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Summary:

When I started working remotely, I had the nice — if misguided — idea that I’d spend my days working away in the home office with a pot of tea at my elbow. But in the last couple of weeks I’ve done more work out of my office than in. In fact, I’m writing this post on a public bus, in the dark, at 8.40pm.

Working quite literally on the road has some serious limitations, and I’m not just talking about technicalities like power supplies and web access. It can be extremely difficult to focus if you’re in a public or unfamiliar space, or if you’re not in one place for more than an hour at a time. But as they say, necessity is the mother of invention, and over these last few weeks, I’ve developed a few tricks to help myself concentrate and be productive in the least conducive, and highly pressured circumstances. Here are my top five.

hardestWhen I started working remotely, I had the nice — if misguided — idea that I’d spend my days working away in the home office with a pot of tea at my elbow. But in the last couple of weeks I’ve done more work out of my office than in. In fact, I’m writing this post on a public bus, in the dark, at 8.40pm.

I know I’m not the only one who has times like this. Of course, working quite literally on the road has some serious limitations, and I’m not just talking about technicalities like power supplies and web access (and potholes). It can be extremely difficult to focus if you’re in a public or unfamiliar space, or if you’re not in one place for more than an hour at a time.

Even if you can find a reasonably quiet corner to sit down in, putting in the time is one thing; actually being able to produce quality output under such conditions can be a mighty challenge. But as they say, necessity is the mother of invention, and over these last few weeks, I’ve developed a few tricks to help myself concentrate and be productive in the least conducive, and highly pressured circumstances. Here are my top five.

1. Psych yourself up.

If I know I have just one hour on the road in which to complete a piece of work — say, to produce a document for a client — and I know it’s going to be intense, I try to prepare mentally for the challenge. When I wake up in the morning and think about the day ahead, I don’t let myself look forward to that snatched hour working in a cafe as a relief from an otherwise hectic day. I lock it into my mental schedule as I would a client meeting or presentation — it’s just as important as any other thing I need to do that day.

This way, when I sit down in that cafe, I’m as switched on and prepared to focus as I am for the rest of my work day. Often, this is the only way I can hope to get the task done in the time I have.

2. Be prepared.

Being out on the road inevitably means you have fewer resources at your fingertips than you would otherwise. Printed documents and references, data, power and web access are luxuries that simply may not be available when you’re out and about.

I try to plan my out-of-office work day in advance, so that I have all the information I need on hand, and all my batteries fully charged. If I want to lighten my load, I’ll scan printed documents and store them on my computer. And, where possible, I’ll do everything I can to ensure I can complete my work whether I have Internet access or not. Let’s face it — if you have an hour to nail down a job, you won’t want to spend half of that hour scouting around for a public space with Wi-Fi.

3. Earmark “alternative offices.”

Most of my meetings take place in a couple of nearby cities, and in each one I’ve found a few good places where I find it relatively easy to work. Some of these spots have Wi-Fi access, but all are comparatively quiet and I know I can linger over a coffee in most of them. My favorite places are cafes, closely followed by libraries.

I consider these locations my “alternative offices” when I’m out and about. I know their opening hours and I know what they have to offer (some are really quiet, others are good spots to make calls from, some make great coffee, and so on). They’re also well-placed around the cities I visit, providing me with easy access to public transport and my clients. So these days, if I need to find a place where I can focus for an hour or two, even on short notice, it’s a no-brainer.

4. Use tricks to prevent distraction.

I live out of town, so there are always going to be times when I need to work on public transport, for example. For me, the secrets to focusing on work in such conditions are simple and cost-effective.

I work well to music, so headphones are a necessity. For times when I’m under serious pressure, or my “working” conditions are crazy, I choose music that I know really helps me to focus and get things done — music I work extremely well to. For me, it’s the Beastie Boys, but for you it might be Bach. Whatever the case, it’s probably a good idea to work out what music helps you to focus, and to make sure you always have it with you when you’re on the road. Of course, music goes beyond sheer inspiration and motivation: its other benefit is that it reduces ambient noise and chatter, and that can be crucial to whether or not I actually get a job completed in the time I have available.

If I’m in a noisy train carriage or cafe, I try to get a window seat so that when I look up from my monitor, I’m not distracted by the people nearby — I can let my gaze drift to something less engaging, like passing cars or the sky, and keep my thoughts focused. And if I’m working through what would typically be a meal time, I’ll make sure I have some brain food with me, as well as something to drink. Basically, I don’t want to be distracted by hunger pangs when I’m on a time limit to get work done.

5. Just do it.

Yes — that old cliche. But seriously, if you need to get something done to a high standard in a short space of time, you need to commit to that goal. When you sit down, you need to have only that task on your mind. You need to shut off from the goings-on in your immediate area, clear your mind, and just focus on what you’re doing. It’s easy to say, but getting to the point where you can sit down and start working immediately can take some practice.

The good news is that once you can do it, you can make great use of time that you might previously have wasted between meetings or waiting for the train, thereby freeing up other time for more enjoyable pursuits.

We’ve all done it. So what are your extreme remoting tips?

  1. Just last night I wrote for an hour in an empty classroom while my wife conducted a class down the hall. I walked into the room, turned on the light, shut the door, sat, and wrote. It works.

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  2. I work from all around the world, and I find that my least productive days are the work-from-the-airport days. Like today–I’m writing this from the international terminal at O’Hare, and the people-watching is far more interesting than the proposal I’m drafting.

    I haven’t used music before (why?), but I like the idea; maybe my iPod will drown out the airport announcements. Great idea!

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  3. I found the biggest challenge is finding a quiet place when I need to do a conference call. Cafes are just too noisy. The best place IMHO is the lobby of a hotel. Usually there are other people working quietly on their computers and I can sit in a corner with power and make my calls in peace! Sometimes I even find the halls where the hotels book conference rooms for meetings. Often there is a quiet chair between meeting rooms and no one bothers me.

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  4. I second the “just do it” cliche :) You can’t plan for everything! Short test runs will help you figure out what works and what you can streamline. When things get really distracting, I make sure to have a physical (paper) todo list to help me focus.@telesaur

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  5. I’ve found that bringing along several “mental snacks” is important. I typically bring my favorite chewing gum and a bottle of water because it helps me keep focused. Sometimes a bar of dark chocolate helps too. Try to avoid going to cafes a lot because your coffee bill can add up. If you do go to your favorite cafe, know which items are the most economical.

    Another tip I have is to take needed breaks. Even if you are doing something for just a couple of hours, it’s a good idea to talk a walk and stretch. If you’re at a library chances are that there’s a park nearby. There’s nothing worse than working on a project you cannot devote your entire attention to; unless, of course you’re on a tight deadline.

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  6. [...] commuting. And if you have suggestions for other alternative office locations, share them below. Extreme Remoting: My Top 5 Tips [Web Worker [...]

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  7. Hotel lobby, far and away the best. Quiet, power available, free drinks often available. No contest.

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  10. [...] Five remoting tips for those times when you aren’t working at your desk. Good ones. [...]

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