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Policing Productivity: Who’s Looking Over Your Shoulder?

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A URL blocker is a terrible thing. In fact, if you’re like me, escaping automated systems designed to limit employee autonomy is probably one of the reasons you chose to go the remote worker route in the first place. But how to police your time online without those automated systems if you are your own supervisor? Even the most disciplined worker, faced with years of a relaxed work environment, will begin to waver. Here’s how to get back on track without sacrificing your soul.

Work As Normal. Then Do a Cost-benefit Analysis

It’s possible that once, long ago, you were so serious about your time that you took pains to account for it to spur yourself onward. If you’ve been a web worker for as long as I have, those spurs are dull and rusted from disuse, and the horse’s hide has grown thick and calloused.

Over time, your impression of how much work you’re actually doing will fall out of sync with reality. The solution? A reality check. I’m not talking about filling out time sheets, I just want you to write out, on paper, your average day and look at where you’re actually working and where you aren’t. Now highlight in red marker those huge chunks of time with no definable benefit. Chances are, an hourly breakdown of your day will look at least as horrifying as the shirt Freddy wears in Nightmare on Elm Street.

Don’t do this every day. Just take the one you made, and post it up next to your monitor and/or below the clock in your work space. Much more effective than a “Hang In There!” motivational poster, let me tell you.

It’s Not a Question of Being Stressed, But What Kind of Stress

Stress can be unpleasant, but any truly productive person knows that there’s good stress and bad stress. Good stress keeps things moving forward, and is the natural byproduct of doing a job well. Bad stress has much more to do with not doing work than with getting things done.

Negative work-related stress will probably leaving you feeling like you have too much going on; more than you can handle. That may be the case, but more often than not, it’s just your brain trying to trick you into procrastinating and not being productive. Combat the feeling by listing and analyzing all the tasks that are supposedly in conflict for your attention. Be honest and dispassionate, and you’ll probably find that half those tasks are either insignificant or easily handled while tackling bigger things.

If It’s Not Work, It’s Not In Your Default Browser

I’m not going to tell you to stay off Facebook. Instructions like that don’t work in a traditional workplace, and they certainly doesn’t work for most at-home workers. Go ahead and indulge, but just as you wouldn’t go to an arcade to finish writing a report, you shouldn’t try to do work in a software environment generally reserved for play.

That’s why the easiest way to monitor and control your productivity over the course of the work day is to keep separate software for work and for play. A browser is probably the most important example of this type of system for most. I keep Firefox for work and use Chrome for all other endeavors. That way, I have to actually switch between apps in order to screw around. It makes me much more aware of how much time I’m spending on non-productive tasks, and that much more likely to forgo a YouTube (s goog) session.

Writers and bloggers can do this, too. I use WriteRoom for personal projects, and Word for Mac for most other offline word processing professional tasks. Likewise, I do my personal blogging using an iPad app, and any professional blogging in the web-based editor.

“Fine” Is Not a Good Answer to “How Was Your Day?”

You’re not a hormonal 12-year old, so don’t talk about your day like you are. Hopefully you have a spouse, partner or friend who you can discuss your day with following business end. For me, it’s my girlfriend, who pointed out recently that my stoic reluctance to talk in detail about my day’s activities isn’t really beneficial to anyone.

Obviously I’m not recommending you bore anyone with an exhaustive account of the minutiae of your day’s activity, but give them a general idea of what you feel you’ve accomplished. You’ll probably be more honest to another person than you’d be to yourself, and since having to say “nothing” isn’t really an attractive proposition, you’ll soon find your post-day conversation will motivate you to get more done.

It’s not an automated time tracking system or a URL blocker, but my system for policing my own productivity has definitely done the job. And it doesn’t have the same morale-dampening effects that either of those methods an produce, either.

How do you monitor your own productivity? Do you find it harder or easier to be productive working remotely?

Related GigaOM Pro content (sub. req.): Enabling the Web Work Revolution

2 Responses to “Policing Productivity: Who’s Looking Over Your Shoulder?”

  1. LasVegasWil

    Two words; RescueTime and AwayFind. Wait, is a conjunction a word? Hmmm…ok, so either two and/or three words.

    I use them both and they block my website distractions, monitor my time on unproductive sites, and ensure that I don’t have to open my e-mail when I don’t want/need to. Big chunks of productive time = Effective Happiness.

  2. I wish I can stay as far from Facebook or Twitter…but when going there is part of the job, the temptation is ever so great. For this, I still use sticky notes, the traditional way and jot things down using pen and paper so that the idea that I have more important things to do will sink into my psyche. In worst case scenario, I’ll just have to set my phone’s alarm by the hour.