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One of the challenges of working remotely is that you can't feed off the energy that hums through an office. You might be all alone -- or in a space that's bustling with distractions that might seem more interesting than what you really should be doing. Staying motivated and on task in this environment requires discipline for sure.
But there are also a few hacks that will make it a little easier. I've been a successful freelancer and remote worker since 1997. Here's my advice to stay productive as a remote worker, with some specific tips for remote programmers.
Take advantage of development opportunities
One way to make the daily grind less grinding is to seek out opportunities for professional growth. Explore what your company provides in the way of training or upskilling programs that fit your career path.
If the company doesn't offer much, seek out workshops, seminars, conferences and certification programs you're interested in. Ask your manager if the company will subsidize your enrollment -- or better yet, pay for it outright.
Employers know professional development is a priority for many tech workers. They're also aware that if they provide this, they'll be more successful at recruitment and retention. If you're sincere about your desire to learn something new, don't be shy about speaking up.
Also, once you've completed any training or certification program, be sure to let people know about it. This can lead to opportunities to work on new projects that will continue to stretch your skills and hopefully keep you motivated.
Break up pesky tasks into small chunks
No matter how much you might love your work, there are probably certain necessary tasks that you loathe. One example for programmers is date math -- calculating time formats and formatting for multiple time zones across apps, databases and users. Best-case scenario: You grit your teeth, schedule some time and get them done. Worst case: The dread builds up for days and even weeks, and before you know it, you're completely blocked.
If you find yourself in the latter situation, try these tips:
- Break up the task into 15-minute chunks.
- Commit to focus on it for the next 15 minutes.
- Set an alarm.
Chances are, when the first 15 minutes are up, you've made some real headway, and you'll set your alarm for another 15 minutes. And then another 15 minutes pass, you've done more work, and you'll reset for another 15 minutes ... and then another set ... until you're done. You'll likely discover that the to-do in question wasn't so dreadful after all. Next time, you'll be more motivated to cross it off your list.
If a single focused 15-minute block is all you can handle, so be it. Just make sure to schedule another 15 minutes for the following day so that eventually you can move on.
Ritualize your start and end times
When you work remotely and your motivation level is low, you might be tempted to slowly transition into your workday. At particularly low points, you might start genuine work so late in the day that you find yourself putting in time after hours, which in turn can further compromise motivation.
One way to combat this is to create rituals that help you transition from the "home" version of you to your "work-from-home" self. Think of it as your rendition of the traditional home-to-office commute, without the traffic jams and overcrowded public transport.
Everyone is different, but here are some ideas for how you can help yourself get into work mode:
- Spend 30 minutes having coffee at your local cafe, knowing that once you get back home, it's time to log in.
- Take a 20-minute walk around your neighborhood, as if you were walking to work.
- Spend 20 minutes reading industry-focused websites, publications or social media to get you in the headspace for work.
- Work out, shower, make some tea and get down to work.
It's just as important to develop a ritual for the end of your workday too. This could be as simple as taking 10 minutes to review tomorrow's to-do list or shutting down your computer. Experiment with what works best for you, and then stick to it.
Commit to a plan to begin your day, and establish a hard stop. If you let work drag on -- answer just one more email or send just one more tweet -- eventually your motivation level will suffer.
Develop a network of peers to talk shop
Remote workers risk feeling isolated, for obvious reasons. It's very important to develop a network of peers that you can engage with on a regular basis. Not only does this provide you with some human interaction, it's also an opportunity to trade ideas and gain insight into how others approach issues you might also experience in your work.
Set regular meeting dates for these interactions. There are many user groups and meetups that focus on programming languages, software products, and most any technology of interest to developers and IT staff. Look for one local to you. You might be tempted to engage virtually because it's more convenient, but make the effort to see each other in person.
Before these encounters, think about what you'd like to discuss, but be open to what others want to talk about as well. Be curious. And don't be afraid to ask them: "How do you stay motivated?"
Don't make it all about the work
Nothing kills motivation more than the feeling that your job takes up all of your time. Of course, there are periods when every software developer must work around the clock to bring a product to fruition, but this should be the exception, not the rule.
It might sound counterintuitive, but to keep your work motivation high, build time into your schedule during which you don't think about work -- or even don't do much at all.
A lot of this comes down to basic self-care, such as the following:
- eating healthy; and
- getting enough sleep.
It can also entail activities that feed your brain, heart and soul, such as the following:
- Get together with friends and family.
- Pamper yourself with a spa visit.
- Go on a long bike ride or hike.
- Visit a museum, attend a sporting event or enjoy a concert.
- Take a class -- one that has nothing to do with work.
Activities like these can serve to inspire new ideas. When you stop making it all about the work, chances are you'll be more motivated by the thought of returning to your desk.