Staying Productive Working from Home

When I was a solo founder, and I would tell people what I do, their first response would nearly always be: “Oh, I could never do that.  I’d goof off all day.  How do you keep from getting distracted?”  The answer I generally give is that I’ve developed a routine which works for me, and I’ve made it a habit to stick to it.  When you think about it, it’s really not that different from what most people do in their 9–5 jobs, except as a solo founder, you need to be disciplined enough to set up your habits yourself.  And, now that I’m back to working at a company again, I find that I really benefit from all of these things: especially when I’m working from home.

However, it would be a lie to say it wasn’t hard at first.  There are a few things which changed when I started both working from home, and working for myself.

 

I needed an office

This is for two reasons.  First, and most obvious, is that I needed a quiet place to work and talk with my colleagues.  It just isn’t reasonable to expect even the most accommodating family to keep silent all day while you work.

Second, I needed a gentle way to let my family know when I was working and didn’t want to be disturbed.  It’s hard on everyone if you’re constantly saying: “Not now, I’m working” all the time: especially for kids.  Even my wife, though with the best of intentions, found it irresistible to ask for my attention far too often for my ability to concentrate.

Having a separate room with a door gave me a clear signal that I’m working now.  It made it possible for me, then, to come out and interact with the rest of the family when it was a good time for a break.  It also gives me a clear distinction between being “at work” or “at home”, which is indescribably necessary when you spend nearly 100% of your time in the same building.

 

I needed a schedule

Of course, long hours are startups are proverbial.  However, that’s not my problem.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  Without a schedule, I find that I feel relentlessly increasing pressure to work more and more hours.  And, after a few weeks or months, I completely burn out and lose all motivation for two weeks.

For me, the schedule is about being deliberate about the use of my time.  If I grant myself a certain amount of working hours for a given day, then I can feel good about having finished what I could reasonable do and giving myself a break.  On the other hand, on days where I’m distracted (e.g., a dentist appointment), I know when I need to work a bit later to get the job done.

 

I needed a organizational system

It feels like, as a solo founder, my job jumps back and forth between long stretches where I’m pounding the keyboard building my product, and briefer stretches where I’ve got ten thousand little things to check off (e.g., incorporation papers, creating bank accounts, finding an accountant, etc.).

I’ve long been a strong proponent of the Getting Things Done methodology and the Things or OmniFocus products as a way to implement it.

Suffice to say, having a place to record all those little things is invaluable for two main reasons.  First, it’s a way to keep me from forgetting them.  Whenever something pops into my head which need to get done, I stick it in Things.  Second, it it’s a way to let me forget them.  Once they’re in my system, I absolutely trust that I’ll get back to them when appropriate, and I can simply stop thinking about them.  This makes it possible to focus on something else without getting stressed when there are too many things to keep track of all at once.

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Between those three things, I feel like my job kept the same structure built into it that most people’s jobs do. I get up, eat breakfast, go to work, eat lunch, do some more work, and then go home. I just didn’t have to commute.

Applying GTD to Email

Every time I start to tell people that I use Getting Things Done (GTD), I almost immediately get some variant of the question:

What do you recommend for someone with 2,500 emails in inbox???

Better spam filtering?

Seriously, though… I’d recommend you apply the GTD workflow to the individual emails. Start by deciding how far back any email could possibly still be relevant and archive everything older than that.

Next, read each remaining email quickly and simply decide whether any action is required.  If you take 10 seconds on each email just to make that one decision, you’ll be able to identify all the actionable emails in a few hours.  Each time you find an actionable email, use whatever your email system offers to collect them into a place you know is for actionable things.  Personally, I prefer using the “flag” feature in my email program, but just dumping them into a special folder would world just as well.  The details aren’t important: just be sure to get them out of your inbox, but marked in such a way that you can find them again later.  Archive anything which isn’t actionable.  Your inbox should now be completely empty.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you’re finished.  Next, go back through the actionable emails and just answer anything which requires a quick reply or some similarly quick and simple action¹.  In other words: apply the 2-minute rule from GTD to each email.

What’s left represents your actual work.  Set aside some time every day to work down the list of items and knock them out.  At this point, I’d be surprised if you had more than a a few dozen emails remaining, so it shouldn’t be too daunting.

Going forward, adopt the same process to all incoming email so that you wind up with an empty inbox several times a day.  Of course, while your inbox will be empty, you’ll still have those actionable emails set aside.  So, continue to set aside some time each day to respond to actionable emails.

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The advantages of this approach are the same as applying GTD in general:

  • you are constantly aware of high-priority items
  • your attention isn’t needlessly yanked around all the time
  • emails you need to respond to don’t get buried by new, incoming email

 

I’ve applied this technique for both personal and work email for years now, and I get my email inboxes empty several times a day.  I’ve decided to respond to work emails about twice a day, and to personal emails about twice a week.  However, for urgent matters, I’m still able to respond instantly.  And, of course, it’s easy to adjust my reply times as I see fit, instead of being yanked around by my email instead.

 


¹ For anything from a real company with an “unsubscribe” link, use it!  Unless you really value the content, nearly all reputable companies will respect an unsubscribe request, and it will dramatically curtail the amount of email you need to sift through on a daily basis.

Why do I need GTD?

In case you haven’t heard of it, Getting Things Done (most often just called GTD) is a personal organization system developed by David Allen.  He first published the book of the same name in 2002, and I first ran across it in 2007.  It may be clichéd to say it (doesn’t make it less true), but this book changed my life.

The central premiss of GTD is to avoid keeping things in your head.  What things?  Everything.  The most obvious is to-do items, but just as important are: long-term goals, reference material, reminders of future events, quotes for a future article… whatever.  Due to the limited ability of our brains to keep track of a lot of things (see: Crow Epistemology), we need a way to track things that doesn’t rely on our limited brains to do the job.  Or, as David Allen said:

“Your brain is a great place to have ideas, but a terrible place to manage them.” — David Allen

So, the core principle is GTD is to get everything out of our heads and into a trusted system where everything is written down and organized by a certain set of principles.  Each of these principles covers a potential hole in the funnel from when you first notice something interesting to the time when you’ve completed whatever action came from it.  GTD also includes principles to help you organize the plethora of individual activities into a coherent plan for one’s life as a whole.

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To me, the most compelling observation Allen makes has to do with lists.  Think back to some time when you were feeling totally overwhelmed with too many things to do.  Remember that feeling of being stressed, worried that you’d forget something, panicked that you wouldn’t have enough time to get it all done.  And then you made a list.

Just that simple act of writing out what needed to be done brought a huge sense of relief. Except, why?  It’s a little crazy when you think about it.  Not only didn’t you get anything  done, you spent some of your precious time making the list!  So… why the relief?

It’s because you were experiencing the relief of not having to burn up your mental resources remembering, sifting, sorting, and obsessing over the stuff that went on the list.  Now it’s all there in a permanent form, so your mind can relinquish the task of keep hold of it all.  Now, you’ve got a clear space in your head to actually think and do. Just imagine what it would be like to live that way all the time, and you get an idea of how I feel now that I’ve got GTD in my mental toolkit.


For further reading:

  • Allen, David. “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity” (Amazon)