The spread of COVID-19 has forced many people to figure out how to work from home. There have been many articles written about how to make the leap to remote work, but I find that a lot of this guidance isn’t very structured. Since we all understand the concept of time, I think that understanding remote work as the process of managing blocks of time can be a very useful way to make the transition.
Instead of seeing your day as a linear sequence of events, thinking in terms of time boxes under your control can be empowering. Often, when working in an office, your schedule is something that’s imposed on you. After all, you have to be in the office at a certain time, there’s pressure to eat lunch when other people do, and you have little control over people interrupting your focus by coming over to socialize. Remote work gives you the opportunity to bring your work schedule under your control.
You can also block out your day based on your current state of mind. Some people need to dive right into work at the start of the day or they will lose motivation to get things done. Others need to do something enjoyable before they feel ready to be productive. Setting up blocks of time for defined purposes allows you to wrap your day around how you’re built to process information.
Setting up your calendar using defined time blocks also mitigates one of the risks of remote work. Some people struggle to be productive without the structure of the office. There’s no one “stopping by” to check on how that project is going, and you don’t have the positive peer pressure of people around you getting things done. By defining the purpose of blocks on your calendar, you can make sure you’re dedicating enough time to making progress on your tasks and goals.
Setting the Table
Before we get started with the blocks, it’s important to set the table for the best possible remote work experience.
The lifeblood of remote work is a solid internet connection. This ensures that you have enough bandwidth to send and receive clear audio and video signals during meetings. We’ve all seen people in meetings become pixelated or even completely drop from the call due to a poor connection.
If possible, sign up for the highest tier of service provided by your internet service provider. I’m fortunate to have access to a high speed fiber connection to my home.
I’m a believer in having a purpose for every space and a space for every purpose. So, if you can, set up dedicated spaces for different purposes. This is especially important while most of the world is under shelter-in-place regulations. When we’re forced to stay inside, it’s vital to have a sense of purpose for your dwelling place.
Try to create separate spaces for fun, exercise, sleep, relaxation, work, and other categories that are meaningful to you. I highly recommend that your work space have a door you can close which will be vital for getting into a state of deep work.
Now that you have a work space with a high speed internet connection, let’s talk about the different blocks of time you can use to create the optimal work day for remote work.
It’s important to give yourself a block of time for starting your work day. Human beings are motivated by ritual, and the Opening Block helps you transition from sleep to activity.
One of the things that people enjoy the most when they start working remotely is the flexibility around dressing. Since there’s less scrutiny on what you’re wearing if you don’t have to leave the house, remote work tends to result in much looser dress codes. However, I recommend you put on something during your Opening Block other than what you wore to bed. While you don’t have to dress in the clothes you would wear to the office, the act of getting dressed helps prepare your mind for doing something other than sleeping.
Your Opening Block should also have something that symbolizes that you’re ready to start your day. This is another way to prepare yourself for activity, and the symbol should be some physical act. This could be drinking a cup of coffee, ringing a bell, or simply saying something like, “It’s time to start”.
The Meeting Block is probably the one block that is the least under your control. Your meeting schedule is probably fixed to your calendar, and you’ll have to accept that those blocks of time are mostly unmovable. However, I do recommend becoming an advocate of making your meetings as effective as possible. You can do this by making sure that every meeting, regardless of who facilitates it, has an agenda and a defined outcome. I also recommend modeling punctuality by always showing up on time to every meeting. A lot of meeting inefficiency is due to unclear goals and late arrivals.
The Work Block is when you get things done that are valuable to you. For most people, this is what you do for a living, but it could be a personal project. In a given week, you can probably only make meaningful progress on a handful of items. So, you should try to identify the most important things you need to get done and put your entire focus on completing those items.
Your Work Block should be a period of deep work where you give your full attention to the activity. I highly recommend silencing all notifications and staying off social media. I’ve started listening to white noise like wind, rain, and water when I need to really concentrate. If the things you work on during your work block are truly meaningful to you, then they deserve your full attention.
Break Blocks are there to give your mind time to rest between the other blocks. I recommend leaving your work space during your Break Blocks. It’s important for you to keep that space dedicated to work activity.
You can do whatever you want during your Break Block as long as you find it delightful. This can be drinking your favorite beverage, eating something delicious, having a fun conversation, or taking a walk. By making your Break Blocks something delightful, they give you experiences to look forward to in your day.
Similar to the Opening Block, it’s important to have something that symbolizes the end of your work day. Again, performing some physical ritual is important. This could be clapping your hands, or saying something like, “It’s finished!”, or perhaps “Hailing frequencies closed”.
Arranging the Blocks
Now that you understand the blocks, you can arrange them on your calendar. Yes, I recommend actually going into your calendar management tool and entering the blocks as events. You may want to mark these blocks as private so that they don’t show up if you share your calendar with others. Or, you may want them to be pubic so that other people don’t schedule time on top of your blocks.
Since Meeting Blocks can be tough to move, you may want to try using them as anchors for the other blocks. For example, you may have a weekly mid-morning status meeting. You can put an Opening Block and a Work Block before the Meeting Block occupied by the status meeting and then follow it with another Work Block and then a Break Block.
It’s ok to change things up! You may need to change your day so that it starts with a Break Block instead of a Work Block. Or, perhaps you’re trying to meet a deadline, and you need longer Work Blocks during the times in the day when it’s easier for you to get into a focused state. You don’t work for the blocks. Make the blocks work for you.
I’m a big believer in the value of giving your “Best 40 Hours” each week. This means that you organize your work day in a way that allows you to present the best version of yourself to whatever task you’re trying to accomplish. Taking ownership of your day and ordering your time into time blocks that align with your best work can increase your productivity while still finding time to enjoy life.