Welcome to my second post in a five part series, where each week I review and breakdown a chapter from the book “The New Corner Office: How the Most Successful People Work From Home”, by Laura Vanderkam (not an affiliate link).
You can find chapter 1, “Manage by Task, Not Time” here.
Get the Rhythm Right
By giving yourself a good rhythm, it allows you to know when your work starts and ends, but also manage your energy through the day.
Remote working means there is less pressure to work the same hours as the manager, as it can be uncomfortable walking past them to leave when your day is over. I’ve been there, as a former manager would be the first in and last out, and felt like I wasn’t doing enough every time.
Laura shares an example of how remote working and changing your hours can work great for those who work with people in different time zones, where they work four hours in the morning, and then four hours at night to interact with their team in Asia, as before they would just spend the time watching TV or surfing the internet, so this break in the day means they get more family time as well as enjoying their afternoons.
For a while during lockdown I would take a two-hour lunch break, and then make up the hour at night once my son was asleep. I too would just be gaming or browsing the internet, whereas the extra time in the day meant I could focus on housework, do chores, or just unwind better.Granted, logging on for an hour feels silly, but that is what happens when we work by time and not task, but I get paid a salary for working hours, so that is the game I have to play.
Having a “fake commute” or routine can help us switch into work-mode, even if we are working from home (and especially needed if working from your bedroom). It could be taking a dog out for a walk, doing an errand, a walk around the block, or taking children to school (which is what I do, 45 minute round trip every morning).
As well as having a personal routine to start your day, you could also have a work one, with team check-ins. Laura admits she has mixed feelings for them, as it can mean more meetings (see earlier chapter against this), but if well scripted and optional, they can be useful. I’ve not had ones at the start of the day, as everyone wasn’t starting at the same time, and having a call once I have started to get into a good flow with work can ruin my productivity.
Match Your Most Important Work to Your Most Productive Time
Learn when you are at your most productive, and set aside time to get your most important work done. Conversely, if you know a specific activity, or meeting with certain people, can leave you drained, avoid anything demanding to immediately follow after.
Laura suggests having status meetings in the afternoon, and when the new scrum team I’m in was being made, I pushed for our daily stand-up to be in the afternoon, thanks to this book. I don’t like morning ones as they feel like an interruption, and saying what I have done today and will do tomorrow, is the same as what I did yesterday and will do today.
Everyone can get distracted, whether you are a high or low performer. A low performer just won’t get any work done. A high performer will work more and more hours to meet expectations. But neither is good for the long term.
Distractions would happen in an office, with people coming past you, or talking loudly nearby. I would take headphones in and play my music loud to drown out the open office (whoever thought open offices are good needs a serious talking to!)
One technique suggested is to use the Pomodoro Technique, where you work for twenty-five minutes, and then break for five. By doing so, it gives you a small, yet focused window. I’ve even set my internal IM system to flag me as doing it and flagging as Do Not Disturb, so people know not to expect anything from me during that time.
Another thing Laura talks about is how if you can multitask on a call, you shouldn’t be on that call. If you need to focus but are at risk of losing focus, have something to keep your hands busy on audio calls. It could be doodling or cross-stitch, for example.
When taking breaks, you need to take ones that are actually a break, not just browsing Facebook or Reddit (which I am extremely guilty of). Making a list of break options, and doing one physical and one social per day, where you know it gives you a recharge, are essential. It could be going for a walk, chatting with someone, or getting something to eat, as just a few examples.
Depending on your work, you could take longer breaks by stretching your day out, with three hours in the morning, three in the afternoon, and finally two more in the evening (assuming an eight hour day). This goes back to what I said at the start of the chapter, and found it useful, but then meant it I was seeing my wife less and didn’t want to appear as if I was avoiding her. So make sure you find a schedule that works for you.
Keep One Day (or a Few Hours Each Day) Open
Laura tries to keep Friday empty when she is planning her week. It isn’t a case that she does not work on a Friday, but it means she gives herself a buffer, allowing it to act as her overflow should something come up. If there was a crisis on Tuesday and it completely changed her day, Friday can be filled with her Tuesday work.
For people who can’t spare a whole day, especially if they have lots of meetings, is looking at what time you have appointments, with the morning appointments starting on the hour, and the afternoon ones starting at half-past the hour. This way, if anything comes up in the morning, there is room to make up for it in the afternoon. Saying “something came up” isn’t an excuse, because something always comes up, and needs space to allow for that.
Routines for ending the day are just as important for starting it, but aren’t as considered. If you have a team call to start the day, do you have one to end it, and give a suitable closing?
Having a good routine to end the day can help get into the right headspace when finishing and seeing the family, as no-one wants to be on a demanding piece of work right until they finish, and then carry that with them as soon as they stop and see their family.
Laura shares that the photographer and podcaster Matt Altmix reserves the final thirty minutes of his day for tasks that don’t require tremendous feats of brainpower, so he doesn’t carry any stress to his family when he finishes.
My ending routine is the same as my start, with a 45 minute round trip to then collect my son, where I get some fresh air, can listen to music or a podcast as I get him, and then have him tell me about his day as we walk back. By the time I’m home, I have long forgotten about work and switched off.
Daily Rhythms and Kids
Working from home with children can be difficult, especially at the height of the pandemic when they were also home (but isn’t typical for a working from home routine). Depending on the age of the child(ren), for the older ones they might be able to be left alone for chunks of time, with breaks scattered between (again going back to earlier sections), whereas for the younger ones, where possible look at trading hours with a co-parent. Maybe one works in the morning whilst the other parents, and then swap for the afternoon? If only one parent works at home and needs to parent, then consider giving them the weekends/non-working days for the other parent, to get their work done.
One thing Laura does mention is that some people working remotely with no children were working extra hours out of boredom, which then meant parents felt they were lagging behind, and gives an example of a parent considering quitting as they didn’t like doing B- grade work. Yet a B- is still a passing grade, and hopes they didn’t end up quitting.
If you are having to be distracted with childcare for a portion of the day, tell people you work with, so they can understand the situation, and also when you expect to be able to work without distraction and give it the focus you want to be giving.
Get a Life
Laura found that people with children were better at having to break between work and home, due to needing to do things like school runs. So for those who didn’t live with family were more likely to have work bleed into their personal time, as what else have they got to do?
Get a hobby!
Early on when Laura worked remotely and had no children, she joined three choirs, to force her into a routine.
Not a hobby I personally would do, but I can see the logic behind it.
But it could be taking up a sport, going to a gym, doing charity work, and so forth. In the remote age, it could be having virtual cocktails every week over Zoom, joining a pub quiz over Zoom, or working on your garden (if you have one).
“A satisfying rhythm is achieved not by working less, but by having a compelling life outside of work. It’s worthwhile to get this right.”Vanderkam, Laura. The New Corner Office: How the Most Successful People Work From Home (p. 44). Hodder & Stoughton. Kindle Edition.
Thank you for reading, I hope you enjoyed it.