Before we jump into this topic, I think it is important to tell you a bit about myself. This will give you a better understanding of how I designed this productivity system. It's also worth mentioning that what works for me might not work for you, so take it with a grain of salt and feel free to share your own insights in the comments.
I am a full-time software developer at Thinslices, and I also have Team Leader responsibilities. Like many of us, for the past 4 months I’ve been working from home. I also have a toddler who is in his curiosity & house exploration stage. The good part is that it has a full-time mother, so I don't have to do too much kid management 😂.
Before this pandemic, my working days were different. It was easier for me to have a work-life balance. I had some segue time that separated my personal and family time from my working time. I used to walk to and from work every day for 20 – 30 mins. This was my segue moment. During this time, I would gather my thoughts and get in or out of my work mode.
When I started working from home, everything became like a tangled ball of twine: family time mixed with work time and, only on some rare and precious days, I would find some extra time for personal & professional development - also known as me time. But there were days when I had absolutely no me time: I just jumped from sleeping to work and from work to family time.
My productivity journey
Using what I knew best from my programming experience - the concept of separation of concerns - I identified my major challenge regarding productivity: I needed to find a way to organize my day so that I could have enough time for my 3 priorities: myself (for my personal and professional development), my family and my work.
As a result, I set up the following structure for my working days:
- Me time (2 hours for personal and professional development)
- Work time
- Family time
- Work time
- Family and me-time
To make them work, I combine active work with family time. I’m also flexible and adapt my schedule to my child's needs or to my work responsibilities.
Here’s how my typical working day unfolds
I wake up at 6.50am and I start my morning routine: the usual freshening up and my daily cup of warm water with lime and turmeric. The next task is a 30-min reading session. I'm currently reading two books - our Thinslices book club novel, Man's search for meaning by Victor Frankl, and a personal development book, Will Power Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney.
As of this week, after the reading session, I’ve introduced a 30-min walk into my routine. This way I continue the reading (using the audio version of the books) and I make sure I am physically active. There are studies showing that taking walks adjusts your sleep cycle if you do them early in the morning. During walks, I sometimes listen to music, podcasts, or just try to be present and see what's going on around me.
After the morning routine, depending on the family dynamics, it’s either family time or planning time.
I continue my working day with the Daily planning, and this is the perfect solution for me to make sure I split my working time from my family time. The daily planning is in symmetry with the Daily review (detailed later on).
Here's a checklist I made for myself which you're welcome to try:
- What am I grateful for today? - when I answer this question, I put myself in a positive state and I allow myself to be aware of my emotions.
- What initiatives will I work on today? (work, family, personal objectives). For me, initiatives are weekly actions toward my quarterly and monthly objectives. I plan a daily set of tasks that contribute to achieving those initiatives.
- What are my priorities? After I write them down I estimate them in Pomodoros and create a daily timeline.
- How am I setting myself up for success? – this is where I see what I can eliminate and what I can delegate, to gain efficiency.
- What are my concerns? - I go through my calendar to see if there is something I can reschedule and if there are any new meetings that might prevent me from achieving my daily tasks.
The Pomodoro technique is useful for me in my daily planning and daily review. The number of Pomodoros I get done every day is like a metric for productivity. My goal is to have 10-12 Pomodoros per day. If I have more or less Pomodoros per day, I have to see what was different: what worked and what didn’t.
I finish my working day with the daily review. This is when I switch from working mode to family mode or to personal time. And here is my checklist for daily review:
- What was good today?
- What was not so good today?
- What have I learned today?
- What will I do differently tomorrow?
- What are the highlights of the day?
- What leftovers do I have for tomorrow?
- Update tracker
- What am I grateful for today?
I strongly recommend you use the leftovers exercise to move work items to the next day and stay connected to your other plans or priorities. When I do this exercise, I put the leftovers on the list for the next day. When I skip it, it feels like I have an earworm whispering work tasks all afternoon and into the evening.
I keep an updated tracking system for each habit. At the moment, I use it for waking up and for reading. And I note whether or not I managed to adopt these habits.
And as you can see, my symmetry reflects in my questions from the checklist. I start and end the day with this question “What am I grateful for today?”.
As I have a daily retrospective, I also do a retrospective at the end of the week to see what worked or what could need improvement. It’s mostly the agile process put in place for the objectives and key results I want to achieve.
Tips for creating your work from home productivity system
Besides organizing my day, I made the following changes // I used the following tips that support my work from home system:
- organize my workspace
- minimize distractions as much as possible
- use notebooks
- create new habits
- set up weekly and monthly objectives
I had some experience working from home even before this pandemic (learning days & remote working days are useful perks in Thinslices). But every time I worked from home, I would sit in the living room, which is also my toddler’s playground. You probably know this but it really can’t be overstated: if a toddler sees you, they’ll want to engage and spend time with you.
In my process of trying to fix my living room issue, I decided to create my home office in “the room of hidden things”. I like natural light, so I arranged my desk facing the window. This physical isolation between home and “the office” helped me a lot on the productivity side.
Another environment-related improvement I tried was to have everything I need on my desk before starting the workday (e.g. laptop, earplugs, coffee, water etc.).
Reduce distractions and minimize notifications
Even though my main focus is to deliver on the project and ensure my team members have everything they need, there are other events happening in the company that frequently require my attention. So, I found these solutions that work for me:
- I set a time slot for unplanned events each day – from 5 pm to 6 pm - I take this time to solve any unplanned issues or I schedule them for the next few days in the same slot. This helps me keep my focus and achieve my daily objectives, so that I feel like I’m creating value. And, if time is really short, I politely decline all initiatives that are not directly connected with delivery on the project.
- I set a time slot for catching up with my colleagues. It’s only during this time slot that I check Slack or my email. I keep my project Slack channel on at all times to solve blockers and ensure good communication with the team, but I avoid going on other channels outside of that time slot. I implemented this idea because I know that if it's anything urgent, I'll be contacted on the phone.
The core of my productivity - the notebook
I have an average of two Moleskine notebooks per year, that I use to take notes and plan my day. I like to write and to feel the pen on paper. I adopted this method of taking notes because I wanted to reduce the time spent in front of the computer. Another reason was the fact that I wanted to reduce distractions; if you take digital notes it is even easier to be distracted by something else (e.g. Facebook, YouTube, emails, etc.)
Now I use the rocketbook. This notebook provides a classic pen and paper experience yet is built for the digital age. You can transform everything you write in a PDF and, after that, you can erase the content from the agenda using only a drop of water and a towel. This way, you can reuse the agenda.
I use bullet journaling to take notes, keep track of my tasks, and keep a journal.
Implement new habits
I strongly recommend Will Power Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength if you want to create a new habit. My main learning point from this book is to choose one new habit to implement at a time. When you try to do a lot of things at once you don't have enough willpower to get all those things done, especially if those actions involve the use of willpower.
One of the habits that I want to integrate into my daily routine is to wake up at 6 am but I take it step by step. To make sure I succeed in adopting this new habit, I wake up 10 minutes earlier each week, compared to the previous one. I try to be aware of my bedtime hour and make sure that I get 7 hours of sleep every night. I also create the architecture for this habit and my phone is in the kitchen, so I have to get out of bed to stop the alarm. This way, I’m not relying only on my will power, but I make my environment discipline me and it's much easier.
Weekly and monthly objectives
As I’ve already told you, one of my struggles from the beginning of WFH was how to make time for my personal and professional development. Organizing my time was one of the solutions but I also needed to know what I wanted to achieve. So I used the OKR model to set up objectives and key results that I want to accomplish. This helped me gain clarity of my goals. Now I use monthly and quarterly goals for both my professional and my personal development.
At the beginning of the month, I plan my goals answering these questions:
- What personal goals do I want to achieve in the month ahead?
- What professional goals do I want to achieve in the month ahead?
And on the last day of the month, I do a review of personal and professional goals:
- Review personal goals
- Review professional goals
Every Sunday morning, I review personal & professional initiatives and plan the next week:
- What personal initiatives do I need to do in the week ahead?
- What professional initiatives do I need to do in the week ahead?
The system isn't perfect, but I try to improve it with my daily, weekly and monthly reviews. I gather feedback from every part of the system so that I can quickly figure out what works for me and what doesn’t. And I improve every day by 0.01%. It’s like in software development, I just iterate and improve every day.