started forcing myself to go for a walk or a bike ride every day.

Not only does this help with the overall fitness and well-being, it gives the mind time to breeze. When you don't focus on anything else, your mind can regenerate. It appears this is even scientifically proven.

I've went for months without ever leaving the house, other than to drop off my daughter at the kindergarten. Believe me, those months I've felt miserable.

Go for a walk, every day.

Working from home is hard. I've been doing it for more than a year now, but I'm still struggling to get it right.

Being more productive standing up, I got a new standing desk rig set up in my little home office. You'd be surprised how much dancing while working can lift your spirits.

I've been reading a lot of articles and posts on working from home, and I agree on their general premise. You need to push yourself harder to focus on getting work done.

The line between work and life gets thinner working from home, and working in a company with lots of customers from overseas, calling it a day is even harder.

But I've learned to trust my team, which is distributed across the globe.

I'm starting to learn to disconnect.

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