Steven Irby

With the COVID-19 pandemic raging worldwide, many suddenly find themselves working from home. this is the first time they’ve worked from home, and it may not be by choice. I imagine many people are having a tough time transitioning to working from home. Those with children stuck at home with them are probably especially struggling.

I’ve been working from home for over half a decade, so for me, this is not new. I’ll be completely blunt. Working from home is a skill that has to be learned and practiced. It took me probably a good six months to one year to fully adjust and be productive. I can understand how many could be struggling with the adjustment right now.

Here is everything I’ve learned over the last five years working remotely. I’m going to go over a few tips, how to maintain a healthy work-life balance, and be more productive than you’ve ever been in your entire working life. Don’t be like me and stumble your way through this for a year.

If your company does not have a culture of working remotely and people working independently, it’s going to be extra difficult for everyone. It’s a tough adjustment for a company to switch to working from home suddenly. Still, you should optimize and do your best during this difficult time.

First of all, the most important thing you should do is to pick a spot where you will work every day. Ideally, you should choose a quiet place at a desk, which is as ergonomically correct as possible. A computer chair made for ergonomics is best. It helps your brain know you’re going into work mode when you sit down at that same spot every day to work. That place you pick is your work zone in your home. It would best if you did nothing else in that place but work. If you can, avoid the kitchen table or multi-use spots in your home.

I recommend you get fully dressed each morning in the same clothes you would wear to work. Putting on those clothes is how you usually start your day, and your mind gets into “I’m going to work” mode. If you wear a suit to work, put it on, walk to your work station, take off your jacket, and get to work. There’s a popular meme about people not wearing pants while they work from home. Put on pants! Wearing pajamas or something equally casual tells your mind it’s time to sit back on the couch and be lazy.

Follow your regular work routine as much as you can. If you have children and you show up to the living room dressed like you mean business, and you’re ready to work. They might take it a bit more seriously as well.

When you work from home, it’s too easy to let your work-life blend into personal life. You don’t have that clear differential of being at the office and it being work time verses you’re at home, so it’s personal time. It’s not healthy to work all day long and not have personal time. I have a handy trick to help manage this. I rigorously follow the Pomodoro Technique.

What is the Pomodoro Technique? Simply put, it is a time management technique where you use a timer to break down work into small 25 minute intervals — followed by short mental breaks of 5 minutes. Each interval of 25 minutes is known as a “Pomodoro.” The name comes from the tomato-shaped kitchen timer that the Italian inventor, Francesco Cirilloup, used while inventing this technique.

The idea is deceptively simple. You use a simple app on your phone, computer, web browser, or little tomato kitchen timer (there are many apps for free). You then focus intensely on one single task for 25 minutes or the entire Pomodoro interval. After each Pomodoro, you get a 5-minute mental break. Don’t open up Facebook in another tab or pick up your phone, or get up and start doing something else. Ideally, after four Pomodoros, or two hours of focused work, you take an extended 15-minute break. The long break is when you’re allowed to open up social media, pick up your phone, or do something distracting. I highly recommend you turn off all notifications during your 25-minute Pomodoro session. Also, turn off the TV or limit distractions as much as humanly possible.

Here is the magic in using the Pomodoro technique. Your productivity massively goes up! Multitasking does not work. The human brain isn’t evolved or able to perform more than one task at a time. Focusing on one thing at a time yields more results than bouncing around between tasks. For example, if you have a ton of emails to read and respond to, schedule in a Pomodoro. Focus on nothing but your inbox for that full 25 minutes. You’ll be amazed at how much you get through in one single Pomodoro.

The average worker only gets about 4 hours of focused, productive work done a day. (about eight Pomodoros) For many people, most of that work is probably scattered multitasked work. If you sit down at your work station and hammer out 8 Pomodoros, getting your work done in under 5 hours, I promise you will be as productive if not more productive than anyone else on your team. Don’t believe me? Try it for one or two weeks and then ask your manager how they think you’re doing. See for yourself. Cognitively you really can’t focus intensely on things for more than about 4-5 hours a day anyways.

Another wonderful thing about using the Pomodoro Technique is that it enables a healthier work-life balance. I set the maximum amount of Pomodoros I will do for the day and stop working when I hit that goal! When I reach my Pomodoros goal for the day, I know I put in high quality, focused work, and that I reached my cognitive limits. If it takes me all day to hit my goals for that day, so be it. If I hit my goal in just a blazing four and a half hours, so be it! I do not feel guilty that I could have done more, or I should continue working. I disregard the archaic 8-hour workday and instead concentrate my workday around the timer—my Pomodoro goal.

Do you have a lot of work one day you absolutely must get done? Ok, then add a few more sessions, but just that one time. Don’t make a habit of pushing yourself beyond your set daily goal of Pomodoros! It’s all about work-life balance. Remember, you can always start fresh the next day. If you need to break up your day in two work sessions, do it. If you need to break up your day into one-hour Pomodoro sessions, do it. Do what works best for you and your family.

I also plan out my day (ideally the day before) and write down how many Pomodoros I want to spend on the important tasks of the day. Do I have a 1-hour meeting? That’s two Pomorodos without a break. (During that meeting I do nothing but focus intensely and maybe take notes) I have a ton of emails to read and respond to? Two Pomodoros scheduled for one in the morning and one in the afternoon. (For example, I’m spending two Pomodoros today on writing this blog post)

Personally, if I had a partner and we were both at home with the kids working from home. I would try having one us work a sprint of 4 Pomodoros while the other parent watches the kids, keeping them away from the other parent working. Then switch and have the other parent work on their sprint. Once you both finish your day and hit your Pomodoro goals, it’s free time, and you finish your day.

Another great tip for working productively at home is making sure your WiFi works as fast as possible. I highly recommend you don’t allow anyone else in the house to watch Netflix, YouTube, or do any heavy bandwidth things while you work. Slow internet kills productivity! It can especially frustrate everyone when you’re in virtual meetings and calls, and your connection isn’t working. Ensure that the WiFi router is on the proper channel, and you can use as much of your internet speeds as possible.

For meetings, make sure you have a great external webcam if you need to be on video often. You should have good lighting pointing at your face. For all that is holy, please use a proper microphone or headset, keeping it muted while you’re not talking. I strongly recommend a decent noise-canceling headset. Those work best to block out sound from the rest of your home.

If you have the flexibility of choosing what time you can work, take advantage of it. Some people simply are more productive in the late hours of the evening. Others do better working first thing in the morning and getting work out of the way. For some, especially those with children, the best time to work could be when the kids are sleeping. Take advantage of working at the most optimal time for yourself, if possible. I, for one, work best in the first half of the day.

At the time of this writing, we’re still in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, so this advice is more for regular times. If you work from home after this crisis is over, I recommend trying other places to work. Such as a nice quiet cafe or a co-working space. I am incredibly picky about offices and working environments, so I have to find a co-working space and cafe that is just right for me. When I find one that checks all the boxes, I love the break of getting out of the house and working in an environment with other like-minded people who are also focused and working hard. Not to mention, you can get the social interaction you usually find at a typical office job. Most co-working spaces have social events in the evenings, and it’s much easier to make friends working at a space regularly.

The beautiful thing about working from home is the flexibility. I don’t see why it has to be all or nothing. If you need a break from the house for a few hours, go and work at the cafe you like. You work at a co-working space, and you’re tired of it? Go home and finish up after lunch. Need to run some errands and be away for many hours? Do it and wrap up work in the evening. I love the flexibility that comes with working from home.

For me, the biggest gain in working from home is the quiet work environment that I can set up exactly how I like. I can work in a co-working space and get that traditional office feel or socialize if I feel like it. Or I can go home and work deeply on things for many hours in peace and quiet.

There you have it, everything I’ve learned from working remotely for over half a decade. One important thing to note is most of this advice is what worked best forme. Tinker around and figure out what works best for you and your situation. I do not have children, so it’s easier for me than it would be for you if you did have children. Also, I’ve worked at places that allow for more flexibility than some others might enjoy. Good luck with your working from home journey, and I hope you stay productive.