WFH: From utter chaos to the best thing that ever happened to me

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I’ve been working from home for nearly 4 years now. When I started my career in 2003, there wasn’t this much connectivity and technology. If I told a client that the email left my outbox half an hour ago and I have no idea why it hasn’t reached them, it was very often true, and a plausible explanation for when it wasn’t.

By the time I started my business in 2016, things were very different. Every convenience I needed to not just work from home, but run a business from my home office was in abundance and I decided to do exactly that. I enjoyed my work a lot, and most of the time, it didn’t feel like work because the kind of clients we were working with gave me a sense of purpose I had lost after the first few years in my career. So I ended up unconsciously throwing the rules of working from home to the wind.

Life revolved around work, and I was excited about it.

But I soon found out that it wasn’t sustainable. I was burning out. The thing about working from home is that it can be the best thing that ever happened to you, or something that causes utter chaos. After a couple of years of trying different experiments and failing at some of them, I have been able to turn around my WFH by doing a few things, which I will share in this post.

1. Consciously create work-life balance

Balance cannot come without clear boundaries for the time, energy and emotion you invest in work. It’s easy for the boundaries to get blurred when you work from home. The only way to keep the two separate is to take a hard decision that you will work only from 10 AM to 6 PM or 8 AM to 5 PM with an extra-long lunch break. Or whatever works for you.

The trick is to not let the flexibility take over your life, but to use the flexibility in a way that makes life easier.

The occasional 8 AM concall, or going with the flow of work till 9 PM are totally fine. I do it at least once a week. The point is to be conscious about maintaining the balance. If it is hard, start a timetable.

2. What to do with the extra time?

  • Unhurry. Have a slow morning so you can bring a calm focus into the day as opposed to getting cannonballed into it. Cook slowly, garden, enjoy your workout, enjoy your coffee, or simply sit under the early morning sun and absorb all the Vitamin D you need. Do things consciously. It has brought a quality of life and a quality to me, that feels different and new. I had spent my career literally running up and down the office, rushing from meeting to meeting. 10 AM meeting at Bangalore Airport one day, 3 PM meeting at Banashankari the next day, a bunch of office meetings and high stress work in the middle… At one point I even had a skateboard in a (failed) attempt to replace all the running-around inside the office with the much cooler skating-around. When you go through life super-fast, you forget to pay attention to a lot of things. Being able to slow down is perhaps one of the greatest luxuries today. And as for questions of why, or to what end, think of the hare and the tortoise.
  • Take your eyes off. With everything including meetings and commute time likely replaced by screen time, your eyes are on overdrive. Make sure you sit and look out of the window or just keep your eyes closed for an extra 15-30 minutes every day. You can listen to music or a podcast, or meditate, or simply do nothing.
  • Learn or do something new. And not something work related. Work leads to its own pursuit of knowledge, and the learning you need to grow in your career comes automatically. Learn something totally unrelated to work. When you learn or practice something you love, you are having fun while learning to think from different perspectives, exploring new ideas, creating new neural pathways. All of a sudden, you see the quality of work and the clarity of direction getting better on their own.

    Getting better at what you do doesn’t come by working more or trying hard to make the quality of your work better. It comes by making you the person to whom the goals and standards you want to achieve come naturally. Invest in you; your work will automatically benefit.

    One of the new things I did was to take 4 days off to play in an international Scrabble tournament. And I have continued to play online afterwards. The learnings from it have shaped my approach to work and life itself. When you play for the love of the game and not to win every single point, you create something spectacular. And you win more anyway, because your game gradually improves from playing with your whole heart. Federer is a great player not because he wins points and matches and tournaments. He wins those because he is a great player with amazing stamina, strategy, artistry, perseverance, sportsmanship and above all, a love for the game that is expressed in the beauty of how he plays.

3. Spend time planning and reviewing

Instead of jumping headlong into the day and crashing out at the end of the day, a little time spent planning and reviewing will improve your productivity by at least 30%, and reduce stress to almost nil. How does this happen?

We focus more on doing the work than on planning and reviewing it. We probably spend a hasty 0-5 minutes planning the day, and no EoD review. This is as good as no planning at all. I’m not talking about the team’s job status report. This is your personal job list.

By spending 15 minutes planning for the day and then 15 minutes at the end of the day reviewing the day’s work, you can consistently improve how you utilise time and also get closure at the end of the day instead of carrying the stress from work into personal time.

The prepping is important because it gets you ready to face anything the day brings and improves your performance during the marathon. The review is important because you know where you stand, and you can put it out of your mind. Together, these two activities allow you to approach work one day at a time without losing focus on the big picture.

4. Gamify productivity

The daily job list where you cross out completed jobs is effective enough. But I had a problem. Suddenly at 4 PM, I would notice that I have another 5 hours of work on the list. The main reason was that I spend way more time doing research than is necessary for the immediate job at hand.

So I play a game with my job list now. I write down the approximate time each job will take in minutes. If I have to reply to an email, it goes in the list. I would allocate say, 5 minutes to complete this job. The game is to collect all the minutes saved from finishing individual jobs within the allotted time and accumulate a tidy sum by end of day. 😀

I like to sit and do nothing. The saved time would be my ‘do nothing’ time. Even if there is no tangible reward, it’s satisfying like collecting hidden coins in a video game. It comes in handy later.

In reality, new jobs come up during the day and the freed up time goes into negative sometimes. But it’s a satisfying and effective tactic. The psychology of how I play along with my own trick, knowing full well that I’m rewarding myself with an intangible thing that I don’t even get in the end is fascinating. Cultivating discipline sounds hard, but the human brain, it seems, can undo any existing pattern and create a new behaviour if we want it to.

5. Stay connected

Right now, it’s not possible to meet people at all. So the best thing we can do is meet each other online. Instead of having just one video call in a day, why not organise a Zoom meeting and pretend you are sitting in office and working together. Just for an hour. It will be sure to bring the energy up. 

Even a phone call without video can lighten up a dull day. So I make sure I have enough work and non-work conversations throughout the day to keep my energy up. If you feel low or out-of-focus, speak to a colleague or say hi to a friend. It will give you a huge energy boost enough to climb mountains. Next time, try this out and see if there is any difference.

Naturally, after years of working in an office environment with people all around, WFH is a big disruption. But today we have the technology to stay connected and even see each other in real time or brainstorm like we are sitting around a table. Make full use of it to minimise the pain of adapting to a new way.

You can figure out the specific problems you are facing, understand why and design your own solutions. There are tons of tips from absolute WFH pros all over the internet. Read up, implement small things one by one and you can easily overcome any friction you are facing.

For the last 2 weeks, we are all going through a compulsory WFH scenario. But given the environmental and health issues of today, it is high time more companies came forward to join the WFH revolution with bold and futuristic policies. Eliminating the daily commute to reduce carbon footprint and pollution might be a pressing need someday soon. But WFH generates a high footprint too because of the energy spent for one person’s work, especially in places with extreme weather conditions. Taking small steps like not keeping gadgets plugged in all the time, or switching off the wifi when not in use help.

Physically going to an office on all 5 weekdays seems rather excessive in the Connected Age. What if we moved to working 2 or 3 days a week from office, and 2 or 3 days from home? There are several companies operating successfully with a completely remote workforce. Imagine if millions of people did it on a daily basis. We need not wait for the next compulsory WFH to make this sensible shift. It’s merely a stitch in time, a tiny bit more responsible to the planet, and respectful to the dreams of the younger workforce. And when so many of us get the opportunity to live enriched lives, we will do amazing things together.

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