Jory MacKay
Jory is a writer, content strategist and award-winning editor of the Unsplash Book. He contributes to Inc., Fast Company, Quartz, and more.
September 21, 2020 · 13 min read

How To Work Remotely, Get Things Done, And Stay Sane: 16 Essential Work-From-Home Tips (With Free Checklist)

How To Work Remotely, Get Things Done, And Stay Sane

In 2015, Stanford Professor Nicholas Bloom found that working from home increased productivity by 13% and lowered turnover in half! In other words: working remotely works. However, these days with the rise of COVID-19 pushing more companies to learn how to work remotely, Bloom is taking a different stance:

“We are home working alongside our kids, in unsuitable spaces, with no choice and no in-office days. This will create a productivity disaster.

It’s hard to deny that the best things about working remotely are also often the worst things about it as well.

Sure, people who work from home are happier, more productive, and better able to focus thanks to fewer workplace distractions. But they’re also just as likely to be lonely, get regularly interrupted by family or household obligations, and feel vulnerable to working long hours and ignoring a healthy schedule.

That’s why learning how to work remotely isn’t just about little tips and tools to make your day better. It requires a total reassessment of your priorities, daily routines, and even workspace.

The good news is that you don’t have to take the bad to get the good parts of working from home.

In this guide, we’re going to run you through the most important factors of how to work remotely (and still be productive!) Whether you’re new to working from home, a remote work veteran, or managing a remote team, this guide will give you the tools you need to succeed.

Jump to a section:

How to work remotely 101: There are only two things you need to successfully work from home

Where most remote work tips go wrong is in assuming there’s a one-size-fits-all solution for how to work remotely. They give lists of small tips and hacks on how to make your days easier, without addressing the core issues of why working remotely can be so difficult!

So what are those core issues?

When it comes down to it, successful remote workers all have two things in common:

  1. The right environment (for both work and life)
  2. The right support systems, workflows, and routines

In other words, they control where they work as much as how they work.

Where to work remotely: Mastering your home office environment

While many remote workers swear by getting out of the house–either to a coworking space, coffee shop, or somewhere else–that’s less of an option these days thanks to social distancing.

Even if you can work in other places, it’s often more productive (and affordable) to optimize your “home office.”

So what does the perfect workspace for working remotely look like?

1. Separate your “work” environment from your home

Just because you’re working from home doesn’t mean that your work environment should be your home.

In other words, don’t just plop down on the couch with your laptop out and expect to get into a state of focus and flow.

Whenever possible, your home office should be separated from the rest of your house. Preferably, it should be its own room (with a door!) where you know you won’t get interrupted. Not only does this help you focus on work, but it makes it much easier to ignore all the other “home stuff” that competes for your attention like dirty dishes, laundry, or even the TV.

However, if space is a premium, at least create a committed space that you’ll work from each day. Even a “home office” at the dining room table is better than feeling adrift each morning.

Productivity and focus rely on routines and those are often tied to a place as much as an action.

2. Surround yourself with items that make you happy (but don’t distract)

Once you’ve found your space, fill it with items and reminders that make it easier to do the things you want to do and harder to get distracted. For example, keeping your to-do list or calendar within eyesight, but leaving your phone in another room.

The Happiness Project author Gretchen Rubin calls this “convenience flipping”:

We should pay attention to the convenience of an activity we want to become a habit. Putting a wastebasket next to our front door made mail sorting slightly more convenient, and I stopped procrastinating with this chore.

An extreme example of convenience flipping is artists and author Austin Kleon who splits his home office into two specific zones:

  1. A digital desk with his computer, tablet, and other tools
  2. An analog desk with art supplies, newspapers, books, and other physical art supplies

Your workspace should nearly instantly put you into “work mode.” Not only will this help you focus, but it makes it much easier to separate your work from everything else that goes on at home.

3. Get rid of the clutter (both physical and digital)

A cluttered desk doesn’t just make it harder to stay organized.

Get Rid of Clutter

According to neuroscientists from Princeton, clutter actively competes for your attention. As psychology professor Sabine Kastner explains:

“Just lowering the shades while working or taking a few minutes to tidy one’s workspace can lead to more productivity.”

The same goes for digital clutter–such as your messy desktop, 572 open browser tabs, or overflowing downloads folder. The harder it is for you to zero in on a single task, the more likely it is that you’ll get distracted.

The best advice on getting rid of workspace clutter is to regularly audit and clean out your space:

4. Include as much light, fresh air, and nature as possible

The closer your working space is to nature, the better.

This is one of the things most people don’t think about when asking how to work remotely. While modern offices have become sterile open-plan nightmares, your home office can be whatever you want it to be.

Clean air, light, and plants have been found to increase focus and even make it easier to sleep after a long day.

Try to situate your desk near a window that you can open to bring in fresh air. If that’s not an option, add a plant or two to your desk. Worst case scenario, try to take at least one break outside during the day.

Even a small dose of fresh air and nature can make a big difference in your ability to work remotely.

5. Match your music to your tasks

Music and sound can be a huge productivity booster (if you use it right).

According to studies of workplace noise, unwanted sounds and a lack of privacy (i.e. control over who hears you and who you hear) are the two biggest workplace distractions. While headphones–especially noise-canceling ones–can help block out unwanted noise when you work remotely, what you pump through them can be just as distracting.

Researchers have found that specific types of music are best suited to certain tasks:

6. If your home office isn’t working for you, try “location blocking” to build better habits

Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, your home office environment just doesn’t work. On these days, it’s better to switch it up rather than try to power through.

That’s because working in the same space–whether at home or in the office–can cause us to build habits and routines we don’t necessarily want. Here’s how psychologist David Neal describes it:

People, when they perform a behavior a lot—especially in the same environment, same sort of physical setting—outsource the control of the behavior to the environment.

When you feel like your home office isn’t doing its job, it’s time to switch it up.

This could be as simple as working from the kitchen table in the morning before going into your “office.” Or, looking for a space outside the house that you can use occasionally like a private office or shared space.

You might even consider switching up the type of device you use to help push you into different “work modes” without ever leaving the house. For example, here’s how writer and marketer Gregory Ciotti uses his different devices:

A small change in your environment can have a huge impact on your ability to work remotely and stay productive.

How to work remotely: Creating the perfect daily schedule, routines, and workflows for working from home

With your home office in check, the second part of how to work remotely is mastering what you do during the day. This includes the habits, workflows, schedule, systems, and tools that power your day.

Working remotely is a delicate balance between too much and too little control.

While you want to take advantage of the increased flexibility and autonomy, you also don’t want to lose sight of the bigger picture. Without structure and workflows in place, you’ll end up spending your best hours on non-work and then scrambling to make it up later on (hello midnight inbox check-ins!)

Especially now that you don’t have a manager or leader around, it’s important to build your own scaffolding that supports your goals and keeps you on track.

Working remotely is a delicate balance between too much and too little control.

You’ve already done the hard work of creating a home office that is designed for productivity, now it’s time to make the most of your time in it.

7. Replace your morning commute with a morning routine that gets you ready for work

You might be tempted to roll out of bed and jump into work, but that’s a huge remote work mistake. While you’re probably happy to be rid of your morning commute, it served an important purpose: switching you into “work mode”.

A remote work morning routine can do the same thing. Set a few basic rituals around your morning to help you wake up and shift mindsets.

Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Wake up at the same time. Stay on track with your usual sleep schedule by waking up around the same time you normally would.
  2. Avoid looking at email or going online right away. Give yourself space and time before letting work into your day.
  3. Follow your usual routine (especially exercise). This could mean taking the dog out, going for a run, or even doing something for yourself like listening to a podcast.
  4. Shower and get dressed. This will break you out of “home mode” and get you ready for work (plus, you don’t want to end up on a surprise video call in your pajamas).
  5. Set your intention for the day. Try journaling a bit to set your intentions and MIT (most important task) for the day.

8. Create a clear schedule for your day (including breaks)

Working from home gives you the flexibility to work whenever you want. But without a clear schedule your workday will become all day.

This doesn’t mean you need to follow a strict 9–5 schedule. You can still take advantage of the flexibility and autonomy of working remotely by building a daily schedule that works for you. Here are a few ways to approach scheduling your day when you work remotely:

  1. “Time block” your day. Time blocking is when you set aside specific times for specific tasks throughout the day. For example, you might set aside 60-minute “blocks” for deep work, emails, meetings, and even breaks. The idea is that your entire workday is templated out for you before you begin so you’ll know where to start.
  2. Focus on your most important task first. Most of us have our peak productive hours in the morning (or when we first start working). Try to set aside time for your most important task first so no matter what else happens in the day, you’ve hit your goal.
  3. Work in 50 or 90-minute sprints. Our brains and bodies naturally crash every 50–90-minutes. Schedule breaks at these times to keep your energy levels high throughout the day.
  4. Split your day between “maker” and “manager” time. Maker work–like writing, designing, and coding–usually requires longer chunks of focused time. While managing–meetings, calls, catch-ups–usually happens in frequent smaller chunks. Help keep yourself focused by scheduling those different types of work at dedicated times.
  5. Schedule specific times for emails, calls, and meetings. Batch your emails or meetings at specific times so you can get through them more quickly (and so they don’t take over your day or bleed into your evening).

The key here is to create a set schedule you can follow each day (or at least something close to it).

9. Block out your peak productive hours for focused work

Probably the most meaningful tip for how to work remotely is to dedicate your best hours to your most important work.

Peak Productive Hours

While there will always be meetings you can’t avoid or times you have to be online, for the most part, you should be able to work at the times when your brain functions best. Because unfortunately, we don’t have many good hours a day.

According to research, most people are only truly productive for about 2 hours and 48 minutes a day.

So when should you be working remotely?

We all go through natural highs and lows of energy throughout the day. And it’s important to recognize when your best hours are and use them for the right things.

This isn’t just a scheduling issue, however. It requires a shift in your mindset as well. As Julie Weed writes in The New York Times:

“More than ever you will be measured on output, not how many hours you sat at your desk.”

Working remotely means being results-oriented. That means it’s more important to cancel a morning meeting if it means finishing an important piece of work.

10. Use project management software to track progress, celebrate wins, and avoid WFHG

Being results-oriented also means knowing what your priorities are and being able to track your progress, hit your goals, and feel accomplished.

One of the biggest remote working challenges is what’s known as work from home guilt (WFHG). This is when you don’t feel like your effort is being seen and so instead you work constantly, answer every email at all times of day, and “perform” more to make up for it. But this only leads to burnout and stress.

An all-in-one project management tool like Planio makes it easy to track and show your progress to the rest of your team.

Gantt Chart filtered to see your issues

While you can quickly see the issues and tasks assigned to you, your manager can keep track of your priorities, jump in when you need help, and even share resources and documents.

Not only that, but Planio also includes everything you need to be a part of a successful remote team like Team Chat, integrated cloud storage, repository hosting, knowledge management through wikis and blogs, help desks, and more!

11. Make sure you have access to all the materials and tools you need to do your job

The only reason we’re able to work remotely as well as we can is because of the technology we have available to us. Communication and collaboration tools make it easier to connect with your team. But none of that matters if you don’t have access to all the files, resources, and tools you need to do your job.

Make sure your team has thought through how you’re going to safely and securely access files when you work from home. This could be through a shared knowledge base as well as team file-sharing tools like Planio cloud storage.

12. Have a conversation with your manager and team about communication expectations

A recent survey of 850+ remote workers found that the most important factor in being productive when working from home is having clear policies and expectations around availability and communication.

In other words, make sure everyone knows when you’re around and when you’re not.

A big part of learning how to work remotely is being ok with going offline. When you’re not in the office or your manager can’t look up and see you, there’s a tendency to just always be available. Instead, you need to be proactive about setting expectations around when you’ll be answering chats and when you’ll be off.

Here are a few topics to guide this conversation:

  1. When does everyone need to be online? Are there times where you’ll want the whole team available for collaboration or brainstorming?
  2. How are you going to use different communication tools? Is a chat message more urgent than an email? Set expectations around each tool.
  3. How quickly do your manager and teammates expect a response? Set expectations early and often to avoid the dreaded death by follow-up.

13. Speak up if something isn’t working (others on your team are probably feeling the same)

No one wants to look like they can’t do their job. But it’s harder than ever for managers to see when you’re struggling and need help.

As you learn how to work remotely, bring up issues along the way to your manager and check-in with other teammates to see if they’re feeling the same way (they probably are).

This is a new experience for many people and it takes time for teams to get remote work right. The more you can highlight issues early on, the better you’ll all be.

14. Bring home the best habits you built in the office

Whatever worked for you in the office will most likely help you as you learn how to work remotely. This could be your method for prioritization or blocking out times in the day for emails and calls.

Don’t throw out habits and routines that power how you work just because you changed where you work.

Want to learn more? Check out our Guide to the 21 Daily Routines and Habits of Highly Productive Founders and Creatives.

15. Practice a “wind-down ritual” to disconnect at the end of the day

Just as recreating your morning “commute” helps you get into work mode, a “wind-down ritual” will help you disconnect at the end of the day.

This is important not just for work-life balance, but as researchers from Lehigh University wrote in Science Daily:

“As prior research has shown, if people cannot disconnect from work and recuperate, it leads to burnout, higher turnover, more deviant behavior, lower productivity, and other undesirable outcomes.”

A good wind-down ritual covers a few key areas:

  1. Detachment from work. As the title implies, this means removing yourself from your “work zone”. This is where having a dedicated home workspace becomes so important (as well as removing your inbox and other work tools from your phone).
  2. Relaxation. This isn’t just about watching Netflix but giving yourself solitude and space to recover from the workday.
  3. Mastery. Spending time learning something new or working on a hobby is a great way to switch into “non-work” mode.
  4. Control. Finally, you want to go through a simple process that signifies you’re done work. For example, you might write your to-do list for tomorrow, close all your open browser tabs, and set out clothes for your workout in the morning.
If people cannot disconnect from work and recuperate when working remotely, it leads to burnout, higher turnover, lower productivity and more deviant behavior. Make sure you have your work-life balance under control.

16. Stay connected to the outside world

Learning how to work remotely can be isolating. And loneliness is bad for not just your productivity but your personal wellbeing.

Take time to call friends, talk to coworkers, and connect with others during the workweek. Humans are social creatures and we need those connections to stay happy and productive for the long-term.

Lastly, don’t neglect yourself or your life outside of work

Because there’s no one watching over you, workaholics and perfectionists think they can (and have to) work and work and work when they work remotely. This is the fastest way to burn out, which is not good for you or your employer.

Working from home doesn’t mean the lines between your personal life and work life have to be blurred. In fact, it’s even more important to ensure that they aren’t.

Create a meaningful and manageable schedule for yourself, make sure you have the right home office setup, and be open about your expectations and needs with your team.

Lastly, it can help to reflect on the best parts of working remotely. Many people love working from home because it gives them more time with their family, but then end up working too much and spending even less time with them. If family time was your goal, make sure you’re actually achieving it.

No matter what your reason, it’s safe to assume you don’t want remote work to take over every other aspect of your life. So if you feel your lines blurring, take a second to go through this list again, switch up your work environment, and find the systems, tools, and workflows that work for you.