The world is moving into remote work a little faster than we expected these days, thanks to a little help from the global pandemic. And while many of us love the idea of remote work, and the freedom to work from home, many people are discovering that it has a whole unique set of challenges that can rival the frustrations of going to an office.
Most importantly, people who are new to remote work often discover that the monotony of working in the same place all day can have a really negative effect on their ability to focus. Fortunately for us, there’s a subset of people who’ve been working remotely for years that have already found solutions to some of these problems, including our very own marketing guru Joel Runyon.
Back when Joel was a digital nomad, he came up with a handy productivity trick to help him stay focused, get more done, and even get a little exercise to break up the screen time while you’re working remotely. He calls it Workstation Popcorn.
Workstation Popcorn? …What?
Hear us out! Workstation popcorn is a technique Joel invented to break up the day when you no longer have external reasons to, like commuting to the office or taking a lunch break. It’s similar to the idea of time blocking, except that instead of just mapping your things to do for the day on 2 your calendar, you plan them around physical places as well. it’s essentially bringing time blocking off your and into the physical world.
For instance, pre-pandemic (and whenever lockdown is over) that might look like a combination of cafes, restaurants, co-working spaces, Parks, or libraries. The basic idea is to pick a few tasks you have on your list for the day, make a timeblock for each of the places you’re going to visit, and then assign those tasks to one of these three places. you should generally aim for each of these sessions to be about two hours, give or take 30 minutes on either end, and aim to accomplish two to three tasks in each of those locations.
Each of these tasks should be specific enough that you can easily answer whether you’ve finished them or not. A bad example might be something like “work on the Woven blog.” A clearer goal might be “write the first 800 words of a post on The Pomodoro Technique,” which has a clear metric for whether it’s been done or not. This both helps you track progress on your to-do list, but importantly, it also helps you know when it’s time to move on to your next stop. You should also put some thought into choosing tasks, or parts of tasks, that are short enough that you can accomplish them in the time available at each location. Realistically, you’re allowing yourself 40-50 minutes for each task at a given stop, so you might need to break large projects down into smaller components that you can tick off your list.
This gives you a crystal clear expectation when you sit down and open your laptop for what you’re going to get done while you’re there. It also constrains your attention while you’re there – these places don’t want you sitting there all day, obviously, and you still have more blocks to get finished during your day, plus the travel time it takes to get there.
Try to aim for places that are close enough together that you can get between them in a reasonable amount of time walking or on a bike, not using a car. Part of the power of this technique is using the travel to and from these locations to clear your mind, get the blood flowing again, and help you refocus your attention and set your priorities before you get to the next location. a car or taking an Uber, listening to the radio, I’m getting frustrated about traffic isn’t going to help. If anything, you’ll just be more scatterbrained when you get there.
One last note: busy work doesn’t count! You’re not doing yourself any favors if you just get more efficient at clearing your inbox. The whole idea of this technique is to help you get more important things done by giving you a set amount of time to do them, so pick things that will actually move the ball forward in your work. If you only have a couple of hours to get your work done, there’s no time for Twitter or Facebook either.
What Will Workstation Popcorn Help You Do?
The challenge a lot of new remote workers run into is that spending eight hours a day in one spot is really hard on most of us, physically and mentally. You’re antsy, you’re bored, you’re stiff, your next hurts, you start browsing fancy desk chairs instead of doing work… It’s not just you, we’ve all done it at some point.
The reality is that we weren’t built to be stuck in one spot all day, but at least when you’re in an office, there are things that make you move around and switch your focus a little bit. All of those inconveniences and interruptions keep you from getting too stuck on one thing, or in one place. When you start working remotely, you have to manufacture those breaks for yourself so you can keep your mind limber. By forcing you to move between different tasks and places throughout the day, Workstation Popcorn helps your mind and body stay loose.
Additionally, most of the people who try it out quickly discover that they get more done working in focused spurts. Knowing that you’re going to be in one place for two hours or so, with two or three things to get done, has a lot of surprising benefits. For one thing, it focuses you immediately on those tasks – you know what you went to that cafe to do and you know exactly how much time you have to get them done. There’s no time for distractions, and if you’ve picked clearly defined tasks, you can power through more of your to-do list than you might with the distractions and frustrations of being chained to your (home) office.
Last but not least, Joel and many others have discovered that working this way actually makes it easier to rest and relax when you do get home. For one thing, you keep your home from feeling like an office you can’t escape from. A lot of new remote workers, and in fact, a lot of people with demanding jobs, feel like work chases them home. By creating a defined time and space to get your work done, you allow your home to return to being a place to hang out and take a load off after work.
Workstation Popcorn can be a big help with your sleep as well. If you’re the kind of person who could never escape your Blackberry, and still can’t stop the ideas and anxieties from popping up about what you need to do tomorrow, having a well defined schedule can help you put some barriers up. When you know you’re going to have an effective day tomorrow, and already got a lot done today, it’s a lot easier to pop something on your to-do list and trust it’s going to get handled at a more appropriate time.
You’ll sleep better knowing how much you’ve already accomplished, and leave your work out of your home because you know exactly when and where it’ll get taken care of.
How Can You Make this Work While Cafes are Closed?
Unfortunately for all of us, this is a little trickier while so many of our favorite places are locked down or operating differently right now because of the coronavirus pandemic. But that doesn’t mean you should just give up on breaking up your day.
For starters, there’s no reason at all why you can’t break your day up with a safe, socially-distanced walk around your neighborhood. You’ll still be able to stretch, get some sun, and take the time away from your desk to de-stress and brainstorm about the things left on your to-do list for the day.
Additionally, there are still some places you can go. For starters, many parks and universities are open for you to safely work outdoors. While some are equipped with wi-fi, cutting yourself off from the internet can actually be great for your focus as long as you have the files you need. While that might seem like overkill under normal circumstances, it can be really helpful for getting away from social media and the news while the world is a little more stressful than normal.
Last but not least, there’s nothing wrong with setting up different spaces around your home where you can work. Plenty of people have taken to their lawns and patios to get a little outside time while they’re cooped up at home, and that’s a perfect opportunity to assign a few tasks to a timeblock and get a bit of work done outdoors.
If you don’t have access to an outdoor space, it’s not impossible to do this in your home as well.
Lots of remote workers move from their desk to different places in their home throughout the day. A move to the kitchen or dining room table after a short walk can be a nice change of pace throughout the day, as can setting up an impromptu “standing desk” with a couple of boxes on a counter just to change your posture.
Try to avoid your bed and the couch, though. For most people, they’re a little too comfortable and associated with relaxing to get good work done, and they’re terrible for ergonomics as well. Learning how to take care of your posture working from home can quite literally be a pain in the neck.
Working remotely is always an adjustment when you’ve spent your life at a series of desks, but it doesn’t have to be a bad one. Workstation Popcorn can help you switch up your routine, gain better focus for your work, and get more done than ever before, without the stiffness and boredom that so many struggle with when they start “working from home.”
Try thinking about your day in blocks of time and assigning different tasks to different places so you move around more during the day. You’ll quickly notice how much healthier, happier and more focused you feel when you’re not cooped up in a home office all day.