Productivity Tips I Actually Use

I've done a lot of research on how to work effectively from home (or a cafe, or airport, or wherever. Wherever is the whole point). There are tons of tips, from 'get dressed in real clothes every day' to 'set up your home office for success' to 'keep the same hours every day.' During my first week, I tried to implement all of them.

It did not go well. It felt miserable. I was chained to the chair in my living room rather than chained to an office. That's not why I did this.

But here's a secret: all of those tips for working remotely share something, at their core. They're speaking to one central psychological principle: separating a mindset of leisure from a mindset of productivity. You don't need to follow all the rules. You just have to find the rules that work for you.

Notice I didn't say place of productivity - I said mindset. Place is a tactic to separate leisure from productivity - not the core thing that needs to happen. The mindset is the thing that needs to happen. Place is an effective tactic, certainly. It's why your brain switches from family thoughts to spreadsheets when you walk into your office building. It's why our CEO works from a standing desk in a room that is used for Tortuga and only Tortuga. It's why so many companies can't fathom hiring a remote employee.

But it's not the only thing that works. Consistent place is not required for productivity. Consistent something, however, just might be. Humans are drawn to routine, after all.

I think optimizing productivity down to four environmental factors:

  • Sound
  • Time
  • Sensation
  • Place

I ranked them in order of importance to me. Because it's my blog.

Sound

I've always hated the sound of an office. An open office is my nightmare. Never again!

It's not just me - it's an introvert thing. A side conversation 20 feet away pulls my focus away from what I'm doing, slows me down, and makes me feel scatterbrained. In a small office, every conversation is relevant to some degree. I can hear coworkers talking about new process ideas? Wait, what was I doing again?

When I worked in an office, I couldn't do much of anything without headphones. Some of that was white noise. The other portion was music. Classical for writing (usually movie scores). Transformer noises for spreadsheets. Chill electronic or midtempo indie for everything else. 

Setting types of sound for types of focus has allowed me to create a productive mindset absolutely anywhere. I can be in a squishy chair at Cocoa Cinnamon or propped up at the bar in my mother's kitchen. If I'm plugged into the Spotify Deep Focus playlist, I'm in 'go' mode.

My favorite playlists and sounds for working:

  1. Spotify's Deep Focus. The absolute BEST.
  2. Spotify's Intense Studying. Classical music that isn't distracting. See also: Perfect Concentration.
  3. My Movie Melodies playlist. I listen to this when I write.
  4. Simply Noise. I love brown noise on low oscillation when I need to drown out conversations.
  5. Simply Rain. I use this for reading when I find my mind wandering.

Quick note: sound is so very important to me that I used my workplace setup bonus from Tortuga (that's a thing) to buy great noise-cancelling headphones. A Macbook and headphones are all I really need to be a productive employee.

Time

There are three factors in play here: cadence of working, time of day worked, and number of hours worked. The third, surprisingly, is the least important (by far). I've mentioned that working for a company like Tortuga requires you to change your mindset from "the company bought these hours of my time" to "the company is buying this much mental energy and output." Working smarter and working less is encouraged. Self care is stressed. Overwork is a constant concern. Work smarter and produce better work - don't work more and produce more work (of lower quality).

Cadence and time of day are crucial to me. Mornings are power hours. I'm useless in the early afternoon. My mental stamina comes back after a long midday break, and I can churn through more pomodoros around 3:00 or 4:00.

Speaking of pomodoros. They're the 'cadence' piece of this equation. Working remotely gives me the ability (and former luxury) of hyperfocus. Long (or short, whatever I want) stretches where nobody interrupts my flow. It's magic, but all magic requires a vessel. Pomodoros are that vessel. Here's the basic idea: set a timer (usually 25 minutes - mine are 45), hyperfocus while that timer is ticking, and stop when it stops. That's the crucial piece. Really stop. Walk away from your computer. Make a cup of tea. Eat a snack. Call your mom. Stop thinking about work. And then do it again, however many times is required for the day's tasks. Or, however many times you can handle.

I use Tomighty to track my pomodoros.

Sensation

My wording here is intentionally ambiguous. Sensation means a lot of things, and it's my catch-all for the little things that make a difference. Some people swear by natural light. Some people need a cold room or a specific outfit that feels like 'work clothes.'

I need a cup of green or peppermint tea next to me. I need to smell it, to feel the warmth in my hands, and to taste the herbal goodness. I need to feel the pressure of headphones in my ears and to prop my feet up on something. I need to write down my to-do list with good ol' pen and paper and see it next to my computer.

Surprisingly, I don't need to get dressed. I put on real clothes eventually (don't worry mom), but my power hours (6:30am - 12pm) are generally spent in my pajamas and a Carolina hoodie. That might change with Remote Year. We'll see.

Place

I don't have to always work from the same desk. I don't have to always work from the same venue. But when I'm at home or at a coffee shop, I work from the same spot within that location. From home, it's the table by the window - never the couch. If someone's in my spot at the cafe near my apartment, I get a little twitchy. And I have a feeling I'll beeline to the same workspace in our Remote Year locations (when I work from our office spaces - which may or may not be that common).

TL;DR

The moral of this story? If you're working remotely, don't put stress on yourself by following all the rules of productivity. Don't let a guilty conscience in and don't do things that aren't legitimately helpful. Find what works for you, and let it work. Ignore the rest.


Taylor Coil is traveling the world with Remote Year, living in 12 countries in 12 months, while working as a marketing manager. Follow along to read more philosophies on work, stories from the road, and general (mis)adventures. Sign up for the weekly email, or else read more from the blog.