You Need a Don’t Do List

Most people agree that a “to do list” is a great way to track work tasks whether it be shopping lists or work lists or people that you need to tickle this week. But for most workers, especially those that work from home, you also need a Don’t Do List.

This is a simple list of behaviors that you know can ruin your workday. In addition to the obvious things like ‘Watch TV’ or ‘Open up YouTube.com without a plan’ there are some more subtle ‘don’t do’ items that you need to identify and make a plan to avoid.

But first let’s list the relatively obvious ones for a telecommuter:

Don’t Do:

  • Watch TV during the workday (even at lunch)
  • Play video games.
  • Browse reddit, espn.com, velonews.com, youtube.com, whatever-your-addiction-is.com
  • Snack when you aren’t hungry.
  • Check your email. (Stop and acknowledge that checking email is essentially saying “I want more work and stress now”)

Now the more subtle emotional ones:

Don’t Do:

  • Get discouraged.
  • Prefer fake work.
  • Avoid the really hard important tasks.
  • Respond too quickly to an email that frustrated you.
  • Panic.

Everyone’s personal don’t do list is different and will shift over time. There was a time when I could work and listen to podcasts but then I realized it got to be too distracting, so it moved from my bag of tricks into my don’t do list.

Some items you can’t avoid doing altogether but have to manage as ongoing tensions. One of these for me is distractions caused by my family. I know that each day at least once I will be taken away from my normal level of concentration (that of a tiger watching the zookeeper put the string on a piece of raw beef) by some noise of a kid picking the lock to my office to use my printer or a kid throwing mud at my office window.

So my “don’t do” list is simply to not let this stuff bother me. I mitigate this risk with my attitude.  All other items I simply put in a box to do be done later; I don’t do them so that I can get the real work done consistently.

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I’m writing a book about successfully working from home; click here if you want to know when it is complete.

Beginner’s Guide to Working from Home

Here is my quick and dirty guide for someone who has just started working from home (or remotely or telecommute, etc.). These tips are in order of importance; first up:

Give yourself a month before making big changes

I’d suggest giving yourself a month-long trial period in which you carefully note how it is going and don’t make huge changes to your normal workflow. If you get dressed up for work I’d do that the first week at home. If you don’t have a TV in your office at work then don’t put one in your home office; if you don’t typically work standing up I wouldn’t jump into this hardcore at first, etc. Just working from home will be change enough and you can play with the increased flexibility and extra time once you prove that you can still be effective. One of the benefits of working from home is that you can do crazy things that aren’t socially acceptable at some offices that actually increase your effectiveness (naps, listen to music loudly, working outside, wearing what you want to wear, exercising at odd times, not shaving, wearing an eye patch, etc.). Save these for later.

Separate work from home

Keep set hours that work for you to prevent checking email at 8PM and other forms of sad insanity.  Build a separate office space. Take time in the morning and the afternoon to perform silly little routines that remind your body and mind that you are switching modes (like changing shoes Mr. Rogers style or moon-walking from your home office into your living room):

Proper Re-entry: How To End Your Day

Set expectations with your family (or anybody you live with)

Working from home puts a bit of stress on others if they are home at all during the day. Let them know what to expect:

Managing Your Significant Other When Working from Home

Realize that you need structure

Even if your role has a lot of creative alone time you will find you need more structure to your day as the natural bookends of in-person conversations and your commute leave a vacuum. Try different techniques to track what you are doing until you find some system that gets you moving and keeps you there even if you are a bit more disconnected physically. I recommend starting with the Pomodoro Technique and also tracking what you did each day with iDoneThis.

Keep from going insane

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Try to work some from your office, a co-working spot, or at a coffeeshop where you know a few people. Generally track your level of insanity; take breaks; talk to people; go eat lunch, and have fun.

How to work from home without going insane (purple monkey dishwasher)

Good Luck.

I’m writing a book about successfully working from home; click here if you want to know when it is complete.

Thought Experiment: How working from home might change the world (a little bit)

Bv-HqX0IgAARocQIn 2010 only 4.3% of the US workforce worked at home the majority of the time; that number is now up between 47% and 180% depending on which survey you read (and whether you include the self-employed, government workers, or cats)

Let’s just imagine for a few moments that 25% of the current US workforce started working from home full-time. How would that change the things?

  • People who work from home drive significantly less. (I have been trying for years to get rid of our second car and we are almost able to – if we had about 80 less kids I would be able to)  Effects: less gas usage, better environment, less Hyundais.
  • People who work from home wear the clothes they want to wear and shoes that are comfortable and do little dry cleaning. (Apart from my mariachi outfit I haven’t been in a dry cleaners for years)  Effects: I’m not sure what is going to be on the end of every sad shopping mall if there aren’t any dry cleaners.
  • People who work from home are more involved in their children’s day-to-day lives. (The “mystery reader” isn’t as much of a mystery sometimes at school – its one of the “work from home” losers who stumble in having just taking a shower for the first time in this daylight savings period)  Effect: better kids, more showers.
  • People who work from home stay within their communities more which can lead to great things like more volunteering, less hollow suburbs, more active local government involvement as well as scary things like a desire to run for HOA president or letter-writing campaigns about how there isn’t a Whole Foods nearby)(On a personal level this has caused me to shop at more local businesses and move away from chains [not gold chains – I will wear those 4 life])  Effect: all sorts of great things.
  • People who work from home commit (less) workplace harassment and workplace violence.
  • People who work from home do not use “business level” office supplies but use their personal computers, phones, printers, pens, toilet paper, coffee, etc. (We do not need those Cisco phones that look like they cost $800 each and handle 8-way calling, have 5 active lines, and look like they were designed by someone with a grey-tone fetish)  Effects: people who sell expensive toilet paper go out of business.
  • People who work from home do look for “offsite” locations to work and thus frequent coffeeshops, restaurants, and essentially any place with a table, a chair, and free wifi to the point of direct absurdity. (Note to funeral homes: please never offer free Wifi)  Effect: More Dunkin’ Donuts.

My daughter designed my perfect home office in Minecraft

Children notice more than you think. It has been a difficult two weeks with the kids out of school  due to “snow” and a winter break so the work/life harmony is a bit more chaotic than normal. I have gotten frustrated with them at times (especially yesterday when I found all four in my office looting it slowly).

My (middle) daughter (who is 5) must have picked up on this because last night showed me a home office that she made for me in Minecraft so I can “get quiet when you talk to people and type and read stuff”.  So it turns out she knows the nature of my work (which is just typing and reading I guess).  She also knows that I need:

  • Quiet.
  • Space close to but far away from the family.

Its in a flat world and the office is at the top of a tower with a lobby that you enter first:

tower_from_far_away

 

You then “say your name to the guard and they let you in or kick you out” (when she showed it to me the guard had a large sword just in case there was trouble):

 

guard

 

If you are granted entrance you have to climb (she says you aren’t allowed to fly there) to get to the office itself:

mid_way_up

Its quite a climb to the top:

overlook_inside

Up in the office I have some bookshelves:

bookshelf

A computer with plenty of light nearby:

computer

And a great view:

outside_view

outsideIt is amazing to me that she was perceptive enough to realize what I wanted and took the time to build it.

I’m writing a book about successfully working from home; signup if you want to know when it is complete.

Staying Productive: Take Real Breaks and Keep away from Ace of Base

My productivity tip of the day is pretty simple and exists in two parts:

Take real breaks; and always know when you are on a break.

Know when you are on a break

If you are building a chair its pretty obvious when you aren’t building the chair. Like if you look down and you aren’t in your workshop or near any wood then you probably are taking a break.

On a computer it isn’t that obvious. You can be working along and suddenly find yourself on the Wikipedia page for Ace of Base and not remember what brought you there. You were tired or hit a wall of fear or doubt or boredom and just opened up your web browser. You were on a mental break unintentionally. Instead plan your breaks ahead of time and push through these times. Use Pomodoro or whatever flavor of GTD or focus techniques that you like to keep working when you are working.

Take a Real Break

Well then what’s a real break?

The goal of a break is for you to not work for a bit and come back fresh to work more after.  Its a small investment for clarity and endurance.

A real break:

  1. Is away from the computer screen (or the loom if you work with a loom)
  2. In some way takes your mind away from the immediate.
  3. Occupies your mind in some other way.
  4. Is of a length where you can come back and keep working easily.

Away from computer screen

Your eyes get tired, your liver gets tired, everything gets tired. Time away from the screen resolves this quickly.  (Not the liver part)

Takes your mind away from immediate

I would not recommend thinking of work-related things as taking a break. Reading a technical blog while you take a break from computer programming is not as good as reading a magazine or skeet-shooting on your break. Do something different.

Occupies your mind

There is this myth that you can “veg-out” in front of the TV to unwind, but this does not really work. Working on your own is all about maintaining a productive momentum so I would recommend doing something with your mind (like reading or a puzzle or equivalent) or completely not using your mind like walking or taking a shower rather than doing something passive like TV watching.

Is of the right length

This varies per person, time of day, and moon cycle but for me this is typically 10 – 30 minutes.

With those criteria here are some examples of bad breaks:

  • Building a barn. (takes too long even with help from the other villagers)
  • Going to see all the Twilight movies. (too long; also they must be terrible)
  • Opening up a new tab and randomly growing reddit or equivalent. (does not actively engage your mind, is at computer)
  • Watching YouTube videos at random. (at computer, soul-crushing)
  • Getting into fights about stuff over the Internet. (at computer, does not occupy your mind)

Here are some example of good breaks:

  • Going for a walk.
  • Washing all the dishes in the sink.
  • Drawing a small picture of a tree with a money in it. The monkey has a telescope and is looking at you.
  • Smoking a cigarette. (unfortunately)
  • Brewing and then drinking tea.

My personal favorite technique

I am literate.

 

My personal favorite break technique is to read one “American-style” short story. These are typically 20 pages long and establish a character or idea in that length. They take about 30 minutes to read and completely take your mind away from whatever you are doing. I read them away from my computer but near it (sometimes it is necessary for me to keep headphones on in case there is an emergency). This technique clears all my requirements above and has lead me to read all sorts of great stories. By the time I’m done I am “back”, my mind and eyes are rested, and I am ready to work.


*I know that the term “veg-out” means act-like-a-vegetable and not move, but it blocks the term from being used when you eat a huge salad.  Barbecue Ribs don’t move either, it should be “Rib-out” because they don’t move and you don’t move after them.
Back

I’m writing a book about successfully working from home; click here if you want to know when it is complete.

Sacred Space: Building the Energy of your Home Office

In a previous entry I mentioned that you should have certain infrastructure readily-available when you work from home. After I wrote it this idea kept bouncing around my head that is a lot more important: how you treat your home office.

What you don’t do in your home office and what you don’t have in there matters more. You can’t just pull up a fold-up chair to a coffee table and get real work done over the long-term from home. You have to create a Sacred Space.

Professionalism

To pull off working alone and to build anything of any real value you should treat yourself as a professional and respect your work for its intrinsic value. Take it seriously and build a space that shows this attitude.

Don’t eat at your desk. Don’t browse YouTube aimlessly at your desk. Take a break at a separate desk or computer; the space for work is for work only. Don’t allow your kids into your office unless they are there to make something. When they make something put it up on the wall. The smell, energy, and feel of the place is that of doing stuff, making stuff. It helps your muscle memory when a space is always used for the same purpose.

This of course means that you probably won’t be sitting at your desk for 8 hours a day. The time you aren’t working you shouldn’t be in there. Run your online errands elsewhere; check your news elsewhere.

Design your space

Your office should be highly-functional but pleasant. You should be in  direct control of noise and interruptions as much as possible (door that shuts is a minimum, steel door that shuts is better, sound-dampening room with a parachute catapult for quick exits is ideal).

Your office should be treated seriously but it should be a place that you want to spend time. Work is hard sometimes. When you look up from your computer to think  you should enjoy the fact that you don’t have to look at sad greyish-brown-really-man-oh-man cubicle walls or generic ‘art’ and the smell of sad coffee stains soaked into the walls of a typical office space. Put up some Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle posters. Have toys, write something on your wall. Buy some ZenPencils posters. Have something that you want to look at; change it often.

As an illustration of this concept the below are some videos of professionals showing the rules of their spaces:

Casey Neistat: Red Boxes

Tom Sachs: Sacred Space

I’m writing a book about successfully working from home; click here if you want to know when it is complete.

Work Life Harmony & Resistance

We recently did a home refactoring project to make it better fit our family as it exists now with some new requirements (two kids and one work from home Dad more than originally anticipated).

The core idea was to create a completely separate work space for me that could operate independently from the family life while still be near it – sort of like a small guest house. We considered: soundproofing my office, moving it upstairs, shifting some rooms and wall configurations to allow secret access to a bathroom, and building an astronaut helmet for me so that I was in a quieter space and away from our 87 children aka entropy amplifiers.

At the last minute I decided against it – not because of price or effort or how disruptive it would be. I chose to leave my office as it is now because the reality of working from home for this long is that I’m no longer trying to strike a work/home balance or separation but instead a work/home harmony.

All these terms are completely overloaded. In a job interview people always ask about work/home/life “balance” and whether a company supports it. The idea is that if you have balance in your work vs. home life you won’t miss your family’s important events. No last minute weekend work or 90 hours a week expectations. The marker of whether or not you have work/life balance is whether your significant other* sort of hates your boss. In reality the work side typically wins in this “balance” anyway:

Every one of us has learned how to send emails on Sunday night. But how many of us know how to go a movie on Monday afternoon. You’ve unbalanced your life without balancing it with someone else. – Ricardo Semler

The old success model was that the wealthy could completely separate work from home. Subway ride to Manhattan, secretary to manage work errands, home life miles away. Or constant business travel – first class around the world away from home cashing big checks and eating buttery dinners at steakhouses with people you don’t really know.

The new success model is to have work come to you rather than you travel to work. In the most boring scenario you work from home and you are near your family. A more exciting version is that you take your family with you and travel around the world working. An even more exciting version is that you work blind-folded using only an old Android tablet whilst riding a bull as you dodge bullets and manage to install a Java update without ruining your computer as your kids cheer you on from galloping recently-broken wild horses as your wife sprays shotgun fire at your enemies.

I don’t want separation of who I am into different arenas. I want my work life to be an extension of who I am just as my family life is – something to be proud of and work very hard at and fill with humor and love and creativity. I want my kid’s creativity to spill into my work life and my work to be understood by them.  I would love to have a small desk in my office where my kids could do their homework; my ideal coworking space would be me and my family, a $4,000 espresso machine, and a barista that speaks in the voice of Shredder from TMNT.

I don’t have all the answers on how to accomplish the sort of deeply-focused highly organized work that my job requires while in the same house with my kids, but I know that I can’t avoid the problem to solve it.

In The War of Art Pressfield talks about resistance – the idea that any good work will be worked against by outside forces. It’s quite a spiritual idea to some and to others is a physical manifestation of our need to procrastinate on the important things. In any event in my work life I’ve found that the more I gain control over my working parameters the more resistance I face.

Imagine this: the absolute ideal for getting a lot of work done is to have a private island accessible only by your boat that is stocked with food and water and clothes freshly cleaned and dropped daily via helicopter.  Your Internet connection is wicked fast but only allows sites relevant to your work; the temperature is perfect inside and out; your devices do not need charging; your bills are paid, Wild Berry Skittles grow from the ground like weeds, etc.  You are freed from all things but the work.  Any person who has worked alone knows that this scenario would, after a few days or weeks, find us waxing that boat or organizing the driftwood or climbing the palm trees rather than working.  We are not made for these isolation chamber existences and such deep unwavering focus and our minds object and we face resistance.

So we have to build-in and control our resistance. And given the choice between any other distraction and my family I’ll take my family every time.

* Or cat or lizard.