How to Be Productive Working From Home

Working from home is hard. But with the right mindset, tools and habits, you can be twice as productive as you'd ever be in an office.
September 7, 2020

For most people, their transition to working from home goes something like this…

Day 1: This is AMAZING. I can work my own schedule, go for a walk whenever I like, and even finish early! 

Day 3: You know what’s nice? Not being bothered by Karen in the office 24/7. This. Is. The. Life.

Day 10: Ugh. Why is this so hard? I miss people. I haven’t even changed out of my pyjamas and it’s 2pm. Should probably get to work. 

Everyone has the best intentions when they start working from home, and everyone thinks they’re going to be ultra-productive. 

But then reality hits. 

Because when you lack the social pressure to get work done (which usually exists in an office), being productive becomes a lot more difficult. 

In this article, I’m going to help you set up the right routines, optimize your environment, and work on your inner game so that you can be a productivity machine (and get more done than you ever would in an office). 

If you read and apply what I’m about to tell you, here’s what could happen for you:

  • You’ll start each day with confidence and a feeling of excitement (knowing that you’re going to work hard and feel accomplished at the end of the day). 
  • You’ll get more work done in less time by developing your “focus” muscle, freeing up the rest of your day to pursue the important things in life (whatever those are to you) 
  • You’ll end each day satisfied with what you’ve done, be able to switch off, and relax without guilt. 

There’s a lot to get through, so let me give you an overview of what we’re going to cover: 

  • The Inner Game of Work-From-Home Productivity
  • Optimizing Your Routine for Maximum Output and Enjoyment
  • Building the Ultimate Home Office
  • Crafting a Focused Digital Environment (to Kill Procrastination)
  • Hacks & Tips to Gain Even More of an Edge

The Inner Game of Work-From-Home Productivity

People say they want to be more productive, but often the truth is that they just want to feel more happy/satisfied/comfortable while working. They search for productivity hacks that they hope will give them that feeling. 

The problem with this is that you won’t always feel this way. Sometimes you have no choice but to deal with the fact that the work you’re doing is hard. Or it’s work you don’t want to do.

Searching for a productivity hack to circumvent the hard parts is futile. You will end up constantly frustrated because you (irrationally) believe and hope that there’s a way to work that doesn’t involve struggle and discomfort.

Often, the challenge of doing work that’s hard or boring is eased by social pressure…

You’re in an office. Your colleagues are watching. You don’t want to slack off, so you do the work.

But when you’re working from home, it’s different. It’s just you and the work. No one else.

So while we like the idea of having the perfect work routine and productivity hacks that enable us to effortlessly work for hours on end—without any challenge or frustration… it’s just that. An idea. Not a reality. 

That needs to be clear before you read the rest of this article. You are not going to find some perfect bliss state of working where you don’t encounter any difficulty, pain or struggle. Even the most annoyingly passionate people struggle with their work. 

You need to embrace this struggle and do the work anyway. To do that effectively, we need to start with the inner game of work-from-home productivity.

There are three components to the inner game:

  • Develop internal resilience and perseverance
  • Dress and act like you're going to work
  • When needed, use the Alter Ego

Let’s look at each in detail.

Develop Internal Resilience and Perseverance

It’s part of our nature to search for an easy solution to our productivity problems. The “one thing” that will fix it all.

Having worked from home for the past 8 years or so, I’ve seen this behavior in myself time and time again...

First, it was “I just need a bigger computer screen. That will fix my productivity problems.”

The computer screen helped for a few days, and then I reverted back to normal.

“I just need to visit coffee shops more. I need the social interaction to work properly.” 

This didn’t help my productivity whatsoever, even though it felt good. I knew internally that I always got more done at home when I wasn’t eavesdropping on the conversation going on at the table next to me.

“I think it’s the lighting in my home office... Yes. I need better lighting.” 

I spent hundreds of dollars on Phillips Hue lights. They’re great. But I don’t think they’ve made me any more productive.

I could go on and on. I’ve wasted a lot of money and time trying to find “hacks” that FIX my productivity problems. 

The key word here is “fix.” A lot of these hacks (like lighting, or buying a good office chair) can improve your productivity, but they will not fix internal problems like your tendency to procrastinate or start daydreaming about running away from it all and “finding yourself.”

So let me tell you what you already know: there is no easy solution to this.

But there is a simple one.

You need to develop resilience and perseverance.

You’re not competing with your colleagues anymore. You’re competing with yourself. Who you were yesterday.

The happiness that you’re seeking does not come from comfort. It doesn’t come from hacks that make your work a breeze. It comes from overcoming challenges and working through the pain and the resistance.

There’s no easy way to develop this resilience, but there are things you can do to make its development a priority:

Hit your most important, dreaded, and difficult task for the day hard and early.

If you’re spending 3 hours or more on your morning routine, you’re probably procrastinating. 

All the yoga, meditation, Wim Hof method, bio-energetics, cold showers, and reading 58 pages before your morning green smoothie is not going to magically make your work disappear.

Get started on what you know needs to be done. It’s not going to get any easier as the day goes on.

Make commitments with yourself and others

Chase the feeling of living according to your values, one of which will be honesty (I hope).

When you’re not honest with yourself, you just feel like shit. You know that you’re not living with integrity. So do the opposite. When you write down your task list for the day, commit to it. Tell yourself you’re going to do it. Be honest with yourself.

Use deadlines and accountability to gain an edge over your monkey brain who just wants to slack off and play. If you’re employed and working from home, you likely already have some form of accountability (a boss). If you’re self-employed, you’re playing the game on hard mode, so find other peers or friends to keep you accountable. Or set public deadlines.

“Go one more”

I love how Nick Bare embodies this.

When you’re starting to hit a wall (even if you’ve only been working for 10 mins), go one more. Push harder. Do another 10 mins. Tell yourself you’ll go a bit further and then rest.

This is how you develop resilience. Slowly, over time. Not in a day, but by going one more time and time again.

Dress and act like you're going to work

When you work from home, it's critical that you take care of your external world, because what's external influences what's internal.

If you wake up, have a quick shower, chuck on some sweatpants and a hoodie... have you really primed yourself for a productive workday?

There's nothing in that routine that says to your brain, "We're getting ready to work."

You don't need to wear a suit, but just be decent. Act like you're going to the office. Get in that mental zone. Dress well and feel good about yourself.

Sometimes, I'll put on a shirt, pants, and blazer even though I know I'm not going out at all. It makes a significant difference in how I act during the day, and how I work.

The second part to this is acting like you're going to work. Not just putting on a decent outfit, but getting yourself in the right mental frame.

For me, routine makes this happen almost on autopilot. I get up, shower, plan my day, and then get started on my first task. The "plan my day" piece puts me into "work" mode and primes me for productive work. It's the transition habit.

There are reasons people struggle to get into this mental frame. Sometimes it has to do with their external environment (roommates or kids). Other times it has to do with their morning routine which is a hidden form of procrastination. You need to find that transitionary habit that gets you in work mode.

Maybe it's planning your day...

Maybe it's having a stand-up Zoom meeting with your team...

Maybe it's clearing your desk, closing your door, and getting to work on your first todo list item...

And if you really struggle with getting into this zone, then consider a co-working space or external office.

Use the Alter Ego

Todd Herman is well-known for his Alter Ego method. I won't go into detail (you can read his book or take his course), but the gist is that you can create and leverage "Alter Egos"

I do this regularly when I really need to get a certain type of work done.

I have a "high-level entrepreneur" Alter Ego that I shift into when I need to think and strategize at a high level. I can't do this effectively as normal Sam.

I have an "Operations Guy" Alter Ego that I shift into when I need to work on processes, management, all the stuff I don't like and am not particularly good at. Normal Sam sucks at this, Operations Guy is the best at it.

You might have days where you need to get through a ton of paperwork. Create an Alter Ego to manage it better.

Or you might have days where you're exhausted but still need to work. Leverage an Alter Ego you've created that enables you to push through and get it done.

Optimizing Your Routine for Maximum Output and Enjoyment

If you're anything like me, you get stuck in the process of optimizing, changing, and trying to create the perfect routine.

What I've learned over a decade of trying to create the perfect routine is that there really isn't one. Most people try to create a routine that makes them happy, and this is a huge mistake. You simply cannot feel happy every morning or every day, and if your goal behind the routine you create is to feel happy, then you're going to blame the routine.

So before we look at creating a routine, we need to reframe how we perceive its value.

A daily routine should do three things:

  • Enable you to do your best work
  • Allow you to unplug and spend time on what's important (outside of work)
  • Force you to get 1% better every day

And that's where the value lies. Now, many of those things are going to make you happy anyway, but the goal is not "happiness."

Once you make this shift, you won't make excuses. You won't wake up in the morning feeling like shit and go, "Ah, it must be my routine. I better change that."

Some mornings you just feel like shit. That's life.

The other thing to be aware of is shiny object syndrome. There's no shortage of habits and life hacks that you can include in your routine, and if you're like me, you'll create a routine and then read a book about something that you assume will change your life if you do it every morning.

As a result, you never solidify any consistent routine, and as such, you don't have a routine.

Leverage your natural schedule

Unless you're working from home and your bound to a time-specific schedule, you have the freedom to work when you choose.

You should leverage this.

Daniel Pink talks about the three different types of people in When. Figure out what you are, and then build your schedule around it.

Maybe you like the early mornings, and you fondly recall your most productive days starting at 5am. But you've been waking up at 8am for the past 3 months. Change that. Start work at 5am and stick to it. You'll feel better about yourself and get more done.

Or maybe you've subscribed to some idea that you need to get up early and hustle—coz that's the way to win. But biologically you're a night owl or an afternoon person. Just change it. Wake up later, go to sleep later. Whatever works.

Building Your Morning Routine

As mentioned, your morning routine should get you into the right state to have a productive day. It shouldn't be a form of procrastination.

Some people don't have a routine at all, and get straight into work. Others have a routine that lasts way too long (~3 hours). They're just trying to avoid actually starting work. The ideal is somewhere in the middle.

My routine:

  • I wake up without an alarm. In the past I used to force myself to wake up early regardless of how much sleep I got, but over time I've found that it works better for me to wake up when I wake up. The good thing is that this is usually no later than 7:30am, and much closer to 6am.
  • After a cold shower, I start writing. This is my "power hour" to use a cheesy term. Usually it's writing work outside of my main business (EDMProd), working on articles like the one you're reading now. I aim for 60m. If I get this writing done, it gives me a huge momentum boost going into the day. 
  • After that, I'll look over the day ahead and the tasks in front of me (I plan the night before). I'll get started on the highest priority, highest impact task. This will usually take 2-3 hours.

If you currently have no formalized routine at all, or you want to create one, then here's what I recommend:

  • Start small. It's extremely hard to go from having no routine to 10 good habits in your routine overnight. You will likely fail.
  • Keep it short, don't avoid work.
  • Identify the things that make you feel good and push you forward. For me, it's starting my 60m of writing as soon as I can. And that's within 15 mins of waking up. Cold showers expedite the waking up process.
  • For you, it might be reading for 30m in the morning, going for a walk, meditating. Figure it out and implement it.
  • Stick to it for 15-30 days.

Avoid the pursuit of ease

Most people keep changing their routines and environment in pursuit of some sort of comfort or ease. They think, "if I just change this one thing (journal every morning)" everything else will fall into place.

You want to avoid this way of thinking at all costs. It leads nowhere. Work is always going to be hard and challenging, but you need to do it anyway, regardless of how you feel.

I lost months (probably years) of productivity to this trap. I was trying to create the perfect routine that just got me into flow every day and made me feel warm inside. Sometimes it worked for a few days, but then I'd have a day when I just didn't want to work, and I'd get derailed. You cannot create a morning routine that makes deep work and hard tasks easy, so don't try to.

Deep then shallow

One difficult habit to implement that pays huge dividends is doing the difficult, important tasks that require high levels of focus before getting to smaller administrative tasks like email, meetings, and so forth.

This is hard because the shallow tasks always seem urgent, and it's tempting to think, "But what if I get an important email? What if something's gone wrong?"

I'm sure some of you reading this do the type of work where it actually is necessary to check your email in the morning. Maybe you work in customer service or you simply need to be "on" during the workday. If that's you, but you still really need to get this deep work done, then I recommend doing it before your scheduled hours.

The truth is, most things that seem urgent really aren't that urgent. I'm notoriously bad at responding to email, and it's something that I want to improve, but it has enabled me to really focus on the big wins at the start of the day. Email can wait. It's also the reason I don't let phone calls come in before 12pm (unless it's family or someone on my team).

Your brain will find all kinds of justifications to avoid this deep work. It will throw rationalizations at you like, "I think I just need to do an admin day today." Or, "I'll just check quickly to make sure that email from John came in, but I'll respond later."

And you'll do anything you can do delay starting this type of work, which is why I mentioned earlier that your morning routine should function as a pathway to get started on deep work, not to delay it for as long as possible. And if you really hate your work, maybe your morning deep work should be working on a side hustle or figuring out a plan to leave.

Pushing through the afternoon

For many people, remote workers or not, the afternoon is where productivity goes to die.

There is a natural, biological dip that can't really be avoided, but it can be managed.

First and foremost, you should have a plan for the afternoon. By this point if you've done your deep work and built momentum throughout the morning, you should be able to coast through fairly easily. You've done the hard stuff.

If you haven't, then it's very hard to bounce back. On the days where I procrastinate and don't do my deep work in the morning (or really any work), I get to the afternoon and start wondering how on earth I'm going to get my deep work done AND admin work. The answer: I'm not. And I don't feel good about it.

Second, you want to eat a light lunch. I recommend low carb, but experiment and see what works for you.

When I started working remotely at the age of 18, I was trying to gain muscle and bulk up. I was eating a lot of food. Every day for lunch I'd have 200g of pasta, 250g of ground beef, cheese, broccoli, and pasta sauce. It was a concoction of heavy carbs that absolutely ruined my energy levels going into the afternoon. I never got anything meaningful done.

Nowadays, I eat some chicken, a small amount of rice, and broccoli. Yes it's boring, but it keeps me focused.

Sometimes I'll split the day up and go to the gym, or go for a walk. It helps reset everything and clears the mind for the afternoon ahead.

Finally, have a stop time. When you're working from home, it's easy to let go of boundaries. You can work into the evening, you can start late, etc. But psychologically, it's a lot easier to get work done in the afternoon when you know you have an end point.

Batch/theme your day

If you're an entrepreneur, or your job involves a lot of different types of work and you have to wear many different hats, then you might find it helpful to batch tasks and theme your days.

Here's an example:

  • Monday: CEO day—plan for the week, get team organized, work on high-level strategy, set up key meetings, free up bottlenecks.
  • Tuesday: CMO day—push forward key marketing initiatives, check ad performance, meeting with marketing assistant, etc.
  • Wednesday: Admin day—batch and work on all the small tasks that have built up.

You can start this by just theming one day per week, or start even smaller by batching certain tasks to just one day. For instance, I try to batch all my calls and meetings to Thursday. This usually doesn't happen due to schedule conflicts, but the majority of my meetings will happen on Thursday or near the end of the week. That way I've got Mon, Tue, Wed to not worry about any calls so I can get the necessary deep work done.

Plan the next day

One thing I've found incredibly helpful over the last few months is to plan the next day the night before. I don't know why this works better than planning the day in the morning, but I think it's got something to do with the fact that you have a higher amount of clarity after the workday has ended, and you know that you don't need to do any further work.

In the morning, you might wake up in a bad mood, or your brain might just be overloaded. You'll probably plan your day a bit different, maybe play it safe, maybe try to fit in too much... but the night before, you know exactly what needs to be done.

It also helps you sleep better at night. At least that's what I've found. You can get all those open loops down on paper and rest knowing that they'll get done tomorrow.

Hard cutoff at a consistent time

There's nothing glamorous about working late. The happiest, most effective entrepreneurs I know usually have hard cutoff times.

Not only does this make you more productive during the day, but it makes you happier. If you have no hard deadline, and you finish work at sometime, you'll feel guilty for not continuing. Or you'll just keep working to finish your todo list, end up going to sleep late because you can't switch off, and then perform poorly the next day.

Experiment with this yourself, but if you can, try a week or so of short days. Start at 8am, finish at 2pm. See how it goes. You might find that you're more productive than ever.

The most productive days in my life have started early (around 7am) and finished around midday. 5 hours of work.

Building the Ultimate Home Office

I've spent years trying to build the perfect home office, and I've learned that there's no such thing, but you can build a home office that's conducive to focus. A place where you want to be.

Before I get into that, please understand that a home office is not going to fix internal productivity problems.

I've made this mistake too many times where I think, "if I just get a new desk or chair—then I'll be productive."

Initially when you make an improvement or get a new piece of furniture or gear, you have a boost in mood and productivity. But once it becomes normal, you're back to where you were.

Improving your home office can help, but it's not going to solve problems. The way I see it, making such improvements is enhancing your already existing productivity systems.

Your goal is to build a distraction-free, work-focused space. This involves making some tangible improvements and spending some money on gear, and also removing other distractions.

If you work from home in a spare bedroom (like most people do), then you might find that you constantly get distracted by kids or your spouse. So you figure that noise-cancelling headphones will do the trick, but your kids keep coming in and distracting you. One solution is to make it clear to your family that between the hours of, say, 8-12pm (deep work time)—you're not to be distracted.

A better solution may be to find an external office if you can afford it. Or build one outside.

In terms of physical, tangible home office improvements, here's what I recommend:

Get a good chair

You should spend money on a good chair if you're going to spend half your day in it. I personally use a Herman Miller Aeron, but there are cheaper options that are still good.

Desk

I like to use a standing desk (I have one from Autonomous.ai). Most of the time I'm sitting, but for meetings and shallow work I'll stand up.

Lighting

I use Phillips Hue lights to make my room bright. I've noticed the brighter my room is, the more energized I feel. If your room doesn't get much sun, then this is a good option.

Noise-cancelling headphones

A must if you have other people in the house. If I'm trying to focus on deep work like writing and I hear anything—I get distracted.

I use Bose QuietComfort II. AirPods Pro are good too.

Improve the aesthetic

If you have money to spare and want to build the ultimate workspace, then it's worth really thinking through exactly what you want your office to look like and start working towards it.

For this, I recommend watching setup videos on YouTube. You'll find plenty of inspiration.

I'm in the process of doing this right now. I'm making major improvements to my current home office in order to make it more conducive to productivity, but mostly just a comfortable, aesthetic place to be. I'll write an article once I've finished.

When needed, work somewhere else

It's nice to get out once in a while. And a nearby coffee shop can be the perfect place to get some work done.

I've found it isn't ideal to do deep work because you don't know who's going to sit next to you and have a conversation about who knows what. But for other tasks, it's fine.

Crafting a Focused Digital Environment (Kill Procrastination)

You can have a beautiful home office, but if you don't take care of you digital environment then you'll continue to be distracted and unproductive. Here's some measures you can take to craft a focused digital environment:

Make your work computer your work computer. 

If you can't do that, then try to create as much separation as possible (use a different login, for instance).

I try my best (but often fail) to keep my work computer as my work computer. The more time I spend browsing YouTube or wasting time on it, the more that's embedded in my brain and the easier it is to do so again.

Use a digital task manager to stay on top of things

You probably already do this, but it's worth mentioning. I manage my whole life with two tools: Notion and Roam. I'll probably write an article about how I use each one at a later date.

Time tracking apps

I've used these in the past and don't find them helpful, but you might. Timeular is a great option.

Don't listen to music unless you're doing easy, repetitive work

Again, if you're playing music while trying to do deep work, it's probably because you're seeking stimulation and comfort that the deep work won't provide. You'll be far more effective if you're working in silence, playing one song on repeat (like Matt Mullenweg), or using something like Brain.fm

Conclusion

Working from home provides a series of unique challenges, many of which don't exist when you're working in an office with other people.

But with the right mindset, tools and habits, you can be twice as productive as you'd ever be in an office. You can leverage your schedule and environment to do deep, important work. And you can switch off at the end of the day and leave it all behind to spend time with loved ones or pursue hobbies.

All it takes is consistent effort and habit formation. Take it slow, and focus on what needs to be focused on.

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