How to stay sane and motivated when working remoteby@saralanditortoli
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How to stay sane and motivated when working remote

by Sara Landi TortoliApril 24th, 2020
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Sara Tortoli is a Product Manager and modern-day Alice in Wonderland. This article is about learning how to stay sane and motivated working remotely during a global pandemic. It is especially targeted to Product Managers and in general to those who, like me, are used to go to the office every day and find themselves in need to adjust and to optimise for this new reality of social distancing. Having a routine that you consistently choose to enact every day is about bringing intentionality in your daily life.
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A Product Manager’s guide to surviving in a COVID-19 world

What is this article about?

This article is about learning how to stay sane and motivated, and indeed thrive, working remotely during a global pandemic. It is especially targeted to Product Managers and in general to those who, like me, are used to go to the office every day and find themselves in need to adjust and to optimise for this new reality of social distancing. Here is a sample of some takeaways:

  • What is a routine and why it’s important to have one
  • How to create and use routines to keep your personal and professional life separate
  • Concrete examples and questions to help you create your own routine to set you up for success and mental resilience
  • Working remote as a Product Manager and how to stay motivated while being in self isolation
  • The toolbox of a remote Product Manager

Adjusting to the New Normal

Remote working is the new normal. For those of us that are used to commuting to the office, spending time in meetings with colleagues and stakeholders or conducting customer research in-person, this is a radical change that forces us to rethink patterns and habits that were deeply ingrained.

Given the recent working climate changes, how do we adapt to this new reality? Some feel relieved and enjoy this newfound freedom of working from the comfort of their homes, so much that they almost dread going back to the office. On the other side, some may feel a sense of loss, especially when it comes to human connection.

No matter which category you fall in, we all had to do some adjustments in our life due to quarantine and social distancing. In this scenario, for those Product Managers like me who are working remotely for the first time, the line between personal and professional life is blurred and this creates a sense of disorientation that can sometimes make us lose our sense of purpose.

However, I found there is a secret to stay sane and thrive while working remotely — it all centers around the quality of your routines.

What’s a routine?

First off, let’s define what a routine isn’t. A routine is not a habit. They are similar concepts but there is a fundamental difference.

Both refer to regular and repeated actions in our lives. A habit is an action we do often in a regular and repeated way. A routine is a regular way of doing things in a particular order. The main difference between habit and routine is that habit is a recurrent with little or no conscious thought, whereas routine requires a high degree of intention and effort.

This is why a routine is so much more powerful than a simple habit. Having a routine that you consistently choose to enact every day is about bringing intentionality in your daily life. Simply put, life doesn’t just happen to you but you introduce some measure of choice and control over it, the amount of which depends on the quality and number of your routine(s).

Why is having a routine so important?

As a former professionally trained ballet student, I am a firm believer in the power of having a routine. During my years of training, with 4–5 hours of barre class every day on top of regular school, I learned that there is comfort and power in choosing to repeat the same moves every day. It anchors you to reality and stops you from drifting away in difficult times. 

No one forced me to do this. It was something I embarked on myself, and I built a regular routine and discipline around it — all while fitting in school, ballet classes, homework, etc. to help me stay focused on achieving what I wanted.

Since interrupting ballet I have changed my routines many times over and yet I always made sure to have one, especially in the morning.

Remember, unlike a habit that happens automatically, a routine is about bringing intentionality in your life to help stay focused and achieve what you want.

So, how do you go about building a routine to fit your life, as you work as a Product Manager achieving your goals?

Let’s find out how to create our own routine with the goal of redefining the line between personal and professional life. To help you out, I am going to make an example along the way by sharing my current daily routine, as it is at the time of the quarantine in COVID-19.

The single most important routine that you can introduce in your life: your morning routine

When you’re completely immersed in doing remote work, it can be easy to roll out of bed and gravitate straight to your laptop. Having a morning routine is like a lifeline of normality amidst chaos and is the single most important thing you can introduce in your life that will make a true, tangible difference. It’s about bringing intentionality into your life right from the start of the day.

And what is more powerful than starting a new day by being deliberate and doing what you like, instead of rushing to work? I promise, with what seems like a sacrifice at the beginning, magic can happen that can transform your life for the better. To give you an example of what a morning routine could look like, here is a sample of my own.

I usually wake up at 6:00 am and now that I don’t have to commute to the office anymore, I have the luxury to get out of bed at 7:00 am. During this extra hour in bed, I practice visualization, which means I daydream about my future and what I want to accomplish. I close my eyes and picture in detail my future life, what I am doing, what I am wearing, where and with who I am. It’s basically like watching a movie powered by my own imagination.

Also, I’ve discovered a newfound gift of this extra hour in bed: I have resumed reading in the morning, which is something I haven’t done since University. Currently, my nightstand features Tony Robbins Awaken the Giants Within, which I highly recommended, especially in this period of self-isolation.

At 7:00 am I get up and dedicate 30 minutes between journaling and meditation. I use Notion for my daily journal and Headspace for my meditation. Below is a snapshot of part of my daily journal and the question I ask myself on a daily basis. The benefits of a morning journal is that it helps me to define what I want to do/experience/feel on that specific day. This doesn’t mean that every day is necessarily a success, however most days are because of the shift in mindset.

After meditation, I train every morning for about 40–45 minutes. Maybe it’s because of my past as a ballerina, but I cannot conceive a life without some form of daily training. With the gym closed, I had to rethink my training routine and I started alternating strength exercises at home to days in which I run in the park.

For home training, I usually watch the Popsugar Youtube Channel, which is free and has plenty of good options to choose from. All I need is a set of light weights and a yoga mat.

Once the training is done, my new little guilty pleasure is grabbing a coffee from my favorite local cafe to take away. I then shower and take the time to enjoy my breakfast, as having a rushed one usually puts me in a bad mood. At this point (around 9:30 am) I usually start working, checking emails and messages.

My morning routine is pretty elaborate and takes up a lot of time (about 2 hours), however this is what works well for me and helps me to be balanced and stay motivated. To build your own morning routine, you have to figure out what would work best for you. 

Questions to create a morning routine:

  • If you think about your perfect morning, what does this look like?
  • Can you incorporate at least some elements of it in your daily routine?What are the activities that make you feel good? For example, if you enjoy drawing or reading, could you imagine dedicating at least 10 minutes to it every morning?
  • How would this make you feel?
  • What are the activities that energize you and would set you off to start the day feeling better than ever? For example, does training in the morning boost your energy or suck it out?
  • What can you do to reward and spoil yourself? In my example, having a coffee from my favorite coffee place after working out is a way I ensure I reward myself daily.
  • Once you have clearly outlined the outlook of your morning routine, calculate the time you would need to enact it from the moment you wake up to the time you need to start working. Consider adjusting your sleeping time to make sure that you don’t practice your newfound rituals at the expense of your sleep, because that would be the easiest way to give up your newfound routine.

The routine of a remote Product Manager 

Come to think of it, the life of a Product Manager and his/her team is full of routines and rituals — from daily stand-ups, and sprint plannings, to retrospectives and customer briefings. This is because, as we already established, routines are about being intentional. So how does a Product Manager stay intentional and adapt routines that might fit well in the office in this new remote scenario?

Much to my surprise, very few things have actually changed in terms of rituals and outcomes in my first month of working from home, with a few notable exceptions. Here are a few of my Product Manager daily routines during the average day of working remotely:

Having team stand-ups at 10:00 am every morning. This is something that we normally do also when we are in the office, a 15 minutes catch up in which everyone shares activities of the previous day and what’s planned for the current one. Doing remote stands-up, we share our Kanban board during a video call and we take turns in updating each other.

This usually takes a bit more than the usual 15 minutes, mostly due to muting and unmuting the mic and because it is sometimes needed to give more background and establish a connection.

After stand-up, I usually take 10 to 15 minutes to review the day and if necessary re-prioritize. To help me visualize and plan my activities for the day, I use a simple Kanban board in Coda with a color-coding system to group activities (an example is reported below).

Having a clear prioritization process and the same visibility is also important on a team level, remote or not. We use Jira to keep track of our activities on a team level, and we review our priorities and backlog on Mondays every week to make sure we are on track.

The one area that has significantly shifted in the way I work remotely is the one about communication. The casual kitchen chat, popping-up at the desk of my teammate when something’s up, the small informal and casual exchange we rely on to build relationships is not an option anymore. We must therefore find new ways and get creative when it comes to communication.

Over-communication is often necessary. This means spending more time on chats than normal and jumping on a call whenever messaging back and forth goes on for too long. While this takes away some time from the actual work, it is necessary to give visibility and transparency.

The way in which I communicate has also changed because I am more mindful of the other person. It is important to remember that we are all humans and we all feel a little bit lonely in this period of forced isolation. When jumping on a call I find I derive much more pleasure by starting with small talks and with the questions such as “how are you doing?” instead of talking immediately about business.

In fact, while it is true that we are more distant, I found out that we can actually be more intimate in a way, as I get to see pieces of the private life (and living rooms) of the people I work with through video calls, which under normal circumstances I would never see.

On a team level, we also had adapted a few casual rituals we had before. Our Friday celebrations, to check-in and celebrate the end of the week together, are now remote happy hours, and we are also running Kaizen more frequently than before. We would normally have it once a month, however, we are now running one every second week as we are aware of the increased need to reflect on our current team status and spot immediately what is not working. This helps us preserve team spirit and smooth our ways of working.

Since working remotely, I also realized I walk and move much less during the day than I used to when I go to the office. To solve this problem, I installed a treadmill at home, to allow me to have walking meetings, a thing which I truly enjoy. Another thing I have learned to treasure as a remote worker is the chance to have 10 minutes for myself to recharge between one meeting and the next. This gives me the chance to do a short meditation or sometimes even a walk around the block.

To establish a successful routine as a remote Product Manager:

  • What rituals that you had in the office can be replicated and adapted in a remote scenario?
  • Which activities help you feel more connected as a team?
  • How can you reflect on your daily activities and how can you help your team do the same?
  • What are the tools and rituals that would bring anyone on the same page in a very intuitive way?
  • Am I communicating clearly and concisely what I want to say?
  • What are the possible ways that my message can be interpreted? If I realize that there can be different meanings from what I originally intended, I would go back and rephrase it.

The Remote Product Manager Toolbox

Every hero needs some tools in order to succeed and so do Product Managers. Especially when working remotely, having the proper tools can make or break a Product Manager work and product. Here are a few tools that are useful to manage both a remote team and products, some I have gathered by personal research and experience, others were recommended by other Product Managers:

Messaging and chats: Slack, Microsoft Teams, Twist, Google Chats

Videocall: Zoom, Whereby, Skype, Google Hangouts

Best all in-one-tools (project management + wiki): Notion, Coda

Team Productivity Check: Kiro

Visual Collaboration: Miro 

Retrospective: Trello, Parabol

Project Management: Asana, ClickUp, Jira

Bringing the day to a closure: Evening Routine

While my work-life balance had lines that were clearly defined, I now tend to work longer toward the end of the day. Also, commuting back home was giving me a clear cut from work activities. Right at the beginning of my remote experience, I went from working to directly having dinner and since I had all my devices with me, I tended to check phones and emails up until I went to bed. This made me feel like some key part of the day was missing and it was counterproductive to my brain ability to switch off and recharge, affecting also the quality of my sleep.

In the last couple of weeks, I have made sure to have at least a 30-minute break between the moment I finish working and the time I have dinner and to keep away from working devices after it (although I have to admit I am not always successful).

What I do as an evening routine between work and having dinner varies from day to day. It might be a yoga session, a video call with a friend or taking a bath. Whatever the activity, it is something that helps unwind from the day and that I feel like doing because I enjoy it.

Cooking and chilling on the sofa watching Netflix is also part of the evening routine.

Filling my evening journal and going to bed roughly at the same time (around 10:00 pm). The evening journal is the counterpart of my morning one, helping me reflect on the day I just had and setting the ground for the next.

Question to build an evening routine:

  • What activities help you relax and slow down?
  • What could be a reward to end the day?
  • What would make the next day easier?

Now it’s on to you. What are your routines? What is helping you stay sane and motivated?