Whoever said “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”, has most probably never had a job at all. Even doing the most awesome stuff, with the most amazing colleagues by your side, there’s always going to be angry customers to deal with, unpopular decisions to be made, or difficult conversations to engage in. Loving the job you’re doing makes these things even harder, because you care A LOT.
At the same time, there’s nothing to stop you from procrastinating on the hard things when working remotely. This combined with my perfectionist tendencies, makes me often get stuck and avoid that burdensome problem for ages, only to find out it’s already the end of the day, and I’ve hardly done anything productive at all. In a result-only work environment you can only fool yourself for so long.
Luckily, with the help of a few great books and blogs I’m slowly learning to overcome that resistance and do stuff on time even if I totally don’t feel like it. Usually the things I totally don’t feel like doing are also the things worth doing the most, so there’s great value in mastering that skill. Some of the dirty tricks I learned are obvious, some other ones are absurd or silly, but all helped me already in this or other way. If you’re having a hard time getting down to work, you might want to give them a try as well.
1. Start in the middle
Ever tried to write an email or article and spent an hour wondering where to start? Sometimes crafting that one perfect first paragraph is so hard I’d end up tweaking and rewriting it for ages, and give up altogether in the end.
You simply can’t write a perfect opening without knowing what will follow next. And as much as I tried to organise the whole essays in my head, I could never predict what would follow before actually writing it all down. Often it would turn out that adding every new sentence broke the logical flow of the whole, so I’d rewrite everything again without ever moving forward.
What I learned is that it’s much easier to solve a puzzle if you have all the pieces laid out in front of you. Right now I start doing the easiest parts first, write down all I know as a stream of consciousness, and only start outlining the structure once I know how much the whole piece is going to cover. Writing titles and intros had never been easier than this.
2. Write down 20 ideas instead of 10
This one is from James Altucher, and it’s one of the best creativity tricks I’ve ever tried. It doesn’t just apply to blog post ideas or titles, I try it in all areas of professional and personal life.
If I have no clue where to start with any project, it usually means I’m waiting for the perfect answer to fall down on me all at once. Of course, that perfect solution never comes by itself – it’s a result of trying different things and building on whatever works.
If I can’t come up with 10 ideas for something, setting the bar at 20 means some of them will be absurdly, ridiculously bad. Accepting that fact is often enough to get me unstuck, try more creative answers, and eventually come up with one that makes sense.
3. Pretend you’re not actually doing it
Okay, this one is actually quite embarrassing. The main idea is: if you can’t force yourself to do something, trick your monkey brain into believing you’re actually doing something else. It sounds too silly to be true, and I wish I needn’t resort to that kind of hacks, but it helped me more times than I would like to admit.
Examples? When stuck on a difficult problem at work, I would often try escalating it to a colleague. Before I send it away, I summarise everything I know in an informal, internal note. In 90% cases, by the time I’m finished writing that note I already know what I should do to solve this, and do all by myself what seemed impossible at first.
Writing my blog posts in WordPress editor sometimes felt too stressful, so I moved on to a private notebook in Evernote. Then I realised having that notebook named “blog” still puts a lot of pressure on me, so I started a new one called “Cosmos” to get rid of all references to blogging. Here I can pretend I write it all just for myself, and that these notes will never be seen by anyone but me. Many of them won’t, but that’s totally okay.
Working on other personal projects I also use the same trick. When I had no idea what to write in my WordCamp presentation, I started by setting up a whole demo store, with lots of photos from the Hubble Space Telescope, weird product descriptions and a few silly puns. I only used the site to take a few screenshots which I could have obtained in much easier way, but doing fun stuff like this got me really going, and before I even realised I had half of the presentation done.
4. Set a timer and block everything off
This is the hardcore way for tasks that have no easy parts and can’t be turned into something fun (where is the fun part of doing a tax report?). I found it recommended on the zen habits blog, and decided to give it a try, as doing my taxes surely requires some Zen master skills. This is the simplest exercise ever, even though it can be quite uncomfortable at times.
When I need to do something I’d rather not to, I set 10 minutes on my timer. For these 10 minutes I’m only allowed to do that one task – or stare blankly at it. Applications like Focus can help block off the digital distractions, but the best results come when I don’t allow myself any kind of break (and believe me, the urge to go and grab a glass of water is usually strong!).
Once these 10 minutes are over, I can take a break, bring that glass of water at last, procrastinate a little bit again, until I’m ready for another try. After the third cycle staring at the screen can get really boring, and I end up doing the work I am supposed to. If I’m lucky, I might find myself still doing it even after the time has passed.
Encouraged by success with the most dreadful things, I recently started applying this technique to everyday work. I still haven’t found the interval that makes me most productive though. 10 minutes is usually too little to get anything meaningful done. 25 is too much to avoid distractions.
5. Create a false sense of urgency
A wise man called Parkinson once found that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. Due to working from home and having no serious obligations, I know this better than anyone else. Sometimes I catch myself at 8pm after more than 10h of work, only to realise my results for that day are quite far from exceptional.
But there’s a flip side to the coin – if work fills up all available time, having less time means that you’ll do it faster, if only there’s a good reason to do so. My experience with working from touristy places has proven this correct. If I’m not travelling, meeting a friend in the evening is a perfect motivation as well. (However, I still need to get better in catching up with my friends. If you haven’t heard from me in ages, it’s not you, it’s me!).
When I’m working on something just for myself (like this blog post), I usually make up a deadline, even if it’s all fake. I push an early draft to WordPress editor and schedule the publish date on the next morning. If I don’t get it fixed on time, it will be published as it is and automatically posted to my Facebook. I had to reschedule a post once or twice, but that’s a great way to actually finish what I’ve started.
6. Keep track of your time
I’m not organised enough to do this manually, but luckily there’s a lot of apps that will do this for you. I use RescueTime on my laptop, and Moment on the phone. Both apps have all the features I need included in the free versions.
The day I installed RescueTime was a revelation to me. I only started tracking time in the afternoon, but still I was so shocked to see the report telling I’d spend more time on internal company blogs and Slack than doing the actual work. I’m proud to say this hasn’t happened again since I have this app installed.
I can’t emphasise enough how much meditation has helped me with everything I do. It’s like discovering a secret superpower I never knew I had. Whenever I find myself stuck, upset, or complaining about the hard task in front of me, meditation helps me observe my thoughts and feelings from a certain distance. 15 minutes is often enough to break the thought pattern that felt overwhelming at first, and have all that feelings diminish, or disappear completely.
Remote work requires a certain set of skills, like pushing myself into doing stuff when I don’t feel like it. I had no idea how difficult it would be for me at first. The skills I learned along the way are now invaluable for my personal projects as well. With audacious ideas, little experience, and lots of self-doubt, the only way to finish what I started is to trick myself into it.