All posts in Productivity

Lessons Learned After Working From Home For 4 Years

Since I quit my job 4 years ago to work on my own, I’ve been working from home. Here are some of the things I’ve learned along the way that help me be productive and happy.

Find your sweet spot

Some people recommend having a home office, others going to coffee shops and there’s also people who like coworking spaces. I’ve tried them all (and so should you), and I prefer having a home office. If I don’t have space for a proper office, then at least a good desk, comfy chair and big monitor. Failing that (this happens a lot when travelling), a desk that can fit my laptop and mousepad, and a chair that isn’t crap will do. While travelling, I’ve been surprised at how little I need to be productive. There are a few things I can’t compromise on, though, if I want to really be productive, which leads me to my next point.

Get rid of productivity killers

We all have certain things that totally kill our productivity. Get rid of them. For me, a temperature outside of a certain range, is a productivity killer. If it’s too hot or humid (again, this happens sometimes when travelling), I can’t get anything done. If it’s too cold, the same thing happens, but this is rare where I usually choose to live.

Other productivity killers of mine:

  1. Using a trackpad instead of a mouse. I can get some work done with a trackpad, but less.
  2. Having a crappy chair or desk (i.e. being uncomfortable while sitting on my computer).
  3. Not having a list of things I need to work on (more on this later).
  4. Too much noise. I can deal with some noise, specially white noise. I don’t need total silence, but having people talking around me can distract me pretty easily. That’s one of the reasons I don’t like to work from coffee shops.
  5. Slow or unstable Internet. Nothing kills my productivity more effectively than having the Internet go down (not for all tasks, but for most).
  6. Interesting things happening around me. I always thought having fun and interesting coworkers was great, and it is, but it also kills my productivity if we’re sitting next to each other in an open space. I guess I don’t want to “miss out” on whatever’s going on.
  7. Other distractions: someone talking to me or buzzing the door (remember I work from home), phone calls and notifications (when working I always have my phone on “don’t disturb” mode), computer notifications (I close Facebook and Gmail tabs when I want to get shit done)…
  8. Bugs I can’t fix quickly. This is one of the most annoying ones. When I hit a roadblock with my programming (say, spend half an hour to an hour trying to get something simple to work), it kills my productivity rather quickly. It’s just not fun at all. And it’s always, ALWAYS, something stupid.

As you can see most of my productivity killers can be avoided with proper habits and planning. You should make a list of yours and also plan accordingly.

Respect the Zone

In case you don’t know what being in the zone is, here’s a description I found online:

Expression used to describe a state of consciousness where actual skills match the percieved performance requirements perfectly. Being in the zone implies increased focus and attention which allow for higher levels of performance. Athletes, musicians, and anybody that totally owns a challenge of physical and mental performance can be in the zone.

For people working on their own schedule and doing any kind of creative work, being in the zone is critical. It’s not like you need to be in the zone to get work done, but that when you are in the zone, you will effortlessly get shit done properly without even noticing it. So you should figure out what helps you get in the zone (step 1: get rid of your productivity killers) and also find a way to stay there for as long as you can (zero distractions or breaks).

Take breaks

There are people who advocate for the Pomodoro technique, which forces breaks on you every fixed amount of time (i.e. you need to take a break 5 minutes every hour). I find this can get you out of the zone pretty quickly, and I prefer to take breaks in between tasks. If a task takes me 15 minutes to do, I might take a 5 minute break afterwards. And if it takes 2 or 3 hours, I will probably not stop either until I’m done. Of course, there are always tasks that might take too many hours (or days!) to finish and you need to break them down into doable smaller subtasks. I don’t know about you but I personally hate leaving a task half done (if , for example, I need to go somewhere), so I prefer smaller tasks that I can finish before calling it a day.

Define what needs to be done

Once I get down to work, I don’t want to have to think about what I need to work on. I should know that already. That’s why I plan at least one week in advance (usually two) worth of tasks in advance. On the weekend, I sit down and review my tasks for the week: are they doable? too many? too few? is there anything that I can anticipate may stop me from doing those tasks (if so, take care of that in advance or create other tasks to deal with it)? Then I create those tasks on Basecamp and arrange them on the calendar view (which is my favorite way of looking at my projects).

I also like having other not-work related (but still important) tasks visible at all times. Read more about my To-Do List setup.

Finish something every day

You should always finish the day having accomplished something. For example, replying to a thousand emails doesn’t count for me. I need to have “produced” or built something. At least one thing. Write a blog post, mock up a design, code a new feature, fix a bug… You need to be able to “check” some task off your list every day. I also use iDoneThis to write, at the end of the way, everything I did, and get that feeling of “I got work done today”.

On top of actually finishing something every day, I suggest you add some physical action to celebrate it. For example, if your to do list is on paper, crossing that task with a pen would be it. If you use an online tool, marking it as “done”. Or writing it in a “what I got done today” journal. You get the idea. Soon enough you’ll be hooked to that and you’ll be pushing yourself to get more things done just so you can get that rush of satisfaction again.

Take time off

For the longest time, I wouldn’t take a single day off. Or if I did (either because I wanted to or because I was too burnt out to work), I felt guilty. Now I understand that weekends serve a very important purpose. They allow us to unwind and recharge batteries to start the following week with all the intensity that our work deserves.

Also, take holidays, not just weekends off. It’s easier to believe that you need to be on top of things 24/7 in order for your company to run properly. That everything would explode if you took a week or two off. Turns out it doesn’t. You will have a longer list of unread emails when you come back, but that’s it.

Last week I was in Bali and we rented an amazing villa for the weekend (the rest of the month we were staying in a nice, but not super nice, house). We decided to stay an extra 2 days until we had to leave Bali. And then we had a day of moving, flying, etc (spoiler: you won’t get anything done on those days). I decided to take that week off, on the spot. I had a bunch of tasks I wanted to get done that week. Important stuff. But I knew they could wait, and I also knew I wanted to take that week off, and that I hadn’t taken a proper holiday in months. This is why I didn’t publish anything last week, by the way :)

Actually disconnect on your time off

I know this is easier said than done (been there), but you can’t be constantly checking your email or thinking about work when you’re on your time off. It will make you feel guilty for not being working, not present in the moment (which means you’ll enjoy less whatever it is you’re doing) and overall, a less happy person. If you come across a brilliant thought, send yourself an email and forget about it.

If you happen to run a business and you also do the customer support for it, I understand the desire to be available and reply quickly 24/7. I’ve been there. Outsource it. Trust me, it’s the best decision you’ll ever make. Yes, they may not reply 100% as quickly and with as much passion as you do, but you’ll be a much happier person and that will reflect in all aspects of your life.

Outsource as much as possible

Technically, everything is outsourceable, but I don’t think you should outsource everything. Things that you do repeatedly, that are easy to teach, and that don’t make you happy? Outsource those as soon as possible. Depending on what you do for a living, the list can be very different. Also, some tasks are easier to oursource than others (for example, I’ve found that outsourcing any kind of development work is just not worth it unless you’re willing to pay top dollar or you don’t care much about the quality of the work produced).

These are the things I successfully outsource: customer support, community management, logo design, system administration, content creation, data entry and research. Yes, I also do some of those myself depending on the situation, but only when I want to, or personally doing it would be much, much better for the business than outsourcing it (it’s fewer times than you think).

Work smart, not hard

When I hear about all those Silicon Valley startup founders who claim to work over 80 hours a week, I don’t know if they lie, count “not really work but kind of” stuff as work (say, reading TechCrunch or commuting), overestimate the amount of time they actually work because they don’t track it (I do), or are just a superior race. Me? I rarely crack the 6 hour of productive time per day. And by productive time, I mean it. I use Freckle to track the time I spend working every day, and I stop the timer every time I’m not actually working. So when I’m reading TechCrunch, going to the bathroom, making a (non work related) phone call, going for a glass of water, etc. the timer is stopped. Start tracking your time this way, and you’ll be surprised how much time you think you work but you actually don’t.

Also, when you work for yourself (this doesn’t apply if you are working remotely for someone else), a big part of working smart is deciding what to work on. There’s always an unlimited amount of things fighting for your attention. Every time I look at the backlog of “pending features” for my company I want to laugh or cry, depending on my mood. Bottom line is, there’s always going to be more work to be done, it’s never going to stop. So don’t kill yourself by trying to do too much of it. Pick the right things to work on: high impact, easy to implement. Came up with a high impact, hard to implement task? Rethink it and come up with another task that gives 80% of the benefits for 20% of the work.

The Ultimate To-Do List: Your Inbox

I’ve tried a lot of task management systems and to-do list apps over the years. Simple and complex, web-based and native, mobile and desktop. Despite some of them being quite slick, I always ended up ignoring them over time. It seems stupid, but just the fact that my tasks are on some separate app that I have to consciously open and keep updated, makes me drop them eventually. It is “too much work”. Eventually I found a workflow that’s so integrated into my daily routine that it works perfectly for me. Everyone’s different, but I’m sure some people will find it works wonderfully for them too.

Before I go any further let me clarify something. Besides the system I’ll describe in this post, I also use Basecamp, where I have all my projects and their respective backlog of tasks (plus documents, etc). Some of those lists are huge, some are small. It depends on the project. I usually have a vague roadmap of big projects and features (launch X on Q2 2014, etc), but other than that I just have a week or two worth of tasks planned (with deadlines). And I mostly use the calendar to have a visual view of my next weeks’ worth of work.

So I do use some classic project management software. The system I’m about to describe works on top of that. I use it for emails I need to reply, personal tasks (do laundry, call someone, do taxes, etc), work related tasks that don’t necesarily fit into a Basecamp project (or I just feel like it’s important enough to deserve extra visibility), or maybe it’s something I thought about and haven’t had the time to put into Basecamp yet.

Keeping Your Tasks Visible

Something everyone has problems with is finding a way to be aware of their to-do items. Some people try sticking post-it notes on the bathroom mirror or the computer monitor, since they think they’ll look at them every day. I don’t think that’s a useful method, since there’s limited real state available and is harder to maintain than an digital solution.

At some point I realized there is something that I look at multiple times during the day, every day. Even in my off days. My inbox. I always have a Gmail tab open. Or if I’m on the go, check it on my phone quite often.

Using Your Inbox As A To-Do List

There are some people who may receive hundreds of emails a day they need to reply to, and they’ll think they can’t make this work because of the volume. I personally receive maybe around 100 emails a day, sometimes more, although a lot of them are things that I need to know about, but not necessarily need to reply to. My opinion is that this system works whatever your email volume is.

The way the system works is very simple, really: each email you receive is something you need to act upon, and you use email for everything. For every email you receive, these are your choices:

  • You can do nothing (that’s also a choice) if you don’t have to do anything about it. Maybe you were just CC’d on something but your whole purpose on that thread is to know about it. This means you just read it (or mark it as read).
  • You can delete or archive it, if it’s completely useless or you don’t particularly want it wasting space in your inbox. Keep in mind that I don’t strive for inbox zero in the traditional sense. For me, an unread item is an item that requires my attention. A read item is one I already dealt with. So for me, zero unread items is the equivalent of inbox zero.
  • You can reply to it.
  • You can delegate it to someone (forward it or CC someone into the conversation).
  • You can postpone it (maybe it’s something you need to deal with but only in, say, a week from now, and you don’t want it bothering you now).
  • You can create a task into your formal task management software (if you use any). This includes Basecamp, Jira, FogBugz, Flow, Asana, etc.
  • You can take some other action (maybe call someone, run an errand, etc).

How It All Actually Works

The technical implementation of this system is pretty straightforward:

  • Use Gmail in your desktop, configured to show “Unread Messages First”. This effectively separates your inbox in two: first all your unread emails, which are all the items on your to-do list that you haven’t dealt with, and then all your read messages, which could be thousands or more, it doesn’t matter, and you shouldn’t really look at them unless you need to dig up some old data (a flight’s details, an old conversation, etc). In essence, you should only be focusing on the unread items in your inbox.
  • If you for example read an email and you need to do something with it (like reply) but can’t do it right away, just mark is as unread and you’ll keep seeing it at the top of your inbox, and you’ll never forget to reply.
  • Adding a task to your list is as simple as sending yourself an email. From any device in the world, really. In the desktop, I just send myself an email from Gmail since with autocomplete it takes 2 seconds. On my phone, which I use several times per day when I need to remind myself of anything, I use Captio. A 1.99$ app which I use several times per day. Easily best two bucks I ever spent. Just fire it up, write whatever you want to send yourself, and then click Send. You can even attach images and files. Way faster than using the Email app.
  • I wish there was a way I could easily reorganize my unread emails in Gmail and they stayed that way, to reprioritize tasks (keep most important tasks on top instead of latest). But what I do works most of the times: I just reply to it (assuming I sent it to myself), or just forward it to myself. That way it goes to the top of the list. I don’t necesarily take action on items from top to bottom, but I find that sometimes an item I’ve been procrastinating about for a while and has been sitting at the bottom of the list gets more attention from me if I bump it to the top.
  • I use the Gmail iPhone app since it has a “Show unread emails first” and the official iPhone Mail app does not. It’s a pity because other than that, I prefer the official app.
  • To postpone a task, or be reminded some time in the future, I use FollowUp.cc. It’s a great service, and quite cheap (I actually used the free version for months until I needed more monthly emails). You basically send an email to an address like [time]@followup.cc, and you’ll get a reminder after that time. For example: 1w@followup.cc will send you that email back to you after 1 week. 3d@followup.cc will send it to you after 3 days. And so on. The paid version even has a calendar you can look at and it’ll show all your scheduled reminders. It’d be awesome if you could reschedule them by drag and dropping them, again like tasks on Basecamp.
  • For exact time and date reminders (like you have a Skype call next Monday at 2pm, or a doctor’s appointment), I personally prefer to use my phone’s calendar system (although you could always use Google Calendar and have it synced to your phone), and I always include two alerts. One quite some time in advance, the other with very little margin. It depends on the situation, for example:
    • For a Skype call, I’ll probably have one an hour before, and then 5 minutes before.
    • For a doctor’s appointment at 9am, I might have one the day before and the other an hour before, since I’ll need to physically go somewhere for it.
  • I also use labels in Gmail to quickly differentiate tasks at a glance. For example, any emails I receive from myself are labeled as TO-DO. If they’ve been sent to one of my businesses’ address, I label them as from that business. I use strong colors with white text (like bright red or blue) for work or more important projects, and lighter colors with dark text for personal stuff.

How Does My Inbox Usually Look Like?

Usually, when I look at my inbox in the morning it has anywhere from 50 to 100 unread messages. After I’ve deleted all the notifications, dealt with the easy stuff and replied to the quick emails, I’m down to less than 20.

Those 20 are usually a variety of things, which can include:

  • An email that will take some concentration and time to reply to.
  • An email that will require that I perform some other task before I can reply to.
  • A reminder that I need to run some errand (do laundry, buy groceries, etc) or task (change copy, fix bug, etc).
  • Some ideas for features or projects that I need to either do (maybe it’s a possible solution for a bug I’m trying to fix) or just dump into Basecamp (if it’s more of a complex task that will require breaking it into smaller tasks).
  • A link to a blog post, article, ebook, video or any other type of resource I found while browsing the net (probably on my phone) and I want to take the time to look into at some point. Usually these end up either being read/watched in a week’s time or I deem them not that important after all, and just mark them as read.

At this point, and depending on how motivated I am, I start by the easiest or hardest/most important, and use the momentum to plow through as many as I can before I call it a day (or move on to my tasks for the day on Basecamp).

I’d love to hear your feedback on my system as well as any recommendations to improve it or make it even simpler to use.

Focus, focus, focus

Focus!I think what most people lack when it comes to making their dreams come true is focus. Make no mistake, I don’t speak from the perspective of a highly focused person who never loses sight of the goal, quite the opposite. As most people,  distractions and opportunities pop into my life all the time, and sometimes they make me focus on things that aren’t my highest priority at the moment. That’s one of the reasons I’ve started this blog, to make a commitment to myself, to remind me what are my goals and that I should always be moving forward to reach them. After all I’m a guy, and we’re all about reaching objectives, right?

So what is important? What should I be focused on? Well, for a while I’ve been trying to reach too many goals at the same time, in different aspects of my life, and I found that out to be very inefficient. You see, anyone has a limited amount of “motivation points”, and when you run out of them, things suddenly start to not work out as you would like. New habits are hard to establish into your routine, it takes time for them to be something you enjoy, to be part of who you are. In my case, I’ve been trying to introduce in my life so many things at once, that none of them ended up working. Some of my goals are eating (way) healthier, work out every day, start my own business, learn about how to be a good (amateur) photographer, blogging regularly or improve my public speaking skills, just to name a few. Some of them require a high level of focus, others don’t, but I can’t do everything at once.

That’s why I’ve decided to put some of those goals on hold while I focus on the most important one for me, and the one that will make the rest of them easier once achieved: starting my own business. Truth be told, it’s also the one I enjoy the most, and I’ve actually been working on that for a few months now, since I went part time last  July (and some more time before that, but not as serious for obvious reasons).  On the side, I’ll also work on my public speaking skills, as I enjoy my weekly Toastmasters meetings and it doesn’t take much time, blog here every once in a while and also try to fix a health problem I’ve been carrying for way too long and that’s getting to a point where it’s really affecting my life (more on that another day).

And what about you? Are you focused on the right thing?