J.D. Moyer

beat maker, sci-fi writer, self-experimenter

Working From Home – Six Ways To Bring Up Your Game

One of the many break-time activities available to people who work from home.

As a music producer/freelance database developer/blogger, most of my days are spent in my home office. I love working from home, and I hope I never have to “go in” on a regular basis again, but I remember I had a rough transition year or two (in terms of working-from-home flow and productivity).

I went completely freelance (no employer) around 2001, at the age of 32. I left a good job as the database administrator for the San Francisco Symphony (though I continued to do contract work for them for a number of years). I liked my boss, my co-workers, and the organization, but at the time I was tired of reporting to a small windowless room, tired of commuting from the East Bay to San Francisco, and bored with the actual work. I wanted to spend more time writing music and working on Loöq Records. In addition, I wanted to take a shot a writing screenplays.

The Lost Years

Over the new few years I went through some working-from-home growing pains.

It was a challenge to balance the music label, our weekly event Qoöl, my writing aspirations, my freelance database work, my social life, my marriage, and my love for video games. Often, the gaming won out, and I would find myself playing Warcraft 3 or Diablo 2 well into the wee hours, and then sleeping until 10 or 11 the following day.

Sometimes days would drift by in a haze of distraction (checking email, snacking, reading stories online, doing bits of work here and there, video game breaks, etc.). At other times I would make huge progress in one area while falling behind in another. Sometimes I would find myself confused, staring into space, wondering what I should be doing next.

I take responsibility for my own James Franco-ish breadth of interest and ambition. Part of my issue was laziness brought on by youth, a reliable source of passive income (our weekly dance music event was quite profitable at the time, even after donating generous amounts to The SETI Institute), and a relatively inexpensive lifestyle (no kid at that time, no fancy wine habit, no love for expensive cars). But part of the problem was a lack of experience in living a totally self-directed lifestyle with few external cues. Even if you are naturally intrinsically motivated, it takes time to learn how to operate effectively and productively without the structure of formal employment.

I muddled through those years well enough. Loöq Records released music, the Qoöl event went off every week, I paid my bills, stayed married, kept my friends, and wrote an epic (and epically bad) science fiction screenplay involving an anti-gravity machine and a scientist who is brought back to life to find that his children have taken different sides in an intra-solar system war (for Martian independence).

Now, years later, my working-from-home system is a well oiled machine. Despite an increase in my responsibilities (fatherhood, for one), I feel more relaxed and focused. I learned how to create my own structure, as well as how to use distractions to my advantage.

If you’re just making the transition, or are looking to improve your own system, here’s my short list for improving the working-from-home experience.

1. Get properly dressed. 

Whenever I read something like “I’m sitting here working in my sweatpants, isn’t that great?” — I wince. There are many perquisites to working from home, but sweatpant-wearing isn’t one of them. If you walk by the mirror and you look like a schlub, you’re going to feel like a schlub. Have some self-respect.

I’ll admit that once in awhile I get so engrossed in something that I’m doing that I get up, immediately start working, and don’t shower or dress until the late afternoon. I don’t have a boss — I can do that. But if I lapse into a sloppy dressing habit (because I can), it eventually erodes at my self-esteem.

The one universal constant in terms of getting “properly” dressed is that you feel confident. If you’re avoiding mirrors, and/or other people, something needs to change.

2. Don’t graze like a cow — eat lunch instead.

Eating lots of small meals, or just snacking all day, is overrated. There’s no evidence that eating this way “speeds up your metabolism,” and eating fewer meals is better for blood sugar regulation.

In terms of working from home, lunch is a perfect natural division. Divide up your work into morning and afternoon sessions, with lunch as a relaxing physical and mental refueling interlude. Eat protein, vegetables, and some fruit, and you won’t be sleepy after lunch (avoid high starch meals or risk a “burrito coma” or a similar affliction).

3. Set your priorities the night before.

This exercise should take all of about two minutes. Sometime in the evening, decide what the most important work items are for the following day. I like to pick three, but it’s probably just as effective to only pick one.

The advantage of determining the day’s priorities the night before is that it gives your subconscious time to ruminate. Instead of slowing figuring out what you should be doing that day, you’ll wake up with clarity of purpose and some concrete ideas regarding how to complete the tasks at hand.

4. Use exercise as a neurological enhancer.

The physiological benefits of exercise (improved blood sugar regulation, strength gains, increased bone density, improved cardiovascular health) are well known and well researched. There’s also a growing body of research showing that exercise prevents (and can reverse) dementia and depression.

There is less research (though there is some) in regards to how exercise benefits workflow and productivity. In my experience, frequent short exercise breaks vastly increase my productivity, ability to concentrate, and quantity of ideas generated.

This is a real perk to working from home. In an office environment, I wouldn’t feel comfortable getting up and shadow-boxing, or throwing roundhouse kicks, or swinging a 40 pound metal weight in wide arcs. I might go out for a quick walk, but I wouldn’t do squats or pushups in a cubicle or break room. In my home office or back yard, I can do whatever I want. Sometimes I practice with my wooden two-handed longsword. Sometime I throw a reflex ball against the wall as part of my ninja training. When I return to writing, programming, or music production, my mind is more alive. I can work with more focus, problems seem less intimidating, and I have more ideas.

One last thought on this topic — there are tremendous health risks from sitting too much. Take advantage of your work-from-home situation by arranging at least one of your work areas as a stand up space.

5. Use distraction to your advantage.

At various times I’ve tried to strictly limit (or even eliminate) distractions like Facebook, reddit, phone calls, online news, and even household chores and errands that need doing.

Ultimately I’ve found that I’m more productive if I focus more on completing tasks than avoiding distractions. If I feel like I need a break, I just take one. This happens many, many times a day. Sometimes I’ll work for an hour without a break, but more often I’ll do a short ten or fifteen minute chunk of work and then take a short (five to ten minute) break.

Does that mean I spend up to half my time taking breaks? It does.

I keep a very loose rein on myself, but I always have the big picture and the details in mind. I have accepted my own nature as a fidgety, authority-hating, boredom-prone, stimulation-seeking primate, but I’ve learned to work with what I’ve got. I know I’m unlikely to work very many hours in any given day, so I try to make the work I chose to do count.

If I find myself taking too many breaks and avoiding the work, it doesn’t mean I need to increase my self-discipline and force out distractions. It means I need to become more engaged with the work, or choose more engaging work. It means I need to challenge myself more, take bigger risks (creatively), learn more about the subject, and/or get some outside input (fresh eyes and fresh ears).

6. Invest more time in social planning, and planning vacations, sabbaticals, and other routine-breaking activities.

I test as moderately introverted on the Meyers-Briggs test. In real life this means I crave both solitude and social interaction. Working from home supplies all the solitude I need. Being married, having a kid, and working on music with my co-conspirators provides a good amount of “built-in” social interaction, but not as much as a job with co-workers would provide.

Having a job with co-workers that you like can be great for your social life, especially for people in their twenties who don’t have kids. Going out after work with friends leads to meeting even more people.

If you work from home, you’ll need to be more proactive to maintain a rich social life. This takes time and effort, but it’s worth it. We tend to make errors when we predict what kinds of things will make us happy, and it’s common to underestimate how much social interaction we need to feel our happiest. So if you work from home, it’s important to prioritize social planning, because you’ll experience fewer of those “happy accidents” you’d get from “going in.”

Planning sabbaticals and vacations is just as important, because nobody else is going to do it for you. You’ll just have to decide for yourself what time you’re taking off. This is difficult to do when you’re self-employed. Financially, vacations can feel like a double hit, because not only are you spending more money than usual, you’re not making any. Some of this financial anxiety goes away when at least some of your revenue streams are passive. To further reduce the financial burden, take cheaper vacations, or try a workation (mine had mixed results on the work side of things, but was an exciting adventure).

*     *     *

So there’s my short list. I hope some of it was helpful to you, fellow work-from-homer.

What’s your experience from working from home? What makes it work, and what doesn’t?

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7 Comments

  1. I guess working from home is most difficult because I play around on my websites, creating new ones for clients, which brings in some money, but has me neglect my school work. I’m a graduate (online) student at the University of North Texas, in the Information and Library Science department, and though I love the subject matter, I get very obsessive about website designing, and it’s more difficult to “step back” and start my homework. I also liked your bit about Use Distraction to Your Advantage: “Ultimately I’ve found that I’m more productive if I focus more on completing tasks than avoiding distractions.” That makes a lot of sense, so thanks.

  2. Awesome, JD.

    Have you ever heard of The Pomodoro Technique? Basically 25-minute single-task sprints, followed by a 5-minute break. Then after every 4 sprints, you take a 30-minute break.

    http://www.pomodorotechnique.com/

    I’ve found this to be a massively successful neurological hack for me. 25 minutes is a great amount of time to focus on a single task. There are plenty of neat-looking counters to install on your computer, as well. And as long as the breaks don’t shift my focus to something else (web-browsing, etc.) I find that I jump right back in without distraction to what I was working on, often with a refreshed perspective.

    The only downside is that the program encourages you to approach all tasks that way. So sometimes stuff like email etc. has to be “batched” and microtasks don’t always work like that. But for tackling big projects in bite-size chunks, it can’t be beat.

    (And it’s free. 🙂

  3. Thanks Will — how long have you been using the technique? What do you do if you are “in the flow” and you don’t feel like taking a break?

    • I can’t say I use it consistently. It’s unfortunately impossible in a modern workplace, which is interruptionville. But I would say I’ve been aware of it for 6+ months or so. I found it to be very useful in working on big multi-hour projects at home.

      Regarding the breaks, because the Pomodoro Police monitor pretty vigorously and I don’t want to get hit by the electrical shock bat again, I just take the breaks but…

      Just kidding. 🙂

      If you’re in flow and don’t feel like stopping, you certainly don’t have to. I find that sometimes during the 5-minute breaks my fingers are itching to get back to work, if I’m focused. But generally those 5-minute breaks turn out to be valuable no matter what as long as I don’t let myself get distracted.

      As for the half-hour breaks, I’m usually ready for those by the time they come around, so thus far it hasn’t been a problem. But if I were locked-in, I’d probably either (a) keep going, or (b) do a 5-minute and save the 30 minute for later.

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