How to stay productive when working from home 101


Hi all, it’s March 2020 and many of us are transitioning to remote / work from home temporarily or full-time due to government-imposed quarantines or for the sake of preventive self-isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

I’ve spent roughly 8 out of 13 years of my working experience of being a writer and a musician working remotely and all of my full-time in-house jobs have also provided enough flexibility for an occasional day or several days of WFH (and I find myself to be most productive that way).

My work from home setup for writing, communication, and editing media files.

I’d like to share a few things that help me keep productivity and sanity levels high during long stretches of time working from home without going anywhere. I’m not covering tools and apps for communication, those are countless. Here are the tips for making the work at home fun and effective, in no particular order. This is what works for me. 

Set a personal ritual to start and end your day. It might involve working out, taking a shower, changing your clothes, or just switching to another virtual desktop or account on your computer.  Under severe time constraints, I take a 5-10 minute break, reboot my laptop and change the wallpaper to take my mind off the previous project and start working on a different one.

Dress for work. Your pajamas or the T-shirt you’ve slept in lowers your morale and your productivity. Have a set of “working clothes” that will make you concentrate on work, not on taking a nap or slacking off.  My personal life-hack is to put on my “outside” jeans, in which it would be a total no-no for me to go near the surfaces I could nap on – like bed or sofa.

I try to wear “business” clothes and do my makeup even if I know I’m not going anywhere for the next few days.

Create a dedicated workspace. Even though I detest desktop computers, my laptop setup is pretty stable, desktop-like, with many extensions (large video monitor, external audio interface, audio monitors, external HDDs for additional storage and backups, and several MIDI gadgets for music production and sound design, etc.).

My content creation spaceship.

If I feel like it, I can just pick up my laptop and go to a different place in the apartment. It’s okay to roam the flat to catch more sunlight or get a more neutral background for a video call, but have one designated place nonetheless. Knowing that you have a place to default to to “get sh*t done” helps you stay more focused. 

Follow the existing work chat etiquette for the WFH times. If you have none, better establish some basic rules that would at least replace your regular hellos and good-byes in the office. In my experience, checking in with “Hi all, WFH today, will be available from … till …” or “Hello! Not feeling well so staying at home, but open for business in case of emergency” will do the job.

Turn the video on for meetings. As my lovely colleagues at Jammy have pointed out, conferencing with video on increases the productivity of the meeting – bonus points if somebody’s pet photobombs the process 🙂 

Test your laptop’s web camera before an important call starts, not during. Check if it works at all (your OS should have an app dedicated to using the web camera), if you’ve unglued the safety sticker from the camera (or opened the shutter) and whether the conferencing app has the necessary permissions (e.g. Skype would suddenly refuse to cooperate with my camera this winter stating it didn’t have the necessary permissions to use it).

Get a gaming audio set for video conferencing with several people at once (a USB-based headphones + microphone combination). Trust me, your Your AirPods are a pain in the *ss for people conferencing with you – even if the audio quality is awesome for you, it is likely to be awful for everyone else or they are hearing their own voices feedbacking through your super sensitive headphones, which makes it hard to speak like an intelligent human being. Try talking about business matters when everything you say is repeated to you with a slight delay. Which is why it’s good manners to mute your microphone when somebody else is speaking.

My simple gamer Gembird set has now heard more meetings than “Overwatch” raids.

Yes, get that cheesy conferencing set. I personally hate the very look of these headsets and feel like a stock image of a “tech support person” whenever I use one, but the audio quality is always superior to your phone’s headphones. For some reason, I find those designed for gamers to be of better quality and they also come in more fun colors than your garden variety “welcome-to-the-open-space-Logitech”.

Set your webcam to face downwards on you vs. upwards. A simple trick of putting something under your laptop for a video call + turning some light in front of your face makes you look much better in the dreaded conference video.

The “trick” is a simple wooden box under the laptop used during video calls.

For one-on-one calls, I’d discard the previous recommendation about a gaming headset and use your phone + headphones with a built-in mic for highly improved video quality, but make sure your mic is not feedbacking into the other person’s audio.

Get enough light. Although my workplace is well-illuminated throughout the day, I’m a night owl and often work on various projects well into the night. I’ve discovered that I get sleepy and unproductive with poor lighting so I’ve installed several lamps (both warm and cold white light) wherever I could. 

Try it, light makes everything better! And it’s also super satisfying to turn off all that extra light and succumb into welcoming dusk after the day’s work is done.

Get the blue screen light under control. Use f.lux or a similar app for your computer screen to control and change the intensity of blue/yellow light balance. The goal here is to lessen the amount of blue light you stare at during your work and also provide a sense of time. It’s too easy to lapse into working around the clock when working from home, especially if it’s evenly gray and bleak outside (and then quickly fades into the night at roughly 4 PM every day during winter in Kyiv, Ukraine where I live).

Your screen going all warm and yellow should give you some sense of time passing and the urgency to wrap up some tasks for the end of your working day. Night mode for your smartphone and yellow glasses to block out the light will also help you feel less agitated and sleep better after work.

Use different browsers or even operational systems to draw the line between your work/non-work computer use. For example, sometimes I boot into Linux (Ubuntu is super user-friendly even for total beginners, especially if you’re used to macOS) when I’m only doing web-based writing work (e.g. Google’s G Suite). Then I reboot to Windows to work on a sound/music/video project, edit some graphics for blog posts, or pick up my iPad or Kindle to read. 

At the very least, I have my 100 tabs open in Chrome for one project and another 20 – in Firefox, for a different project. I get lost less that way (and if you don’t work with a myriad of tabs open for research, todos, background music, etc., I salute and envy you).

Don’t forget to switch your work VPN on/off if you need it to access your remote server or version control tool. Switch to your non-work VPN afterward, if you use it. Seems like a no-brainer, but I once wasted 40 minutes trying to access a remote machine while working from a whole different network, duh.

Keep a paper to-do list. Apps, apps, we’re drowning in apps – nothing beats crossing off a “done” item off a daily to-do list. You might be less old-school, but at least try it. I’m not saying to throw your whole Kanban board out of the window, but having my next 2-5 tasks written out on a piece of paper in front of me (in addition to the said board) keeps me more focused and grounded in the present vs. freaking out about the vast amounts of work yet to be covered.  

Okay, let’s move from the “staying productive” and into the “staying sane” area.

Stay hydrated. It could be the comfort of the home, but I tend to sit glued to my chair for much longer stretches of time at home versus office, forgetting about everything around me and I end up not drinking liquids for long periods of time. This is rather bad for one’s health. Go, pour yourself a fresh glass of water and drink it up, your body will thank you.

Move around. For the same reason as above, work from home gives you fewer incentives to get up and move regularly. Get a reminder app or set up your smartwatch/fitness bracelet to ping you at least once per hour and remind you to take a tour of your living quarters. 

After work, additional physical activity is a must – get on a treadmill or make use of whatever sports equipment has been collecting dust for all these years. A few more days into quarantine and I think I’ll be adding 7 Minute Workout app (Android, iOS) routines into my life. But, depending on your energy and health levels, any slightly prolonged activity (15+ min) will do. Cooking, cleaning, playing with your pet! Anything that helps you unglue yourself from the chair and the screen will do. 

Get up from your chair, seriously.

Hug your pet(s). Instant stress relief and energy boost. Please don’t try to hug your pet fish. 

Add some background noise (if you feel like it). Some people are more productive with dead silence around (myself included unless I work on text formatting/frontend stuff or visuals), some people need background music or noises to be able to concentrate. 

For ambient music, I’d recommend indie lo-fi hip-hop channels on YouTube. For background noises that can transfer you into a cafe, forest, train, etc., I’d recommend Noisli – even though I usually use it when I work in the office, to drown out my colleagues’ conversations, when I feel particularly lonely, I will add the sound of a cafe or enhance the rain outside with firewood burning sounds. 

Take silly breaks, don’t forget to have fun. Chances are if you can do your work remotely, you mostly use your mind and creativity. Sometimes a creative block can strike you and the only solution for overcoming it is to take a short break or to watch that cat video. You cannot be 100% productive all 8 hours, that’s a fact. Goof off if you need to, but do it with purpose – there is a fine line between recharging your mind to go out of a rut and procrastination.

Eat somewhere fun. Don’t do the sad office desk lunch at home. You don’t necessarily need to eat in the kitchen either – go outside (to your balcony or your own fenced yard since we’re talking coronavirus and self-isolation here) or eat at your actual dinner table versus eating in front of your computer or TV for a change. The point here is to get away from the computer for a few more minutes and rest your eyes. Bonus point if you manage to get off your smartphone during lunch, too.

Call (or video call) someone after work. You may go the whole day without using your voice when working from home and that can get to even the most introverted of us with time. Plan a remote diner with friends or a happy hour with your coworkers – this can be fun and really good for the whole team’s morale.

That’s what keeps me organized and productive. Please comment with things to add to this list <3.

Karen Sawrey is a tech writer, AR/PR manager, public speaker, and musician.

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