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I am working as a data scientist in a multi-country company. There are only 4 of us located in my particular country. The other 3 are often on the road, meaning that quite a lot of days, I am alone in the office, or I simply choose to work from home, because of nobody coming in on that particular day.

The problem is that I have a hard time keeping a good working spirit at either place, when sitting alone. I often end up wasting my time with other things that has nothing to do with work. The problem is not the workplace. I like my job; interesting tasks (mostly), good salary, friendly boss, good benefits etc.

What can I do to be more productive when at work? Often I end up taking longer days, because I tend to think I have to make up, for the time I wasted, which has started to be a pretty bad circle, because these longer days kills my motivation even more.

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    Frame challenge: Why do you feel you owe you your employer a specific work product for a specific day? Have you been informed of complaints about your productivity? Is your job in jeopardy? Is your company in danger of going under if you sandbag it during WAH days? – Adonalsium Aug 24 '18 at 13:09

13 Answers 13

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I work at home two days a week, so I know where you're coming from here.

What I do is be clear about what I'm going to do that day and what needs to be completed. I generally do the same things as I'm in the office - a cycle of work and coffee.

I get distracted by websites sometimes, so I just close down the browser while I'm working (I use different browsers for work and non-work, and I find this allows me to concentrate more if I need to look things up or access the intranet).

When I work at home, I start work a lot earlier (since I don't travel) and I take a longer lunch-break. This gives me time to get lunch, play with the dogs a bit and relax. Then I get back to work again.

If I really need to concentrate, then I use headphones - this helps to block out distractions and allows me to time manage (I'll do something when this album finishes). Headphones are the most effective focus tool for me, both at home and office.

If you still feel distracted and demotivated, use post-it notes to remind you of your tasks for the day - remove each one as the task is completed. You don't really need to reward yourself after each task as each task might have a different effort attached to it. Take a break at the same time you would in the office.

If you really find yourself distracted by other websites at work, consider editing your hosts file on your work computer.

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    "... I start work a lot earlier (since I don't travel) and I take a longer lunch-break." Effectively turning your working day into 2 shorter ones, which works wonders for many people. Very good approach. – Mast Aug 23 '18 at 13:49
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    I especially like this separate browser idea. – user1602 Aug 23 '18 at 14:12
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    The browser approach works very well for me. At some point I blocked facebook in my 'work' browser because I had gotten a bad habit of opening facebook whenever I didn't know what to do. – Summer Aug 23 '18 at 14:39
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    Editing your hosts file on your work computer can also help. Or scripting it to change during working hours. I know it's easy to change back, but it takes a conscious effort to find and edit it (and by then you know you're doing wrong). – user44108 Aug 23 '18 at 14:41
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    Thanks for the tip on different browsers. By the way, Google Chrome supports multiple accounts with potentially different color schemes (which works great for web testing as well). – Kirill Bulygin Aug 23 '18 at 16:16
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There are a few things you can try to keep yourself going throughout the day.

Make a plan
You know from experience how many tasks you can achieve so at the start of your day, plan how many of them you believe you can get through and start working on them.

Prioritize
Decide which task excites you most and, depending on what works better for you, do it first or leave it until last.

Rewards
Say to yourself, "I'm going to do this, then I'm going to..." It might be get a coffee, taking a walk or playing Angry Birds for 5 minutes. Give yourself something to look forward to when the task is complete.

Music / noise
Sitting in an office by yourself is going to be quiet. Put on some music or a story. Something to break the silence.

Time management
Start and finish work at the time you would if there were others in the office. Don't get into the circle of working late because you think you should.

23

If you're using your own computer, it's worth creating a session on your OS just for work, so that when you log into your professional session the mindset will follow. Alternatively when you log out at the end of the day you truly log out.

It is also useful if you have specific packages or programs to install. Keeping everything separated and keeping sessions open ready to use without managing different accounts (eg. Skype, Slack, etc).

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    I use a similar approach, except I have a work desk which I use exclusively for work: when my laptop is there I am working, when it's not I am not. The physical separation helps immensely in putting me in the right mindset. – TemporalWolf Aug 23 '18 at 21:46
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    Exactly. We can generalize my post to an overall attitude. Wake up, shower and dress as if you'll be on site. Loving your job might help though ! – Totem Aug 24 '18 at 8:00
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    For us techy people, what specifically do you mean by "create a session"? That sounds interesting. – YetAnotherRandomUser Aug 24 '18 at 17:31
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    @YetAnotherRandomUser: Not sure what Totem had in mind, but I used two different user accounts, with different backgrounds, music files, prefered programs, bookmarks etc. gilhad-atwork and gilhad-athome was two totally unrelated users, who just shared the same HW, but their files does not overlap. – gilhad Aug 25 '18 at 9:04
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Break your larger work up into small tasks you can complete quickly, and track them manually. Instead of being distracted (taking a break from an overwhelming or large task), focus on completing the next small task. The reward of completion comes quickly so you can focus on it.

Strictly limit your working hours. Do not work late because you were distracted. That only enables you to be distracted (with an excuse you will make it up). Instead force yourself to be productive during your limited time - and face the real consequences if you don't.

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I have been working from home for ~20 years.

I also work in various offices (both for my company & customer's), so I have exposure to both environments.

Remember: working from home should not be the same as living at work ;)

I have found the following of benefit - to keep motivated (as per the OP question):

  • Do complex work when you naturally work best - some people are morning people, some aren't :)
  • Keep a separate area for work (a spare bedroom if an "office" room isn't available) - when you have a break / finish work, go elsewhere.
  • Keep some form of work timer, so that you KNOW how long you have worked today. I need to charge my time to different clients, so I need to know who to charge my time to, but even if you're not paid per-hour, at least you can track your work/life balance.
  • Don't beat yourself up. I can go into the office and find people who chat all day long, but they appear to be working... when you are alone at home, it can be implied that you're not working "hard enough". This alone can de-motivate

    And... watch the TED Talks video by Tim Urban "Inside the mind of a master procrastinator" - it will explain the problem

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I have struggled with this problem myself, and personally I've found that leaving the house, and working from a coffee shop, library or a park is very helpful.

This will not prevent you from procrastinating — however, I have found it beneficial.

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It's hard to pretend to work in an environment you are normally using for leisure.

Declare a room as your office, and only as your office

This means, you are only in this room for your work, no leisure at all. This can be an extra room at your house or even an external rented single room or shared office space.

The big advantage on this is that you will have a dedicated mindset as soon as you enter your office room.

I for my self probably prefer an external room for which I need to leave my house, so I can separate the mindsets even more.

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If you'd like to discuss work, then you can do this yourself by writing notes. Personally, I use Trac even though I've been working alone at home on a personal project (for two years now). I've found that writing hierarchical tickets and comments is as important as using a VCS for code. Even when I feel I know everything that I'll write in a note, unexpected ideas or a more solid plan often come up while writing. I try to write notes both before doing a task (to plan) and after that (to reflect), which is like the famous "Red-Green-Refactor" (TDD) cycle.

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One thing that keeps me motivated when being in the office is the exchange with colleagues: sharing small bits about the progress made and the challenges encountered reminds me that my team is working together to create something of value.

It needs active work for this kind of communication to happen when working remotely. Here are some approaches that have helped me in the past:

  • Daily meetings each morning for the whole team to discuss recent accomplishments and goals for the day (a standard for agile teams, but also works fine in other constellations) -- remote workers can participate by phone or video conference.
  • A team or company wide instant messaging solution (e.g. Slack) -- makes it much easier to share small bits of information with your coworkers.
  • Try to establish one day a week where everybody tries to come into the office.
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I've been working alone pretty much all my life. Motivation is a part of organization. There are about as many things you can do to make yourself more productive alone as to make your employees more productive in the office. Some are different, some are the same. Each production has its own optimal setup and each person has their own optimal configuration. It takes time to get there. Here is my work space setup for science/software enginnering:

  • very powerful computer. GPU, tons of ram, etc. Whenever I do things, they happen fast.
  • full permissions. I have full control over my workstation and I tweak everything I can to make it work just as I want it.
  • all the necessary tools, organized and in order:
    • large clean desk, stack of clean paper for sketches, pencil, eraser,
    • auxiliary computers: raspberry pi with linux, 32 bit computer, etc. All positioned perfectly (from my perspective) around my work space.
    • whiteboard + markers. I use it instead of stickers. Stickers are messy and mess is contagious. If you have your own private wall, use it!
  • designated space for food on my desk so I can work and eat if I want to. Always kept clean.
  • schedule for ALL routine tasks. If you do the same thing every day, schedule it at the optimal time: lunch, coffee/tea, workout, family time, games, etc. It doesn't have to be strict. +/- 1 hour is strict enough for me.

Now all of this setup can be configured in great detail to each person. If you work alone, you should have freedom to tweak everything any way you want. Here are some of my personal touches:

  • ear plugs instead of headphones
  • wooden pencils instead of mechanical. Sharpening wood relieves my stress :X
  • answer interesting questions on SE for a break
  • automatic toothpick dispenser. This is more important than it sounds.
  • go to bed early, wake up early
  • a copy of Atlas Srugged to read to make me feel grateful that I am alone and nobody is trying to stop me.

Also it helps to work in a team for a while and fail at it. Then recalling these specific failures will be your motivation to work alone.

Keep in mind, humans are rarely really alone. Whether you have your partners, contractors, customers, family, pets, cleaning lady, pizza delivery guy, etc, they all help you do your work and are a part of your team. Treat them as such and enjoy their company.

Finally, it is all for nothing unless you love what you do and have great goals to achieve (whatever they may be). Otherwise nothing will help, whether you are alone or in a company.

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If you use music (and a number of contributors have suggested this) then choose well. I find calm music with a shallow dynamic range, no lyrics and that I am familiar with works best. I use a popular streaming app and their "music for concentraction" playlist is greatly more helpful for my productivity than anything else. If you always use the same music that you find works then its familiarity can deliver improved concentration almost immediately.

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I often end up wasting my time with other things that has nothing to do with work.

I keep a timesheet of the hours I work, e.g. "from this time to that time I worked on such-and-such" (or "... I continued to work on such and such").

The timestamps, at the start and the end of each billable period, are accurate to the minute. There are usually several (sometimes short) billable periods during a work day.

If or when I want to stop working (e.g. to do something not work-related ,with a web site like stack exchange) then I "clock off". It's easy (like, just a mouse click) to clock on and clock off; so I can do it often or at will during the day.

I avoid not working while I'm clocked on: if I want to stop working I clock off.

Therefore when I not-work I do it with a clean conscience (knowing that I'm not billing the client or employer for time spent not-working).

And billable time is maybe more focused (knowing when I'm on the clock and/or off the clock).

I do this (i.e. keep a time-sheet) when I'm working in an office too, fwiw, so I can review how I've spent my time.

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One thing which I have found that can help is to find a spot dedicated to work.

If you are at same place as where you have your free time there is a chance you will not associate that place with work but with free time and you may get stuck in your typical free-time behaviours.

So instead go to a place which you make your work-place. It could be a dedicated room in your home or a cafe downtown or library or co-working spot. Just any place you can learn to associate with focusing on work.

Cafes can be great.

  1. They are usually quite calm and quiet maybe a little casual chatting in the background or some soft music.
  2. They often serve coffee and lighter foods which can be nice to stay refreshed while working,
  3. They often have wifi - (just be careful about IT-security, use secure connections to office et.c.).

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