When it comes to remote work, it’s important to build good habits. With no boss or coworkers around to keep up appearances for, it’s up to you to make sure you rise, shine, and conquer your to-do list. Easier said than done: skipping your alarm or dipping into your phone notifications could spell hours of lost time.
Figuring out how to be productive is a trial and error process. What works for one person might not work for another. Some people enjoy mirroring the office 9-5 schedule to a T. Others get more ambitious and wake up earlier than ever to attack their morning workout. Most of us won’t (immediately) be so self-disciplined. Rather than overcommitting and then failing, think in terms of building up a series of good personal habits over time.
Habits are things we do without thinking, like making that first cup of coffee or brushing our teeth. If you repeat something day after day, it becomes instinctual. And once something is a habit, it requires less thought and effort to do.
The trick is to gradually build healthy rituals that help you get more out of your working day. Here’s how.
1. Wake up early(ish) and feel refreshed
Picture this scenario: You hit snooze one too many times, sleep in, and wake up in a guilt-fuelled panic. To save time, you immediately open your laptop, perch it on a pillow and start scrolling through your missed emails. Before you know it, it’s 3 pm; you’re still in your PJs, you’ve missed lunch, and your hair still looks like a birds’ nest.
What you want to happen
You want to wake up at a decent hour, feeling refreshed. You want to get dressed and check your emails over coffee before attending to your to-do list.
How to get there
One of the nice things about working from home is the added control over your schedule. If you do sleep in, it’s usually no biggie. But do it one too many times, and it becomes a difficult habit to shake.
Unless your clients work in a time-zone that requires you to work late, it’s better to get up at a reasonable time each morning. Getting started early gives you the whole day to get work done, so your workday doesn’t leak into your personal time in the evening.
Take the pain out of waking up
Waking up early isn’t for everyone, but there are ways to make it better. First, acknowledge that you don’t have to wake up at the same time as office workers. If you prefer getting out of bed at 7 am, awesome, but if you prefer an extra hour of sleep, do it and don’t feel bad.
Next, download an alarm app, like Sleep Calculator, that gently wakes you up when you’re in your lightest REM cycle. Being woken up when you’re in deep sleep is jarring, stressful, and leaves you feeling groggy. With these apps, you can set an alarm range (usually within an hour), and it will sound when you’re naturally waking up anyway.
Creating a bedtime ritual
Aim to avoid all screens at least 30 minutes before you go to bed. This is because the light emanating from the screens is activating to the brain, which disrupts your circadian rhythms. If you struggle to resist peeking at your phone during the night, consider putting it on the other side of the room, out of reach.
To have the best chance of sleep success, you should also make sure the room is the right temperature (your bedroom should be between 60 and 67 degrees), avoid heavy meals and alcohol, and minimize distracting noises either by turning things off, closing the door, sleeping away from snorers, and/or playing relaxing sound through your headphones. The National Sleep Foundation also recommends scheduling some relaxing activities to help you wind down, which could include taking a hot bath and reading a book.
2. Stay focused
You’re working on something, then your phone pings with a notification, which you can’t resist. Fast forward an hour and you’re still scrolling. Then you spot dirty dishes, an unmade bed, and the cat looks like it needs a hug. Guiltily, you try to get back to work – but now you have no chance of finishing your to-do list and the stress is making it harder to focus.
What you want to happen
You want to dive into your to-do list and plow through it without breaking focus. At the end of the day, you want to finish what you’re working on and then shut your laptop for the evening.
How to get there
First, fine-tune your home office setup so that it’s geared for deep, uninterrupted work. Try to avoid working in the same room as your bed, TV, or fridge. And aim to keep the space clean and clutter-free.
First, schedule your time and create a to-do list the night before. That way, when the day begins, you know exactly what you need to achieve before you’ve begun.
If you’re struggling with focus throughout the day, give Tomato Timer a try – it helps you break the day up into 25-minute chunks, with short, regular breaks. You can also use project management tools to help you stay on track and manage deadlines. It’s the next best thing to having a manager in the vicinity. Website blockers and white noise apps are other tools to add to your arsenal.
If you still can’t focus, evaluate your wellbeing – with the help of a professional, if necessary – and try to tackle the root cause of the issue. Things like lack of sleep, anxiety, and stress make it near-impossible for anyone to focus.
3. Create (and maintain) a healthy work-life balance
We’ve all been there: you work through lunch, skip your afternoon jog, and finally close the laptop at 9.30 pm. You decide it’s too late to cook dinner, so you eat junk food, cancel that catch-up chat with a friend, then crash in front of the TV at midnight. Obviously, this isn’t a sustainable schedule.
What you want to happen
You want to wake up early, eat a hearty breakfast, break for lunch, and finish at a reasonable time. You also want to find the time to exercise, eat a healthy dinner, and spent time with your family or friends in the evening and on weekends.
How to get there
When you’re working from home, it’s incredibly important to draw boundaries. The divide between your work and personal life can become blurred when your office is also your lounge, which is why it’s important to take extra steps to draw a divide between the two.
Switch off — and mean it
Turn your laptop off, and put it away so you can’t see it. Stay away from your inbox (a website blocker can come in handy here if you can’t resist), and consider building a ritual into your routine that signals the end of the working day – like going out for a run, changing into PJs, or sitting down to dinner.
If you still struggle to mentally switch off, set an ‘out of office’ on your email or chat app, telling people you’ll get back to them within a certain timeframe. That should help ease your worries, allowing you to relax.
Look after your body
An unhealthy diet and a sedentary lifestyle can leave you feeling tired and more likely to feel negative emotions, like stress. When it comes to healthy work habits, you need to take care of your body in and outside of the office. Avoid sugary snacks, drink plenty of water, and eat a light lunch to avoid the post-lunch crash.
To keep your energy up, consider going outside for a quick walk at lunchtime, or schedule a catch-up with a friend. The fresh air and movement will leave you feeling more alert, and seeing other people will help you feel less lonely – a common issue among remote workers, even for introverts.
If you repeat tasks over the course of several days or months, they’ll soon become a natural part of your daily ritual. Start small – like creating a to-do list at the end of each day or eating a healthy lunch. As you build on these, you can add bigger, more demanding tasks to your daily routine, like going out for a run or meeting up with a friend for coffee.
Technology can really help you define and stick to your goals, and project management software is the gold standard when it comes to managing your time.
If you can get your entire team on board, you can all stay up to date whenever, wherever. Managers can easily track everyone’s progress, and make data-informed changes to projects as needed. Having a centralized to-do list also means that when you start your day, you know what’s expected of you and your team before you’ve even settled down that first cup of coffee.