For the last several years, almost every hour of professional work that I’ve put in has been remote work. Although I write in Iowa, the team that keeps The Simple Dollar running is located around the country. Other writing I’ve done, such as pieces for US News and World Report, has been remote as well. I know the ins and outs of working in an environment where there aren’t any coworkers or management within many miles of me.
What I’ve learned is this: working remotely has a ton of upside in terms of flexibility, but it is incredibly easy to get distracted and fall into low productivity routines.
So, how do I make that work? How do I get the most value out of remote work? How do I avoid traps of distraction and low focus?
Here are twelve strategies I live by to get things done while working remotely.
12 strategies to help your productivity while working remotely
1. Have a place to work that’s entirely work-focused.
In the past, I actually had a dedicated office at home for work purposes. In that room, I was strictly in “work mode.” There wasn’t much else to do in there, and I could close the door and be in my own “work world.”
As our family grew and dynamics changed, that arrangement needed to change, so now I have a standing desk and some shelves in a multipurpose room in our basement. There are no screens or anything strongly distracting in the room — it’s a multipurpose room with a table that gets used for tabletop games and other things — so it still shifts me into a “work world” mindset.
Simply having a spot in your home that you only use for professional purposes eventually nudges you to switch into that mindset when you go to that spot. When you are in a particular chair or at a particular table or desk, you’re working; when you’re not there, you’re not working. That’s a vital mental switch that makes it much easier to avoid distraction.
That division is really important, not only for your own mindset but for others in your life. My family knows that if I’m in my “work space” I shouldn’t be interrupted unless it’s genuinely urgent.
If you have a space like that at home, great. Set it up so that basically everything you need to have to work is right there within arm’s length so that you don’t have to leave that spot most days.
If you don’t have a spot like that in your home, find one near your home.
Libraries are a good place to try, especially if they have areas with tables that are out of the way. They’re usually quiet and have reliable internet without much distraction. Prepare a “portable office” in a backpack that you can easily grab and go that contains all of your needed professional materials — laptops, chargers, ibuprofen, snacks, a water bottle, pens, notebooks and so on.
Your goal should be to avoid having to leave your “work spot” for unplanned reasons once you’ve settled in.
2. Have a “startup routine” and a “shutdown routine” that serve as mental markers.
My “startup routine” usually involves turning off digital distractions. I put my phone in “do not disturb” mode, which restricts calls and notifications from almost all sources. I turn on a website blocker on my laptop. I plug in my devices. I fire up my text editing program and my to-do list program. I put on headphones with some non-distracting background audio. When I’ve done all that, I’m good to go.
I have a similar shutdown sequence when I’m done with a work session. I finish by turning off my desktop computer completely (or packing up my laptop) and turning notifications back on for my phone.
Again, this serves two purposes. One is functional — it’s a sequence of steps to minimize distractions and get me ready to write (or, at the end, to re-engage with the non-professional world). The other is mental — it’s a switch.
What do I mean by “switch”?
Much like having a place to go that’s purely about “work,” simply having a set of steps to go through to get started with work tasks reinforces that “work” mindset.
The act of going to my working spot and then going through these steps is a five minute process that gets me out of the “home” mindset and into the “work” mindset.
That “work” mindset is vital. When I’m in that mindset, I genuinely don’t worry about things that need to be done around the house or things that could distract me at home. I’m working. I’m in a spot dedicated to work, and I went through the steps to mentally get into “work mode.” That transition is surprisingly powerful, and without that switch it would be difficult for me to work remotely.
3. Come up with a little “startup” and “shutdown” checklist for yourself.
Try to identify five to eight little steps you do at the start of each workday and maybe three or five steps you do at the end of each workday. Those things are not only useful themselves, but they begin to signify a mindset switch that I find vita as a remote worker.
There’s one other trick I do that really helps build up that mindset.
4. Do several “background tasks” at the start of the day.
One of the last things I do many days before starting to work is that I’ll go through my home and get a bunch of “background tasks” started.
I’ll fill up the dishwasher and run a load. I’ll take clothes from the washer, put them in the dryer and start the dryer. I’ll fill the washer with a batch of dirty clothes. I’ll put a meal in the slow cooker, or I’ll put a bunch of vegetable scraps for stock in the slow cooker. I’ll turn on the automatic floor vacuum in a room.
These are all things that I can start before I start the day’s professional work and will keep working and moving forward while I do my professional work. When I’m done, those tasks are often done, too, and are waiting on me to finish.
The sense that things are getting done around the house while I’m focused on work really helps me keep from getting distracted and thinking about all of the stuff around the house that I could or should be doing. I know that I’ve already done several things and that the last step of those things will be waiting on me in a few hours when I stop for lunch, plus that sense of “home progress while I’m working” helps keep me focused on work tasks.
Try making a checklist of things like this that you can do before you start working.
You don’t have to do all of them each day, but if you can get some of them going, it really gives this sense of “the house is working around me, so I should be working, too,” which I find quite powerful.
5. Have a very clear to-do list each day that must be completed before you’re done.
One of the last things I do each day is look ahead at my schedule for tomorrow and come up with tomorrow’s to-do list. It’s usually between three to six professional items that I want to complete during my working time tomorrow — things like completing an article draft, reading something and taking notes, editing an article and so on.
The things on that to-do list are extremely clear. “Read the next chapter of book X.” “Outline next Tuesday’s article.” “Edit Friday’s article.” “Have an hourlong brainstorming session with notes.” You get the idea. It’s very clear, with each of those things, what completion and success means — either it’s finished or my portion is done and handed off to someone else.
Your goal each day should be to go through that list and accomplish everything on it unless some immovable obstacle gets in your way. When you get distracted and aren’t sure what to do, come back to that list.
The exact nature of this list will vary from job to job, of course. Some jobs will have more tasks, but shorter ones. Some jobs will rely a lot on collaboration, so “completion” often hinges on just finishing your next part of an ongoing task. The purpose is to be clear on things that you should get done.
For me, completing this list of essential tasks adds up to an estimated five hours or so. This gives space for other things like checking email as well as space for unexpected challenges like writer’s block.
If you make a to-do list for the day that’s too long, you won’t complete it and it will cease to be a useful tool.
If you’re having trouble cutting down the things you need to do to a reasonable list, you need to assess priorities. Out of all of the things you need to get done, which one is the most important? Out of the remaining ones, which one is most important? If you are unable to make that distinction on your own, talk to your boss about it so that priorities are more clear to you.
6. Try to have a wide block of time to get things done that can be uninterrupted, then use that block to get into a flow state.
For me, I find that I am most productive if I can get myself into a “flow state,” which means that I’m engaged enough with the task at hand that I lose track of time and distraction. The faster I can get in that state and the longer I can stay in it, the more efficient my work becomes and the quicker I can move onto other things, professional or otherwise.
A big part of my “startup” routine (noted above) is about getting into that flow state. I usually start off my day with a wide block of uninterrupted time so that I can get into a “flow state” and get some of the most intense parts of my to-do list done quickly.
7. For tasks that are going to be interrupted, have a “check-in” once every 45 minutes or so to assess what you’ve done.
Of course, not all tasks are like that. Not all tasks are ones that are well suited toward periods of focus. There are tasks, like checking and replying to emails, responding on Slack and on social media, and other short individual tasks that are easily interrupted or inherently interruptible by the very nature of what they are.
For me — and for many others who work remotely — those kinds of tasks can have a significant negative impact on productivity. Not only do these tasks inherently lend themselves to getting lost in sequences of tasks, they also often lead to distraction. It’s easy to get distracted by social media, conversations or even tasks around the house when dealing with these kinds of little interruptible tasks.
How does one keep moving forward on those little tasks while working remotely?
The best strategy I’ve found for myself is to set a recurring timer for every 15 minutes or so. When the timer goes off, I ask myself what I’ve been doing for the last 15 minutes. If I can’t name obviously productive stuff, I realize I’ve been distracted and it’s a call to get back on task.
That consistent reminder keeps me from falling too far down the rabbit hole of unimportant tasks and distractions.
8. Move around throughout the day.
While it’s good to stay focused, it’s also good to occasionally take breaks and move around throughout the day. After my morning “block,” when I get many of my big tasks done for the day, I’ll typically take a 10 to 15 minute break every hour just to move around.
Moving around really good for your health, and it also (at least for me) reinvigorates enough focus so that I can get more things completed.
During those breaks, I will often stretch a little, drink some water, use the bathroom and go for a short but brisk walk around the block. Once I’m done I’ve usually replenished a little bit of my focus, so I’m able to knock out another 30 to 45 minutes of work pretty directly.
Not only that, but if you move around regularly during the day, you won’t feel exhausted at the end of it, which is great — particularly if you’re working remotely. If I close my laptop or turn off my computer at the end of a good working day and still have plenty of energy for life activities, I’m already at home and ready to get to it.
9. If you are not 100% clear on what’s needed from you, get as much clarity as you can before diving into a task.
Most of the things I do for work are pretty clear. I know what I’m supposed to do. I know what I’m supposed to deliver. I know pretty clearly what the steps are.
Sometimes it’s not so clear. In a normal working environment, you can often just ask for advice, but when you’re working remotely, it’s not always that easy. If you start a task and get confused while working remotely, you have to stop, ask a question and hope the person you’re asking gets back to you soon.
A much better approach, if you’re working remotely, is to start off by outlining the big task ahead of you. Ask yourself about the steps, about any points where anything will be needed, and about any requirements that you might not be clear on. Get those materials and ask those questions before you dig in. The more you can identify now, the better.
For me, having to stop in the middle of a task for guidance or more information when I’m working remotely is a double whammy. Not only do I have to stop and seek out information, I’m usually flipped into “easily distracted” mode for a while until I have something else to work on, and working remotely is already chock full of distractions.
So, by simply outlining the task a little bit beforehand, I can contact people before I even dig in for clarification and other materials. That way, when I actually start, only completely unforeseen stuff will stop me.
In fact, I often do this a bit the night before, as I’m assembling my to-do list for the next day just before I shut down for the day. I’ll think through each task on that list a little bit and if I recognize that I need clarification or information or something else, I’ll request it then. That way, I’ll often have it when I start the next day.
10. If you’re not going to be able to make a deadline or some other problem is becoming apparent, give as much notice as possible.
A big disadvantage of working remotely is the loss of ease of communication with coworkers. In a shared workplace, you can just talk to your neighbor or your boss, sometimes without even getting up. If you’re working remotely … not so much. That communication flow goes both ways, meaning while it’s harder for you to know what’s going on there, it’s hard for them to know what’s going on with you.
This isn’t a big deal when everything’s going smoothly, but when you start to bump up against professional obstacles, that lack of communication flow can compound.
The best thing you can do is get out in front of it. When you know an issue is coming, such as a potentially missed deadline, talk to people sooner rather than later.
It is tempting to wait. It is tempting to see if the situation will resolve itself or if you can pull double duty and get things done. The problem is that by waiting around until you’ve missed a deadline, you almost always make the problem far worse than you would if you gave notice about potentially missing a deadline in advance.
The instant you feel that something is going wrong or that you may miss a deadline while working remotely, communicate that situation. Give others time to respond and figure out a good response rather than springing it on them by simply missing a deadline or failing to come through.
Communicate, communicate, communicate — even if it’s scary. You’re far better communicating in advance than communicating when it’s too late.
11. Keep careful records of all extra expenses incurred while working remotely.
If you’re working remotely, you’re likely to incur some expenses in the process. You may need office supplies. You may need to pay for internet. You may need research tools.
Track those expenses carefully. You may be able to be reimbursed for them through your workplace. If not, you may be able to deduct them from your income taxes for professional expenses.
This is a good habit to get into for anyone working remotely, and it becomes more and more important the more independent you become. Simply get in the habit.
The system I use is a simple one. I have a manila envelope that I use to store receipts for any expenses related to my work each month. I also keep an ongoing spreadsheet for those expenses. Whenever I spend money, a receipt goes in the envelope and a line goes in the spreadsheet. The spreadsheet makes it easy to do the tax filing, while the receipts make it easy to produce records if I were to be audited.
12. Find professional social outlets.
One advantage of working in an office environment is that you’re surrounded by people in your field with which you can bounce ideas off of, share experiences and build camaraderie. When you work remotely, you lose out on much of that, so it’s a good idea to find something similar somewhere.
It’s a good idea to look for a local professional group related to your field and sometimes even a group of remote workers in your field. You can often find them on Meetup, and it can be a great way to find other people who are remotely working in your area in your field. I have been a member of a local group of remote workers for a while and it’s been great, as the group facilitates online and offline meetups.
Another good option is to check out nearby co-working environments. These usually require some sort of fee to use, but it can be a great way to interact with people who are also remotely working. I have used a co-working location in my area and wound up eating lunch consistently with a few people for a while (though the business eventually closed).
Yet another option is social media. Because of the meetup above, I found myself in a local closed Facebook group and a local Slack channel for people who work remotely. Because of those groups, I have been able to work in the same location as others, have found support for issues working remotely, and found some great lunchtime companions to boot.
Not only does this help with the social itch, it can also help open some professional doors and give you an outlet for “talking shop.”
Working remotely has rewards and challenges; these strategies are about minimizing those challenges so you can maximize the rewards.
People often envision working remotely as being a perfect blend of personal and professional life, but it’s got a lot of challenges and struggles wrapped into it. The biggest challenges are focus, organization, communication, and camaraderie, and the solutions above can go a long way toward addressing those challenges.
With these tactics in hand, you’ll be able to maximize the positives and minimize the negatives of remote work, making it a powerful option for you!