Due to the recent coronavirus outbreak, millions of workers have been asked to work from home. Without the right tools, systems, and habits in place, you are at risk of burning out, becoming distracted, unproductive, and plain stir crazy.
My name is Miguel, and I’ve spent the last 12 years working from home running several online businesses. I’ve enjoyed the freedom and flexibility this lifestyle has provided me but also suffered some of its drawbacks — things like lack of structure, lack of accountability, and social isolation.
I hope this guide and the accompanying assessment can help you thrive working at home.
Take the Work-From-Home Assessment
To help evaluate how well prepared you are to work from home, I’ve also created a work-from-home assessment which will help you implement the tips on this guide. You can take the assessment here → https://grumo.com/wfhtool
Let’s get started!
When working at home, there are three main areas you’ll need to look into, 1. Your Workspace, 2. Your Tools & Systems, and 3. Your Habits.
Let’s start with a few top tips to create the perfect work environment at home.
1. YOUR WORKSPACE
To work from home, you’ll need to set up a proper workspace. Here is a list of recommendations to help recreate the ideal work environment at home.
Create a designated working area
Your sofa is not a workspace. Your sofa is great to watch TV, take naps, eat nachos, and get cozy with your partner but not to get serious work done. Also, bending over your laptop for several hours every day will have a negative impact on your back, neck, and overall health.
Ideally, you’ll be able to dedicate an entire room to your office. If you don’t have an extra room, you’ll have to get a bit more creative by assigning an area in your living room or bedroom for your workspace.
Get a comfortable chair
Having a good office chair will help with your posture and reduce the risk of developing chronic back and butt pain. You may not be able to afford the fancy Herman Miller chairs you have at work, but for less than $200, you can find a proper ergonomic office chair.
Get a proper desk
The closer you can recreate your 9–5 work environment, the easier it will be to transition to working from home. If your desk looks like a picnic table, you’ll feel like munching on hotdogs, not getting work done.
I highly recommend getting a motorized standing desk. Standing up regularly will help your circulation and help you stay alert longer. I’ve had mine for three years and couldn’t live without it.
Since getting my standing desk, I spend about 50% of the time standing up and alternate between sitting and standing up about every 2 hours. My lower back pain is gone, and my core and legs feel much stronger.
Get a good computer monitor
You already know how nice it is having the additional screen real estate. Luckily, computer monitors have gotten ridiculously cheap. If your employer doesn’t provide you with one, you can pick up a nice 24-inch high-resolution monitor for less than $100.
Make sure your monitor is at eye level
If you want to avoid developing chronic neck and back pain, you’ll have to pay attention to how your monitor is positioned relative to your eyes. If you’re working from a laptop, make sure to invest on a stand or prop it on top of a pile of books. The ideal viewing height is to have your eyes level with an imaginary line across the screen, about 2″-3″ below the top of your screen.
Get fast Internet
There is nothing more frustrating than a slow Internet connection. I highly recommended you upgrade your Internet speed to at least 100 MBps download (you can test your connection speed HERE).
Many times the problem is not the speed, but how far are you located from your router. Ideally, you would connect directly to your router using a network cable, but we all know how inconvenient that is.
Pay attention to illumination
Since you’re going to spend thousands of hours staring at a screen, you want to take care of your eyes. In particular, you want to pay attention to the intensity and quality of light you expose your retinas to.
This means ensuring that your computer monitor brightness levels are not too low or too high relative to the overall ambient light in your workspace.
If you like to work in a dark environment, make sure you have at least an additional source of indirect light besides the light coming from your monitor.
If you are working near a window, make sure you can control the amount of light that enters your workspace by installing blinds or curtains if necessary.
Also, you may want to enable dark mode or night shift on your computer to reduce the amount of blue light coming from your monitor, which has been proven to create strain in your eyes.
Declutter your workspace
Think of your workspace as a reflection of your mind. A cluttered desk will contribute to a cluttered mind. A cluttered mind will have trouble focusing, and when you have difficulty focusing, your productivity goes down the drain.
If you’re not sure what belongs in your workspace, you can always use a variation of Mari Kondo‘s “Spark Joy” principle. Ask yourself, does this item spark productivity when I hold it? If the answer is no, then chuck it or place it elsewhere.
Put photos of your loved ones within sight
If there is one item we all should have at our workspace is a reminder of the people we love. A photo of your partner, kids, or best friend should always be a few degrees away from your line of sight. This way, anytime you’re feeling a bit demotivated, you can remember why you’re working so hard and how lucky you are to have people that love you in your life.
An inspirational picture or poster can help too, but should always be second in priority.
Make sure you have proper ventilation
If you feel tired all the time while working, it could very well be due to poor ventilation. If possible, you should always have a window partly open to let fresh air circulate. Fresh air means more oxygen, which happens to be a key element to function properly.
If you’re not sure whether you’re getting enough oxygen, you can buy a device to measure the CO2 levels inside your home or apartment.
Last year, I bought a CO2 monitor and was mortified to discover that, on average, the CO2 levels in my office where peaking consistently at 2,500 ppm (parts per million), twice as much as the recommended indoor concentration.
To give you an idea, typical CO2 concentration levels outdoor hover around 400 ppm. Anything over 1000 ppm will increase tiredness, headaches, and reduce overall performance.
Luckily, solving this issue is super easy; in my case, fully opening a window reduced overall CO2 levels well below 700 ppm in less than 5 minutes.
To learn more about indoor air quality and CO2 levels, check Wikipedia here.
Put at least one plant near your desk
Plants are beautiful decorative elements and, during the day, produce oxygen, which is a critical element to stay alert and productive. If you don’t have enough natural light coming in, fake plants can also look good, albeit you won’t get the oxygen benefit.
Consider getting a pet
One of the main issues with working from home is social isolation. If you’re living alone and your landlord approves, getting a pet may as well be one of the best investments in your overall mental health.
A benefit of getting a dog, in particular, is that it will force you to go for a walk a couple of times a day, which in turn will help you exercise and get fresh air.
Arrange all your tools near you
Take some time to make an inventory of all the things you’ll need to do your work and organize them tidily near or around your work area. My rule of thumb is to make sure you don’t have to walk more than five steps to reach 90% of the tools, documents, and resources you need to get your work done.
If you find yourself having to get up all the time to find stuff needed for work, you’ll be less efficient and run the risk of getting distracted while traversing your home in search of that thing.
2. YOUR TOOLS & SYSTEMS
You may have a beautiful workspace, but without the right tools and systems, your productivity will suffer. Here is a list of recommendations to ensure you stay productive.
Upgrade your computer
Does your computer feel sluggish? You may need to upgrade it or replace it altogether. The easiest way to make your computer faster is to get more RAM and replace your old disc hard drive with a new SSD (Solid State Drive) one.
Check how much free room your hard drive has left. Most computers start having performance issues when they are over 90% full. Delete all non-essential files, especially large files such as videos and unused applications. Don’t forget to empty your trash bin!
If your computer is older than 5 years and your type of work requires you to run CPU intensive programs (video editing, animation, graphic design), consider buying (or getting your employer to buy you) a new computer.
Implement a good file management system
If you’re spending more than 5 seconds trying to find a file or deciding where to store it, then you’re in dire need of implementing a consistent file management system.
Hint, your desktop is not a place to store or organize your files.
There are a few approaches to file management, and it will take a bit of trial and error to settle on one. Thomas Frank has a great tutorial on file management here.
Have a system to back up all your files securely
Use Dropbox or Google files to keep a cloud backup of all your files. For additional peace of mind, use an external hard drive to back up all your files regularly.
Learn how to organize your files with this course here.
Keep all your apps up to date
Depending on your settings, your computer apps may update automatically in the background. If they don’t, you’ll have to remember to keep them updated regularly.
Install the latest operating system
Many new apps won’t work on old operating systems or will run poorly. Make sure you’re always using the latest available operating system.
Use a password manager
Use a VPN to connect to work
Learn keyboard shortcuts to speed productivity
Are you still using your mouse to switch between apps and click on menus? Learning just 10 common shortcuts can save you hundreds of hours of mouse fumbling, and perhaps, even delay the onset of carpal tunnel syndrome.
If you’re a Mac user, do yourself a favor and join the 2.5 million people that have watched this video where I share 25 basic Mac shortcuts — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AdMuZses96Q
Block all unnecessary notifications
The only notifications I allow on my computer are calendar reminders. On my phone, I only allow notifications from my Calendar and text messages sent from individual contacts only (turn off Whatsapp group notifications now!).
Block all unnecessary websites
There are a few browser extensions that will block websites (I use BlockSite). You should block the sites you are most likely to waste time on (social media, news sites, porn, etc.)
Delete time-sucking apps from your phone
This alone can give you back up to 3 hours of life back every day. The goal is not to completely eliminate your participation in social media but to create enough friction to kill impulsive social media checking.
Create bookmarks to all essential tools and websites
Add the top ten websites you regularly use to your bookmarks bar on your browser. If you need to have more than ten bookmarks, consider using bookmark folders. A clever trick to fit more bookmarks is to leave only the icon by deleting the bookmark title.
Use a digital calendar to schedule all your activities
If it’s not on your calendar, it will not happen. Develop a habit to add new events to your calendar as soon as you learn about them or think of them. Use different colours to identify different types of events easily. For instance: create separate colours for work, social, birthdays, exercise, and holidays. (Google Calendar is my favourite)
Set up alarms and notifications to remind you of all activities
On Google calendars, you can set event notifications via email or phone. For most events is a good practice to set notifications at least 10 minutes before the event starts.
Develop a system to process email efficiently
The average worker spends 28 percent of their workweek on email, more than 11 hours a week! Learning how to process email efficiently is a must. Set 2 times a day to process email. I.e., first thing in the morning and after lunch. Learn basic shortcuts to open, reply, send, archive, and mark emails as read. Learn to use filters to automatically categorize and archive emails based on their topic or sender. Set up a series of canned responses to speed up common replies. Finally, improve your typing speed, especially if it’s less than 40 words per minute (average).
Implement a framework to prioritize tasks
You should always know what to do next and why. To help you decide what’s next, you need to have some type of task prioritization framework in place. The most popular task prioritization frameworks are: Eat the Frog, the Eisenhower Decision Matrix, and the ABCDE Method. (Learn more about how to implement these frameworks here.)
Become proficient using at least one project management tool
It’s quite likely that you are already using a project management tool (Asana, Trello, Basecamp).
It’s also quite likely that you’re not using them to their full potential. Make some time to read up on best practices for your project management tool of choice. You’ll be surprised to learn what’s possible with some of these tools!
Take at least one course on productivity
3. YOUR HABITS
Finally, to thrive working at home, you’ll need to develop the right habits. Without them, you are at risk of burning out and putting in jeopardy your physical and mental health. Here is a list of habits that will help you cope with the negative effects of prolonged social isolation.
Go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day
Try to keep the same schedule as to when working at an office. If you are part of a team, make sure to synchronize your sleep/wake patterns with the rest of your co-workers.
Get at least 8 hours of sleep every day
Sleep deprivation is the number one reason for low performance and burn out. Unless pressing deadlines require you to put extra hours, make sure you get at between 7 and 8 hours of sleep. Note that, according to this study, sleeping for too long can also be bad for you.
Develop a consistent morning routine
If there is a common habit among all top performers is that most have a morning routine. Ie: Drink water → Meditate → Exercise → Journal → Breakfast → Check email
Zapier has a great guide on mourning routines here.
Implement a wrap-up ritual
Use an alarm when it’s time to end your workday. This practice is important since you can easily burn yourself out with overwork when there are no boundaries. The wrap-up ritual can become the bookend for your day. For example: switch your status to offline → say goodbye to your team → step away from your desk → take 3 deep breaths → open your door.
Being well-hydrated improves sleep quality, cognition, and mood. Drinking enough water each day is also crucial for many reasons: to regulate body temperature, keep joints lubricated, prevent infections, deliver nutrients to cells, and keep organs functioning properly.
How much should you drink? Health authorities commonly recommend eight 8-ounce glasses, which equals about 2 liters, or half a gallon. This is called the 8×8 rule, and it is very easy to remember.
Recommendation: Get a big water bottle and have it on your desk within hand reach at all times.
Have meals at similar times every day
Studies have found that people who eat at random times every day have higher blood pressure and BMIs than people who stick to an eating schedule. Another benefit of eating regular times is that it makes it easier to track calorie intake and therefore keep your weight in check.
To save time, you can prepare meals in advance or have a food delivery service to deliver lunch every day.
Try to eat healthily (stay away from snacks)
Staying at home means you’ll always be tempted to scarf down whatever’s in the fridge and pantry. One way to avoid temptation is to get rid of all non-healthy items or simply to not replenish any unhealthy foods, drinks, or snacks.
Recommendation: track your calorie intake using an app like MyFitnessPal.
Schedule regular breaks
Taking small breaks during work hours can help you recharge energy, regain focus, increase creativity, and prevent burnout.
The human brain’s attentional resources drop after a long period of focusing on a single task, decreasing our ability to focus and hindering performance.
Exercise at least 3 times a week for longer than 10 minutes
Regular exercise can help improve productivity and curb feelings of anxiety and depression. When you exercise, your brain releases serotonin that helps you feel better and improves your state of mind, making the stresses of work easier to handle
Connect at least once a week with co-workers via Zoom or Skype
A big challenge when working from home for an extended time is to keep mentally healthy. If your work doesn’t require you to hold regular team meetings already, you should start this routine asap. Not only can you share progress updates, but you can help each other stay motivated and accountable.
If you work by yourself and don’t have a team to connect with, I highly recommend you try Work Cycles from Ultraworking. They schedule several Zoom meetings every week, where you’ll get to do work along with a group of professionals from all parts of the world. It’s a fantastic way to stay productive and socially connected. Learn more about Ultraworking here. (Disclaimer: I’m friends with Ultraworking’s CEO, Sebastian Marshall)
Connect with loved ones at least 3 times a week
Connecting with loved ones should be a habit regardless of your work situation but life-saving when you’re socially isolated. Bonus points if you use live video. So get on Skype, Facetime, or Zoom and catch up with family and friends at least 3 times a week!
Have a regular day/time to plan your week ahead
Without supervision, most people new to remote working have trouble staying on track. To avoid going off the rails, you should choose a specific day and time where you sit down for at least 30 minutes to plan your week. Typical times to do planning are Sunday evenings and Monday mornings.
Open your calendar right now and set a recurring event for weekly planning, so you don’t forget to do it!
Have a clear idea of what you want to accomplish long term
Scheduling a time for weekly planning with help to gain clarity, but you should also make time to think long term. What are your goals for this month, quarter, year? The clearer your goals are, the easier it will be to prioritize tasks and only take on ones that contribute to your broader goals. To help you with this, schedule a time at least quarterly to think of and plan big picture stuff.
Practice good hygiene regularly (shave, shower, brush teeth, floss, etc.)
Do your best to keep the same hygiene habits as when working within company premises. Replicating proper office etiquette will help you get into the right frame of mind when working from home. This also includes making an effort to wear the same clothing you would when going to work. At the very least, make sure your presentable waist up!
Make time to play at least twice a week
To cope with stress and social isolation, many of us go into crunch mode 24/7. You may feel productive for a while burning the midnight oil, but eventually, you’ll crash and burn. This is why several of the habits listed in this guide are designed to have you deliberately schedule a time for other things that work. Playtime is one of those things that will help you decompress, reduce anxiety, and recharge your batteries. Playtime activities include: snuggling with your partner, watching movies, playing video games, reading, and any other enjoyable activity that takes your mind away from work.
Check out this excellent reading list by Ryan Holiday.
Spend at least 20 mins every day learning a new skill
Being confined at home for weeks will feel like living on a never-ending Sunday afternoon during summer vacation. You will need to come up with a series of activities to kill time and prevent boredom. This is the perfect opportunity to turn some lemons into lemonade by picking up a new skill or honing an existing one. Bonus points if the new skill is monetizable down the line. I.e., a skill that will make you more attractive to future employers, such as coding, learning a new language, public speaking, marketing, sales, graphic design, machine learning, data mining, improving typing speed, video production, etc.
Make time at least once a week to help others
In times of crisis, selfishness can run rampant. We tend to worry about ourselves and forget about the rest of the world. Not only is this not good for our societies, but it also makes people unhappy and remorseful. The best way to combat a crisis is to help others. Good action begets good actions, and if anything should become viral is goodwill.
Once a week, take time to help someone in need. You can donate to a good cause, share your expertise for free, or volunteer. You’ll feel much better if you do (it’s scientifically proven.)
Get fresh air at least once a day
If, for some reason, getting proper ventilation in your home is not possible, you should go out and get fresh air at least once a day. This will help you oxygenate and get a bit of exercise (take the stairs instead of the elevator).
Get exposed to direct sunlight at least once a day
Sunlight helps combat Vitamin D deficiency. Vitamin D is a strong antioxidant that can boost your blood antioxidant levels. This can reduce the risk of chronic diseases like heart disease. But remember, if your shadow is longer than your body height, you can’t make any Vitamin D (source), so make sure you go out between 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Implement a system to track at least 3 key habits
“If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” — Peter Drucker. Pick at least 3 habits (sleep, exercise, diet) and use a spreadsheet or app to track them. Luckily there are plenty of apps that will help you do so. Here are some:
Did you take the Work-From-Home Assessment?
Use this assessment to find out how prepared you are to work from home and get recommendations to improve your productivity and stay mentally and physically healthy.
Take the assessment at — https://grumo.com/wfhtool
Feedback for improving this guide and the assessment is welcome.
I hope this helps someone.
Thanks and good luck working from home!
Founder at Grumo.com
P.S: What’s your score? Let me know in the comments.