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Dealing with distractions when you're working from home

Christina Holder

This is the third post in Distributing Joy, our new series about working remotely and managing distributed teams. When we began to plan this series back in January, we simply wanted to share our own experiences building a remote first company. 

Things are different now, of course, and many of us who are lucky enough to have a job where we can work from home now found ourselves doing so by necessity. As noted above, Clubhouse is remote first, but that doesn’t mean remote only; the roughly 50% of our employees who work out of our NY HQ would absolutely prefer to be working from the office. That's why we started an internal document where our remote employees can share WFH tips with our onsite employees. This post shares some of those tips.

One of the very best episodes of the Twilight Zone, "Time Enough at Last," features a banker who wants nothing more than to be alone all the time so he can read. He ultimately gets his wish, but this being the Twilight Zone (and not, say, the Good Morning Dimension), getting that wish does not leave him particularly happy. Who knew that breaking your only pair of glasses could be even worse than surviving a nuclear apocalypse?

Maybe you find yourself in a similar situation (sans the nuclear apocalypse): working from home used to sound really nice, but now that circumstances have forced you into a position where you and your co-workers have no choice but to do so, your feelings about it aren’t quite so positive.

Whether you’re stuck in a room all alone with nothing but your own thoughts to keep you company, or trying to type while your kids are using magic markers to draw all over the floor, working from home is one of those things that sounds very nice as a daydream but can be a bit more challenging in reality.

Without the structure of an office, with no boss looking over your shoulder and no co-workers around to help you feel accountable, two things can happen:

  1. Your work will start to devour your life, leaving you thinking of unfinished projects at all hours of the day
  2. You'll start putting work off, leaving you less time to accomplish anything while increasing your stress, causing you to think about your work more, even as you do less of it

How can you avoid this, getting work done in as healthy a way as possible while dealing with all the anxiety that comes with the current news?

Clean your house every morning / evening

Seriously, your workspace is a wreck.

When you’re working from home, your workspace is everywhere. Your kitchen is like your company’s break room. Your bedroom is like your company’s meditation / quiet space. Your bathroom is like your company’s, uh, bathroom.

Leaving chores undone can become a big distraction. You can ignore your dirty dishes when you’re at the office, but you can’t ignore them when you see them every time you get up for a glass of water. And unlike at work, there isn’t a magic fairy who’s going to come around and clean up when you lazily leave things lying around where they don’t belong.

While you’re at it, organize your desk. Prepare your workspace with lotion, lip balm and eye drops. Put a pencil holder on your desk and fill it up with pencils, pens and scissors so you feel professional while also thinking back to a time when pencils, pens, and scissors were a thing any of us found useful while we were doing office work.

Prepare for work as if you were commuting to the office 

Get up at a set time every morning. Take a shower. Eat a bowl of oatmeal. Go outside and walk around the block. Go get a coffee if you’re near a coffee shop and not currently under lockdown. These things will switch your brain from “home time” to “work time”.

On Sunday, do the sorts of things you’d do to prepare for the upcoming week. Vacuum. Mop. Do meal prep. Get your laundry done. Complain that “this weekend’s over already?!?” to your cat.

Try out some time management techniques

The Pomodoro Technique

In this time management technique, you take a bunch of spaghetti sauce (Pomodoro is Italian for tomato), pour it all over the floor around your desk, and then stay right where you are to get work done since you won’t want to stand up and get sauce all over your feet.

(Editor’s note: That doesn’t sound right. Let me Google this real quick. Ah, hmmm, I see.)

Forget what we said, the Pomodoro technique is actually a system where you set a certain amount of time to focus on the task at hand — usually around 25 minutes, though there's no need to hold yourself to that exact number — followed by a 5 to 15 minute break to do whatever you like. Two hours of work using the Pomodoro Technique might look like this:

  1. Set timer for 25 minutes.
  2. 5 minute break.
  3. Set timer for 45 minutes.
  4. 15 minute break.
  5. Set timer for 25 minutes.
  6. Break Time
  7. Etc. 

Knowing there's a break coming up can make it much easier to focus. You might even get things rolling and keep working right past the buzz of the timer, pushing your break to when you feel like you need it.

There are a number of time management apps to get you started with the Pomodoro Technique. Search for them in the Branded App Store of your choice. Of course, you may find it just as easy to manually set a timer and manage the Pomodoro Technique yourself.

RescueTime

If you really want to get your time organized, try something like the RescueTime app. It’s great for self-monitoring how you’re spending your time, and can also block apps and websites during working hours to restrict your ability to wander down reddit, youtube, or wikipedia rabbit holes.

If you’d like to see weekly reports on how you’re managing your time, this is the app for you. Though I’m not sure that someone who’d enjoy looking at weekly reports of how they manage their time is likely to need help managing their time.

There are obviously other time management options out there. These two just happen to be ones that we’ve had experience with internally. If you google “time management techniques” they’ll pop right up to overwhelm you with choices, giving you a nice way to waste a bunch of time that you should have been managing better.

Take Breaks!

Just because you’re at home does not mean you aren’t working hard. All of your time spent at work feels like work, including all the time you spend talking to coworkers about things other than work. Don’t measure yourself on how busy or stressed out you are, measure yourself on how much you’ve gotten done. If you feel like you’ve finished a big chunk of work, you probably have.

You deserve to take breaks. Walk away from your computer for 30 minutes. Eat a full lunch. Spend 15 minutes reading a book / article that doesn’t discuss pandemics or remote work, but instead covers something you actually like. And as you’ve just finished this article (which is on a business website and therefore counts as work), you should start with your first break right now.