Tips and mind tricks for new telecommuters

A simple checklist of remote work hacks for anyone learning how to work from home in the wake of the coronavirus.

The typical organization is just not set up to work from home. Assuming you can overcome all the VPN challenges, you still miss the coffee chatter. In some meetings, the telecommuting worker is absent, or literally muted. Suddenly, during the coronavirus outbreak, the entire organization is working remote, tempted by the refrigerator, the laundry, infinite YouTube over your shoulder, even childcare. Here are a few tips I've learned in a career of remote work, while dealing with difficult coworkers and mutually exclusive deadlines. There's a simple checklist at the end. If checklists aren't your friend now, just wait. They may be soon.

SEE: IT pro's roadmap to working remotely (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Think in terms of deliverables

Earlier I mentioned the distractions. If you've been working remotely for a week or two, you might have realized that the distractions can take your entire day. The "guideposts" that used to exist to get work done are delayed or removed entirely. 

When I work remotely I reorient my day around work, generally slicing it into work pieces that take three hours or less of concentrated time. For a programmer, that may be a feature. A manager may schedule one-on-one meetings; a project manager may need to make sure that other people complete their deliverables. Take a step back and all of these begin to look like our friend, the humble to-do list, with a twist. 

The time to make the to-do list is not first thing in the morning, but the night before. Fifteen minutes before ending work, clean things up to a place where you will have a good "jump off" then next day. After that, make the to-do list. Personally, I create a simple one-page document in Mac Pages and leave it on my desktop, with two major groups, business and personal. Sometimes I make the effort of sorting by categories such as "finish, start, plan" or effort, as in "less than five minutes or more than five minutes."

If you feel the need to work at night, knock out those things that take less than five minutes. Just do them. The next morning, don't open your email. Start by planning the day—including time for those major deliverables.

Grant Cardone, the master sales trainer, uses the phrase "white space on the calendar is the devil." In other words, if you don't plan your day, you will get sucked into the [coronavirus] news cycle, your Twitter feed, or your Facebook friends. So schedule the day, and the time, including a morning break, an afternoon break, and lunch. Extend the breaks a bit, if you'd like, to include time for checking email and social media.

During your heads-down time, put the phone out of arm's reach and close everything but your single maximized productivity app.

Follow this advice and you'll have at least four productive hours per day, which, amazingly, will be more than most people.

Protect your body

If you actually find it easy to do yoga, take walks, and eat healthy, you can skip this section.

The rest of us run the risk of being sucked into looking at a screen 16 hours a day. If that is you, you can do a few simple things to make like a little better. Consider a morning ritual to get into work, such as a walk. For an after-work ritual, consider cleaning your desk. My current desktop has gone a few days without that ritual. The pile of papers are a living example of extra work-in-progress. 

Put the phone away during the breaks and you'll need to actually walk over to it. At this time you can use the washroom and wash your hands.

Here in Michigan it's still easy enough to get a week's worth of bananas, celery, and carrots. If you really can't control the snacking, throw out the junk food and force breakfast and snacks to be decent.

Finally, plan something to do for at least an hour after work, and the hour before bed, that is not staring at a screen. After work, take a walk, use a treadmill, or lift something heavy. Small children work well for this. 

Of course, these are just the things that have worked well for me. I don't claim to have the discipline to do them all, all the time. Now for that checklist … and I'm off to take a break.

Checklist for effective telecommuting

  • Make a to-do list.
  • Knock out the quick wins. If it takes < 5 minutes, don't make a to-do list. JUST DO IT.
  • Plan your day. Including breaks for email. People can wait. "An empty schedule is the devil." 
  • Turn off interruptions during focused time. 
  • Do not "do that later."
  • Track the work that is blocked and work in progress.
  • Keep a clean physical desk and desktop.
  • Sure, have a PJ day or two. But in general, develop a morning going to work ritual. This can include a brief walk around the block.
  • Get up and move your body every hour if you have to.
  • Do not go from on screen (work) to another (TV/phone).
  • Be intentional about reconnecting with people. Take two 15-minute phone calls during lunch.
  • Park downhill—end your day thinking about what tomorrow's to-do list will be and in a place to dive back in.

Also see

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