Telecommuting is becoming more and more common these days, with many tech writers (myself included) working from home on a full-time basis. I get asked about how I work fairly often, so here’s the skinny.
I often think that when people ask “how I do it,” they’re asking a couple of different things. For one, they want to know how to get into a career where you work from home. I can understand the appeal, but I can also tell you that working from home is no joke—it’s not as fun as you think, because you have no separation between work and home, and you have to stay focused.
That leads into the second thing I believe people want to know—they’re asking how I stay productive. It takes a certain amount of self-discipline to work from home, and keeping productivity up can be a challenge.
I’ve been working from home for nearly a decade now, and throughout that time I’ve continually tried to adjust my workflow for maximum productivity. Here’s a look at what I do, the products I use to get things done, and a few other things I do to stay productive.
My Home Office: The Mullet of Workspaces
My productivity “journey” starts in my home office. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about working from home, it’s that a dedicated workspace is an absolute must—sharing your workspace with the living room or bedroom is just not fun (and I say that from experience).
Technically, my workspace is still a shared space, but I share it with my hobbies instead of other people. One half is for working and the other half for fun—hence the “mullet of workspaces” subhead. Heh. The “front” half of my office holds the desk, along with all the other stuff I use for work—the TV, device charging station, and all that good stay together.
On the back half, you’ll find my hobby items: bikes and guitars. When I work, my back is to this stuff, so it doesn’t offer too much distraction—though I’ve found that taking a break is massively beneficial when focus is hard to find. For example, if I’ve been overwhelmingly busy one morning and there’s a break in the day, I’ll set my bike trainer up and fit in a workout. Nothing clears my head faster than gut-busting work, and my productivity skyrockets as a result.
Oh yeah, that’s the other use for my office: it’s also my “pain cave” (as it’s known in the cycling world). I keep my bikes in here for that exact reason. When it’s time to hit a training session (shout out to TrainerRoad!), whichever bike I’m training on at the time is ready for the trainer. That’s the one area where the separation between work and play overlap a bit where space is concerned. The TV works triple duty right now: it’s connected to the computer as a third monitor when I need it, works Netflix duty while I kill myself on the trainer, and also works as my streaming TV box hub for testing.
I’m working on arranging the office in a way that will separate my training and workspaces, but for now, that’s the central area of overlap in space and arrangement. I have a plan for the future, but it’s going to require a small bit of remodeling, so it’s on the backburner for the time being.
Aside from a workspace and pain cave, my home office is also my jam room. I play guitar, and since my office is on the other side of the house from everything else, I’m free to crank the volume in here without really bothering anyone. My wife can watch TV in our bedroom while I’m playing and she doesn’t even notice. It’s super cool.
I mostly jam at night, but I also use the guitar as a temporary distraction during the day if I’m having a hard time focusing and don’t have time to fit in a workout. So I’ll grab a guitar and spend 10-15 rocking out, which is great for clearing my mind so I can quickly re-focus.
While all that stuff helps me regain focus when I need it, my productivity comes down to devices and how I use them.
My Devices: Everything for Work, Everything for Play
Where I try to keep a separation between work and play in my office space, my devices are fair game for whatever—it doesn’t make sense to have an iPad for games and another one for reading. That’s just silly.
Here’s a brief rundown of every device I use on the daily:
- My desktop: This is my workhorse. It’s a few years old now, but it still serves as my primary work device. It has a 4th generation Intel i7 4770K (Haswell) @ 3.5GHz, 16GB RAM, a 500GB Crucial SSD, 2TB WD HD, and GTX 980. A pair of Dell U2414H 1080p screens round it out, but the TV also acts as a third screen. I’m toying with the idea of getting rid of the dual screens and moving a single ultrawide, though I’m not making any moves just yet.
- iPhone XR: My main phone. I’m a long-time Android user, and while I’ve been carrying an iPhone 8 as my second phone for several months, this is the first time I’ve used one as my daily driver. I’ll eventually go back to Android as my primary phone, but for now, I’m enjoying the XR. It’s a fantastic phone that feels like a massive upgrade from the 8.
- Samsung Galaxy S9: My secondary phone. I used a Pixel 2 XL as my primary phone for about nine of the last twelve months, but the USB port went out, and it’s off for warranty claim right now. The S9 has been rock solid since I got it anyway, and I quite enjoy using it as my second phone. Once I get my P2XL back, it’ll likely become my second phone.
- Apple Watch Series 3: My main (and only) smartwatch. I mostly use it for weather and time at a glance, as well as quick access to notifications. I also use it for sleep tracking.
- iPad (2018): I only recently got this, but I’m not sure how I lived without it. It’s my couch reader and passive work device, but also handles TrainerRoad duties when I work out.
- Pixelbook: I’m a huge Chrome OS fan, and the Pixelbook is my main laptop. It’s the base model—Core i5, 8GB RAM, 128GB Storage—but it’s an absolute rocketship to use. It’s blazing fast and never leaves me wanting. I run it on the developer channel because I like to live on the bleeding edge.
- Google Home: I have a Home in the kitchen, a Home Mini in the Office, and a third Home Mini in the bedroom. We generally use these for simple things—asking questions, setting timers, listening to music/podcasts, and controlling the Hue lights.
- SHIELD Android TV: I have two of these, and they’re my go-to streamers. Best streaming boxes on the market if you ask me.
Those are my main devices, but I also have a slew of supplemental things—mostly phones—for testing. I won’t bore you with all the details, but that includes every Nexus phone from the Galaxy Nexus up, as well as the Pixel 1 and 2 XL. Those serve purely as additional testing devices.
Devices aside, I feel like my actual workspace is an arguably even more important part of my flow and productivity—especially my desk. Like so many other work-at-a-desk folks, I work from a sit/stand desk. It’s an Ikea Bekant electric sit/stand desk that I’ve had for a few years now, and I honestly can’t imagine going back to a sitting desk full time. I spend more time standing than sitting daily (some days I don’t sit at all). I’m able to focus so much easier when I’m standing, and thus I’m far more productive. When I do sit I use a simple little drafting stool that I got from Amazon, which works fine for my needs since I don’t sit that often in the first place. I wanted something that tucks neatly under the desk when I’m not using it, which the stool does nicely. As an aside, it’s also perfect for playing guitar when I’m learning new songs and don’t want to stand up.
The other primary tools I use every day are my keyboard and mouse: a Logitech K380 keyboard and MX Master (v1) mouse. While the MX Master was a well-researched choice, I came to use the K380 out of necessity more than anything. I used a Logitech K800 for years, then switched to a K810 when the 800 died. The K810 eventually got the point where it was unusable because the plastic keys were very worn and just felt awful. I had the K380 (still in the box) in a cabinet, so I grabbed it, cannibalized some batteries (yep, it takes a pair of AAAs), and started using it with the idea that I’d order a new keyboard later that day.
Long story short(ish, anyway), I started to love this little keyboard. It has a great feel, despite retailing for only $40. The round keys seem a little odd at first, but after a slight adjustment period, I’ve found that I really like them. This keyboard is far better than its price would suggest, and I highly recommend it. I do miss the backlight from my previous keyboards, but only slightly.
All that said, I’m considering moving to a K780, which is a slightly bigger version of the 380 with a number pack and an awesome little docking tray for tablets and phones. That could come in handy for my day-to-day. And before anyone asks, yes I’ve tried mechanical keyboards. No, I don’t like them. Sorry.
The Software: Mostly Google, with Some Other Stuff
Between all these devices, you’ll find some common trends: I live in Google’s cloud, so that’s where I store most of my files. Google Drive is my go-to storage medium, as it keeps everything in sync between all the devices I use on the daily. A considerable part of my workflow also depends on Google Keep, which is where I keep (hehe) up with all my work ideas and thoughts—if something comes to mind, it doesn’t matter where I am or what device I’m using, I can throw it into Keep for reference later. It’s one tool on which I rely.
The trend of cross-platform availability continues throughout everything I do. Since I use iOS, Android, Chrome OS, and Windows, I need services and software that follows me throughout all systems (hence the heavy reliance on Google products). On the desktop, I live in Chrome about 95 percent of the time, with Slack and Screenpresso being the primary tools I use outside of the browser. Speaking of, Screenpresso is probably my most used (and most valuable) Windows tool—I would give almost anything to have its functionality on Chrome OS.
And really, Chrome OS is probably where my workflow changes the most. It doesn’t run Windows software, so the tools I use change when it comes to the Pixelbook. For example, I rely on Android apps for annotations and other image editing tweaks, with Skitch and PicSayPro handling those duties for me. Skitch isn’t actively developed anymore (it’s an Evernote tool), so I have to sideload it on Chrome OS devices. Sideloading is kind of a pain (and decreases the Chromebook’s security, oof), but Skitch is the best tool I’ve found for the job when it comes to screenshot markup.
Otherwise, Feedly is an integral part of how I work. I’m the News Editor around here, so keeping up with news is part of my job. I was a die-hard Google Reader user back in the day (RIP), and Feedly has been clutch for me since Reader died. Pocket also plays into how I work, because sometimes I find something I don’t have time to read right then, so I save it for later.
Staying Productive at Home, Where Everything’s a Distraction
The hardest part about working from home is, well, working. My office used to be a carport at one point, but somewhere along the line, a previous homeowner converted it to an extra room. It’s right off the kitchen and the back door of the house—which is how we come and go about 99 percent of the time—is next to the office. There’s no office door, so there’s no separation between the office and the rest of the family.
Fortunately, the office is on the opposite side of the house from everything else (aside from the kitchen), so I can’t hear anything else going on when I’m in here. My wife can watch TV, and the kids can play games or hang out, all without really bothering me. That goes a long way in enhancing my productivity because staying focused can be a real challenge when it comes to having a house full of people and no way to block them out.
I also have music playing pretty much non-stop, save for first thing in the morning when everyone else is still asleep. Keeping tunes going during the day helps drown out what little bit of noise may make its way in from the rest of the house, but it also helps me stay motivated. Sometimes lyrics can be distracting, so if I’m having a hard time concentrating, I’ll turn on something chill or something instrumental. I’ve also found that listening to fast-paced rap gets the brain moving quickly when I need to get a lot done, so I’ll use that to get in the zone some days. Singing along also helps me get “in the zone.”
While most of the kids and my wife understand that when I’m working, I’m working and should be left alone, my six-year-old loves to play in the little landing right next to the office. It’s bright and sunny in there, so it makes sense. If I’m having a hard time focusing, I’ll reluctantly make him play in the living room or his room, but most of the time I try to block it out. Honestly, I love looking over to see him playing there and find that on the days when he doesn’t come in here to play I kind of miss his little playing sounds. Maybe it’s a more of a creature comfort for me.
But over the years of working from home, I’ve learned to “hyperfocus”—to block out everything that’s going on around me and focus exclusively on work. I use that to my advantage most of the time, and that’s another way music helps. I’ve been known to listen to the same song for hours on end because the repetitiveness helps me get in the hyperfocus zone. You can use that name if you want it.
Ultimately, I’ve found that productivity comes from a place of love, a place of desire. If you enjoy your work, it’s not hard to stay productive. We all have days where focusing is a challenge, of course (they’re called Mondays, I think), but for the most part, if you enjoy your work, it ultimately feels more like a hobby that you get paid to do and not a slog that you have to force yourself to do. If you’re unhappy with your job, getting things done becomes much more of a challenge. Do with that info what you will.
That’s the nuts and bolts of how I work, what I use, and what I do to stay productive. If you have any questions or other comments, feel free to drop them in the comments. I’ll be happy to answer anything I can.