Help Systematize The Life You Want

by May 4, 2020

The Corona Virus pandemic and resulting quarantine has thrust many people into uncharted territory. I’ve heard hypothesized, and I agree, that the current dramatic shift to work from home and home schooling is going to have long lasting effects on employment and education. What was once the realm of the traveling Business Development Manager or disconnected executive has been made available to a large number of normal 9 to 5 workers. This shift in how companies view the workforce is going to have positive and negative consequences. Workers will no longer be confined to their locality for employment, opening opportunities that would not have been previously available. Families will have more flexibility for each person to pursue their occupation of choice. These benefits will be counterweighted by an increase in competition for each job resulting from a worker pool that is, for all intents and purposes, bottomless. Workers who have experience and show the ability to thrive in this new work environment will have an advantage over their previously desk bound brethren.

I began working from home about 7 years ago when I transitioned from an R&D Development Engineer to a Business Development Engineer. My wife began working from home about 4 years ago. The genesis of this article was a conversation my wife and I had about what our experiences transitioning to a work from home arrangement was like and how we didn’t envy families who had to shift to this structure so quickly. The processes and procedures detailed below are meant to help newly home bound workers, but are also applicable to people who have had the “work from home” opportunity for a while and still haven’t been able to make it work. They are also meant for those who want to quit their 9 to 5 and make their side hustle or dream their full time job, as well as those looking to make their side hustle time more productive or hobby more fulfilling.

I hate “hacks”. Hacks are thought of as cheat codes for life that will let you skip the hard work of growth and development. As Jocko Willink says “The Hack is a lie”. I hate hacks, but I LOVE processes and procedures. Processes and Procedures help systematize life and reduce Decision Fatigue. Decision Fatigue is the mental stress and exhaustion that comes from having to make too many, non-essential decisions. Using processes and procedures will help you save your decision making energy for the decisions that really matter and will move the needle in your life.

The Biggest Lie in the work from home environment

The biggest lie in working from home is “I’ve got time”. No, No you don’t. What you have is FLEXABILITY, and that can be confused as TIME. You have the FLEXABILITY to fold your laundry at 10:43am, rather than working on the TPS report cover sheet, but that doesn’t mean you have the TIME to do it. In a work from home environment time management is MORE crucial than it was when working at the office.

The first thing you’ll find when working from home is you don’t have the contextual and situational cues you had when working from the office/factory/wherever. The human brain needs context in order to understand what it’s supposed to do and when. You’ll notice that the majority of the processes below are about creating context. There’s a reason for that.

If you have a morning routine, stick to it

If you already have a morning routine, stick to it. This will solidify that this is business as usual to the rest of your systems. If you’re routine was to get up at 5:00am, have a cup of coffee, then head to the gym before showering and heading to work, keep doing that. Yes, I know that the lack of commute times and traffic will result in you finishing up and being done with that by 6:30-7:00am rather than arriving at your place of employment by 8:00am, but we’ll cover that shortly. This procedure is about enforcing discipline and maintaining normalcy. If, after the stay-at-home orders are lifted, you have to go back to working on site the last thing you want to do is have to reacclimatize to your old schedule.

If for some reason you over sleep or don’t get up on time and you have a choice between your morning routine process and your morning routine timeline, stick with the process. If you skip portions or tasks in your morning routine to make the timeline, you’ll be disoriented and wondering if you forgot something for the rest of the day. Remember the FLEXABILITY we discussed above? This is one area where you can make it work FOR you. Unless you’re on a time management system like BluePumpkin (for call center workers) or have an 0700 CONCAL you can find the 15-30 min you lost hitting the snooze bar. If you oversleep more than 30 min you have larger adjustments to make to your systems.

Have a space, and make it sacred

During the first week or two of a new work from home situation it may seem exciting to work from the kitchen table or living room couch while the TV blares and the kids run around, but after a short while your productivity is going to wane. This is due to a conflict in your mind about what is supposed to be happening in the area where you’re working. Remember, our brains need context. Find a space to work in; a spare bedroom, the basement, the attic, it can even be as basic as a card table in another room. The important thing is that’s where you work, and you don’t do anything else there. You don’t research your new workout, you don’t shop for ammo, you just work. We’ll make an exception for eating, but only if it’s a working lunch.

Set boundaries, and enforce them

This is one of the hardest parts about working from home, especially if your wife is working from home as well. It’s very easy for both parties to unintentionally intrude and disrupt during critical times of the day. If you’re on a time managed system for your employer, make sure your partner knows you can’t be bothered during working hours. If there’s a critical meeting at a certain time, discuss that ahead of time. A simple piece of paper taped to your office door reading “Busy on a call from 1:00pm to 2:00pm” can solve a lot of problems.

Have a uniform

Our wardrobe has a bigger effect on our psyche than many believe. Have a uniform for working hours and non-working hours. This will create context that will help prime your mind for the tasks at hand. Once you go thru your morning routine put on your work uniform. This can be as simple as a pair of clean khakis and a polo shirt. After the work day is done change your uniform to your “after work” uniform, jeans and a t-shirt or something similar. This is also very helpful to your loved ones who can make decisions on how to interact with you by the visual cues signaled by your wardrobe.

Have defined “Work” and “NonWork” hours

One of the most interesting phenomenon that have occurred since my company has instituted a “Work from Home If Possible” policy is the amount of e-mail and phone traffic I receive outside of work hours, even when accounting for time zones. I chalk this up to my now homebound coworkers getting tricked by their new found flexibility (not freedom) and getting behind in their daily tasks. Some of this is to be expected and is understandable with child care providers being impacted by the lockdowns, but this has also come from people without kids or with older children that don’t need the constant supervision of newborns or toddlers.

I think this stems from my teammates getting caught up in the “Flexibility” vs “Time” conundrum described above. They get off track and behind in their tasks because they decide they have “Time” to fold the laundry, do the dishes, walk the dog, whatever. Then they end up over running into off hours to get caught up. This is where time management and scheduling come into play (again). Have set working and non-working hours. These hours will be different for each person and situation. Entrepreneurs are already adept at this type of scheduling and know how to balance burning the midnight oil. Folks on set work schedules will have to get used to enforcing a schedule while working from home to maintain their productivity.

Work when you work, Play when you play

This fits into the point above. The onus is on the worker to maintain discipline while working from home. It’s very easy to get sucked into a YouTube or Wikipedia wormhole during working hours and then end up having to work later than expected to make up the time. This over run will then eat into your family time and non-work responsibilities causing chaos and keeping you from being fully present with your family. Create a schedule and maintain a high level of compartmentalization between the phases of your day. Make time for work, and WORK. Then make time for play, and PLAY.

If you feel like you’re lacking energy, check your nutrition and your alcohol intake

This one is pretty simple, but it’s profound. Any time I feel like I’m lacking energy while working from home it’s because I’m not eating enough during the day, or I’m drinking too much during the evenings. A work from home arrangement is not an excuse for poor dietary choices. It should actually be an enabler of better dietary choices. Make time to eat.

Same goes for the booze. It’s pretty easy to have that after work beer, then one while cooking dinner, then one with dinner, then one watching TV, and before you know it you’re polishing off a six pack (or more) a night. There’s nothing wrong with having a drink or two after work, but monitor how much your drinking and how it’s affecting you.

Find some chaos

I attended a strength training seminar several years ago where Dan John, world renowned strength coach and athlete, was a presenter. One of his points was if your life is highly structured your workout should be chaotic and flexible, and if your life is chaotic and ever shifting your workout should be regimented. This concept also has applications when working from home.

I’m sure some of you are looking at the previous tips and methodologies and thinking “Wow, this work from home thing sounds like it sucks. It sounds even more regimented than my office work.” While that’s true in some respects, that “flexibility” we talked about earlier now comes into play in our favor. If you have the Discipline to implement the strategies above, they will give you the Freedom (Remember, as Jocko always says, Discipline=Freedom) to pursue fun and outside interests more in a more complete manner. My wife and I have a tradition (at least, before the lockdown) of every Friday going to a coffee shop or somewhere similar and working from that location. We call this “Digital Nomading”. This is one way we try to inject some fun and chaos into our work week.  My work from home flexibility also gives me the ability to help out with the early afternoon kids class at my Brazilian Jiu Jitsu academy, but only because I have the discipline to ensure my work is done and calendar is clear. We’ve even taken “vacations” where we worked from the hotel during the day, then ventured out at night. Remember that extra hour you had because of the lack of a commute? Now is where you make it work FOR you.

Closing Thoughts

Hopefully the” stay at home orders” and ”lock downs” will lift soon and humanity can get back to some semblance of normality, but we would be fools to think the world will go back to the way it was before the ‘Rona. Work from home, distance learning, and the Gig economy will only accelerate after the events of the last 4 months. The processes and procedures discussed above can help you become more effective and valuable in this new frontier and workers who do return to their office jobs can use these methods to make themselves more productive in a traditional work environment. The freedom of a work from home arrangement can be liberating, but only if you have the discipline to make it productive.

Scott Barker
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