1. Create a dedicated workspace (and respect it as that)
When I started working from home, my ‘office’ would shift between the kitchen table, a hammock, and one of those lap trays on the sofa. It was great for a while, but curating a dedicated workspace really took my productivity levels up to 11.
The trick, I’ve found, is not using that space for anything else. And by anything, I mean anything. 15-minute social media break? Get up and take it outside. Writing a shopping list? Great idea, but not at your desk. Zoom drinks or games night?. You get the idea.
As well as avoiding functional cross-over, making the space as work-like and work-friendly as possible has helped me get into the right headspace. A real office divider screen (thanks, eBay!), an array of (marginally intrusive) houseplants, and a bright tabletop mat have turned my corner into a jungly little haven of productivity.
2. Simulate your commute
When you’re working from home, it’s all too easy for your ‘commute’ to be from bed to desk, via the kitchen for a rushed coffee. Fake commutes provide a much-needed way of transitioning into the working day. As someone who used to cycle to work, I hadn’t appreciated how much those short daily spins cleared my head and set me up for the day.
I don’t stick to it religiously, but I can confirm that incorporating a 30-40 minute bike loop before and after work has a hugely positive impact.
Not that it needs to be a walk or a cycle. Over the winter, my commute became a walk to the ‘station’ (aka a 15-minute plod with the dog), followed by reading on the ‘train’ (sofa) for an hour, before picking up a coffee from my favourite ‘cafe’ (kitchen) before heading into work (my desk).
3. Start/stop rituals
I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to reach for the pop psychology books during lockdown, when life seemed to have become a monotonous blur of laptopping. One of the better titles I discovered during this time was Atomic Habits by James Clear.
The type of book you’d usually pick up in the self-improvement section of an airport bookshop and devour over a single short flight, Atomic Habits offered more than its fair share of helpful nuggets.
The one that helped the most is called habit stacking. Rather than saying “I’m going to run after work”, habit stacking means you break the task down into manageable steps: “I’m going to put my wireless headphones on charge at 4, get changed into my running clothes at 5, drink a glass of water, choose a running playlist, pop my headphones in, get my trainers on, step outside, and run to the end of the road”.
Once you’re standing outside in your trainers with your headphones in, you’re almost definitely going to run. It’s getting to that stage that’s the tricky bit. Habit stacking sets you up with frameworks that become rituals, and I’ve found that putting a routine in place for starting work and stopping work has been the single most transformative thing for setting work-life boundaries.
4. Zoom whenever you can
In the current era of Zoom fatigue, this might seem a little unfashionable. But I still stand by the benefits of hopping on a video call instead of phoning or emailing. Why? Because without the joys of video chats, it’s really easy to just look at the same four walls and your dog all day long. Or maybe that’s just me.
As well as getting to see real actual people (rather than just docs and spreadsheets, or whatever it is that your work involves) hopping on a video chat is a pretty solid failsafe against the commonly accepted WFH pitfalls: don’t wear pyjamas to work (at least not every day); don’t build yourself a work nest in bed; don’t let your desk get messy, just because nobody’s there to judge your collection of seven coffee cups.
Video chats also make any ambiguities in tone, mood or intention - that are so often a flaw of email communication - much less likely. Those couple of minutes of chit-chat can make all the difference when it comes to building relationships within remote teams.
5. Playlists at the ready
People seem to fall into two camps when working from home. Either the silence can feel deafening, and it’s hard to get into the right headspace without other people’s energy to bounce off; or home is so full of noise/people/distractions (delete as appropriate) that even attempting to get anything done can feel impossible.
Either way, I’m ready to bet that the right playlist or soundscape can make or break your working day.
The solution? Curate a set of work playlists that are a go-to for whatever predicament you find yourself in. Or spend some time discovering the ‘ambience’ genre of YouTube channel - where other people beautifully design your soundscape for you. Personal favourites include this one and this one.
6. Make a packed lunch and eat it anywhere except your desk
I’ve always been a packed lunch kinda gal - so much so that “What’s in Svenja’s Tupperware today?” was a favourite game among my pre-pandemic colleagues. So when I began working from home, what initially felt like a perk (being able to raid the fridge at any given moment, instead of preparing lunch the night or morning before), slowly became more and more of a problem.
Sometimes I’d find myself so preoccupied with work that I’d barely stand up to stretch my legs all day, let alone find time to make lunch. On other occasions, my haphazard plate of leftovers (and whatever else happened to look appetising) would make its way to my desk, where I’d either wolf it all down before a call, or graze on it all afternoon. None of these scenarios are exactly a vision of good eating habits or healthy work practices.
Now I have a few simple rules: plan food in advance, block time for lunch, and eat anywhere except the desk. I will admit that it’s not always a packed lunch - although I do always get an immense amount of pleasure from taking my prepared tub of food out into the garden to eat - but it’s always planned. Whether that’s setting the ingredients aside to cook fresh, or ‘eating out’ lockdown style (popping next-door to my gran’s), the principle is that there is always a clean break in the middle of the day to refuel and recharge.
7. Find an organisation system that works (for you)
I hate Trello boards. There. I said it. I can’t stick to a 25-minute Pomodoro to save my life. And I’ve never managed to use a to-do list app consistently.
But I do like having all of my calendars available in one easy colour-coded view (thanks Outlook). And I love starting my day with 30-minute blocks dedicated to the three most important tasks, and time-blocking my day into hourly or half-day chunks. I also find handwritten to-do lists immensely satisfying, because I know that I need to see all of my projects mapped out visually (physically, on paper) to make sense of them.
My point here is less that you should follow somebody else’s prescription for productivity, and more that you should really spend time figuring out what works best for you. This isn’t always easy, and you’ll almost definitely feel like you’ve wasted time on tools that haven’t improved your life one bit. But it’s worth it when you find something that sticks.
8. Make the most of your flexibility
Pandemics are hard, as we’ve all found out. And one of the wonderful things about remote work is that it offers much more control over your working day, which feels particularly important when control over just about everything else (travel and socialising, for example) has been massively reduced.
Luckily for me, the ACM system of core and flexi hours means that an impromptu 60km ride before an 11am team call, or a late afternoon SUP sesh with the pup, are entirely feasible and actively encouraged. A quick 30-minute mountain bike blast around the woods has also been a lifesaver on full-on days.
But even if you’re bound to fixed hours, remote work means you can make little changes that can make all the difference. Even when that goes against the advice above. Desperate for some sunshine? Grab a picnic blanket and lie in the garden while you work. Can’t stand sitting still at your desk for another minute? Take your next call while power walking your pent up energy out around the block. Got a monotonous task that just needs doing? Treat yourself to doing it on the sofa with Grey’s Anatomy reruns on in the background.
9. ‘Do not disturb’ is your friend
Notifications. If you’ve got the power to ignore them, then feel free to skip this point entirely. But if, like me, you are irresistibly drawn to a ping or a flash, then this one’s for you.
I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said that my life changed the day I started checking my emails intentionally. Without realising it, the Outlook notification tone had begun to elicit a Pavlovian response that saw me automatically reaching for my mouse. The result was a day spent trying to focus on one thing, whilst constantly being made aware of others.
Whilst this is nothing new, sitting alone at your desk - without any office hubbub, friendly colleagues, or physical meetings to distract and fill the space - can make incoming notifications seem all the more intrusive and urgent. Usually, they are anything but.
Choosing when to check for new notifications is an easy way of taking control of a small part of the work/life balancing act we’re all dealing with right now.
This is particularly important if your job involves social media management, where you really don’t need to know if mtbdave123 (not a real username*) has liked your latest post at 2am.
10. Live where you want to
Less of a WFH hack, and more of a question - if you could live anywhere, where would it be?
Remote work is here to stay, and something that’s become increasingly apparent to me as I start to think about my next geographical move is that for the first time, my destination isn’t dictated by where I’m working or studying.
I’m not suggesting that you start packing your boxes and simply up-sticks to whichever far-flung corner of the world you’ve always dreamed of living (although that also doesn’t sound like a bad idea). But costs and fixed commitments aside, we - remote workers - can now relocate based on our own priorities, rather than a viable commuting distance from our workplace. That’s a real opportunity more of us should take seriously.