working from home
March 18, 2020

How to be productive when working from home, lessons learnt (part 1)

By Paul Laughlin

Although the speed of recent changes for us all has been breathtaking, learning how to be productive when working from home is not new.

Given so many leaders, perhaps including you, are now suddenly facing the challenge of working from home as a new normal – it seems only fair to share. That is, for those of us who have worked this way for years, to share what we have learnt.

Personally, it’s nearly 6 years since I launched this blog & my business, so I hope it helps you for me to share some of what I’ve learnt along the way. I’ve suffixed this blog title with ‘part 1‘ because I hope to have more advice & resources to share. I’ll also be bringing other voices into this conversation. Watch out for new posts & podcast episodes coming soon.

For now, in this post, I’ll start with the basics. What I’ve learnt about creating & protecting a productive place to work in a home that you probably didn’t buy or furnish for this purpose. My hope is that some of the tips I share below also help you make a great start.

In future posts, I will focus more on hardware, software & other equipment that may be worth buying. But, for a start, let’s think about your working space & your behaviour. Both topics where I’ve had much to learn over 6 years. So, here are my reflections on lessons learnt

(1) Environment matters

Once you start to work for prolonged hours at home, you notice how different your environment is to the office. Noise, interruptions, distractions, discomfort or too much comfort – all can be issues for the leader who is trying to be productive & still lead/encourage their team.

Your working space

I can recall early on learning that just trying to use the dining room table was a bad idea. Too many distractions & through traffic. As we learnt from Cal Newport in his book “Deep Work it is vital to have a working space that is conducive to concentration & minimises distraction.

My next location was working in one of my children’s old bedrooms (fortunately we’ve reached a life stage when they’ve all moved out). This was better, but still had the feel of a bedroom. A room designed for comfort & snoozing is not the visual cue you need when reading, writing, planning or making key decisions.

One advantage of working in an old bedroom is the simple device of a door that closes. This is important psychologically as well as physically. I encourage you to close the door & to tell others in your household that when the door is closed you shouldn’t be disturbed unless it’s urgent. Some fellow business owners I know even use a “do not disturb sign“.

Transforming your home office

Over the years I have gradually invested in transforming the space around me. Aspects that have helped (in creating a space that helps me focus & get more done) include:

  • Filing cabinets & bookshelves (less cognitive load if less cluttered)
  • In Trays & a filing system for prioritisation of printed material
  • A clear desk space, only containing what is needed for current task
  • Noticeboards with longer-term dashboards & reminders in sight
  • A wall planner with coloured dots to help me see the year visually
  • Clear floor space for standing & pacing to think or take calls
  • Minimise my digital distractions through Digital Minimalism

Different people will find different aspects of my approach work for them. Having chatted to many others who work from home, I don’t believe there is one right answer. What matters is that you stay aware of when you are distracted or when tasks take longer than they could.

Be honest with yourself & where a more conducive environment would help improve your focus, take action. When you are going to be working in the same space for a long time, even small improvements can give you huge cumulative gains.

(2) Habits & your routine matters

The next lesson I’ve learnt over the last 6 years is that I can’t rely on my motivation & consistency every day. It’s human nature that we have days when we feel ready to take on the world & others when we’d rather stay in bed. For me, it’s proved better to focus on developing routines & habits, than to rely on motivational posters or ‘getting pumped‘ pep talks.

I’ll be sharing a book review soon for Atomic Habits” by James Clear. Reading that is confirming much of why certain changes have worked well for me & others have not. I won’t steal the thunder of that future post, but suffice it to say that book will really help you develop good habits & stop bad ones.

My journey with planners

My own journey down this path started with wanting to improve on my To-Do List. I’ve shared before how my personal system for task prioritisation & diary management has developed with the help of Peter Bregman & Michael Hyatt. Those principles still serve me well.

Building on that habit of planning my day & prioritising what matters most, for a few years I invested in Michael Hyatt’s Full Focus Planner. This did help establish a number of good habits for me, including getting clear on my Big Three each day & reviewing my week.

The big three

The concept of the Big Three is to review everything you’d like to get done & be forced to choose which 3 tasks matter most. This means considering what impact completing those will achieve (so important not just urgent). You commit before you start your day to the idea that if they are all you get done today, it has been a success. It’s surprising how much this helps, especially for a natural self-critic like me. Focus & more “win days“.

A weekly review

Weekly reviews are another habit that was driven by that planner, which for me is completed every Sunday. Taking time to review wins & distractions over the last 7 days, as well as what I could do differently in future. It also helpfully prompts you to think about all aspects of your life. More on that below.

Since those years investing in the Full Focus Planner, I found it to be too expensive a subscription for the benefit I was realising. At present, I’ve replaced it with the Lux Productivity Planner (which covers 6 rather than 3 months) and seeing the same benefits. You’ll note I’m sure that I’ve stayed with a paper-based planner. I encourage you to think about the benefit of doing the same. Not relying on solely digital systems can help you in a number of ways. For me it helps me step back & recall better.

Establishing routines that serve you

Finally, one other habit that I have learnt along this journey, is the importance of establishing a Morning Routine & Evening Routine. This will differ for everyone but should include those things you want to do consistently (so need to make into unconscious habits). Repetition & environment are your friends again here and I encourage you to practice defining these & honing them to work for you.

For me, for example, my morning routine includes:

  • A calm start with tea & radio
  • Regular exercise
  • Meditation & spiritual time
  • Planning my day
  • Checking with others & then going into ‘the office’ to start work

Over time I’ve also developed both ‘Start of Work‘ & ‘End of Work‘ routines. These can help include aspects like managing your email, social media content, reminders/tasks & Finance/CRM systems. They also help to act as behavioural bookends to my working day, making it easier for me to relax afterwards.

(3) Your whole self matters

It is easy to fall into the trap of only thinking about your mental activity as if you are a robot. But too much self-neglect has taught me that it is so important to think more holistically. If you are going to be sustainably productive, even in the medium term, you need to look after yourself.

Now others are more qualified to talk on each of these topics than me, but my own mistakes have taught me to take care of all these aspects:

  • My physical self (exercise, diet & hydration)
  • My emotional self (celebrate wins, interact with others, open up)
  • My spiritual self (take time to reflect on meaning in what you do)
  • My social self (keep in touch with others & not just by email)

Taking care of Physical You

The first of these, taking care of your body, can also be helped by a few simple changes to how you work. As I shared above, I make sure to build regular exercise into my morning routine. Sadly that does not now include sociable badminton, but for me still means running & yoga at home. I’ve shared before on some apps that help me.

In your home office, also beware of becoming so absorbed that you don’t notice how long you are sitting. It really is bad for your body & energy-sapping. I’ve shared before how much a standing desk helped me and I’m still benefitting from that investment two years later. I also use my Apple Watch to prompt me to stand at least every hour (normally a prompt to leave my office to get a drink & chat with my wife).

So, I encourage you to watch out for becoming too sedentary. As well as exercise or mobility, of course, we should turn to diet. Now, I would be a hypocrite if I tried to preach to others about diet – after all, I’m a middle-aged man who enjoys food & drink, which shows. But, suffice to say that I have discovered that more vegetarian meals do improve my energy levels.

The main lesson I’m learning though is about hydration. So, my final tip for looking after the physical you is to always have a water bottle on your desk. If you feel hungry (a big potential bad habit when working at home), try drinking water instead. If you feel tired, before you have yet another coffee, try drinking water instead. it’s really helping me as it becomes a habit.

Working from Home – more on looking after You in our next post

That’s enough for now. Apologies for a longer post than normal, but I really hope it helps you as you transition to a new way of working.

In my following posts, I will share more on looking after the emotional, spiritual & social You. As promised above, I’ll also share posts on recommended hardware, software & other equipment to help you be more productive at home.

Most of this has been sharing ‘off the top of my head‘, so please give me some feedback below. What do you find helpful & would like more about? Any topics that don’t help you & I should avoid? Anything I’m missing.

I look forward to keeping this conversation going & will soon be interviewing 2 other leaders on how they Work from Home. Watch out for those new episodes on the new Customer Insight Leader podcast.

Keep safe & please keep in touch (you can subscribe to our weekly newsletter at the top of this page to always be notified about new content).