Founder & CEO at Microverse (YC S19), the global school for remote software developers.
The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted daily routines around the world, and many find themselves working from home for the unforeseeable future.
If you’re among the many people who have never worked remotely for an extended period of time, take comfort in knowing that long before this crisis began, an increasing number of companies chose to be remote-first because of the countless advantages it poses. But the transition can be painful without taking proper care, and that’s especially the case when it comes to your daily routine.
As the CEO of a fully remote team and school, I stress the importance of routine to our students around the world preparing for careers in software development, as much as I do to our completely remote team of entrepreneurs, engineers, and educators. It’s because your routine will dictate what you get out of every day, and it will be the key to maintaining a healthy balance with life outside of work.
Here are the most important things to keep in mind to master your routine while you work remotely.
To find the best way to prioritize the things you do throughout the day, it’s important to first understand the state of mind you want to achieve when you work -- regardless of whether that’s remotely or in an office.
Deep work is a concept introduced by Georgetown University professor Cal Newport. He describes it as,
“Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively-demanding task.”
Deep work matters for tasks that cannot be automated through software or algorithms. Generally speaking, it’s the state of mind for tasks that require human creativity and experience. It’s not hard to understand why achieving a state of deep work brings so much value to an enterprise.
Deep work demands long stretches of uninterrupted time. This means no social media, no email, no phone calls, and no unplanned meetings. Give yourself two to four hours to fully immerse in a task free of distractions. More deep work than that in a single day is probably not possible.
However much deep work your job requires, it should be at the top of your mind as you structure your calendar.
The first step to make your day conducive to deep work is to audit your calendar. If you have meetings scattered throughout the day with only 10 or 15 minutes between each one, you are going to feel tired and overwhelmed most of the time. It’s also going to be impossible for you to achieve deep work.
Some jobs require a lot of meetings. But for jobs that also require deep work, it’s imperative to set aside big blocks of time for deep work. In my case, I tend to schedule all of my meetings in the afternoon so I have my mornings free for projects like working on our business plan or financial model.
Of course, some people don’t have the luxury of keeping mornings or afternoons completely free. You can still get creative to make time for deep work.
Imagine you have two 30-minute meetings in a three-hour span. If you only leave an hour in between those meetings, it’s not ideal for deep work. On the other hand, if those meetings run back-to-back, or at least with just a small bit of time in between, you would end up with two hours of continuous, uninterrupted time. You’ll be far more productive, and the quality of your ideas will be sharper than if your deep work time is chopped into thirds.
A great tool that teams can use to optimize schedules is called Clockwise. It analyzes everyone’s calendars and creates meeting schedules to create as much time for deep work as possible for everyone.
Google Calendar also allows you to schedule regular time for deep work, which will keep people from scheduling meetings with you at those times.
But even if you prefer to do deep work in the morning, it’s important to be flexible:
I encourage you to leave some time free in your schedule throughout the week for one-off meetings.
Now that you have regular time set aside for deep work, you need to plan to make the best use of your deep work time. The first step is to identify all of the tasks that you need to do. Rank the tasks based on importance, and estimate how much time you think you’ll need to do each one.
It can be overwhelming to see all of the things you have to do over the course of a week or a month. But consider working on everything in 25-minute increments, fully immersed in the task, followed by a five-minute break to recover, and then another 25 minutes on the task.
Not only does it make a long to-do list more palatable, but you’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish in short productive spurts of time. Utilizing a pomodoro timer, like these 10 outlined by Zapier, to stick with this timing is great and more productive.
It may seem inevitable that you’ll be communicating through email and Slack during your deep work time, don’t allow these things to dominate your time. If you can, try to shut these out of your deep work time completely.
I recommend limiting checking your email to two or three times per day.
Also, especially in times like these, it can be tempting to check the news throughout the day. Avoid the news as much as possible. Whether you like it or not, whatever you read or see will likely stick with you and make it that much more difficult to focus on what you need to do.
Finally, it’s every person’s responsibility to set the boundaries and norms to maintain the best possible work environment while at home. Try to keep your work life separate from your personal life as much as you can.
Work in a room away from family members or roommates if you’re able to. If not, do what I do and work with your headphones on. For me, it creates a clear signal that I am focused on what I am doing, and that I need to continue working.
When it comes to your daily routine while working remotely, the more prepared you are for meetings, the more efficient they become, and the more productive you’ll likely be during your scheduled deep work time. Every meeting should have a clear agenda, meeting notes and action items designated to specific people.
A good pair of headphones are important, since the sound and microphone quality on your computer is probably not as good.
Zoom, as I’ve mentioned before, is the best application for video conferencing.
Krisp is a great tool for filtering out sound, which is really useful for people who are taking meetings from home.
Otter.AI is a tool that allows you to transcribe your meeting using the audio from Zoom.
As I mentioned in this post on keeping remote teams at ease, I recommend managers give their remote teams a budget for their workspaces at home. As you’ll come to see, it’s not just about keeping your team comfortable. Your meetings will be more effective as well.
Make sure your routine has built-in social interactions, including with the people you work with. We talked about ways to incorporate company culture and foster room for spontaneity in remote teams in this article.
Last but not least, don’t forget the importance of physical exercise. Some people like to work out in the morning, to clear their head for long stretches of deep work. Others like to use exercise for a break in the middle of the day, while others like to blow off steam at the very end of the day. The beauty of working remotely is that you have more control to do what works best for you.
It can be hard to adopt a new routine with very little notice. But if you’re working remotely for the first time, finding a good routine will have a major bearing on both the quality of your work and your life. Keeping this all in mind will go a long way to mastering your routine.
Also, remember that the most productive people in the world often aim for three to four hours of deep work per day. So if you’re able to achieve that, you’re on the same level as some of the most productive people in the world.