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Carlos Fenollosa

Carlos Fenollosa

Engineer, developer, entrepreneur

Carlos Fenollosa — Blog

Thoughts on science and tips for researchers who use computers

Tips to work from home

May 07, 2014 — Carlos Fenollosa

Much has been said about working from home, but I usually enjoy these kind of articles, so here's my contribution to the productivity-tip bandwagon.

Environment

Your first goal should be to develop new routines but, to do so, the work environment is key.

The absolutely most important thing is ergonomics, and the main contributing factor is a good chair. There is no need to spend 500€ on a fancy chair, but don't work on a garden plastic one. Go and buy a nice office chair with armrests and a good lumbar region support.

If you don't get a regulable height desktop, make sure that the one you use isn't too tall. You will notice this quickly; if your elbows are placed on the armrests, and your wrists on the table, but your shoulders are in pain, it means that the table is too high. Dining tables are usually too high for the average person because they are designed so that the plate is not too far from your mouth, but that doesn't work for a computer.

Try to create an environment as close as possible to an office. This means paper trays, binders, pens, and so, but also avoiding other distractions like magazines, food, toys, etc.

Occasionally you'll want to work on the sofa after lunch, at the balcony on a sunny day or on the kitchen counter while making sure your dinner doesn't burn in the oven. That's fine, but it shouldn't be the norm. No matter how many startup movies you've seen, desks are important.

Having a specific work desk or "office room" will also help you separate work from leisure. Nowadays we do most of our leisure on a computer, but working from home can be very absorbing. As a rule of thumb, try not to work unless you are at the office, and try not to eat or have fun there. It will help your brain separate both things.

If you're a computer geek, there is not much I can tell you about the benefits of two monitors, a mechanical keyboard and a good mouse. Always do some research before buying a monitor, especially if you come from the Mac world and are used to their wonderful displays. Most cheap LCDs are fine, but if you do a lot of design you'll notice that the colors and pixel quality aren't the same. That's not necessarily bad, since most users will also use a cheap LCD, so you'll get a closer result to what they will see.

You do not need to rush and buy everything on the first day, but remember: pain is not "normal". If your body hurts while working, and it didn't hurt before, consider changing your environment.

The take home message seems to be spend a lot of money, and that is 50% true. The other 50% is be comfortable at your office. If working brings you physical or psychological pain, you will find every reason not to do it.

Routines

Routines, at first, can be forced with good planning. But what to plan?

Wake up early. I can not overstate the importance of this. If you wake late, your brain will be on that comfy it's late, the whole day is wasted, I'll do it tomorrow mode. DO NOT LET IT!

Some people say they work better at night. In my own experience, while true, that can be changed over a period of time and will bring more benefits. Try both for some weeks and choose the best for you.

Exercise. Everybody recommends that, but I'll be a bit more specific. Depending on your energy, routines, and schedule, try to either exercise first thing in the morning or before lunch. It's better to do it before the afternoon, because if you leave it for later, you'll spend the whole evening wondering when you need to finish work in order to have time to exercise. Also, there are a ton of benefits to exercise early, like increased energy and better hunger control. There is nothing worse than exercising before dinner, then eating a lot because you're starving, and then going to bed too tired/aching to sleep and with a full belly.

Get dressed to work. I sometimes cheat a bit and don't get dressed in the morning, because I exercise before lunch and don't want to put on clean clothes before showering. However, that's another benefit to exercising in the morning; it will force you to shower and put on new clothes.

Being dressed at home is a good thing. First of all, you're ready to go out if somebody calls. "Hey, let's go to the bar", "Nah, I'm on my pajamas, would need to shower and change...". That should never happen. Also, if you work from home you will probably need to go out shopping or running errands. Being ready helps to avoid procrastinating from that kind of work.

Second, you'll never have the temptation to go to bed for a nap. Never enter your bed during the day! You might get into a deep sleep and wake up two hours afterwards, either with a headache or worse, too refreshed to sleep well that night. Naps should always be taken on a sofa or armchair, sitting down comfortably and with an alarm set to 10-15 minutes, to allow your body and brain to rest but not enter a REM sleep.

Allow yourself fun time. If you wake at 7 and go to sleep at 23, you don't want to be working 16 hours a day, minus meals. Having too long workdays contributes to heavy procrastination. Set yourself strict deadlines and stop working after 7-8 hours every day.

That will leave you between 3-5 extra hours every day. Try to find new routines you like, now that you have the time! Play videogames, read a book, go outside for a walk, watch TV, paint, go sunbathing, whatever. You're at home and you don't need to act busy in front of anybody. More on this below.

When at home, routines are different and more flexible than in an office. Try to plan as many as possible and they'll turn into habits, which is a good thing.

Planning

Even if you have a boss, you will be responsible for planning your time. This is what I do:

Every Sunday evening I allocate an hour to plan next week's work and review the current week's outcome (next section).

I open my calendar and create mandatory tasks. Those are meals, appointments, meetings, etc.

Afterwards, I plan my routines. A workout hour before lunch every day, playing video games twice a week, reading for an hour after lunch every day, except on Mondays, because I watch Game of Thrones, etc. You get the idea.

Then I set work hours, between 7-8 every day. I fill those with tasks from my projects. I prioritize important tasks and do them first thing in the morning. I also know that I am more productive in the late evening, so I usually schedule maintenance tasks from after reading until mid-evening.

Observe your body and brain and don't lie to yourself. Plan realistically.

Finally, I don't plan weekends, but I trust myself not to waste them anyway. If you can't —nothing to be ashamed of— plan them too.

All schedules may and will be interrupted with unexpected work, but the mere act of planning your day and knowing what is the next task that you need to do is a great tool against procrastination and deterrents.

This is, more or less, a summary of the GTD methodology. If you haven't done so, please go and read Allen's book. It should be a required reading in all schools. If you prefer to plan your tasks daily instead of weekly, that's fine. Allocate 15 minutes at the end of every workday to plan tomorrow's work, and then don't check email until next day's allocated time. As stated before, that shouldn't be until you have been working for 2-3 hours in the morning.

After all this planning, we will need to regularly review it, not to feel bad about what we didn't do, but to adjust ourselves to reality.

Accountability

As said in the last sentence, we are only accountable to ourselves. We want to learn more about how we work, so it is a good idea to track your time.

I use toggl for time tracking, though some people don't like tracking every minute of your day. At least you should write down your weekly goals and review if you have completed or advanced them.

On Sundays, just before planning next week, I run through a quick summary of the current one. Did I do what I was supposed to do? If not, why? How did I spend my time? If you only track your goals, you won't probably identify your main time wasters. Being honest is a good exercise and a useful tool to detect and eliminate them. When you check Facebook for more than a quick glimpse, track it. If you're bored and go to Reddit, track for how long.

Planning and accounting are the two main tools to help you develop your own routines, tailored to your energy cycles and home environment. Remember that, again, they are just a tool, and don't feel too bad if it turns out that some week hasn't been as productive as you expected. Use the data to correct your next planning, and try to schedule more realistically.

The trick is to plan according to what you have learned will happen, and not according to what you wish would happen.

Ramit is always insisting on the importance of testing, and that's what you should do. After all, reading advice about other people's routines should be interpreted as a source of ideas to test, not as something written in stone.

You're working

If you share your space with another person, it may be tempting for them to suggest that you do housework because you spend all day there and they may be at a workplace. That is not fair.

However, it wouldn't be fair either to avoid housework at all. I suggest to play smartly.

For example, you're in a good position to do shopping and run errands, since you can shop when nobody else is there and avoid queues.

Allocate an hour of housework for every hour your partner is committing to, of course. However, you don't need to do it at the same time. If you're productive in the evenings but your partner is there and wants to do some cleaning, suggest to split the rooms, and do your part after lunch or when you feel like procrastinating. Trust me, when you have to call that stupid client, nothing will look as attractive as sweeping the patio.

Consider hiring cleaning services. If you're not familiar with the concept of opportunity cost, read a bit on the subject. Paying 10€ an hour and earning 50€ an hour is a net gain of 40€

The same goes for kids; consider paying a kindergarten for some hours so that you can work quietly and without interruptions. If you plan is to earn money working at home you can't spend the whole day watching your kid. We all know that the point of having kids is to raise them ourselves, but keep a balance between being a housewife/husband and earning money.

Avoiding procrastination

I have two good rules to avoid procrastination:

  1. Procrastinate actively. That is, if you don't feel like working, don't try to work. Feeling tired? Go take a 15-minute nap. Want to check Facebook? Do it. Don't feel bad about it. However, try to stop procrastinating after some time. Set an alarm.
  2. Don't plan heavy work at those times that you know you won't do it. For me, it's after lunch. I know I can't work, so I watch some shows or read a book for an hour. If I feel sleepy, I sleep. Otherwise, I read.

If you want to read the ultimate guidelines on avoiding procrastination and, what's worse, workcrastination, that is, being busy for the sake of it, check out The 4-Hour Workweek. Some spoilers:

  • Don't check email that often
  • Do important tasks first thing in the morning
  • Eliminate one useless time-consuming habit every two weeks

A final trick that works for me: 30 seconds of exercise puts me in a very motivated mood. If I don't feel like working but there is a deadline near, I'll jump out of the chair and run up and down the stairs a couple times, or do some pushups and squats. 30 seconds is enough, you don't need to be tired, just make your heart beat a bit faster and release endorphins. Try it!

Social life

Try not to be all day alone. This highly depends on each character, but if you live alone and work from home, do something outside. Have breakfast or lunch at a cafeteria, go to the gym, go grab a beer with friends after work.

It's not unhealthy to spend most of your day at home. What's unhealthy is to spend a lot of days without going out and talking to other people.

Enjoy it

Working at home has many advantages. Freedom, limited and honest accountability, and more importantly, the lack of facades. There is no point in crucifying yourself or forcing to follow office guidelines.

Just let me summarize this article in four quick bullet points:

  1. Work your environment to your advantage, make it comfortable to work at home, separate work from leisure.
  2. Be honest about your productivity, schedule smartly, account, test yourself, don't be busy just for the sake of it.
  3. Opportunity cost. Pay for services which are cheaper than your earning rate.
  4. Enjoy office freedom; go outside to read on a sunny day, shop at 3pm when shops are empty, play video games, learn a new language or how to play an instrument.

Tags: productivity

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