A Remote Entrepreneur’s Tips on How to Avoid Stress and Distraction When Working Remotely

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Welcome to Remotely Inclined, a newsletter about remote work and remote entrepreneurship. If you’d like to sign up, you can do so here. Or just read on…

A few days ago I sent out a note about where to find thousands of non-tech remote jobs. My sincere hope is that people who are laid off can transition into the remote world. Perhaps they’ll stay there, perhaps not. But getting through these next few months is crucial. And if you’re already working remotely, then it’s on you to help others.

But what about people who have a secure job and suddenly find themselves working remotely due to the global COVID pandemic? This newsletter is for those people.

Having your entire work-life uprooted is a stress inducer at the best of times. When I moved from working in an office to running my business remote over a year ago, it was miserable for a little while. I enjoyed the freedom of not having to go to the office every day, but at the same time it felt like I wasn’t accomplishing anything. 

Here’s what I did to ward off stress and fend off distraction while working remotely. My hope is that these tools work for you as they did for me - or at least provide some inspiration for you to develop your own solutions. 

Two quick things before we dive in: 

  1. Stress and distraction when working from home is NORMAL. It happens to everyone, even in the best of times. The most productive remote workers find ways to neutralize the distraction and slow the stress to a point where it’s easy to manage. 

  1. In the COVID pandemic, cut yourself some slack. I don’t mean shirk on your deliverables. I mean cut yourself some emotional slack. It’s ok to not feel ok. These tips aren’t about shaming you for being a human, but instead offering you a few ways to get through it all with as much success as possible. 

And without further ado… 

Have a real workspace

When working from home, it’s so tempting to lounge on the couch. Three days later, you have back pain and can’t get anything done. 

For both mental and physical health reasons, it’s crucial that you find yourself a work space. 

Now, apartment and small-home-with-family dwellers, don’t eye roll just yet. I live in a 1-bedroom, 490 sq ft apartment with my partner. I’m not going to tell you to simply ‘find’ a spare room to make into an office. I have a small desk that I set up that is my work zone. 

If you don’t have a full set up and now can’t get one due to COVID-related business closures, use what you have (dining table, kitchen counter, etc.). Just make that area your work space for the day. If it’s something like a dining table, that could help you with shutting off later in the day since the space will need to be used anyway. 

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Send yourself one email a day

Every morning, I send myself an email called “Priorities”. In that email I outline all the things I need to accomplish that day. No task is allowed to be more than a day’s worth of work and I must feasibly be able to accomplish every task I write down. 

Each email contains four categories of tasks / priorities: 

  1. Run the business

  2. Grow the business

  3. Serve clients

  4. Personal 

If you’re an employee, you might try: 

  1. Job admin

  2. Professional development

  3. Key deliverables

  4. Personal 

I recommend never removing Personal and treating it like a key category. It serves as a daily reminder that you are a human and you have to accomplish non-work things in your day. Lately, many of those personal items for me revolve around re-booking appointments and trying to order groceries for delivery while in isolation. 

Side note: I don’t always accomplish everything on my daily list. You likely won’t either. But the act of writing it all down gives you a lot of control over your day (try it for a while and see for yourself). 

Get trigger happy with ‘strikethrough’

In gmail, there’s a strikethrough function. I’m not sure about other email providers, but I’d guess that there is. 

When I complete a task, I respond to my email, making a thread. I strikethrough the task that I completed, and hit send. It’s a wonderful feeling of accomplishment, however small it seems. It also keeps that email top of mind for me, so if I get bogged down or distracted, I can easily re-center by going to that email to see what’s left that I need to accomplish. 

Read something other than news

If you’re in isolation, your kids (or pets) are hungry, and you’re suddenly realizing how dirty the house is… hearing about COVID news won’t cheer you up or make you more productive. 

Pay attention to the news as you need to, especially for any government announcements, but otherwise have something else to read in your downtime. 

I have a fiction and non-fiction book going at any one time. When I complete one, I simply move onto the next. If you don’t have many books in your home, many libraries are doing digital loans now -- check your local library’s website. 

Right now, I’m reading: 

  • Fiction: A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles.

  • Nonfiction: Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill.

Body-weight workouts!

If you thought you were sedentary in an office environment, just wait until you don’t even have to walk to the car / subway or up a flight of stairs to your office. And, chances are your walk to get coffee also just shortened by 10x. 

I personally try to workout in the middle of the day, as that time feels like a good break for me in an isolation environment. However, you can (and should) workout whenever it feels best for you - morning, midday, or evening.

Here are two that I’ve tried - called “1k rep challenges” - that I got from a friend. The only “equipment” you’ll need is a towel on the floor to catch the sweat. They take about 30-45 min to complete on average.

Workout 1: 

And workout 2: 

— Thanks Niko for the workouts!

Don’t be afraid to modify any of these if you need to. Google is your friend when it comes to what these exercises look like + good modifications. And, disclaimer: I am NOT a doctor or certified fitness professional. This is just an idea of a home workout, not a direct recommendation or prescription. Everybody is different.

Take habit-forming breaks

Instead of planning by the clock, I plan my breaks by accomplishment. As a writer, that’s fairly easy for me as an article has clear steps: Research, outline, draft, edit, submit. I’ll plan a short break of some Twitter scrolling after finishing each piece. Sometimes that’s only a few minutes of work and sometimes (like in drafting) it could be a couple of hours. 

This is my adjusted Pomodoro Technique, but I really like it because it ties my breaks to a feeling of accomplishment. It takes me from “I slogged for an hour, I need a break” to “I just accomplished X, I’m going to take a short break before continuing.” 

I call it a habit-forming break because when I tie my breaks to my accomplishments, I’m far more driven to accomplish - and that’s what it’s all about.

Meditate a bit

I know, I know. Meditation. I’m that guy. But hear me out: I’m not talking about hours of deep thought (or non-thought). I mean a few minutes of conscious breathing. 

I personally like the Meditation Challenges from the Chopra Center, all of which are on YouTube. There is only a few minutes of actual “meditation” with the rest of the ~10-15 minute videos being a brief talk from Deepak Chopra on whatever the daily topic is - peace, serenity, abundance, etc. 

Here’s the link:

Don’t forget to stop working

A big potential challenge with working from home is suddenly your work and home life are merged. It’s tempting to just keep working (which I’m sure many of you did anyway when you were in offices). 

I try to shut off my work by about 6 pm. While deliverables for clients may end up ruining that plan some days, having a mindset of stopping by 6 pm is helpful because it strengthens my willpower. I can more easily say to myself “I’m going to be done work at 6 pm and then I’ll binge Netflix” instead of trying to convince myself that I won’t be bingeing at all during isolation. 

Get your binge on

A few hours of Netflix or Disney Plus bingeing can go a long way to providing short-term comfort. Don’t let this get in the way of you delivering your work, but also realize two things: 

  1. If you usually commute to work, chances are you just found upwards of an hour in your day that you’ll need to fill. If you can’t keep your regular commute routine, Netflix can provide some calm.  

  2. With all non-essential businesses and schools closed, you have limited in-real-life escapism. Don’t begrudge yourself a digital escape.

And if you don’t have either of those + can’t afford them, check out YouTube for all sorts of videos. If you love French chateaus as much as I do, you might like the Chateau Diaries, a YouTube channel about a woman restoring a 16th century French chateau. 

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCyqPuqFXuAP5GMwRNFg5hpA

Remember: you’re not supposed to do it all yourself

At the risk of sounding kitschy, I truly mean this statement. You aren’t supposed to do it all yourself. In an office environment, you can easily ask a coworker for help if you need it. You can still do that in isolation, just with email / Slack and a video call. Don’t forget that. 

And, depending on your spiritual and religious beliefs, you have a higher power supporting you. If you’re not religious or spiritual but want a cool perspective on supranatural guidance from Ancient Greece, check out this TED Talk by Elizabeth Gilbert. She’s perhaps most well known for writing the soapy book Eat, Pray, Love, but she’s an accomplished writer and researcher - and did some cool digging on what the Greeks thought it meant to be creative. 

Have any other questions about remote work and remote entrepreneurship? Leave a comment! I’d love to write more articles answering your questions. 

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