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6 ways to stay sane while working from home

Since I joined Percona, my work/life balance has changed. I used to work eight-hour days and go home, period. Now I find it’s sometimes difficult to keep good boundaries between work and the rest of my life. I also found that 8 hours in my new job left me much more tired than 8 in my old job. I’ve had to really work hard to understand what changed and how to keep this more in balance, and I’ve gotten help from a number of other people. In the end, a deep examination of my habits was necessary. After all that work, I thought it might be helpful to share the results with others.

What changed?

A lot of things changed from my old office job to my new work-at-home job. I’ve come to believe these are the key factors involved:

  • Working at home. Working from a home office means I don’t have a clear physical boundary between me and my job. I have a dedicated office space – I don’t work from my living space, generally speaking. But even that isn’t enough. The computer is just there in the other room – I could stop in on my way to the kitchen and see whether that long-running job is done, couldn’t I?
  • No easy excuses. The convenience of having my office just down the hall, and always having a work telephone nearby, removes a number of psychological safeguards that used to protect my private life from intrusions at work. Most of these safeguards were subconscious. If someone asked me “Can you attend this conference call at 8PM?” the answer used to be “no, I go home at 5PM.” I never realized how strong a barrier that is. Now that it’s gone, I have to actually say “I choose not to do what you are asking me to do.” The people-pleasing, confrontation-avoiding part of me finds this hard to do.
  • International clients, many clients. Working with customers in different timezones is challenging. Sometimes people are literally on the other side of the world, and there is zero overlap between our normal work hours. Most of the work we do is in smaller bits, so I’m going to have to work with several clients in different timezones every day.
  • International teammates. Like our clients, our team is distributed. It’s spread from eastern Russia to California. Team meetings, conference calls, working together with another person on a task – all add pressure on the 8-hour day. Without accommodating people’s schedules, one is reduced to email with a huge delay built in – if I get up and don’t answer email from Novosibirsk right away, that colleague might be in bed by the time I do reply to it, and we’re going to have a communication bandwidth of about 2 emails per day.
  • Learning new things. A lot of what I’m doing is new to me. Technically, there simply isn’t any traditional job in the world that exposes you to the variety of things we see. The amount of new things to learn is staggering in every way. Managerially, I’m not experienced at leading a distributed team (and not many other people in the world are, either, so there’s comparatively little help out there). Sometimes I’m just not as productive in some areas, because I’m constantly climbing new, steep learning curves. Things pile up and create stress, and that creates pressure to get more stuff done, which strains the length of the workday.
  • Having fun. I’ve never had this much fun in my life. This is a very rewarding job. I feel I’m making more of a difference, putting my talents to use better, growing faster, and learning more than I ever have. Additionally, the difference between work and hobby is very unclear sometimes. Is Maatkit work or play? It’s hard to stop.

Those are the main factors that I found at the root of longer work hours. Now let’s see some strategies I’ve adopted to help bring this back to a more comfortable place, spending fewer hours and making them less draining.

Strategy 1: Flex the time

Learning what to change begins with learning what is in my control. One thing that’s not in my control (given that I keep the job I’ve chosen) is the reality that clients and colleagues are all over the world. Working effectively with them is going to be nearly-to-fully impossible in any given block of 8 hours. I might need to be up at 5AM or even earlier for one person, and stay up until 10PM or later for another.

A key insight here, which I missed for a long time, is that this doesn’t mean I need to work from 5AM to 10PM continuously. So I do four things to keep the hours-at-the-keyboard down:

  1. Break up the day. I might start work early in the morning, sign off and go for a run, come back and work a little while, take a long lunch and spend time with my wife, go meet a friend, come back, work some more, take a nap, and do a little more.
  2. Meet in the middle. I ask other people, including clients, to accommodate a little, too. I show up early, they stay up late. Likewise, I don’t try to hold myself to an ideal standard. I’m not always going to be there. We’re going to have some overlap, and I’ll be with them “enough,” but not as much as they might like. We’re not in the same timezone, so we don’t get 8 shared hours period, and halfway-between is good enough.
  3. Stagger the days. If I’m going to be doing something early one day, I’ll try to schedule the late work for another day, and take off early. Other days I’ll just start late, and do non-work things in the morning.
  4. Schedule the time. Scheduling specific times – exact times, from X to Y, literally on the calendar, is a huge help. I know what the personal-productivity books tell you: distinguish between tasks and appointments; never-ever-ever schedule tasks/obligations on the calendar. But seriously, things have to be planned, and you have to allocate time for them. If you don’t add them to a calendar and see how much time they add up to, how are you going to prevent yourself from overbooking and know when you’ll be able to get things done? My experience has been the exact opposite of what the personal-productivity gurus recommend. If I have some tasks to do, I’m going to block out time to do them, and that’s what I’m going to work on during that time. I’m about 50% good at this, I’d say. I’m not too rigid; I’m diligent enough to be reasonably effective; I leave time for unexpected things; and I have more improvement to do still.

Google Calendar rocks, by the way. I rely very heavily on it. It’s the best such tool I’ve ever seen.

Strategy 2: Minimize peripheral things

Don’t try to “friend” me on Facebook, because I’m not there. Gadgets, gizmos, services and “things” all occupy time. I try to keep things as minimal as I can. I look for ways to have fewer things to carry, plug in, lose, find, remember passwords for, check up on, etc. I use LinkedIn, but probably less than 20 times a year. I don’t use any other social networks. (I have a Facebook account but I completely ignore it. It’s only there so I can test-drive apps for clients.) I don’t text-message people except (rarely) for business, probably 10 times a year. I don’t follow people’s blogs, I don’t keep up with mailing lists, I generally don’t “do” Twitter. I speed-read the few blogs I subscribe to in Google Reader – usually I don’t read them at all, and I’m more likely to unsubscribe than to subscribe to anything. My nearly-constant mantra is less is more. Heck, I didn’t even have a cellphone until last year, and I’d get rid of it if I could.

Strategy 3: Prefer quality time

Spending time with people is important, but not all time is equal. These days, I usually choose to talk with people by voice. I’ve found this much better than email, IRC, etc. That’s scattered, accidental time with very little value. People know that – they value it cheaply. Phone or VOIP calls are concentrated, quality time.

Strategy 4: Separate work and life

A lot of things I do are so similar for work, hobby and life that it’s hard to keep them separate. Got personal email? Yep. Got work email? Yep. They’re the same, right? Email is email, isn’t it?

No they aren’t, and conflating them has a high cost. Work email is for work, and personal email is not. If I sent personal mail through my work account, I’d paint myself into a corner. Suppose I wanted to make plans to meet my brother and go to an event. If I sent that email from my work account, I wouldn’t be able to check for his response without also looking at a bunch of work email. Similarly, if I let a client use my personal email address, I’d never have any peace.

I keep the two rigorously separate. Not only do I have different accounts, but I don’t even have them in the same program. I use a browser-based email for personal accounts, and I use Thunderbird for work, and never the twain shall meet.

I have only one computer, because I think the environmental cost of a computer makes it unacceptable to have a separate one for work and personal, but I make sure work “stuff” doesn’t auto-start on my computer. When I start my browser, it goes to my personal email. (I actually have different browser profiles for work and personal, too). When I start up, Skype doesn’t start. IRC doesn’t start. Email doesn’t start. All of these things have to be explicitly started up when I want to work.

Strategy 5: Don’t multi-task

People talk all the time about multi-tasking. The truth is, most people can’t do it at all – not even a little bit. (See that car swerving in the lane ahead of you?) No – what we do is switch among tasks. So-called multi-tasking is really fragmenting your attention. It is one of the best ways to kill productivity. It’s also extremely disrespectful, not only to the other drivers on the road, but to the other person on the phone, or the client who’s paying you hundreds of dollars an hour. How would you feel if you were paying someone for premium services and he was Skype-chatting with someone else on your nickel?

If I’m going to have pressure on my time, and fall behind, and all the things I talked about earlier, then at least I’m going to try make my time as productive as I can. I try to do one and only one thing at a time. (This is probably more important for me than for most people. I am far less capable of paying attention to several things at once than other people I know – just try to have a conversation with me when there’s a TV on nearby, and you’ll see.)

I also found that multi-tasking was the cause of the high emotional and physical drain in my new job. A day of multi-tasking leaves me tense, irritable, tired, distracted – basically stressed out to the point of being worthless. A day of single-tasking is pleasant.

I avoid multi-tasking in two ways. Number one, by minimizing “stuff,” as I talked about earlier. I have as few gadgets, services, tools, and other clutter as I can get away with. Number two, by making these as unobtrusive as I can, which I’ll talk about next.

Strategy 6: Ignore things and people

I don’t understand who invented balloon notifications. Everything has them these days: Skype, Pidgin, email programs. Skype even wants to nag you when people have birthdays! The first thing I do is turn them off. I get no notification of people coming online or offline, no notification of incoming email – nothing. The exceptions are: when someone calls me in Skype I see a call dialog so I can actually accept the call, and when someone pings me on the company IRC channel my tray icon blinks. (I haven’t figured out yet how to disable blinking per-channel.) I also have every possible privacy guard configured; by default, I want to be invisible on Skype, for example.

When it’s time to check email, I’ll switch to Thunderbird. Actually, it’s just as likely that I’ll start Thunderbird – I’m likely to shut it down instead of just minimizing it. When it’s time to chat with someone, I’ll open Skype and look to see if they’re online. Again, it’s actually more likely that I’ll send them an email and schedule a time to talk with them.

Some people have their computers configured to talk to them. When I’m calling them I’ll send them a link through a chat program, and I hear “MESSAGE FROM BARON! AITCH TEE TEE PEE COLON SLASH SLASH DOUBLE YOU DOUBLE YOU DOUBLE YOU DOT ….” in the background. I would murder my computer if it did that to me.

I also don’t let people casually interrupt me. My favorite example of this is Skype. People see me online, and they open a chat window and say “hi baron”. They’re generally not going to get a reply. Maybe if I said “hi” back, they’d say “have you finished configuring server2 yet?” Or “we are going to need you guys to help, we’re creating a new Facebook app and it’s going to take about 100 hours of work.” Or maybe they’d say “o hai, u can haz cheezburger?” They need to start with “here’s what I want from you,” not “hi.”

Saying “hi” is implicitly saying “if you reply, you agree that you’re available right now, and you grant me permission to interrupt you, even though you don’t know what I’m going to interrupt you about.” And my non-response is me implicitly saying “Tell me what you want, and I’ll reply if now’s a good time to talk about it.” Actually, if they check my little mood message, they’ll see this: “Please tell me what you want. I am unlikely to respond to ‘hi’”. And when I do respond, I’m following my own rule: yes I am available now, and you are not interrupting me. Oh, I also say “I’m on the phone” or “I only have 5 minutes” right up-front.

This may sound rude, but it’s not. My clients know that the proper way to interact is through our issue-tracking system, and my colleagues know that I’ll either get back to them when I can, or they can send email. Ignoring intrusions like this is actually the polite thing to do. How many times have you been at a counter conducting some business, and the person behind the counter interrupts you to pick up the phone? That is rude. I was there first. Somehow we’ve gotten this backwards idea that it’s good manners to interrupt a person because a device is making noise. I also believe that people subconsciously get the message: “hey, Baron isn’t available now because he’s working with someone else. But I can feel good about that, because when he’s working with me, I know I’ll have his undivided attention.” This matters.

I digress, but not much. My point is that doing one thing at a time, steadfastly refusing interruptions (with appropriate judgment applied given the context of who and what’s going on, of course), is the polite, respectful, and productive thing to do – and one of the best ways I’ve found to achieve this is to mercilessly turn off all the attention-getting features of the tools I use.

Conclusion

I feel that I have a long ways to go, but I think I’ve figured out what’s wrong, and the last few months seem to be making a difference for me. I spend less time at the computer, I work more productively, and I feel a lot better – after a day at work I usually feel fresh and energized, as I used to. These days I am able to make time to do things I haven’t done for years, such as playing music. I’m still trying to pay attention and find places to improve, but a working recipe for me so far seems to be introducing flexibility, minimizing distractions, keeping things separate, and maximizing personal interactions.

Posted on Sun, Sep 27, 2009. Approximately 2800 Words.

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