Recently I wrote an article titled How to Not Suck at Remote Working. One of the main rules was to know who you are, as I believe remote working is just not for everyone. However, if time management is your main issue, there’s hope.
All of us could be better at managing our day, whether we work remotely or not. Here’s what I’ve learned helps the most.
1. Track your time
This feels like second nature to many of us already, especially if you’ve worked at an agency that bills by the hour. Tracking your time not only makes it easy to invoice clients, but also gives you measurable data you can look back on later. You’ll see trends about how you work and how long you’re spending on your daily tasks, so you more accurately plan each day moving forward.
Time tracking apps like Toggl not only record your time, but give you a running timer to track your task as you go. And while it can be annoying, Toggl sends you reminders to track your time every few minutes or so, so you stay on top of it. It even tracks your idle time so you can be as accurate as possible.
An undervalued Toggl feature is the Pomodoro timer, which will let you know when you’ve been working for 25 minutes and give you a 3 minute break (you can adjust the timing in your preferences). As someone who can easily get in the zone and spend hours on a task without lifting my head, I appreciate the quick Pomodoro check-in to keep me on track.
Whether you’re billing by the hour or not, track your time to make you more aware of how you’re spending your day.
2. Build in breaks
When you’re working from home, distractions are endless. There’s the TV. Laundry. The dog. Laundry for the dog. It might seem simple to multitask and get a few things done around the house while you work, but those few minutes here and there add up, and then suddenly it’s 8 p.m. and you’ve only clocked three hours of real work for the day. Use Toggl’s Pomodoro app (I swear Toggl is not sponsoring this article), or your phone’s timer, to build those breaks into your day instead of taking them arbitrarily. Give yourself 25 or 40 or even 60 minutes of pure work, then allow yourself a few minutes of rest before focusing again.
Same goes for Twitter, checking your email, shopping for new dog clothes, and your phone – especially your phone! Giving your brain occasional breaks keeps you sane and creative, so don’t feel guilty about it. Just build structure around it so you stay productive too.
"Slack is meant to streamline our communication and workflow, but just like emails, we often let instant messages control our day."
3. Snooze Slack notifications
Sounds counterintuitive since apps like Slack are meant to streamline your communication and workflow, but just like emails, we often let instant messages control our day.
Every time a notification pops up on your screen, your focus is broken. You’ll be pulled into an unrelated conversation or another task and find yourself half-finishing everything you start. Instead of letting notifications interrupt you every few minutes, set a timer and check Slack periodically. Slack gives people the option to send urgent notifications in Snooze mode, so if it’s really important, people can still reach you.
You may be tempted to go "offline" entirely to focus on a particular task or project. This can be useful, providing you planned for it and your team knows when you won't be reachable. If disconnecting helps you be more productive, build this into your schedule and share that schedule with your team ahead of time. This not only helps them respect your focused-work time, but ensures you don't impact their tasks and deadlines.
4. Use the daily status update (if you’re working with a remote team)
I wrote more about it more here, but in short: The Daily Status update keeps your team informed about what you’re doing each day, and keeps you accountable to your checklist. At the end of the day, take five minutes to send your team an email with what you did today, what you’ll do tomorrow and where you’re stuck, in bulleted lists.
This way, you’ll set up your to do list for each day the night before. Your team will know what you’re working on and you’ll feel motivated to accomplish what you said you’ll do.
5. Reward yourself
Motivate yourself by setting time goals for each task, then giving yourself a little reward if you meet them.
Maybe you promise yourself a snack if you put in 60 minutes of hard focus. Or maybe you get to check Instagram for 5 full minutes if you get your proposal turned in my 2:00 p.m.
Use positive reinforcement to stay focused and feel positive about your workday.
6. Environment is everything
While working from your bed seems fun, it’s not great for productivity (or for your spirit).
Think about what kind of environment makes you feel focused, productive and creative. I enjoy doing admin tasks like answering emails from coffee shops, but I get my “real” creative work done in my home office. Maybe you work best in a structured coworking space, or in a messy home office, or in a bare, quiet room.
What many people miss after jumping from their 9-5 job to remote work (although they may not admit this to themselves) is the predictable structure a corporate job provides.
While the flexibility of remote work is one of its most appealing benefits, most humans thrive with a routine, and routine can still exist within that flexibility.
Waking up at a consistent time, getting dressed, fixing a pot of coffee, reading the headlines and running through your to do list, breaking for lunch at noon, scheduling meetings for afternoons only — these are the little practices that keep you moving like a well oiled machine.
Define your routine more clearly and then stick to it. If something comes up or you want to switch things up, no problem. Build allowances for that in your routine. For example, maybe you leave Tuesday mornings open for last minute meetings or appointments. Or maybe on Fridays you let yourself impulsively work from the park, if you're feeling like it.
Find your routine, however structured or loose, and you'll naturally manage your time better.
At the end of the day, managing time mostly comes down to removing distractions. I tend to get tons of work done on airplanes and it's only because my phone is in airplane mode, I have a defined amount of time to mentally focus, and there are only so many other things I can physically do.
While I can't feasibly work from an airplane every day, I can follow these other practices that help me manage my time as best as I can. I hope they’ll be helpful for you too.