03 August 2007

Keeping Your Sanity When Working at Home

A while back I promised a write-up from a red-eye flight of my experiences working out of a home office (aka working remotely). Unfortunately, the last red-eye flight I had was spent polishing chapters. So after a five hour delay in an airport this evening, I'm writing this entry from another red-eye flight.

I've worked remotely in various capacities since back in the mid- to late-1990s while working for various startups and my experiences have varied widely. What I've learned in that time has helped me to figure out how and when I work best. This will likely be a very long topic, so I'll break up over two or three entries. There are many aspects of working remotely and I could go on and on about this topic. So I've decided to whittle down my thoughts into a set of tips based on my experiences and perspectives.

Adhere to a Schedule

This is a no-brainer for most folks, but I still mention it all the time. Try to stick to a schedule, not only so that others know when you're available, but also for your family and yourself. A workday that is broken up and inconsistent can really wreak havoc on yourself and others. I'm not saying you need to be dogmatic about it because everyone has things come up. But try to keep the same general work hours. It will help you keep your sanity.

Focus on Work Tasks

A movie from years ago named Disclosure portrayed a vicious battle for corporate position filled with scandal inside a tech startup where Michael Douglas' character was accused of sexual harassment. As the scandal was consuming his life, he was reminded over and over by a colleague to fix the problem but he didn't take heed. It wasn't until the night before his big presentation where the biggest scandal yet was about to take place that he discovered the accusation was meant to be a big distraction while the real trap was being laid. His colleague had kept telling him to fix the problem yet he had neglected to see what was right in frton of him - his job.

Don't forget that your focus is still on the work you are paid to do. I routinely run into articles, blog entries, house chores, errands, etc. while I'm working that I'd rather be doing to need to be done instead of doing my work. So I try to remain focused by bookmarking stuff and filing it in a folder I named toRead and using a GTD tool (more on this in a bit). Then I read this stuff in my copious amounts of free time ;-).

Take Breaks!!!

I can't tell you how much better I think about problems and perform my work by simply taking breaks. As the Audioslave song says, 'I like hammering nails and speaking in tougues, because it doesn't remind me of anything,' - do something completely different from what you're doing for a bit. It's surprising how taking your mind completely off of a problem or task and coming back to it with a fresh perspective can really, really help.

Organize Your Tasks

The book Getting Things Done is a great resource for keeping yourself organized. It's got a lot of very basic tips that are really good. There's also some great software out there for helping with this including kGTD (which is in the process of becoming OmniGroup OmniFocus) and iGTD just to name a couple of MacOS X apps (sorry to the Linux and Windows folks - I'm sure there's stuff out there).

Vary Your Work Location

This one works for me but may not for others. I have discovered that I tend to focus better when pink noise is present. Pink noise kinda sounds like static and acts to mask background noise to help me concentrate better. I even use a pink noise generator named Noise. I have also found that I can sit in a bustling coffee shop and focus much better than sitting in a quiet room - as long as there is nobody who's talking loudly on a cell phone or just particularly loud. Most of my work revolves around problem solving in one way or another (e.g., writing code, digging through code, working on architecture, etc.) and focus is important. If I'm trying to read this doesn't always work. Sometimes music is enough, but sometimes that makes me pick up my guitar and I get distracted for a bit ;-).

Don't Get Too Distracted By Email
I receive a *lot* of email. This is mainly due to my being subscribed to some 30+ mailing lists for various open source projects. As much as I watch what is happening, the majority of the time I am skimming subjects to see if the discussion thread is interesting to me. There are lists for which I do read every message but I certainly don't read every single message that enters my inbox. At any rate, the point of this tip is to let you know that we all experience information overload and email is a big contributor to this dilemma.

My advice is not to let it suck you in. You can blow more valuable work time in your email client that you realize. My strategy is to keep my work email separate from my personal email (I use separate addresses) and to make full use of a good email client to filter email into various categories. I tend to pay special attention to messages that are sent directly to me as opposed to those sent to a list to which I'm subscribed. Even the most seemingly innocuous things in this world can be addicting and email is one of them. Don't let your email control you.

Review, Review, Review

Just like any Agile Methodology in the software development world, reviewing where you are at in your workload should be a constant. GTD teaches you this because remaining organized doesn't mean simply keeping little Post-It Notes for your TODOs all over the place. Situations can change on a moment's notice and it's important to take stock in where you've been, where you are currently and where you're going.

There will be many more tips to come and not all of them will be general advice. I have discovered many tips and productivity tools by simply sitting next to friends while we work on our own things. It's amazing what you can pick up from others in this manner. Unfortunately, I don't have the chance to work with friends too often these days as travel to be with clients seems to dominate my workload lately. If you have tips, tricks, ideas, tools, etc. to share, please let me know.


  1. Here is a link with gtd software :

  2. Thanks, Martin. For GMail users, here's another very cool, very seemless GTD solution named GTDInbox.

  3. I've been working remotely for about two years now, and - maybe besides trying to back off from too much involvement in open source lists - I haven't had too much problems with it.

    Imho the big pitfalls of working remotely are that it is easy to get a fat belly and to turn into a hermit. We just lost a colleague who got tired of not having social interaction, and though nowhere near the breaking point myself, I can definitively feel his pain. Coffee shops and IT friends in the same city helps, but it's not the same as live-discussing your work with people who are in the same as you are.

    Thanks for those productivity tips though. Please keep them up!

  4. Martin, the Wikipedia editors deleted the GTD Software list for being too list-like. t has a new home at Priacta.com: http://www.priacta.com/Articles/Comparison_of_GTD_Software.php.

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