Category: UX advice / How I work

The 4 hour work day – or how to work from home

My workspace

When I tell people I work from home, I often get responses along the lines of “I could never do that, I’d get too distracted” or “I’d never stop working!”. This article aims to address how you can do it successfully, and how to use the distractions rather than fight them.

I’m going to try and avoid the the patronising ‘plan your time’ type of advice. You obviously need a to-do list and to be able to identify the important tasks to work on. There are plenty of articles covering that.

For the purposes of this I’m also going to assume you have at least a moderate level of self-motivation. If not then you probably shouldn’t work from home at all—find a boss to get the best out of you.

I’ve written about tips for working remotely as a designer before, but this is about the reality of making your home your office, whatever screen-based work you do. It’s something I’ve been doing for over three years and I’m still a big fan of; I find it the most liberating way to work.

Ignore the ‘morning routine’ club

So many productivity articles push the idea that the only way to achieve anything is to create the perfect morning routine. Interviews with super-successful folk tend to focus on just how ahead of the day they are.

These typically involve getting up at 5am, drinking vegetables, have a cold shower, meditating and then writing 1,000 words or similar. Now if this is your bag, go for it. But if not, don’t force it.

I know I can’t do that—I have a young son who needs attention at that time for one thing. You should know when you work best. Carve out the time to do so, as you’re in charge. You no longer have to commute so you should be finding more time in your day that you can use as you see fit.

Make a proper workspace…

If you have very little space and you need to work on the kitchen table, or sofa, then you probably shouldn’t use home for working. The separation of space is probably the most important thing when working from home. It’s much easier to switch off from work when it ‘lives’ in a specific room.

You need a separate room or a clearly marked space in a room you don’t use for much else (like a spare bedroom). Once you’ve got this, make it as appealing a place as you can for work to take place.

You don’t have to spend loads, you can get good furniture and accessories pretty cheap at the likes of Ikea, but get the styles you like. This is a fun task: no longer do you have to work in a bland white space but your very own office that you’re in charge of!

…but mix it up a bit

Of course all day every day at your desk can get a bit repetitive and lonely. It’s at those points where you might start looking for distractions so it’s worth thinking about how you can mix up where you work for an hour or two here and there.

I find the change of scenery promotes a boost of productivity too. Here’s a few places I’ve used:

Of course going to work elsewhere has the added benefit of getting you out of the house and getting a bit of exercise, which is something I try to do every day—it’s important for maintaining sanity.

Turn your email off

The concept of ‘flow’ is one of the most important things to understand when thinking about how you work. It’s basically the zone you get into for a focussed stream of work.

Whenever I need to get something done and get into the flow of a task, email has to be turned off (and for that matter, Slack). The interruptions of other people is the quickest way to get nothing done.

One of the joys of not working in an open-plan office is that you are no longer dictated by the whims of other people. By jumping on emails as soon as they come in and pressuring yourself to respond, your day gets broken into tiny pieces and you’ll only be helping other people do their jobs.

When you have specific tasks to get done, you need to take away the means of other people to reach you so you can get your head down for an hour or two. Their messages will still be there when you’re done. Almost everyone will be fine with a response that comes in hours rather than minutes.

Aim for a 4 hour work day

You really shouldn’t have to work long hours when working from home. As I’ve intimated above, you should be able to remove all the distractions that the modern office environment brings and work much more efficiently. If I can get 4 hours of billable tasks done in a day then I’m happy with a job well done. This can be achieved in just two or three sessions of ‘flow’ work.

If they’re honest with themselves most people aren’t getting much more than that done, wherever they work, especially if they’re weighed down with lots of meetings. Of course, I’ll spend an hour or two more at my desk as there’s always admin tasks to do but as long as the core work is delivered then my day is a success.

The 4 hour work week was an exaggerated concept, not to be taken literally but the 4 hour work day is one we can all achieve. Progress is made by turning up day after day and consistently delivering, not trying to do 10 hours of work in a day and burning out, hating yourself and the work.

You set the itinerary

Ultimately if you have a decent level of self-motivation, you should be able to choose what you do each day. If you have a pressing deadline then you’re obviously going to work on the tasks to meet that.

However, if you don’t have much work on then sure, fix your bike, put up that shelf, go for a run, vacuum the bedroom, bake a cake, etc. Now and then it’s important to let yourself work on other life tasks that need doing, and the break from sitting starting at a screen is good for mulling over things and inspiring ideas.

Home shouldn’t feel like a prison. If it does, you won’t last long working there.

Also, don’t keep crap in your cupboards

Finally, a health tip: the easiest way to not sit at home and stuff your face with junk is to not buy it when you go shopping. We’re all lazy and if it’s not in the cupboards then you’re probably not going to eat it. At least make yourself walk to a shop to buy snacks.

Open plan offices are often filled with sweet treats and cakes—it’s always someone’s birthday—and of course you eat it because it would be rude not to. By working from home you can actually reduce the amount of temptation you encounter.

Even more remote

A lot of successful working from home is down to trusting yourself and setting realistic goals in what you can achieve. It’s easy to get carried away and think you have to keep working but you have to be a kind boss to yourself and manage your well-being. I find a 4 hour work day is an achievable way of working.

If you want to learn more about how the world defaulted to working in offices and why remote working is so much better for tech jobs, I recommend the book REMOTE by the Basecamp team. Reading that a few years ago was a great inspiration.

Last updated on 23 October 2019
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