How to create a productive routine when working remotely

Create a great morning routine

Now that you are working remotely you can adjust your normal morning routine to maximise your productivity. For example, you no longer need to hurry to the train or get caught up in peak-time traffic. It’s important to not waste your mornings just because there’s no longer the time needed to get ready and travel to your workplace. Awaken at the same time and use your new-found extra time for activities like exercise, meditation, eating a good breakfast, planning etc and schedule a fixed time you’ll start to do your work activities. And that’s when to check email for the first time—not over breakfast or in the toilet or while still in bed. This is just one of 7 reasons to not check email first thing in the morning.

Plan your day

Write up a master task or to-do list and identify the 3 most important tasks you need to achieve for the day and then block time for these into your calendar. Choose times for these when you have your highest levels of mental energy, focus and alertness – you should aim to use your highest energy for your highest payoff tasks. Most of us are at our best in the morning, either very early, mid-morning or late morning. It’s easier to talk than to think so, generally speaking, aim to do the difficult, complex, problem solving, conflict resolving, creative, bigger picture and revenue-generating tasks in the morning and leave the routine, mundane, administrative and communication tasks for the afternoon.

Set deadlines for yourself

Parkinson’s Law states that a task expands to meet the time available. A limited timeframe provides focus and motivation to get a task done. As entrepreneur Timothy Ferriss writes ‘reduce time to increase focus’. The motivation for getting stuff done is stronger at work where you’re surrounded by colleagues and managers who are also working on their tasks and interacting with you. When working remotely (often on your own), it can be a lot harder to maintain the same level of concentration as there are more distractions and temptations at home and less external accountability. To stay focused you need to set your own deadlines each day and use your Calendar to keep control of this. Research shows that you are 81% more likely to achieve something that is in the calendar (ie: it has a deadline) rather than on a to-do list.

Set a timer

When you’re working towards a deadline, you’ll want to avoid being constantly interrupted. That’s why blocking out time in your calendar (as mentioned above) and setting deadlines for your work is so important. Using a timer or countdown alarm for the time you’ve allowed for a task will help you retain focus – something happens at a subconscious level when you’re working ‘on the clock’. When the alarm goes off, take a break. The Pomodoro technique recommends a 25-minute block of time to focus on a single task and then 5-minute break. Do this 4 times and then have a longer break. For remote working, this allows you to fully focus on work activities and then do some domestic chores during the breaks, satisfying that nagging sense of things you need to do around the house. You can use a timer app such as Pomodoro on your smartphone or computer and/or a time logging app to keep track of your various activities during the day (eg: Rescue Time, Lazy Cure) so you can review at the end of the day where you actually spent your time.

Batch tasks

This is the process of grouping similar small tasks together and then blocking a specific period of time in your calendar to complete these tasks in a single batch. This allows you to have larger blocks of times for full focus for your key tasks and then a shorter, concentrated block of time for attending to a range of small and similar tasks. Use this ‘batch time’ for activities such as processing emails, returning phone calls, writing up invoices, paying your bills, check in with social media etc. I use the term Strategic Reserve Time (SRT) for these batch times – it’s time set aside in advance to deal with a range of smaller issues that will always ‘pop up’ during a typical workday.

Single Focus

The research proves that multitasking does not work. Trying to do this can decrease your productivity by as much as 25 or 40 or 100% or even more, depending on the complexity of what you’re doing. It’s better to ‘single task’ by working on just one thing at a time. One of the biggest drivers of multi-tasking are interruptions from email, phone and/or visitors. Hopefully, working remotely should eliminate visitor interruptions (although interrupting colleagues might simply be replaced with interrupting kids or pets). So, turn off all email and social media alerts and schedule a few times during the day to check these (in a batch, as mentioned above). I call these strategic reserve times (SRT)—time set aside specifically to deal with the unexpected ‘stuff’ that crops up every day—communications and tasks. Some people call these GAM times (got a minute). You can use these dedicated times as an incentive and/or reward for staying focused and getting some of your important work done and finished.

Take breaks

It’s important to step away from your desk between tasks. This will improve your productivity and reduce your chances of making mistakes in your work. Use these breaks (like the 5-minute break mentioned in the Pomodoro technique above) to stretch your legs, grab a drink, check the letterbox, do a quick domestic chore etc.

Create a dedicated area for work activities

It’s very hard to be fully focused on work activities in your everyday home environment. That’s why it’s important to create an area dedicated to your work activities. A specific room where you can close the door works best but maybe you can find a little nook or corner of a room for this. It helps you make the mental switch between work and non-work activities. I also suggest having areas of your home that are sacrosanct from work and where you don’t take your phone (bedroom, bathroom etc), same as you put limits on such things for your kids, hey? Set up your workspace using Triage Zones where your A zone (within arm’s reach) is for items you use all the time (eg: keyboard, mouse, notepad, pens); the B zone is where you have to stretch to use less frequently used items (stapler, sticky tape, phone etc) and the C Zone is where you have to move from your seat to reach items such as filing cabinet, bookshelf etc.

Use a halogen desk lamp

Good lighting is as important as a comfortable chair so use a halogen lamp on your desk to create a lighted area that helps to relieve eye strain and generally make it easier to focus. Lighting designers recommend we rely on two light sources – overhead, indirect lighting to generally brighten up a room and ‘task lighting’ for a small direct light source that can be focused on the paper you’re reading or some other task at hand. Fluorescent and other options are fine for general illumination, but halogen bulbs are better for detail work, because halogen renders colours with greater clarity than other types of lighting.

Use a second screen

A second screen or monitor (or split a large screen, using windows icon + left arrow) if much of your work is done on computer. It will make you at least 20% more productive than working with a single small screen. My colleague Pete Cook suggests using your main computer for ‘production’ tasks to do with your work and a separate computer, tablet or phone for ‘consumption’ activities like viewing social media, video etc. In addition, using headphones will help to increase focus and block out background noise (even if you don’t have anything playing). If you do listen to background music, some say the Baroque period of best for enhancing concentration. It generally travels at 50 to 80 beats per minute, which helps to stabilise mental, physical, and emotional rhythms and create a strong mental environment for focus and studying.

Have a shutdown routine

It’s important to be able to separate your work activities from your personal life, to disengage and re-energise. Out modern technology makes it difficult to ‘switch off’ when leaving the workplace and now it’s even harder if you’re working from home. That’s why it’s critical to have some sort of end of day shutdown routine or ritual and make the distinct mental shift from work to home, especially when the two are now in the same physical location. An important step is the powerful symbolic gesture of actually shutting down your computer.

Steuart Snooks is an email and workplace productivity expert who works with busy professionals to help them get control of all their emails. He has developed a series of workshops, presentations, webinars, coaching and resources that outline the best practice skills for mastering your email.