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And while the thought of remote work initially made you happier than a Golden Retriever playing fetch in a cold river, you’ve probably come to the dismal conclusion that it’s actually quite challenging.
I transitioned to remote work over a year ago myself. It’s not always easy to stay focused and disciplined but, rest assured, it is possible.
These are my 5 best tips for how to be productive while you work or study from home.
Implement them and you’ll go back to feeling like a happy Golden Retriever in no time, dawg.
Environmental Associations and Physical Triggers
The hardest part about working or studying remotely (especially when you weren’t planning on it) is that you lose all of your environmental associations and physical triggers.
You see, the human brain is the most efficient pattern recognition tool in the known universe. It’s constantly absorbing stimuli and analyzing how you should react based on the context.
Given enough exposure it begins to form associations between different environments and behavioral patterns.
Is this environment safe? Am I in danger here?
In the modern world, your brain makes environmental associations to distinguish between your work environment and your home environment.
Am I at home where I can relax and take off my pants? Or am I in the office where I need to focus?
Physical triggers like drinking your morning coffee or hearing your engine rev and the subsequent drive to work are important factors that can help create these environmental associations.
So the following 5 tips are all designed to give your brain the environmental associations and physical triggers it needs, and essentially “trick it” to be productive while you’re working or studying from home.
1. Fake a Commute to “Work”
Your commute itself is a very important physical trigger to your brain that your work day has begun.
Thus, you must utilize that same physical trigger while working or studying remotely.
If you usually wake up two hours early and drink coffee while lazily meandering around the house like a slow walker from Call of Duty Zombies, then do that.
But if your routine is to wake up with only 30 minutes to spare and then rush to get ready faster than Americans rushed to buy toilet paper, then do that!
After you complete your morning routine, whatever it is, find a way to physically commute to your home… from your home.
This is the most important part. Literally leave your house.
It doesn’t have to be for long, simply walking up and down the street or taking a quick drive around the block will suffice.
It may sound silly, but just as the key to creating good habits is with creative deliberate practice, you have to physically do the little things if you want your brain to believe what you’re telling it.
In this case the most important physical thing you can do is leave your home and arrive at your “office” (which is really just your home again, but your brain doesn’t know that!)
When your work day is over do the reverse. Leave your “office” and drive around the block (in the opposite direction this time) back to your home.
2. Designate a Working Space
When you’re at work you probably have your own office or cubicle. Even if you have one of those weird WeWork co-working spaces (which aren’t doing so well by the way) you probably have a favorite chair or table.
Similarly, I’m guessing you always sit in the same chair in all of your classes, and that you’re infuriated when Chad “conveniently” arrives 5 minutes early and steals your seat.
These work spaces are environmental associations. So you’re going to mimic them by picking one specific spot in your house to work from each day. Avoid areas that are already associated with relaxation like your bed (or maybe that’s more associated with fun “bow chicka wow wow…”)
You can change working spaces between days to keep it “fresh” and interesting. For example, use your desk on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and the kitchen table Tuesday and Thursday.
3. Punch In and Out
This is perhaps the most important physical trigger for your work day association. Even if you’re a salaried employee, get in the habit of punching / clocking in and out throughout the day while you’re remote.
This gives your brain a simple but very clear signal that it’s time to focus. It’ll also hold you accountable and help you ensure you’re managing your time efficiently.
And don’t forget to punch in and out for breaks and lunches as well.
If you’re a student, punch in and out for each of your classes individually as opposed to having one overall punch for “studying”. Differentiating between your classes will help you manage your time. It’ll also help you study longer because studying for your 5 classes one hour each sounds much less daunting than studying for one long 5 hour session straight.
There are tons of different apps you can use to punch / clock in, but the one I use is Clock Punch for Android.
This seems to be a good option for iPhone.
4. Utilize the “Double Whammy”
When I’m working remotely I use the double whammy of wearing earplugs and then noise canceling headphones on top. This has two benefits (aside from the phrase “double whammy”):
Firstly, you’re in total silence which helps you concentrate and focus, especially if you have children running around causing more bedlam than Tom and Jerry.
Secondly, the act of inserting the earplugs themselves acts as another physical trigger (similar to the morning coffee or the drive around the block commute to “work”) that signals to your brain “I’m in work mode now, this environment is off limits to distractions.”
But be warned, you can’t just use any earplugs. Those cheap foam ones that hurt and hardly block any sound are no good.
These are the earplugs that I use, they’re way better than the foamers (they have a higher noise reduction rating) and are only 9 bucks for 24 pairs. And these are the noise canceling headphones to go with, they’re equally affordable at only $15.
Alternatively, you can listen to ambient music at low levels. This type of music has been shown to increase cognition and performance on creative tasks.
I created a playlist exclusively for this type of music, you can find it and download the songs for free here.
5. Create a To-Do List the Night Before
Creating a daily to-do list the night before is necessary because it helps you clear mental fatigue and avoid hyperbolic discounting.
More importantly, it will help you avoid all of the relaxation and “non-work” environmental associations your brain has with your home by keeping you organized and focused.
Without a list these environmental associations are liable to distract you at any moment.
For schoolwork, plan out exactly how long you need to study for the night before, and then use your clock punch app to track the time.
This tip is easily overlooked but it’s actually more important than ever before now that you’re working from home.
Here is a list of the 5 best to-do list apps and their features. Alternatively, you can turn Evernote into an automatic reminder / to-do list app.
It can be tough to stay productive while working remote, but you got this dawg!