How to Telecommute: Staying Motivated

Once you’ve gotten a telecommuting job like I explained yesterday, it can be tough to stay motivated and get things done.  There’s so many temptations.  Today, I’ll talk about some of the ways I stay focused and productive.

Set Your Working Hours by Your Body Clock

8am to 5pm probably isn’t your natural peak time.  Telecommuters need to be available during a set range of hours, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s when they should be working.

To find out when your peak mental hours are, start a simple spreadsheet and record how “work-friendly” you feel every hour. Across the top, make four columns:

  • Date/Time
  • Alert
  • Happy
  • Creative

Ugh, sounds all shiny-happy-positive, right?  Not so much.  Set yourself an egg timer alarm for 60 minutes.  Every hour, write down the date/time and on a 1-10 scale, how alert, happy and sociable you feel.  Do this all day long, every day for a week.  After a week of monitoring, you’ll discover that your body really does have some natural rhythms.  Don’t fight them: set your working hours to align with your body clock.

Up and At Em

Up and At Em

My personal schedule:

  • 6am-11am – I’m very alert, very happy and very creative.  I wanna crank out work like writing whitepapers, recording videos or building things.
  • 11am-3pm – I’m a zombie.  I’m not alert, and I feel meh.  I use this time to do mindless work like filing paperwork, doing expense reports, planning trips, etc.  If I don’t have mindless work-related stuff to do, I’ll take a break from work and do mindless things around the house like laundry or dishes.  I don’t try to learn anything new during this time window, because it’s generally time wasted.
  • 3pm-6pm – I’m back on the alert track, but not creative.  It’s a good time for me to work on detail-oriented stuff.

At first glance at my email times or tweets, people might think I work from 6am to 6pm, but I’m only working 8 hours a day.  Most importantly, it’s the 8 hours a day where I’m more effective at actually working.

Not every job has the flexibility to pick what to work on next, but knowing your body clock helps you schedule tasks through the day.  When I telecommuted as a production DBA, I would build new scripts or do troubleshooting in the mornings when I was most focused, and save the paperwork and meetings for later in the afternoon.

Separate Yourself From Your Family

After years of telecommuting, this is still the toughest one for me.  My friends and family don’t quite understand that I’m working during the day, and that I can’t break out and play hooky whenever the urge strikes me.  So far, here’s what I’ve done to stay focused:

  • Have a separate home office with a door and a stereo – if you can hear your family, you’re going to have a tough time.  Even just hearing Erika and Ernie play downstairs is enough to take me off my game.
  • If you have a phone in the office, turn off the ringer – friends and family will call you during the workday and you’ll be tempted to answer.  I have my phone behind my monitor with the ringer off.  Erika knows that if she really needs me, she can email me, and I can integrate that into my workflow better.
  • Get family to schedule things ahead of time – there’s nothing wrong with blowing off work for a few hours and running errands or taking care of something home-related.  It’s better, though, if you can get your family to schedule those in advance.  If I know ahead of time that I need to take the dog to the groomer, then I can schedule my workday around it.  On the other hand, if I get a last-minute knock on the door asking if I can do it, then I’m probably going to get frustrated.
  • Communicate schedules ahead of time – every now and then, Erika wants to cook me something special for lunch, but she doesn’t want it to hang around getting cold while I sit through a conference call.  In the morning, I talk to her about what I’ve got going on today and tomorrow, so that way she knows when she can surprise me versus when I’ll be eating something out of the microwave.

Buy a DVR and Watch TV During Downtime

I love my Tivo, but any DVR works: just set it up to record your favorite shows.  At lunchtime, step away from the desk and go watch an hour-long TV show start to finish.  When you fast forward past the commercials, it’s not a full hour, which gives you enough time to prep lunch and then sit and relax.  It takes your mind off work for a while.

If you can’t bear to tear yourself away from the computer at lunch, at least set your instant messenger status to Lunchtime and spend the time surfing the web or catching up on personal emails.

If You’re On a Roll, Keep Doing the Same Thing

Sometimes I’ll write a blog post or design a stored procedure because I have an impending deadline that I have to meet.  When I finish that particular piece of work, I’ll find that I’m “in the zone” for that kind of task – I feel like writing more blogs or coding more T-SQL.  If I’m in the right frame of mind, I’ll just keep going with that style of task regardless of what’s on my to-do list for the week.

Like right now – I just finished up a completely unrelated blog post that I had to do right away for an upcoming event, and I found myself editing & scheduling several other pending blog posts I’d been working on.  By doing these things ahead of time when I’m in the zone, I do better work on that style of task.

That might sound irrelevant to you since you’re probably not blogging for a livin’, but the same rule applies to you.  When I was a DBA and I found myself happy to be troubleshooting a slow query, I’d go hit the DMV’s to find other slow queries on other servers.  When you’re thinking like a performance tuner, you don’t want to stop after just one query – go knock out more.  Avoiding context switching: it’s not just for servers anymore.

In order to get this flexibility of scheduling, you have to make sure your boss doesn’t micromanage you.  Next, I’ll talk about the key to making your manager comfortable.

Next in the Series: How to Write a Telecommuting Status Report

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5 Comments. Leave new

  • Jonathan Gardner
    May 8, 2009 9:45 am

    Great post. I have a lot of flexability with my job. I end up working about 1 day a week from home. Two of the items that you mentioned, schedule and separation from family, are so important. If I don’t heed those I find myself getting nothing done. If I maintain them I am more productive at home than at the office.

  • I like your thoughts on working from home. I only get to do that once in a while and I get a lot more work done than when I’m in the office. Good read. BTW what do you use for IM?

  • Thank you Sir.

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