When You’re Not in the Room Where It Happens: Getting Work Done at Home (Even Temporarily)
You’re not going into the office, you can’t go to that busy cafe, you’re not dropping into a co-working space. You are going to work from home for a while.
At first you think that this will be fun, after all you have worked effectively from home in the past for a day or two to finish that report or work on a proposal. This longer period will see you getting even more done, right? Maybe. What might happen when office workers go home?
Independent workers have set up systems to work effectively at home or in mobile environments. They have home work stations, office supplies and equipment, and that backpack that has every thing and every cable they need to work from anywhere. But what if its not a permanent shift – just the reality for a while? It’s probably not worth spending time thinking about such things, you just need to get work done at home.
The first day is great, you plow through things; the second day, you get some more done. By the third day it’s getting quiet, just you and your laptop. You schedule calls and have online meetings. But between those you still need to produce something. You find yourself doing lots of email and planning – moving papers from one side of your kitchen table to the other. There are also other distractions trying to grab your attention at home, the laundry, training the dog, the drawer that needs sorting. It’s hard to focus, what do you do next? This isn’t going to work for 14 days.
For the last year, I’ve been working on a couple of larger writing projects. They have no particular deadline, and no pressure. They don’t call me or send me email. They do wake me up in the middle of the night occasionally. But I have to find deep wells of inner discipline and focus to work on them. I have discovered one practice that has helped me enormously to make progress and get things done, that I think might also be useful for workers accustomed to having high contact with others and frequent check-ins, and are not necessarily used to working on their own from home.
This practice was inspired by Focusmate which I discovered last year, and is an online community that literally works together. I thought it was a great idea, but didn’t want to work with strangers. So I set up my own set of Focusmate colleagues – friends of mine who are also working on writing projects and research in some cases, and others who just want an extra layer of accounabilty to get substantive things done. My Focus Friends are in Geneva, Paris, Rhode Island, and Budapest, and I am always glad to add others.
The process is very simple:
- Schedule: You schedule at least a 1-hour block with someone and put it in your calendars (I often schedule longer blocks such as 2-3 hours and we my schedule multiple sessions over a few weeks). Send a calendar invite if you like.
- Connect: Using Skype or WhatsApp or whatever you like, call each other at the scheduled time.
- Set Norms: Agree on your working mode – you will only need to do this once. You will be working together on different things and not talking. You want to limit distraction to the other person, but still have them “in the room.” You need to make a decision on how you will be connected during the hour. With some friends for the work time we leave on our camera AND audio, with others we turn off the camera and leave on audio, and others we turn off audio and leave on the camera. You can decide what you like best with each person. The idea is to stay connected for this hour and work in companionable silence, as much as possible. You won’t be getting up and down, or taking phone calls, or cleaning your desk. Your goal is to do deep work for an hour on a project of some kind at your computer with someone else, somewhere else, doing the same in real time on a different project.
- Share: At the begining of the hour, use the first couple of minutes to tell each other EXACTLY what you will do and accomplish for that hour (use your camera for this if possible). Try to be specific and realistic -how many pages will you review or write, etc.
- Time: Set your timer for an hour (I use my iphone timer).
- Work: Get to work together – with no talking, just a clicking of keys and/or a thoughtful face (I usually connect with skype on my phone and have it to the side in my peripheral vision).
- Report: When the timer goes off, you both stop. Each of you tells the other briefly what they accomplished. It is interesting to note how well you estimated the time it takes to do things. This is great practice – each time you do this you will become more accurate in your estimations.
- Break (and Repeat): If you will do multiple 60 minute sessions together in one block, take a 5 min break in between each and then repeat from Step 4 above.
It is amazing what you get done when you add that accountabilty component and know that someone else is “with you” working at the same time, even if they are 3,000 km away. It gives you the comfort of being with others working, as you would feel in an office, which can be a motivator to really settle into a task and focus, and it carves out a dedicated space to do that more creative and original work. It also helps you push past the delicious urge to procrastinate that you might get when you know that no one is watching over you.
I have found this simple system to be incredibly helpful and thought it might be useful for others too. Even when you can’t be physically in your office for whatever reason, with focusmate, where ever you are, you’re in the room where it happens.
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