Remote Productivity: Time Hacks


Since 2011, I have spent about twenty months driving into a physical office. If you count on sites for training and consulting, that might go up to 20% of my time. Otherwise, the work has been from anywhere with internet and power. Of that from anywhere work, probably two-thirds of it was piece rate, getting paid by the deliverable. That is, if I watch one more youtube video, the only person I am stealing from is myself.

Let’s start

I am also lazy. Incredibly lazy. Laazzyyy. That means there is a pull for me to put things off as long as possible (or longer). When you put the two together, you realize that I need some series of self-reinforcing behaviors to get anything done. Given I have had some commercial success, which required me to do a fair bit of work, I think I’ve reached a point where I can share a few productivity hacks for remote work. My promise today is that these will not be the obvious checklist that you read in the CostCo magazine created by some freelancer, the kind of list you could come up with by sitting on a couch with a pencil and paper for half an hour. Instead, these are my hard-fought lessons learned on the battlefield

If you have no problem with productivity from home, if the refrigerator, the next coffee cup, the unfolded laundry, email, and youtube are never calling your name, then you don’t need this article. Enjoy your amazing productivity you purple squirrels.

For everyone else, I’ve been down this hole before, and I know the way out.

An empty calendar is the devil

Most of us are pretty good at scheduling meetings. These can be important to share information, reach consensus, or accelerate the sprint. If you are a technical contributor, that the work that actually “moves cards across the board”, or gets features done, is to be done outside of those meetings. It was from Grant Cardone, the sales and productivity guru, that I first heard this phrase “An empty calendar is the devil.” What Grand means is that unless you schedule what to do in the blocks in-between, you will likely give way to the refrigerator, email, youtube, Twitter, Facebook, shopping on Amazon or some other activity. Alternatively, you can trick your brain into “nearly-productive” things, things that might need to be done, but perhaps not today. In my personal life, I have a great many books that I need to read. I don’t need to browse for more on Amazon, I need to finish some. Caption: Matt’s to-read list. Lenny Bruce was a comedian; the book is a memoir.

The point here is not about work in progress, but about allow distraction, to not keep the main thing the main thing. A To-Do list can help with productivity, but I find actually blocking time to focus on specific tasks to be effective. At the end of each day, I can make a promise to myself about what I will work on from 9:00AM to 10:00AM, from 10:15 to 11:00, and so on. Actually blocking the time won’t stop me from fooling around on youtube, but it will create an actual pop-up reminder. If the tasks are unpalatable, I know I only have to put an hour into it. With a little data I can predict how much time to schedule tasks for.

This is wildly different from knowing a task “should” only take an hour, planning it for the next day, and starting at 4:00PM only to not finish. Actually scheduling time allows you to break out from “yesterdays weather”, assuming I will get done next week about what I got done last week, and move toward understanding my actual potential work capacity.

Don’t expect 100% capacity. If your work is creative, you will need breaks. What I find by scheduling time is that most lazy, procrastinating people who like food and games (you might call them “humans”) can see a 10% to 40% productivity boost by scheduling time and focusing.

Protect your focus

It’s been almost thirty-five years since DeMarco and Lister talked about distracting work environments in PeopleWare. Amazing, the book is still in print, in its third edition, something almost unheard of for a software engineering text. At the time, DeMarco and Lister were talking about that ringing phone. Today you can add email, Facebook messenger, slack, skype, google message, texts, and a host of other methods on top of that. I am not suggesting that programmers need to be so deep into “the zone” that the world disappears and the programmer becomes one with the machine – at least not all the time. It might be okay to allow one mechanism for people to reach you during scheduled times, such as company text. You might even have those popup. The problem comes in two ways. First, when the answer causes you to open new web browser tabs, look things up, then return to the job in a few minutes. That can cause ten to thirty minutes of delay to get your brain in gear. The second, more difficult problem is when there is a barrage of interruptions - all the sources interrupt you at once. That makes the productivity slide down near zero.

In PeopleWare DeMarco and Lister argue that an effective manager is likely interrupted every three minutes, while to be effective, a programmer needs to be interrupted every three hours or less. Today I would say three hours may be unrealistic, but certainly you should reduce the opportunity for interruption. Have your phone limit all buzzes to the people on the emergency contact list. When time is scheduled, not do not keep Twitter or Facebook or Linkedin open in a browser tab. If you have to, pay yourself a dollar to charity every time you break one of these internal rules.I suspect if we did a time and motion study on the typical North American Programmer working a typical day, the actual time on task, doing the work,

Of course, that doesn’t help us when we don’t have the answers to our questions or have real, genuine work avoidance.

I’ll save those for tomorrow. For today: If you want to be productive, schedule time to be productive, and limit the interruptions so you can focus. That said, what are your time productivity hacks?