How I Work Remotely and Still Get Things Done
People who start working remotely are surprised at how difficult it is be productive. These are the tools that I use to remain productive no matter where I'm working.
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People who start working remotely are surprised at how difficult it is being productive at home. On one hand you’ll feel more productive since you don’t have to exchange niceties with coworkers, but you also have all the comforts and entertainment of your home to console you when you are met with an intellectual challenge.
That being said, working from home can be easy if you know what habits, tools, and systems you need in place.
I’ve been working remotely since 2018, and in that time I’ve cultivated a system of habits and tools that help me succeed along the way.
They are the tools that I use to remain productive no matter where I'm working.
Books and Education on Productivity
Before I go into the digital apps and tools I use you have to understand the methodology behind them. That is when the P.A.R.A. system comes in. P.A.R.A. stands for Project, Areas, Resources, and Archive. These are the four buckets that every piece of information you come across will fit in.
Read the article to understand how it works. To read the entire series of articles, you’ll need to subscribe to Forte Labs, but the cost is a tiny investment compared to what you’ll gain in the hours saved and the productivity increased. This is the ground that my entire system is based on.
If I ran a company, every employee would be required to read this (come to think of it I'd make them read this entire article). Not only does Getting Things Done provide you with a methodology of organization, but it also explains the psychology behind it all. For example, not capturing a thought, whether it be on a Post-it note or an email to yourself, leaves an open loop in the mind which will cost you energy.
P.A.R.A. is based on the Getting Things Done except it simplifies it further. So I recommend reading the book, but as far as how you set up your digital workspace, let P.A.R.A. guide you.
Most employees work like firefighters. They respond to the same issues over and over as they arise. These folks don’t stop to ask “Why am I doing this? Why did this issue arise in the first place? What is this task/project trying to accomplish?”
Work The System is about viewing your job, team, and department as a system. With this perspective you can remove, improve, optimize, and automate as much as possible. This will make your tasks like clockwork rather than an unpredictable frenzy and give you time to focus on what you enjoy doing at work.
Investing in yourself through education is one of the investments with the highest return. There are a lot of courses out there I can recommend, but I recommend getting started with LinkedIn Learning. They have a 30-day free trial that will get you started.
A course that I think everyone should take is Getting Things Done. This is a methodology of productivity that works for everyone. It is literally life-changing. Once you implement it, you’ll get more done and feel less stressed.
Things (MAC) / Microsoft To-Do (PC)
How do you keep track of all your tasks? If your answer is sticky notes, you’re wrong (unless you have hundreds). There are too many tasks to track with some improvised system.
I personally use Things. Whenever I’m in a meeting and an action item comes upI quickly add it to my task list. If there’s an email that I don’t need to answer right away, I create a task for it, copy the email URL, and schedule it for later. If I remember that I need to order groceries on Friday, I’ll create a task and schedule it.
A task manager is a non-negotiable part of a proper system for productivity and something you’ll be instructed to use through P.A.R.A. and Getting Things Done.
Alongside a task manager, you’ll need a note-taking app. If your task manager has “Order Groceries” on it, you can have your go-to grocery list in your note-taking app—this way you don’t have to try to recall what groceries you need every week.
If your task manager has “Renew Car Insurance”, your note-taking app will be where you stored your current insurance documents.
I’ve been using Evernote since 2010. It’s the best and easiest to use app for notes. I have everything from work to personal projects. Some personal examples include travel plans, music I’m writing, books I read, and anything work-related as well.
When you’re in a meeting, do you have a lot of background noise? Maybe it’s kids, dogs, construction, or a cafe.
Krisp will make it sound like you’re alone in a padded recording booth. It uses AI to remove any background noise. Simply install it on your MAC or PC and turn it on when you’re in a call and need to get rid of background noise.
Whether or not you get distracted by social media doesn’t need to be left up to chance. With Freedom, you can create a list of sites you want to block and for how long. You can even set a schedule for your productive times. I’ve been using this for years and I personally block social media every day from 6 a.m. - 4 p.m., my working hours.
You make back the cost of the app in one day with how much work you’ll get done.
Sejda.com (PDF Editor)
When you start your new job you’ll be asked to sign documents. Your employer will most likely use DocuSign or something similar that will make it easy. But if they don’t, you’ll be prepared.
This PDF editor by Sejda is actually free and you don’t need to make an account. It’s a life-saver.
Humans are simple creatures. We like routine. A small percentage of people don’t need the routine and thrive without a schedule, but this is a small percentage of people.
This is why you need a regular time when you start your work day. For many of you, your job will provide a required start time, but for others, you can open your laptop at 6 a.m. or 2 p.m. and no one would be able to tell the difference.
In either case, you want to wake up at the same time every day and start work at the same time every day. I don’t recommend waking up five minutes before you need to be productive. I tried this with my first remote job when my start time was 6 a.m. I learned my lesson with how hard it was answering customer inquiries. So my system was to wake up at 5:30 a.m., have a proper morning routine, then start work.
If you don’t have a set time to stop working, work will begin to creep its way outside of your schedule and into every minute of your day. If you think you have all day, you’ll take all day. This is how people end up feeling like they’re “working all the time” and somehow don’t get anything important done.
The great benefit of limiting yourself to eight hours of work and nothing more is that you’ll get everything done in eight hours or less. You’ll get creative. You’ll start turning meetings into emails, you’ll quickly identify the most important factors of a project, and you won’t do work that doesn’t need to be done.
I heard a quote that shows how important it is to take breaks: “A race car doesn’t need to take the pit stops. But it takes the pit stops so it can race longer.”
If you’re sitting at your desk for 3+ hours at a time, chances are you’re burning out. At the end of the day you might feel stressed and resort to unhealthy habits like overeating, overthinking, drinking, etc. You end up having to do these in order to wind down from a day’s work.
But what if you can work a full day and not be wound up?
This is where breaks come in. Every 30-60 minutes I get up from my desk and take a 5-10 minute break. And every three hours I go outside for a walk.
This is how I don’t feel burned out at the end of the day. I feel fine and I have energy for leisure activities like cooking, reading, or playing guitar.
Never underestimate the power of a 20-minute walk or simply lying down in silence for 5 minutes. These small habits have powerful effects.
Plan Your Work
Every night I sit down and decide what I want to get accomplished the next day. Using an index card and simply writing out my to-do list starting with the most important things. Then when I start my day, I don’t need to think about what I’m going to work on. It’s all written out and I can get started.
I know some people who decide what they’ll do the morning of. If this works for you I say go for it, but for me I like to start my day already knowing what I need to get done. You can use whatever you want—bullet journal, calendar, digital notepad—all that matters is that you plan your work. Here’s an example of one of my index cards (and my stack for 2021).
Standard Operating Procedure for Productivity
What is your standard operating procedure when you’re working? What do you do and not do? Do you make coffee, turn on some music, and put away your phone?
Whatever you do, it’s important to be intentional and routine about it. Here’s a very simple one for me that I can do no matter where I am.
Some of these may not work for you. For example, maybe you need Slack open every second of your shift. In that case you can leave Slack open, but limit yourself to checking it once every 10 minutes.
Whatever it is, find out what helps and hinders your productivity and turn it into a ritual for every time you are working.
Getting your system for productivity going can take weeks or months. Honestly, I’ve been working remotely for years and I’m still experimenting. The most important thing is to keep trying methods and find what sticks. Out of the list I provided above, only a few might work for you. This is perfectly fine and you can mark that as a huge win.