Burak Kanber, Engineer

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Staying productive while working from home, or: why we need workspaces.

On June 20, 2012

I’ll put the TL;DR at the begging of this post: do you sometimes have trouble motivating yourself to work while working from home? Two simple changes will fix that.

  1. Set up a workspace, and work there every day. Do not, ever, play or relax there. Your workspace could be a coffee shop, or it could be the kitchen table. (Corollary: also set up a relaxation space. Don’t ever work there. This could be your entire home if your workspace is a coffee shop, or it could be “living room couch” if your workspace is the kitchen table.)
  2. Set up a rigid time to physically pick yourself up and move to your workspace. If your workspace is the kitchen table, all you have to do is get there on time and the work will flow naturally.

Here’s the whole story:

It’s been a pretty long time since I’ve worked out of an office. I left my IT engineering job in college and started consulting as a software engineer–no offices there. Eventually I ended up as CTO of Tidal Labs, and although we have a nice office I continue to work from home most days (I’m more productive as a builder working from home).

But getting motivated and staying productive can sometimes be tricky. Almost everybody I know who works from home has complained of the same problem: some days it’s just too distracting, too tempting to not work. It’s hard to get in the zone and it’s too easy to turn on the TV and relax.

I’ve heard a lot of people say “I can’t work from home, I need an office” and the like. I used to believe it was just weakness or laziness, but after watching so many people I respect succumb to the same home-office problems, I decided to keep an open mind and put some thought to the problem.

The answer, in short: it has nothing to do with laziness or weakness. We need a dedicated workspace, but that doesn’t need to be an office per se.

Here’s how I arrived at that conclusion: I decided to actively experiment with productivity techniques, and I decided to be more observant of other people and how they deal with this type of thing (which was also part of my quest to become a better manager). I started tinkering around with productivity and these observations a little over a year ago, using myself as a guinea pig.

I should stop and clarify now that this is an anecdotal case-study, not a scientific paper. The last post I wrote about cooling down a room with ice came under a lot of scrutiny for a blog post–so reader beware, this is just a damned blog post, not a study.

One of the first things I’ve noticed is that lots of people, even those who generally have great work ethic, have succumbed to at-home laziness. I found that strange at first, though. Doesn’t having great work ethic mean you’re good at getting to work? It also puzzled me since my father started his company working from home and he was SO productive. So I had to rule out laziness as a factor. I mean, sure, laziness is a factor in “at-home laziness”, but I’m trying to figure out why otherwise great workers get lazy at home. If you’re lazy in general, you’re probably a lost cause.

If it’s not laziness, then it must be something else. I, too, have seen my at-home work ethic suffer some days (especially during creative work)–and I’m definitely not lazy. And then things started falling into place: realizing that my dad worked from home but had a home office. Realizing that the people who were lazy at home didn’t have home offices. Realizing that working out of coffee shops always seems to boost productivity. Realizing that there’s real truth to the phrase “I need to work out of an office.”

It’s the location! That sounds so simple, but DUH: being at home makes you lazy.

Wait, isn’t that what we started this post with? Isn’t the problem about being lazy while working from home? Yes, but now it has a different meaning: your home, itself, is making you lazy. You’re not a lazy person and “working from home” isn’t the problem, it’s the “home” part that’s the problem.

Our minds compartmentalize data to physical locations. That’s part of the reason you tend to walk into a room and forget why you’re there–walking through a door actually switches your brain from “mode: living room” to “mode: bedroom” (SciAm, Freakonomics). Sometimes, if you have a piece of information that was generated in “mode: living room” and then you walk into your bedroom to act on that information, you’ll forget as soon as you walk through the door. That information is not available in “mode: bedroom”.

I believe the same thing happens when working from home. Your home is programmed into your brain as a space of relaxation. The office is for work. People feel productive at the office because the office is programmed in their brains as a place of work, not as a place of relaxation.

So to overcome the “at-home laziness”, all you have to do is not actually work from your home while you’re working from home. Go to a coffee shop. If you go to a coffee shop every day and work (and don’t spend any time relaxing there), that coffee shop will eventually trigger your “work reflex” in your brain, and you’ll find that it’s easier to start working when you’re there.

And setting rigid times to go to your workspace also helps. The hardest part about working from home is just starting (ever notice that once you start, it’s really easy to keep going?). By forcing yourself to be at your workspace at a given time, you’re also helping yourself start work at that time. This is why offices are so effective. By forcing employees to come in at 9am you’re forcing them to just be there. And by forcing them to be there at the office, you’re forcing their brains into work mode.

All you have to do to maintain productivity is to do that on your own. Say to yourself, “I’m going to the coffee shop at 11am.” Don’t even say “I’m going to work at 11am”–throwing the word “work” in there might be overwhelming. All you have to do is physically get yourself to the coffee shop (an easy commitment that doesn’t directly involve the work you’re trying to avoid), but once you’re there you’ll magically end up in work mode.

The logical extension of this is to (once you have the discipline) eventually drop the coffee shop and set that up in your own home. My relaxation space is the living room couch, and my work space is my desk. I don’t ever relax at my desk. I don’t watch TV on the computer there, I don’t Facebook or Reddit there either (well maybe sometimes). When I wake up in the morning, I go to the living room couch and drink coffee and wake up for a bit. If I try to stay on the couch and work, it doesn’t happen. But if I pick myself up and move into the other room, and sit down at my work desk, BAM I’m in work mode and ready to go. I’ve been trained to work at my desk, and my productivity levels are through the roof for the past year because of that one little change.

For people just starting to work at home, complaining of the at-home laziness, I do recommend making your workspace somewhere external like a coffee shop. The boundaries are more clear-cut if you have to leave the house for it, which makes it easier to start mentally setting up for your new work/relax locale separation.

My new developer, who’s in Seattle, recently had this very problem. He felt his productivity was low and since our offices are in NYC (hell of a commute from Seattle), I told him to work out of the coffee shop instead of trying to work from home. It’s such a simple life-hack, but the productivity boost is undeniable. He’s been feeling good about productivity lately, and the morale boost is deserved as well.

If you’re used to sitting at the desk and Redditing all day, of course you’re not going to get any work done if you try to work from that same desk. But if you set aside your desk for work and assign your couch to Reddit, I guarantee you’ll see a boost in your productivity. Just as long as you stay at the desk. Once you visit that relaxation couch, all bets are off.

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