Photo by Piotr Wilk on Unsplash

Lessons from 10 years of home office

2020-03-29 - Arne Jenssen

TLDR: Use the pomodoro technique to get stuff done.

For 10 years I have used a home office as my primary base of work. The COVID-19 isolation is business as usual for me. Therefore I thought to share some of my experiences of thriving in a home office.

Managing work

Timeboxing/Pomodoro technique

The central idea of Timeboxing and the Pomodoro Technique is to allocate a timeslot for a single task. A typical timeslot is 25 minutes to 45 minutes, but some prefer to stretch it to up 90 minutes. Use a timer. The most important rule is to don’t interrupt the task until the timer has finished. Then take a 5-minute break - even if you want to continue working. Get up from the chair and move. Check this video for an introduction to the pomodoro technique.

To my experience, timeboxing is the best way to overcome procrastination. It helps me get started on challenging tasks. And once started, I get a momentum that keeps me going. For example, if I am stuck on writing an article, I will stay on this task until the timer beeps. Even if I have no ideas what to write, my only goal for this timeslot (a.k.a. pomodoro) is to stay with this task. It is okay to just stare at the blank screen/paper, but not start on other tasks or check emails/phone. I intentionally set a low expectation. The task just needs to be worked on. The writing does not need to be good. But since I am stuck with this task for the next 25 minutes, I might as well make an effort. Maybe a list of keywords? Write what comes to my mind. Then I have a sentence, that turns into a paragraph.

With the Pomodoro Technique I am not intimidated by a huge task/project. I am not stressed about the prospect of finishing it and all the (imaginary) obstacles on the way. The only thing that matters is to start it - to take the first step - or the next step if I am resuming it after a break - and to stay at it for 25 minutes. A similar technique is used by novice runners. Don’t think about finishing the 5K run, just run to the next lamp post, then the next, and so on.

The pomodoro technique works equally well with a family or a small team. Everybody in the room follows one clock. 25 minutes of focus, then 5 minutes break for socializing, diversion and hygiene. This gives a natural cadence to the day.

Systems - not goals

Scott Adams argues in the book “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big” to use systems instead of goals. Goals are rigid objectives that are uncompleted until they are done, whereas systems are what you do on a regular basis. E.g. losing 10 kg is a goal, and exercising daily is a system. A goal leaves you in an unfulfilled state until it is reached - maybe many months or years ahead. With systems, you are in control, and can have a win every day. A goal is a lag measure, whereas a system is a lead measure. You can’t control your weight (lag measure) directly, but you have the power to make sure that you exercise 3 times per week (lead measure).

I use a simple system for selecting what to work on. My system is an allocation of the types of tasks to work on for a day. How many time-slots for each active project, how many for reading, how many for exercise, and how many for administrative follow-ups.

More specific my daily system resembles something like this: morning workout, 7 timeslots of programming, 2 timeslots of courses, 3 timeslots project X, ... Over weeks and months I adjust the system slowly. Do more of what works and less of what doesn't move the needle.

Only appointments goes into calendar

I don’t put my tasks in the calendar. I use Trello and a bullet journal for managing projects and tasks.

Keep a regular schedule

Even if I have total freedom of my days, I keep a regular schedule. I get up at 05:45 and I have fairly regimented mornings - journaling, meditation, exercise, breakfast. Then I start working. The fixed routine means fewer decisions. My three meals are at relatively consistent hours. Unless I am (intermittently) fasting.

This also means going to bed at a regular hour. I've found out that staring to unwind about 1 hour before bedtime works well. Unwinding means turn off the computer and avoid using the phone/ipad and tasks that take a lot of focus. Usually I do another meditation session as the last thing before going to bed.

Put the phone away

Put the phone out of arm's reach to avoid disturbing yourself. Turn off as many notifications as you can while still being able to respond to your primary contacts.

In a home office, your boss can't see you. It is easy to get away with a binge on a slotmachine like facebook, instagram, and online news when nobody is watching. But in the end you only fool yourself.

In Homer's legend the hero Odyssey made his crew plug their ears with beeswax to prevent them hearing the tempting song of the sirens, and he got himself tied to the the mast so he could enjoy the sirens but was unable give in to their temptation.

In a similar way I try to set up my environment to immunize myself from temptation of distraction.

The simplest way to resist eating chocolate is not to buy it in the first place.

Plan the week/day

At the start of the week I find it useful to plan the upcoming week. Check the appointments in the calendar. Identify the key results I want to focus on.

The more freedom you have over your schedule, the more important is it to be aware of the things you should say "no" to.

Office mechanics

A simple office chair

A simple office chair with a padded seat is enough. A tilting backrest is a bonus. At my home-office I have a relatively cheap chair from IKEA. I have used more expensive and luxurious office chairs before. I have not noticed that an expensive chair has significant benefits (I, luckily, don’t have pains in the back, or any repeated stress injuries that mandates extra ergonomic adaptations).

Some say that sitting is the new smoking. Prolonged sitting, even if the sitting position is "good" for your back, can contribute to increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist and abnormal cholesterol levels.

I take frequent breaks to move. After each timebox (25 min) I get up and walk a few steps.

I’ve heard that it is better to have 100 bad sitting positions during the day, than one good position. The key is variation and movement.

For a period I used a simple kitchen chair with no padding when working for a startup client. It worked for a period, but I would not recommend it. An office chair with wheels makes it easier to find good sitting positions, and padding is just more comfortable.

Good lighting

Bright lights have shown to increase office productivity, especially if you are over 40 years old. Some months ago I added two additional light bulbs. I have a total of 1600 lumen from 4 LED bulbs (IKEA Trådfri and Philips Hue). It could be a placebo effect, but I feel more alert after doubling the brightness over my desk.

I have a smart light system from Philips Hue. It can change the colour temperature of the light. During the day I have it as white and bright as possible (the “concentrate” color scheme in the Philips hue app). After 20:00 the lamps automatically change color to orange and dim down so simulate a sunset. This helps to prepare me for sleep by stimulating melatonin response.

If I had to choose between a better chair and more light, I would choose more light.

Get moving

My fitness watch (e.g. Fitbit) reminds me to move every hour. It looks weird, but pacing around the living-room table is both mediative and good for the body and metabolism. Getting up to move fits nicely with the timeboxing/pomodoro schedule. I previously had a Fitbit that buzzed me if I hadn't walked 500 steps this hour. It only takes 3 minutes to get those steps, and I think it is a valuable habit. I have often experienced that those few minutes walking around in my apartment have given me a new perspective to the task I was working on.

Eat away from screens.

It is tempting to watch a video or to work while eating. Too often I have realised, after watching a lecture on Youtube while eating, that I had forgotten to pay attention to how the food tasted. The food that I 30 minutes earlier was looking forward to eat.

Therefore I am enforcing a strict rule for myself. No devices while eating. The habit of eating away from screens has made my meals more enjoyable. It is also a nice opportunity to relax, practice mindfulness, or just let the mind wander.

Don't face the window.

Although a nice view can be relaxing, it is also distracting. I prefer to face a wall when working. I have also positioned myself so that I get no direct sunlight on the computer screen which means I don’t need to use blinds and my home stays well illuminated.

Avoid the kitchen for work.

The fridge makes noises.

Ventilation:

Normal CO2 levels outdoors are 400 ppm (parts per million), a good indoor level is up to 700 ppm. Research has shown that cognitive capacity is reduced at levels above 1000 ppm[1].

Elevated indoor CO2 is mostly caused by people (and pets) breathing. If you notice that the air feels stale and “heavy” it might be a good idea to ventilate.

I have a CO2 meter (Nentatmo), and it tells me that during normal activities my apartment is adequately ventilated. My CO2 levels are usually in the 700 - 800 ppm range. But when I bike on my exercise bike in the bathroom, the CO2 levels quickly rise to 1600 ppm due to excessive breathing.

[1] There were “moderate” declines in decision making performance at 1,000 ppm compared to 600 ppm. At 2,500 ppm, the drop in mental capacity was “astonishingly large.” https://www.yaleclimateconnections.org/2016/07/indoor-co2-dumb-and-dumber/

Tidy up.

Before Christmas I read “The life-changing magic of tidying” by Marie Kondo. Her book describes a practical way of decluttering and of organising your belongings. You declutter once, and then you are done for the rest of your life. Declutter by category in this order: Clothes, books, papers, things, and finally personal belongings. Gather all things from the category from all rooms in once place (the floor), and go through each item one by one. Keep only items that spark joy. Organize things you want to keep by category. Give each item a place, and never put items on top of each other. Stack them vertically. You can find videos on how to fold your clothes in the konmari way.

Tidying up and having a clutter-free home office gives me a feeling of harmony and peace, which translates to less stress and more energy.

I confess that my apartment and home office is not spotless, but now everything has a place.

I didn’t expect that a simple thing as tidying up would have such a profound effect on my happiness. I strongly recommend everybody to read this book.

Things I’ve tried

Standing desk: It didn’t work for me. Instead I take regular breaks and get up from my chair. If standing when doing mental work is better than sitting, then chess champions would have played standing. Mental work takes so much of our attention that we want to limit extraneous stimuli (sight, sounds, touch). I think standing is a waste of attention and energy.

... if standing when doing mental work is better than sitting, then chess champions would have played standing.

Big desk: I went back to a small table (120 cm x 80 cm). Just keep it clean and tidy.

Clothing: A claim in Inc magazine:

... wearing a professional dress increases abstract thinking and gives people a broader perspective ...

Regardless of wearing rags or dressed up in formal clothing, I noticed no difference.

Energy management: I’ve seen advice from gurus to schedule tasks based on your energy levels and how your energy varies through the day. It sounds good in theory, but I have not experienced a consistent pattern in my energy that I can exploit. A simpler rule is to schedule deep work early in the day, and shallow work late in the day.

Blue light therapy/energy lamp: - I didn’t notice any effect.

About the Author

My role is to develop software. I work for clients (freelancing), and I work on my own projects in between. Software development requires a lot of focus. I consider working in solitude as an advantage over working in a crowded office.

Sure, I also communicate with stakeholders, but not the whole day, and not every hour of the day, so in this blog post I haven't touched upon communications, teamwork and management.

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