Steven Kurutz, writing in the New York Times:
Working from home may sound relaxing, but the “working” part of that phrase underscores the expectations that accompany it: being available to check and respond to email, hop on a conference call and generally be productive, even if you feel lousy.
Last week, a colleague caught a nasty bug. It wasn’t hard to tell he was sick; we may live and work five states apart, but conference calls have a way of exposing congestion and coughs. His symptoms grew more severe, hour after hour, and it became clear that he should close his laptop, brew some tea, and crawl into bed.
Even in the most accommodating remote work environments, telecommuters may hesitate to call in sick. Consider the unique factors at play:
- Online meetings are hard to cancel. After all, I can’t just pop my head over the cubicle wall the next day and get caught up. So instead of allowing the flu to wreck my agenda, I’m more likely to suck it up and just dial in. That avoids the nightmare of finding another time slot that’s open on everyone’s calendar.
- Workers who commute to a traditional office sometimes call in sick solely out of courtesy—i.e., not because they feel particularly ill but rather to avoid infecting their colleagues. There’s no such social more at work for the remote worker; rhinovirus can’t be transmitted through Skype.
- Even when my symptoms are miserable, working from home makes it easier to slog through and save those precious PTO hours. With a few simple adjustments, I can dial back the energy required to endure the workday. For example, just stepping off the treadmill desk eases the effort level. When you’re curled up on the couch, triaging email feels far less draining. ◾
As Apple’s fall announcement event approaches, I’ve been eyeing the rumored iPad Pro. I find myself daydreaming about a “magic” tablet that, paired with a Smart Keyboard and an Apple Pencil, will inspire me to consistently create content and publish it online. That will somehow catapult me to internet nerd success.
Based on my history, that’s not going to happen. I’ve bought three iPads in the past; none of them made me more disciplined, more creative, or more talented. Each time, I struggled to find a use case for the thing, and the iPad would sit, unused and unloved, for weeks. Eventually, I abandoned the iPad upgrade train and sold off my iPad Pro. To be honest, I haven’t really missed it since.
Lesson learned? A new device won’t magically transform me into a prolific creator.
Fortunately, the inverse is also true: if you want to create stuff, you don’t need a new device. You probably already have everything you need to make stuff on the internet. Consider:
- You could put off podcasting until you have spent $600 on a microphone, an audio hub, and a year’s worth of hosting. Or you could create an Anchor account for free, record using the built-in mic on your iPhone—and start today.
- You could tie your blogging aspirations to writing software that costs $40 a year—or you could just use the text editor that comes free with your computer.
- You could believe that a $150 mechanical keyboard will make you a better writer—or you could get by with a $15 Logitech bargain from Walmart.
- You could “learn to draw” using a $700 iPad Pro and a $100 Apple Pencil—or you could pick up a $10 drawing pad and $20 worth of pencils and pens.
If we’re honest with ourselves, it’s not the tools that hold us back. The real obstacles to creative productivity? Low motivation and overcommitment. ■
A month or two ago, we trekked up to Pennsylvania to visit family. My wife took some time off from work, but I decided to save my vacation days, which had run short after a recent beach trip.
That meant I needed to find somewhere to get my work done. Hoping to avoid the dining room table or kitchen counter, I settled on the closest Starbucks. Here’s what I learned about remote work, the “third place” office, and myself:
Starbucks is loud.
Starbucks uses canned music, like most other restaurants. I don’t begrudge them that. If I were meeting a friend for lattes, I probably wouldn’t even notice. But when I’m trying to be productive, it’s not ideal.
It’s not that I hate Starbucks’ musical selections. Their catalog of singer-songwriters is fairly benign. No, the real problem is that any music with discernible lyrics distracts me. The performers’ sung words get jumbled up in my brain with my own. That’s why, at home, I prefer tracks without lyrics: movie soundtracks and classical pieces dominate my playlists.
It’s not just the piped-in music that makes Starbucks noisy. A dozen customer conversations strain to rise over the din. Behind the counter, there’s this constant cacophony of clanking dishes, steaming milk, order-taking, and whipped-cream-spraying. Even the best noise-cancelling headphones would struggle to filter out all that.
My solution? I blast white noise (or more technically, lower-frequency “brown” noise) through my headset. That manages to drown out most of Starbucks’ “atmosphere.” This approach has its drawbacks (e.g. I can’t play my own music), but the constant thrum of static creates an aural bubble that lets me concentrate.
Technically, Starbucks no longer requires you to buy something to claim a seat. Visitors can hang out (or work!) without even visiting the register. But I would feel guilty if I occupied a table without a Starbucks cup in hand—especially if others customers couldn’t find a seat. That meant I always ordered a drink.
In a “real” coffeehouse (i.e. a locally owned shop that takes its coffee more seriously), a latte or even a café mocha are reasonable treats—not “healthy,” per se, but not awful, either.
Starbucks is a different animal. I was hard-pressed to find anything on the Starbucks’ menu that qualified as “healthy.” The franchise’s path to ubiquity was paved with sugar. Your drink is pumped full of syrup. Whipped cream comes standard. Expect chocolate drizzled on top (even if you didn’t request it).
The non-liquid options aren’t much better. Starbucks’ checkout counter is surrounded by piles of processed calorie bombs: mass-produced pastries, prepackaged brownies and organic (but still unhealthy) candy.
So, yeah, visiting Starbucks may sabotage your diet. It will also significantly lighten your wallet. Even if you limited yourself to one drink, you’re looking at at least $6 or $7 to claim a workspace. Buying lunch there? That’s $10 more. And a few snacks? Another fiver. Long story short: if you spent a month remote-working from Starbucks, you could easily drop $500 on food and drinks alone.
To be fair, that compares favorably to renting an office or a coworking desk. But you’d save significant cash by working from home, brewing your own coffee, and nuking last night’s leftovers.
The pee dilemma
At a traditional workplace or a home office, you never have to think twice about a five-minute bathroom break. Just lock your workstation and leave.
But at Starbucks, every twinge of your bladder presents a problem. Do you you risk leaving your $2,000 laptop (plus any accessories) lying there on the table? Should you ask a nearby neighbor to serve as your (unpaid and disinterested) security guard? Or do you wind up your cables, stow away your gear, and haul everything to the potty, hoping you can find a seat when you return? Even if you do, all that packing and repacking eats up precious work time.
Designers, developers, and even productivity gurus often prefer multiple monitors and the real estate they offer. In my home office, I have four monitors (three external screens plus the native laptop display), and even that often feels inadequate.
At Starbucks, I’m constrained to my laptop’s relatively tiny work space. It feels like working with one arm tied behind my back, no matter how much I practice the multitasking shortcuts and swipe gestures. Yes, there’s something to be said for the increased focus of viewing a single app, but many tasks are far easier when you can set two or three app windows side-by-side. 1
Home, sweet home (office)
After a few days working at Starbucks, I gave up. I borrowed a folding table from neighbors and set up a makeshift workspace in our hosts’ laundry room. What it lacked in ambience, it made up for in quiet, convenience, and cost. When we returned home, I was eager to return to my dedicated home office.
I still do make work pilgrimages to my local coffeeshop. Every Friday afternoon, you’ll find me there, winding up my work week and sipping on a mocha. But those visits last just a few hours. I’m just not suited for days-long work sojourns at Starbucks. ■
- Some creative types, facing the same issue, have resorted to hauling their iMac back and forth to the coffeeshop each day. No, thanks. ↩
For twenty years now, I’ve sorted my email. I painstakingly classify each incoming message, hoping that my tags will help me find it again later. If folders and cabinets keep paper documents organized, I tell myself, then wouldn’t digital folders help me stay on top of email?
The answer, of course, is “No.” Email folders (and the Gmail equivalent, labels) are a waste of time.
I rarely—if ever—browse archived emails by label. If a message isn’t in my inbox, I use search to track it down, relying on the automatically-generated index that’s standard to every email modern client. Can I recall even one unique word from the message I’m hunting? If so, search retrieves the thread instantly. If not, metadata can help filter down the results—e.g. was there an attachment? Who sent the email? When? Search lets you leverage whatever bits of information you can remember. I’ve grown so used to this approach that I’ve memorized multiple search operators in both Gmail and Outlook.
It’s not just that I labels feel unnecessary; they actually undermine productivity. My commitment to tagging adds friction to every inbox triage. Too often, I leave emails sitting in my inbox simply because I’m too lazy or too busy to label them. Before I know it, dozens of threads have piled up. Automatic filters can help—but setting them up feels like another tedious chore.
A final reason I resent email labels? They limit my email client options. The slickest, most innovative email apps—like Microsoft’s Outlook, or Dropbox’s Mailbox—don’t support Gmail’s proprietary tagging system. I miss out on helpful features like one-swipe archive and email “snoozing.” Even Apple’s vanilla (but solid) Mail.app offers limited label support. I’m stuck with Gmail’s clunky—but label-compatible—official app.
I want to break free. I’m dropping labels, cold turkey, for the next few weeks. I won’t delete my tagging hierarchy just yet. But rather than classify each email as it comes in, I’ll either archive it, delete it, create a to-do task, or delegate that item to someone else. You know, just like Uncle Merlin says. What I won’t do is add a tag or move the message into a folder.
Will I relapse and binge on labels again? Or will I attain a new level of email enlightenment? I’ll report back in a few weeks.
Turns out, Snow White knew her stuff:
Great music makes even the dreariest work more bearable. For manual labor, anything catchy can do the trick. But what about knowledge work? Lyrics make it impossible to concentrate on word-heavy tasks like triaging email or writing documentation. That rules out pop music—whether new or oldie—during the workday.
Classical is an obvious alternative. But my brain prefers catchy, simple melodies; it rebels against dense, unfamiliar art music. Baroque pieces entangle the lead line in fugal counterpoint. Modern avant garde pieces eschew melody altogether. Early romantic music—Beethoven or Schumann, say—fits the bill, but if you don’t know the composition already, it’s hard to appreciate.
Fortunately, there’s another option; movie soundtracks are the perfect work accompaniment. Unlike pop, soundtracks don’t hijack your attention with lyrics. And unlike classical, soundtracks rarely deviate from straightforward arrangements. Each track boasts simple orchestrations that build to a suitably inspirational climax. That’s exactly what I need to keep plodding along.
Alas, many soundtracks are so simple that they grow stale after a few listens. If classical music rewards careful attention, soundtracks punish repetition. Braveheart’s theme loses its thrill when it’s left on repeat. I need variety, which my meager music library can’t provide.
Streaming services help. After all, Spotify and Pandora offer a vast catalog of film scores. Unfortunately, these services don’t make it easy to consume soundtracks. Their recommendation engines, geared to deliver top 40 hits, surface the same orchestral albums again and again. Don’t get me wrong; I love John Williams, but I can only take the Star Wars soundtrack so many times. Another issue with streaming radio? They don’t always play the “real” rendition. Too often, a gross, synthesized adaptation replaces the lush original.
Hopefully, Spotify will make their service more friendly to soundtrack fans. For example, excise the fake imitations, especially when the original is already included in your catalog. Another request? Implement a “new music mode”—in which anything I’ve ever heard before gets skipped, automatically. That would keep my soundtrack playlist fresh and inspirational—and keep me dutifully plugging away until Friday at 5 PM.