Thoughts and Takeaways on My Early Months of Working Remotely

The world we work in today is not the world of Leonardo Da Vinci, of Michelangelo, of Marie Curies, of Ernest Hemingway, or even Bill Gates in his most productive years in the early years of Microsoft.

It is a new world, empowered and entranced by the rapid-fire introduction of new technologies—a world where our metaphysical front-door can be opened anywhere, where a “room of one’s own” no longer means you’re all alone. One can make something meaningful anywhere, together and make a revolution while doing so.

We can take this as an opportunity to look in a different way on how we live and work and actually fixing what’s not working, or ignore it and pretend we don’t have to change. And later would be the last to realize it.

I believe remote or distributed work is already happening, and maybe because it actually works. I have been working remotely for a few months. Being new to this work style, in my early days of working remotely I focused on how to make the most important things work easily. That said, even until today, I still have rooms to improve.

But for now, I’d like to share some thoughts, perspective, and ideas that I gathered so far. The concept of full time remote itself is entirely new and still a rare condition among here in Indonesia, so I think it would be interesting to share my perspective on how working remotely here looks like.

So, it has been almost eight months I work remotely as an engineer, in one of the tech unicorn companies in Indonesia based in Jakarta. In the early days, the main reason I requested my employer to work full-time remotely was a personal one: I have a plan to settle in a city that relatively far from Jakarta. So I would like to experiment and see how working remotely might work or suites me in the future. By doing it early, I hope I can be ready, and have tools along with best practices needed when I decided to make significant life changes, like raising a family. So I can make the most in a day, without sacrificing either productivity and quality of work, or family in the long term.

Later on, I realized that one of the best reasons anyone chooses to work remotely is so they can control their work environment. That includes eliminating distractions in open offices space, no more two hours commute, or having to stay late or come ridiculously early in the morning so you can have space without being bothered. All of that and still have a calmer mind throughout the day.

And that becomes my metric on how to measure a good work strategy: so I can have a lot more good days.

What it means to have a good day, anyway?

Everyone would have a different answer to this question. And my answer too could change over time. How I define a good day for me today might be different in five years from now. But right now, a good day is when I have:

  • A productive working day (measured by how much Pomodoro’s of Deep Work I got done), working on something interesting is a plus.
  • Learn something new,
  • Read books for an hour,
  • Run for at least 5km a day, and
  • Having time spent with friends and family.

And yes, I deliberately track this on a Google Sheet document. Why? Have you ever realize that sometimes, the day ended and we are not feeling good about it. There are two primary reasons: (1) The workday is being sliced into tiny, fleeting work moments by the onslaught of distractions (both physical and virtual). And (2) an unhealthy obsession with growth sets unrealistic expectations that stress people out.

In one hour, we all have exactly 60 minutes long. But the quality of it could vary depends on whether you are using it for multitasking or not, and the quality that we actually want is 1 x 60, not 4 x 15 or 6 x 10. A fractured hour isn’t really an hour—it’s a mess. Normal human brains not fully functional in the environment that demands a lot of context switches.

And between all those context switches and attempts at doing multiple things at the same time, you have to add buffer time. Time for your head to leave the last item and get into the next thing. This is how you end up thinking “What did I actually do today?” when the clock turns to five, and you supposedly spent eight hours at the office. You know you were there, but the hours had no weight, so they slipped away with nothing meaningful to show.

And where is the work happens anyway?

When you really need to get work done, you rarely go into the office. Or, if you must, it’s early in the morning, late at night, or on the weekends or at least when you are wearing a noise-canceling headphone. Basically, all the times when no one else is around. At that point it’s not even “the office”—it’s just a quiet space where you won’t be bothered.

With that in mind, my take on working remotely is to give me more options and strategies to achieve a lot more good days. I still come to the office especially to attend essential meetings or catching up with friends and coworkers, but I want to do it deliberately, not because the sake of having schedules and to looks busy.

Things that matter

Software engineers, writers, and pretty much the rest of the knowledge workers function in maker’s schedule. Having some uninterrupted hours in the day really is essential. That could be continuously achieved every day only if you have the freedom to manage your day time. And a more in-depth look on this matter has been one of the things that interested me since I read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden and his search and reflections on solitude. And the opportunity to arrange how I fill my day gives me a miniature version of having more solitude in a day. So I can exercise my self-control to overcome temptations and distractions. A valuable skill in the modern world.

But I need a benchmark, a base comparison so I can quantify my weaknesses and try to improve what’s missing. A schedule, a routine that has been proven to make a man had a well-spent life. So, I was trying to mimic the most part of Benjamin Franklin’s daily schedule. Benjamin Franklin didn’t become one of history’s greatest inventors just by sitting around. His daily schedule was pretty intense:

But to think about it, in my industry, it’s a common thing to say that you stay up late until 2am to code. Compare to that, the Founding Father’s schedule is a lot healthier in the long run.

This kind of schedule becomes one of my orientation while working remotely: to adjust, refine, and improve my own daily routine. Of course, there are days that went differently, sometimes I change my schedule on purposes, sometimes I don’t even care about it. I also schedule every once in a while where I have one full day on the weekend without doing anything but taking a long walk or reading books.

But it’s always nice to have a plan and system that you can follow every day.

Along the way, I gather insights and write it down in my journal. Building strategies and collect best practices, and document it is one of the exciting parts of my day as working remotely.

I am doing all of this because the routine is an important part that will impact my life in the long term scale, it’s a compound interest effect. Like being 1% more effective every day will give you an immense result in a year, this also how big problems mostly emerges. For example, things that lead to mental illness.

Stress compounds. The frustration of a traffic jam. The worry of making ends meet. The strain of slightly high blood pressure. By themselves, these common causes of stress are manageable. But when they persist for years, little stresses compound into serious health issues.

So yes, routine matters a lot for me.

A Day in A life

I usually wake up at around 4am. I don’t use an alarm, I tend to be able to wake up early by going to bed earlier, and adjust my circadian rhythm by doing a morning run, meditate, afternoon long-walk, and adopt a shutdown routine by not having screentime on past 8pm.

As my intention in the early days of working remotely, I try to imitate my deep work hours to Benjamin Franklin’s. Frankly, I am not there yet, but some days I do. And it feels great. In the morning until 11am I’m pretty much invisible. It’s hard to reach me out through messaging apps or social media at these time, and it is by design. If you have something urgent, you have to call me, because my phone would be still under the bed and most likely in offline mode.

I use the morning time to do high-level energy tasks that need focus like making progress on big projects, learn new technology, or read technical books.

In the morning I don’t really eat big meals for breakfast, most often I just eat fruits or a slice of bread. And at 11am, I usually take lunch outside as I can use a long walk to get some air. After that, I will take a quick nap for 20 minutes. And then come back to work, mostly on low energy level things including corresponding, replying emails and chats, code and test some components, and do some reading.

My social life mostly happens around past 5pm. And lastly, at past 8pm, umm, I tend to be very stupid at this time, and we are not going to talk about this.

A routine helps me function. I set aside certain hours that are going to be working hours. Wake up at the same time, start at the same time, eat at the same time, finish at the same time, etc.

Sometimes a change of scenery is nice so you can go someplace else. Many people like coffee shops, sometime I do too, but not every day. I’d instead go to the park and sit at a picnic table. Coffee shops are too noisy, and the wifi is usually nearly useless. Better to just go sit in a park, tether up, and enjoy the sunshine and peace.

Tools and Other Things I’ve tried

While working remotely in 2018, I tried a lot more new things. I have lived in various cities: Bogor, Depok, Jakarta, and Bandung. Managed to run 1000km in total, have been visited 3 countries (Singapore, Japan, Canada) — two of them are for conferences and another one for a vagabonding, writes journal almost daily, and have been presented some talks along the way. For me, this is a good start. To actually do things that matter for me and the opportunity to learn more about my self along the way.

In Indonesia, almost all major tech companies based in Jakarta. But after more than two years living there, I just want to try to breathe cleaner air. Don’t get me wrong, Jakarta is still a good city and one of the best if you’re going to work remotely from here, especially if what you really care is just to get works done.

It simply because you have a lot more access to resources, people, and professional communities here than in most other cities in Indonesia. If you want to work outside for free, you can work in the National Library near the City Hall (the buildings are quite comfortable, and they have the canteen, cozy and quite multimedia room, and a mosque inside). After that you can go to Gelora Bung Karno stadium to do an evening run and have a lot of options to go to. But you have to deal with traffic jam and a high dose of pollution almost every day.

If you can afford enough budget for a slightly higher cost of lifestyle, I find that it is quite useful to move from one cafe to another everytime you get two or three hours of work done. And of course, the time in between those work times you can use it for a break like to do a long walk in the park, take a quick nap, or just go home playing with your pet.

On a daily basis, I use these apps:

  • Things app for the daily list,
  • A Pomodoro timer (could be anything, including the build in alarm in your phone),
  • Mindnode to organize things in a more significant point of view,
  • TiddlyWiki to capture and organize knowledge,
  • Qbserve to track my daily use of apps, and
  • Google Sheet pretty much everything that requires tables, flexibility, and a little bit of visualization.

Other tools that I am going to try in the future are Webex for video conference, and using screencast for making demos to communicate progress and documentation purposes.

For the purposes that I have mentioned above, I can pretty much say that working remotely give a lot of good impacts. The ability to be alone with your thoughts for the times as you need is one of the most important reason.

Have been living in Jakarta since I finish college makes me want to experience someplace calmer, it might be the same for you that lives in other major cities in the world. And I think a lot of people choose remote can relate to the fact that the big cities are getting crowded, and it made these days people tend to prioritize more on having the ability to be more explorative. The luxury privilege of the next twenty years might be to leave the city. Not as its leashed servant in a suburb, but to wherever one wants.

Lessons Learned

First, a routine is essential, as for how good habits are essential. It can allow you to background process certain things so that your neocortex, your frontal lobe, stays available to solve brand new problems.

Equally as important as routine is self-control. It seems effortless to say “I’ll just fix one more bug,” and suddenly it’s 9pm and you’ve been working for 13 hours. Sometimes things happen, stuff breaks and you need to roll with that, but on normal days learn to prioritize what needs to be fixed now vs. what can wait until tomorrow. And when you log out, be done for the day. Go and enjoy life and resist that temptation to log in later that night and fix “one more thing.”

Other things that work for me:

Good investments: ergonomic chair, a workspace that has direct sunlight, and a room that not too small so you can think and read while walking around (or doing pushups too).

a man doing pushups
Photo credit: muscleandfitness.com

Adopt bimodal sleep cycle. And take 20 to 30 minutes nap after lunch.

Adopt shutdown routine. Set time that alerts you working time is finished. Close your laptop and use the rest of evening to do things that don’t require screentime. Such as reading, take a long walk, socialize, or meditating. Take breaks. Take a walk around the block. Go out to grab a sandwich.

Drink coffee only in the morning or/and in the afternoon after taking a nap.

In the future, I’d also like to try a more plausible, human strategy: separate the two entirely by using a different device. Just reserve one computer for work and another for fun.

The last but not least, sleep is vital. So vital that it might be good if your daily activities revolve around to the purpose of having a good quality sleep. Sleep-deprived people aren’t just short on brains or creativity, they’re short on patience. Short on understanding. Short on tolerance. The smallest things become the biggest dramas. That hurts colleagues at work as much as it does the family at home.

Be aware that implementing any good strategies needs time. And imperfections will always exist. While bad habits don’t disappear overnight, the first step to eliminating them is to be aware of them in the first place.

The Struggles

Although I have mentioned how potentially good working remotely is, I can also understand that this is not for everyone. Even if you enjoy working remotely, sometimes you just want to go to the office again. To experience the ambiance again or catching up with some coworkers. Is that okay?

Yes, it is normal, and it should be. The idea of remote work is not necessarily to make you work at home or some random coffee shops. The idea is to have flexibility so that you can work at the place you find most enjoyable, and frequently it’s not in just one specific location. It might be you want to be at the office just in the morning, or late afternoon, and some other times you find most comfortable to work at home for a few weeks.

Having said that, working remotely do have some caveats and challenges:

Loneliness

Some people need to work harder to be able to connect with people easily with random people in the park. And it is a skill that needs to be developed over time. So, if you are one of those people you might experience being lonely especially if you tend to do your work only in your home for day long, every day.

I suggest you change your environment every once in a while. Go to a coffee shop or a local university library, although they don’t know you, having in an environment that presents people tricks your brain that you are in a social setting. Take a long walk. Make hobbies and make it public by joining local clubs about it, or if you want, form your own small nonprofit organization. Who knows, maybe someday it will change your life completely.

Work remotely do requires you to be deliberate if you want to be more social. In the office, you might don’t even need to force yourself to be able to make social interactions (mainly if you work in an open office environment). That’s why I also try to be more deliberately on this. I join a local running club as I like long distance running, I also join a Toastmaster club, and in the office, I manage a books club.

And I think it will be a lot more fun if you have a friend or a coworker that also work remotely.

Procrastination and Distractions

Yes, I admit that working remotely can give you a lot more temptation to procrastinate. You can do some googling to collect a lot of tips to avoid this problem. But in my experience, the most effective way to prevent procrastination is to have a routine, train your brain when is the work time and when is not.

Eliminate things that trigger you to procrastinate. Put your phone in another room, use SelfControl to block social media and entertainment websites, listen to only classical music or movie soundtracks. Use the Pomodoro technique, and make a daily plan in the night before and commit to the schedule as the best that you can be.

If the distractions keep getting on you, maybe this is just a sign of a more significant issue. Sometimes, distractions can actually serve a purpose. Like the proverbial canary in the coal mine, they warn us—when we feel ourselves regularly succumbing to them—that our work is not well defined, or our tasks are menial, or the whole project we’re engaged in is fundamentally pointless.

Other Relevant Questions

I understand that there are still a lot of questions about working remotely, especially if you are an employer or manager. Moreover considering that in Indonesia remote working is quite new. As far as I know, currently only tech companies that give their employees work remotely as a perk. And most often it has a limit and requires approval from their higher-ups first.

So I think it is necessary to talk about working remotely as an option. Because the technology that we have right now, and the impediments that we faced right now for having to move to a city because you have to go to your office is a real problem.

For that, I’d like to offer some thoughts on the questions that often raises regarding this issue:

How about going to the office while also work remotely? is it fine?

As I mentioned before, what if sometimes you want to work in the office? Is it okay? Yes, it is okay. The idea of working remotely is so that flexibility can be your friend. Remote isn’t binary. Sometimes you need to focus and work at home all over the week. It’s normal to demand varieties in daily life.

How about management, like meetings?

Yes, they’re essential, but they should be used sparingly. Like its supposed to, so other people especially engineers can have a lot more time to do actual works, not just talking about it.

What about communication among co-workers and higher-ups? Sometimes you need to ask people some questions about your work? In open office, you can just go to their desk and ask them. You can’t do that to remote workers..

Yes, in open office space, you can ask people whenever you want, it means you can distract them anytime. This might be beneficial for you, but most often not for them. They may be in working mode writing critical modules for the core system when you come around asking, and to get back to it after you distract him or her, will require time buffer. The deep satisfaction he or she would experience from actually making progress, is eliminated. Just because they’re physically near you doesn’t mean there’s zero cost to interruptions.

More about this, I think at many companies these days, people treat every detail at work like there’s going to be a pop quiz. They have to know every fact, every figure, every name, every event. This is a waste of brain power and an even more egregious waste of attention. And following group chat at work is like being in an all-day meeting with random participants and no agenda. It’s completely exhausting.

There are lots of managers out there who love group chat because they can pop in and out quickly and speak to many people at once, but there are a lot of employees out there sweating all day long trying to keep up the appearance of being involved but knowing they have actual main work to do.

Chat is great most often only for hashing stuff out quickly when speed indeed is essential. If there’s a crisis or an emergency and you need to get a bunch of people aligned, and on the same page quickly, chat is a good fit.

So, what option do we have, especially in a remote working environment? Adopt something that has been working in academia for a long time: office hours. Let people know that you can be reached at certain hours in certain days. Talk about it, and then make a public commitment to it. So what if you want to ask about something when it is not in the office hours? You wait. Just like when you are in college, having to wait to talk to a professor. Of course, this rule can be nullified if the matter is super important, but most often it just about never is.

How to make sure the worker can be available all the time?

You don’t. The metric is whether he or she can deliver the works.

And I think good employees don’t want to slack off anyway. Oftentimes, they even use personal time to learn and sharpen their skills that will directly have a good impact on how they work.

It’s because doing great work, moreover to do it with great people is one of the most durable sources of happiness we humans can tap into. And they want to stick with it. Don’t make them have negative opinions on you because you micromanage how they work.

Final Thoughts

Have been work remotely for a few months and experiments some styles doesn’t mean that I have all the answers about it. But I am grateful because of it, I am improving. Working remotely give me more time for myself, including time to think more broadly in the long term. About what things to work on, about my long term career, and about life in general.

Realizing this convince me that knowledge workers basically function like athletes - train and sprint, then rest and reassess. They’re most likely to burn out if being forced with industrial age management style.

I also realize that writing skill is very important. For remote worker, over-communication is better than the lack of it. The problem is sometimes we are reluctant to write more because we are not confident enough about the quality and style. In this case, I think we have to agree that we have to focus on clarity first, style second. If the report, updates, or documentation has enough clarity, it’s okay. I still have to work on this area, though.

So, this is 2019, do I want to make this remote work life a long term thing?

I don’t know, but for now, yeah. I prefer to work remotely. And I also think that an open office plan is not entirely bad. If you separate departments so that one can’t distract another, and if you can provide spaces so that people can have private time not being bothered, then it would be fine.

There are two fundamental ways not to be ignored at work. One is to make noise. The other is to make progress. Fortunately for remote workers, “the work” is the measure that matters.

I think more companies should approach distributed or remote work deliberately and start experimenting. And to embrace it. If I can’t convince you at this point on that, maybe he can:

Discuss on Twitter