Yesterday, Vitaly asked:
In moving to remote work this year, what techniques helped you boost your productivity, and what didn’t work at all?
I shared my favorite productivity tips in an answer to that tweet and got some followup questions on it. This post is the long version of that tweet.
I've always been remote. And over the years, I got to try different ways of doing things. Some have stuck, and some didn't. In this post, I'll share the stuff that did stick and that helps me stay in Focus Mode throughout my working sessions.
A clean, uncluttered desk.
I clean and unclutter my space and my desk religiously. (Both figuratively and literally. It’s been said that prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said that
cleanliness is next to godliness. So I’ve been raised with strong emphasis on personal hygiene and cleanliness in general.)
I also hate clutter. I don’t collect things I don’t need or use. Being a minimalist, I only buy and own things I need and use, in addition to a few things that I keep because they have a sentimental value.
I’m also very organized. Everything I own has its own place. And every day, before I got to bed, I make sure everything is stowed away where it belongs. This includes anything and everthing on my desk.
One of the best advice I once read in magazine was: “clean your surfaces”. This includes your tables, kitchen counters, bathrooms, bedrooms, etc. Pretty much anywhere there’s a surface to clean. I’ve been following this advice daily ever since. Now my surfaces are always uncluttered and clean.
I clean my desk, my laptop keyboard and screen, and my monitor almost every day. I have an all-black-and-white setup, and I live in a fairly dusty area, so things tend to collect dust easily. So unless I clean everything up every day, the dust shows and I can’t tolerate that. I also can’t stand seeing fingerprints all over my displays and laptop. Making a habit of cleaning the desk every night makes waking up in the morning and getting straight to work much easier because you’ll have less things to distract you and keep you from getting things done.
The only items on my desk are the items that I’m using during a particular day. Most of the time, these are: my monitor, laptop, phone, camera (used as a Webcam) and mic (both mounted on their respective arms attached to the desk), iPad + Pencil, headphones, light remote, and a bottle of water. The only exception to this is a vase containing one of my favorite succulents.
Fewer distractions = more focus.
Ergonomics: A standing desk and a comfortable chair
A good chair
I used to have a terrible office chair. It hurt my back every time I sat on it for 30 minutes or more. This took a heavy toll on my physical health and my ability to get work done.
As I worked on a project for Herman Miller last spring, I got to learn more about Herman Miller products and was fortunate enough to visit the Herman Miller showroom in Atlanta, where I had the opportunity to sit on all the chairs they make. I found the Aeron chair to be the most comfortable chair for me. A few weeks after I got back to Lebanon, I reached out to the Herman Miller dealer in Beirut and ordered one. The chair is expensive here, but I got a big discount. (Thanks Ryan, Lama, and Johnny!)
The Aeron is a legendary chair. But it’s not for everyone. Some people don’t find it as comfortable as others do. Many folks I know prefer the Embody chair, be it for the looks of it or for comfort. Some choose other Herman Miller chairs. Some choose chairs from other brands. The choice of ergonomics is very personal. So while I think the Aeron is one of the best investments I’ve personally made, it may or may not be for you. If you’re in the market for a new chair and can afford paying extra for a good one, I can recommend trying the Aeron out. But whatever you choose, make sure you do it after you try it. Find a seller and go sit on the chair. See how it feels. Keep in mind that it may take a while for a chair to break in. It took me a couple of weeks to customize the Aeron to fit and feel comfortable. But once I did… wow! Such a difference. I now enjoy sitting on my desk and getting work done, and I can do so for longer hours without feeling any back pain.
A Standing (or Sit-to-Stand) desk
I’ve recently got a standing desk, and I can confidently say that my productivity during working sessions has more than doubled.
Before I got the desk, I thought it would be great for when I get tired from sitting. Standing up and moving my legs would be a good way to get the blood flowing again. But since I got it, I’ve found myself doing the opposite: I work standing most of the time, and tend to sit down when I get tired from standing.
Now I either sit or stand depending on the kind of work I’m doing: I’ve found that I like to create standing, and consume sitting. In other words, if I’m writing code or writing articles (creating content), I do it standing. Then I prefer to sit when I’m learning or doing online meetings.
Back when I was in school, I used to get up and walk during my studying sessions because I always felt the need to move my legs. It’s almost as if moving my legs somehow stimulates my brain. I’m guessing there’s a science to it. But I don’t really know.
When I tweeted about how my productivity more than doubled since I got the standing desk, I got a few questions about it. Some I could answer; some I couldn’t because the answer is “it depends”.
Is a standing desk for everyone? I don’t know. Just like with the chair, what works for one may not work for another. It’s yet another personal choice. I know many people who’ve tried it but felt that it made their backs worse. Others like it. Given my history with back pain, I too thought I may have issues with it, but I don’t. It’s all about moderation. And it’s simple: if I get tired standing, I sit down.
If you’re considering getting a standing desk and are not sure if you’ll find it comfortable, you may start by elevating your current setup and working standing to start. If you find that standing helps you work better, you can then spend money on a new desk knowing that it’s the right choice. I personally got a Herman Miller standing desk (also discounted), but have seen many friends get good (and cheaper) desks from Fully. Given how popular the Fully desks are, I can only assume they’re also quite good.
A todo list
I‘ve not been much of a lists person. But pretty much every book I ever read about work and productivity always emphasizes the importance of having lists. Lists for everything. There must be some merit to that advice, I thought. So I decided to start using lists, mostly for my work projects.
I use Things app for most of my lists. I create projects and spaces to organize my lists.
I usually have it open on my iPad which sits next to my monitor when I’m working, and I tick items off the list as I go. Something I like to do is to show the logged items in the app. Seeing all the items that are done is great visual motivation as it is always there to remind me of the progress I’ve made, which motivates me to do even more. There is science that backs this up: seeing progress is one of the best sources of motivation to keep making progress. It works like magic.
Noise-cancelling headphones + brain.fm music
I have a pair of Bose QuietComfort over-ear headphones that I bought for travel a few years ago. I live in a not-very-quiet area, so I use my headphones to cancel out the surrounding noise.
I like to listen to white noise when I’m traveling. I use the Noizio app for that. But for work, I need something more uplifting.
I avoid songs and music with lyrics because my brain finds them distracting. (Especially if I start singing along with them, lol.)
Someone on Twitter tipped me about brain.fm a few months ago. I tried it out for a couple of sessions and got hooked. It’s a great app, with music supposedly backed by science and made to stimulate your brain and help you focus. They have music for focus, sleep, and relaxation. My favorite is the Cinematic Music Focus.
If you’re ineterested in trying the app out, I got a referral code you could use if you’d like. (No pressure. I didn’t even know about the code until someone asked me about it on Twitter yesterday. I don’t even know what I’d get out of it if you used it.)
A large bottle of water and/or a cup of tea
Much has been said and written about the importance of drinking more water, especially at work. Our brains are composed of 75% water. The more you work, the more water our brains consume and the more they need to be replenished in order to maintain their ability to function and concentrate well.
Drinking water regularly throughout the day is also particularly important for those of us who spend most of their daytime sitting because it helps lubricate our eyes and our joints which are at higher risks of stiffness and pain due to prolonged sitting. Water also optimizes the energy produced throughout our cells, improves our skin, eliminates toxins, and much more.
I got a pretty Equa glass bottle a few months ago that sits on my desk and that I refill a few times throughout the day. Going to refill my bottle is a great way to move my legs, too.
In addition to water, I also regularly drink tea. I used to drink a lot of green tea. I still do. But since it’s linked to increasd dehydration in the body, I started substituting it for herbal tea. My favorite is ginger and lemon with honey, which happens to be perfect for overall maintaining a good immunity, especially during these cold days.
Taking frequent breaks is essential. These breaks can be of any kind and for anything. The important thing is to make sure that you walk away from your desk, rather than take a break at your desk.
I’ve finally broken a bad old habit of eating on my desk. I used to get so immersed in work that I’d forget to eat, and when I did eat, I ate on my desk and at the end of the meal I’d feel like I didn’t have any meal at all. This is a very bad habit. If you do that, do your best to break out of it as soon as possible.
Walk away and have your meal somewhere else. Could be in the kitchen, or on the balcony, or anywhere else.
Sometimes I like to take creative breaks, where I switch to creative project or browse creative content, such as interior design content, or any other design content that feeds my love for design in adjacent fields and inspires me.
Frequent breaks are mainly about getting frequent energy sparks throughout the day. Sometimes I do break at my desk if I’m using my desk as a prop for some yoga stretches that fight off the effect of sitting for long hours infront of the screen. There are a lot of short 5 to 10-minute yoga classes online that are created for people like us to help us get some movement throughout the day while we’re at our desks. The main focus of these classes is stretching out the upper body and wrists, as well as lower back. I do these more now that I work standing than I did when I worked sitting.
Whatever the kind of break you take, it’s essential that you take breaks often. The least you could and should do is break every hour or less, stretch out your wrists, neck and shoulders, and let your gaze wonder a little.
Healthy food and exercise
We all know that exercise is important to stay healthy. Being healthy improves the quality of ours lives and, consequently, the quality of our work.
I try to stick to a daily exercise routine. I exercise somewhere between 30 minutes and an hour a day. I do skip some days. I do feel lazy. But I try my best to stay aware of when this happens and take control instead of surrendering to them feelings. Most of the time it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. And it’s ok.
One of my favorite yoga teachers once said:
Once you stop moving, you start dying. I always remind myself of this when I feel like I’m falling off the bandwagon and cutting back on exercising. It usually works and motivates me enough to not want to start dying. xD
Going out often
I burnt out three times during the past 4 years. The worst one was in 2016–2017. It took at least a year to get back on track and for me to start feeling like I wanted to do things again.
One of the most effective things I did back then and that helped me get back on track again was going out in nature. I was in San Francisco for a SmashingConf and a friend of mine took me to Mount Tamalpais and to the hills where the Windows 7 wallpaper was shot. It’s a gorgeous place over there! I remember feeling like my battery was drained and it suddenly started recharging when I was there.
Now I go out almost every day or every other day. When I feel like I could use a change of scenery but still have a lot of work to do, I take my laptop out with me and get work done by the sea or among the trees in a forest. Over time, I set up a kind of “mobile office” in my car. I don’t get a lot of work done in it, but I still get some done. It’s quite nice.
My productivity plummets when I know I have a meeting coming up, even if it’s hours away. I’ve been working on forcing myself to get into full focus mode on such days, but there’s something in my brain that’s constantly thinking about this imminent interruption even before it comes.
Since most of my clients are based in the US, my meetings tend to happen at the end of my work day. But I still find myself struggling with focus in the few hours leading up to them. So I try to limit my meetings to only the ones we need. I should probably mention that I usually work with great people who share the same perspective on meetings, so it’s usually fairly easy for me to do so.
Fewer meetings = fewer interruptions = more focus = more work done.
Less social media
Do I even need to say more? =)
Do what works for you!
There are many tried-and-true techniques that help us be healthier and feel more comfortable in our bodies, and these techniques eventually improve the quality of our work as well as our lives as a whole. But as with everything, it’s all up to you and what works for you.
If you read or have read any books on productivity and getting things done, you’ll find a lot of recommended tips, such as establishing a daily routine; blocking out hours on your calendar for work so that others don’t schedule meetings during those hours; waking up early and getting the most important tasks done early in the day; managing your email inbox so it doesn’t eat up your time; and many more. Some of these tips and techniques might work and some might not.
We’re all different and what works for one may not work for another. For example, I could never sleep 4–6 hours a day only to have more hours during the day for work. I need to get the sleep my body needs every day in order to function normally. I couldn’t care less if “the most successful people in the world” sleep only 4 to 6 hours a day. I’m not trying to be like them. I’m trying to be like me and manage my life my own way to meet my own goals, not theirs.
As with everything, it’s useful to experiment and try a few different things and see which ones work for you and which ones don’t. At the end of the day, you want to make sure you’re healthy and you feel good enough to get work done. And, most importantly, remember that it’s not all about work. Try to get good work done well, but balance that with living a healthy, fulfilling life.