A remote state of mind

// 5.13 min read

I work remotely, which means that for the vast majority of the time, I’m working from my home. A lot of people who ask me about working remotely tell me that they think they’d struggle to be productive working from home, and they’re probably right—at least to start with. It took me a while to get the hang of working from home when I first started, and even having done it for 8 or 9 years, some days are still trickier than others.

Anyone can become productive working from home though. The crux of the problem is that establishing clear boundaries between your professional and personal lives is really tricky when they have to coexist in the same physical space. If you want any kind of balance between your work and your personal life, you have to find a way for them not to continually collide with each other.

The commute

For people who don’t work from home, the commute to their place of employment is mostly what establishes that boundary. When you’re at work, you don’t have immediate access to the physical context of your personal life, and vice versa, so it’s rare for them to collide in undesireable ways. When you’re surrounded by your work and your colleagues, or by your family and your home, there’s a lot of very powerful environmental cues to help you focus on just that respective area of your life.

The commute isn’t the barrier itself though. Think about it. People sometimes do personal tasks in their lunch break, and people sometimes take work home or perhaps work from home one day per week. Even during the time you’re at work “working”, it’s possible to spend years of your life in an office without ever really engaging in or feeling passionate about your work. It’s also possible to do the most important and rewarding work of your career from your couch with your dog curled up beside you.

States of mind

The key lies in understanding that “work” (or “office”) and “home” are just states of mind, and how you use that understanding to stay focused and effective on the right things at the right times.

The commute is mostly just a glaringly obvious mental cue to switch your thinking between “I’m at home now” and “I’m at work now”. It’s a cue you’ve probably been exposed to ever since you got our first job. It’s so ingrained in the way our culture thinks about work, that it’s easy for people to not understand how it’s possible for things to be any other way. And yet, working remotely is clearly a growing trend, and maybe the new normal in some industries.

Replacing the commute

So what do you do when the environmental cues you’re used to aren’t there anymore? With a bit of effort it’s easy to replace the cues with mental discipline instead. Here are some things that have worked for me.

Mimic physical separation if possible

You might not have a commute to use as a cue for switching into your work context, but you can still use location as a trigger. Find a space within your home that you can dedicate to being work-only, and make it your own. Clear away any clutter. Make sure the tools you absolutely need are within arms reach. Get yourself a cup of your favourite beverage, and get to work.

I often tell people jokingly that my commute is a short one (only a few metres!), but the hidden truth there is that it’s still effectively a commute in the sense that it helps me switch contexts.

Nothing’s stopping you from working elsewhere in the house, but I think it’s important to have a dedicated place that you know for sure you can go if you’re struggling to focus. I think this is especially useful when you’re just starting out with your first remote gig. The longer you spend working from your new “workplace”, the more you’re reinforcing the mental cue that it’s time to work when you’re there.

Build routine

Another reason the commute reinforces the mental barrier so effectively is that most jobs you’ve worked have probably started at a reasonably predictable time each day. Having no choice but to get into action at a certain time builds habit fairly quickly, and it can be effective for working at home too.

It doesn’t matter if the constraints you choose are real of contrived. What makes routine effective is repetition. After enough practice at focusing on “work” at a certain time in the morning, and switching to “home” tasks at a regular time later in the day, sooner or later those thought patterns will start to become automatic.

Set expectations

Communication is important. The best thing you can do is set clear expectations with both those you live with, and those your work with, so everyone you interact with knows how they can support your distinctions of “work” and “home”. It’s for everyone’s benefit after all: the better you are at focusing on work when you’re in your “work” mindset, the better you can focus on spending quality time with your friends and loved ones when you’re in your “home” mindset—and the reverse is also true.

Protect your state of mind

Be proactive. Clear the decks. Take a guess at what might disctract you in the next 5 minutes, the next hour, or later today, and see if there’s a way to minimise the possibility of that event disrupting your focus.

What works for you?

These are all just suggestions, and some of them might not work if you try them out. That’s okay. Everyone’s different. You just need to accept that it might take some time to discover what works for you and your unique circumstances. Remember, “work” and “home” are just states of mind, and what helps you switch between the two best will almost certainly be different to the next person.

So what works for you? Send me a tweet or an email, because I’d love to hear. How do you switch between “work” and “home”?

Coby Chapple (@cobyism)

@cobyism—a.k.a. Coby Chapple is an autodidact, systems thinker, product architect, pixel technician, full-stack algorithmagician, multi-media maker, cryptography geek, aspiring linguist, and generalist Designerd™ extraordinaire. Read more »