You’ve got questions…and we’ve got answers!

Many of us are suddenly working from home and are looking for ways to stay productive…while juggling kids and a stressful news cycle. 

Lifehack Method has always had a work-from-home culture, and our whole team is located remotely across the USA, Colombia, and Europe. In fact, Carey and I haven’t even met many of our employees in person! 

We’ve received an influx of questions about how to be productive working from home. Thankfully, we have a wealth of knowledge to share about how to create lasting productivity without a normal work environment. 

This step-by-step guide is all about how to be productive working from home – even if you’ve never worked remotely before.

Let’s dive in…

Part 1: Engineering A Work At Home Environment 

Step 1. Look for an underutilized space to claim as a private workspace.

The first question to ask yourself is, How can I create a defined workspace at home? 

A lot of people tell me they don’t have a dedicated office at home… but they have a walk-in closet, a pantry, or even a car parked in the driveway. 

These are all potential workspaces!

For someone who’s new to the practice, a designated area is necessary for focus and productivity.

The space where you work will become associated with work in your mind – so give yourself the space to only work in this designated area (reserve your bed for sleep and your couch for relaxation!)

Step 2. If you can’t have a space to yourself, create “sensory isolation”

“I can’t have a room all to myself, so how do I create a separate “work space” and keep “home” stuff out?”

Answer: You need to take control of your eyes and ears.

Face yourself away from distractions by looking out the window or even into a corner.

Go overkill on sound blocking. (I use earplugs AND over-the-ear noise cancelling headphones.)

This solves the problem of you distracting yourself, but not the problem of THEM distracting you!

So, create a STOP SIGN sign that is 3X larger than you think it needs to be.

Put it as close to you as you can – preferably taped to your back. It looks silly, but it’s effective!

You can print one of these images to serve as your stop sign.

Step 3: Set boundaries with a communication policy.

Other people can be severely damaging to your productivity.

I get asked about this flavor of distraction a lot:

“I need help with setting boundaries with my sister. She and I will be working from home together, and she’s a TALKER! And likes to “visit” me in my office. How can I keep her away without being offensive?”

Here’s what to do: Communicate clearly upfront what’s going to happen, and why.

Set expectations about your availability by writing a clear communication policy. Then explain why it’s important to adhere to it!

Enroll them in the full story and get them on your side by including generous time periods where you will be fully available to their needs.

People don’t need as much of your time as you think they do – they want their emotional needs met. So ask yourself what emotional need (likely unspoken) your housemate is lacking, and do your best to meet it.

When people have their needs met, they can disconnect.

Step 4: Practice compartmentalizing your time and attention.

I get a lot of questions along the lines of “How should I organize my day working from home, to balance work and home routines & expectations?”

The ultimate enemy of all productivity is task-switching.

It costs you 20-25 minutes to get your momentum back each time you switch between tasks, and it adds significantly to your cognitive load.

The solution is…

Go ALL IN on planning your week.

Get honest with how much time you have, and how you’ll organize your day…then try to stick to your plan as best you can, knowing that you can revise your schedule next week based on how reality shakes out.

Compartmentalize. You can’t possibly do everything all at once.

But you can drive yourself crazy trying!

Want my formula for planning your week in 30 minutes flat? Click here to check out my masterclass.

PS – Don’t forget to set aside hours for your personal life.

When you know that you have times set aside for household and family needs, it’s easier to ignore them and stay focused during your work time.

Step 5: Think outside the box to design a new “ideal” schedule.

No matter how much you’d like your routine to be the same, it isn’t! But instead of hoping and praying for your week to turn out the way you want, it’s time to design your new “ideal.”

Start by tracking your time for 2 weeks to get a sense of what this “new normal” is. This will help you match your expectations to reality so you can accurately plan your week.

Shift your schedule to odd hours, if you can. For example, go to bed earlier, or wake up earlier. (Early morning hours are precious, and usually devoid of distractions…a productivity gold mine! Same with late night.)

If you have a spouse and kids at home, I’ve seen many husband and wife teams working in shifts so someone is always with the kids. (This is what Carey and I are doing to care for our daughter.)

Flexibility and structure are opposing forces – but neither one is totally right. It’s got to be a balance between the two. Take advantage of both.

Step 6: Step into a higher level of partnership with the people in your house

We’ve become so used to doing things for ourselves!

But we don’t have to.

If you have a need that isn’t being filled, make sure you ASK your spouse to help you get it met before it blows up into a big issue. Don’t tough it out on your own. Your spouse can’t help you solve problems they don’t know about.

This is a perfect time to re-define responsibilities around the house and ask others to do chores they wouldn’t normally do.

Get strategic with chores, and share childcare responsibilities. Cover for each other to make room for self-care!

Part 2: The Art Of Remote Working

There are several key systems a person who works from home needs to stay productive.

Here are our favorites:

System 1: Implement a Start Work Routine and Finish Work Routine

Imagine opening your computer every day and knowing that you had the time to complete your most leveraged priorities, and knowing what would get pushed off to another time.

You’d be able to crush your work day and end it feeling accomplished and satisfied! That’s the power of the Start Work Routine.

It’s a simple 10 to 15 minute routine designed to refocus you on what’s most important to get done, without letting you get sucked into the most common pitfalls of starting your day.

Check out our Start Work Routine (as well as 3 other core routines) here.

At the end of the work day, you need to be able to DISENGAGE from your work and let your mind and body recover from the day.

When you don’t, you get stuck in a vicious cycle where you “become” your work. Ironically, your work suffers as a result!

A Finish Work Routine that will help you to celebrate what you accomplished, mourn what you didn’t, and create a game plan for tomorrow. Psychological studies have shown that this simple ritual allows you to disengage from work, because you know that you have a place to tackle it tomorrow.

Check out our Finish Work Routine (as well as 3 other core routines) here.

System 2: Use Timed Work Blocks

Working from home can make it harder to stay focused.

And I don’t care if you were voted Best Multitasker Ever…

In reality, no one is actually good at multitasking. It’s not even a real thing! What masquerades as multitasking is actually something called rapid task switching.

So every time you stop working to feed the dog, talk to a family member, or watch an episode of your favorite tv show… you’re forcing your brain to switch gears.

The result is a slow, tired, does-not-compute brain that has to repeatedly restart its operating system.

So how do we stay productive amidst the chaos?

Enter: The Sticky Focus Game!

It’s one of our master hacks for turbo charging productivity. It makes work fun, enables you to work faster, and keeps you focused on the task at hand.

Here’s how to play the game:

  1. Count the number of open 60-minute slots in your calendar for the day
  2. Write the day’s important tasks on sticky notes
  3. Line them up on your desk in order of importance
  4. Set a timer for 50 minutes
  5. Focus on that ONE task until the timer rings – no Facebook, no texting!
  6. Take a 10-minute break to celebrate – and really REWARD yourself during this time! (Pro tip: you can use your home-based distractions as a reward. Play with the dog! Have a dance party with the kids.)
  7. Repeat this process and race yourself!

Click here to download our Sticky Focus Game cheat sheet.

System 3: Create a Life Map

The Life Map is a one-page document that lays out the key leveraged actions you need to take to reach your big 1 year goal.

The purpose is to ensure that every week, you’re staying the course and not getting pulled off track.

People often confuse being EFFICIENT with being EFFECTIVE. We’ve all had the feeling of taking stock of our lives and realizing that we’ve been moving down the wrong path (sometimes for a long time!)… So there is such a thing as efficiently moving in the WRONG direction!

Effectiveness starts with massive clarity – a compelling and clear vision of what it all adds up to – and that’s exactly what the Life Map provides.

Get step-by-step instructions for creating your Life Map inside Lifehack Tribe (this link gets you your first week of membership for $1).

System 4: Pre-plan religiously

Pre-planning your week, in hour-by-hour detail, is one of the best ways to claim control over your time.

It’s the Arc Reactor to your Iron Man – the power source of your week.

I advise my clients to create an hour-by-hour time budget for their week, where they can allocate all 168 hours in advance. This might sound intense, but if you’re facing massive distractions it will be a life saver.

Check out my step-by-step process for pre-planning my week in this free PDF guide.

System 5: Master the “Fab 5” technologies

Your work-at-home tech stack should absolutely include:

  • Calendar
  • Task manager
  • Email inbox
  • Messaging platform of choice
  • Zoom

We use Google Calendar, Asana, Gmail, Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp, and Zoom.

It’s worth the time to really learn the in’s and out’s of your core tech stack. Check out YouTube tutorial videos of your technology to make sure you’re getting the most out of them.

Watchouts: Resist “technology bloat” where you have a new piece of tech for every little thing.

And don’t spend all day on Slack – not even the team at Slack Headquarters does that!

Other helpful tools:

  • https://krisp.ai/ – cancels out background noise like MAGIC
  • Kitchen timer – can prevent a lack of motivation AND overworking. Don’t use your phone!
  • A laptop stand like this one – protect your posture!
  • Get a bigger monitor
  • Focus@Will – music designed for focus
  • FocusMate – work in timed work blocks with a live accountability partner
  • Do Not Disturb option on your phone – and announce to your friends you’re doing that!

System 6: Incorporate movement into your day when it’s no longer built in

You’ll notice a huge decrease in your step count when you start working from home! There isn’t much movement in your day anymore, and those walks to the fridge aren’t sufficient 😉

Schedule time in your calendar to get up, stretch, do some yoga, or even practice deep breathing or meditation.

It will take more mental energy to make it happen at first, but once you get into a routine it will come naturally.

System 7: Master asynchronous communication

Working from home means the opportunity to talk with coworkers is severely limited. Which can be a GREAT thing for your productivity!

However, for those of us who used to communicate by floating around to other people’s desks all day, it means you now need to master the art of asynchronous communication.

Don’t default back to scheduling meetings for every little thing like you used to in the workplace. Meetings have the lowest density of information transfer. And don’t overload your Slack channel and email trying to communicate every last thing.

Instead, take this opportunity to uplevel your communication with tools like screencasting and a task manager. Screencasting is an extremely dense form of communication, and takes a fraction of the time of a meeting or crafting an email.

Watch our YouTube tutorial on how to screencast using Zoom here.

System 8: Batch communications with your team

When you work from home, there’s stress around getting a hold of coworkers quickly.

You may experience an influx of messages and emails from colleagues who are doing their best to push work forward. However, this becomes exhausting for you and chips away at the time you have to actually get work done.

Batching communications together is key to maintaining your focus while also communicating with your team.

Schedule set times when you will be on your email and messenger, and tell your team members how to reach you if something is super urgent.

If you’re using the Sticky Focus Game mentioned above, get everyone on your team on the same Sticky Focus schedule – then you will all be available in the last 10 minutes of every hour.

Or, schedule office hours (30 minutes would do) in a Zoom room where everyone can ask their questions. Tell your team you’ll be doing office hours at that time, send them the link, and encourage them to come and ask their questions. After about a week, folks will get used to this new system.

Part 3: Develop A Strong Mental Game

Working from home requires that you up your game mentally, in order to compete with the added distractions and stresses of your new routine.

If you’re not careful, you can quickly lose motivation for work. Or the opposite – you may find yourself becoming a workaholic!

Your goal is to strike a balance between your work and your play.

Carey and I have found ourselves on both sides of this spectrum, before we eventually found the right balance.

Strengthening our mental game has grown our self-discipline so that we can put in good work, under stressful circumstances, even if we’re low energy or lacking in motivation. And it also helps us put work down at the end of the day (even if we’re really in flow!) so we can enjoy our free time.

Step 1: Don’t wear your PJ’s

You no longer have environmental cues that tell your brain “it’s work time,” but wearing professional clothes can help trick your body into thinking it’s ready to work.

I like wearing my PJ’s all day as much as anyone, but I change into work clothes to help change my state of mind from relaxation to work. I still do this, even after working from home for 5+ years.

It’s a lot harder to lounge on the couch watching Netflix when you’re wearing your nicest button-down.

And at the end of my work day, I change back into comfortable clothes to spend time with my family.

Step 2: Break the seal

Working from home for the first time means you’re going from total structure to total NO structure.

It can be difficult to know how to structure your day or tackle hard projects without your normal workplace pressures.

I have a mental game trick to help you get started when no one is breathing down your neck. It’s called Breaking The Seal.

Set a timer for 5 minutes and tell yourself that all you need to do is work on that task or project until the timer rings.

Getting started is absolutely the hardest part of any task, and breaking the seal with the 5 minute timer helps you dispel any fear or mental resistance you have around it.

Most of the time, you’ll find that you’re “into it” once the 5 minutes is up and you’ll actually WANT to keep working. You may find that the task is a lot easier than you thought it would be!

Other times, you’ll find that you have a much better handle on how to tackle the problem and you’ve gained a sense of clarity around what to do when it’s time to really get it done.

Step 3: Wake up in the right way

Taking control of your mental space from the moment you open your eyes can help strengthen your mental stamina whether you work from home or not.

Carey and I have a short Wake Up Routine that’s designed to get our heads in a positive space before starting the day.

It also keeps us from immediately checking email and social media when we wake up…because that can lead to wasted time and invariably puts our positivity in jeopardy!

Check out our Wake Up Routine (as well as 3 other core routines) here.

Step 4: Practice Extreme Ownership

Instead of trying to change other people’s behavior, focus on changing your response.

Practice a skill known as Extreme Ownership, the leadership mindset used by Navy Seal commanders and popularized by Jocko Willink in his bestselling book by the same name.

That annoying coworker who’s dragging their feet on a project? Offer to be their accountability partner for the next week to help motivate them to get it done.

Kids got you pulling your hair out with all their demands? Put ziplocs filled with snacks in the fridge, or challenge them to make dinner for the whole family (both these tactics are pulled straight from parents in my community!)

Everyone coming to you for everything, not giving you a moment’s peace? Create checklists or written how-to instructions (even for the smallest things!) so that others can learn to do things for themselves.

Watch our YouTube video book summary on Extreme Ownership here.

Step 5: Define your fears

When your mental space is completely shot, you may have an impulse to “think positively” or avoid negative subjects.

The problem is, this doesn’t seem to help! Your brain will still default back to anxiety and fear even if you keep telling yourself “it’s not that bad” or “I have so much to be grateful for.”

So I like to do the opposite.

I like to dive deep into what I fear the most, so that I can shine a light on it and figure out if there’s anything in my control that I can take action on.

This is a concept from the philosophy of Stoicism called Fear Setting. It was popularized by Tim Ferriss in his amazing Ted Talk (linked below).

He outlines a simple process of writing down your deepest fears, no matter how irrational they may be, and figuring out how to either prevent them from coming to pass or how to soften the impact if they do end up happening.

In under an hour, it will allow your brain to stop spinning on the “what if’s” and focus on what you can do about it.

Watch Tim Ferriss’s Ted Talk on Fear Setting here.

Step 6: Put down the screens

Sometimes it feels like the only thing to do at home involves a screen, but that’s not the case!

Giving yourself screen-free time is so rejuvenating and once you get used to it, you’ll start to crave this time.

It will also help you avoid the dreaded cabin fever feeling of being stuck in one place.

Playing board games with your family is remarkably fun for everyone and has become a fixture of our family time.

Or, pick up a fiction book! Reading non-challenging literature and books also brings back the magic of reading (for those of us who have libraries full of non-fiction especially!)

We like to watch our fireplace and just sit in silence (if you don’t have one, a YouTube video of a fireplace is remarkably effective too).

And if you still feel restless and can’t leave your home, try learning a creative skill that you’ve always wanted to learn but didn’t have the time. (Drawing and calligraphy are our favorites.) You could also try a virtual museum tour or stream a symphony online.

What issues are you facing as you adjust to working from home? Comment below, we would love to hear from you.

If you’ve found a great work from home hack, share it below!

Demir & Carey Bentley

Demir and Carey Bentley are the founders of Lifehack Method, WSJ & USA Today bestselling authors, and executive productivity coaches. They've helped thousands of people avoid burnout and soar to their highest level of productivity. Read more about them here.