Do a Google image search for “remote work.” The first image to pop onto your screen probably features a deliriously happy man in his swimming trunks holding a laptop on a beach. I can’t even begin to list all the things that are deeply wrong about this. First, are you going to take your meetings in swim trunks, Mr. Remote Worker? Second, how exactly are you going to keep your laptop charged in the middle of sandy beach? Third, can you even see your screen in the glare? Fourth, why are you smiling like a maniac? I have lots and lots of questions for you, stock photo man.
Working remotely is nothing like this picture. And yet, it endures as an alarmingly popular symbol. It signals that remote workers routinely take meetings in bathing suits, work on the beach, or work while drinking cocktails. It perpetuates the idea that remote work is for those of us who want to spend all our time on a hammock in Bali, getting paid to do nothing. Marissa Mayer thinks so, at any rate.
This perception of remote work conflicts with our idea of valuable work, of deep work, and of good work. When I see happy Mr. Remote Worker on the beach, I think Steve Jobs didn’t do that, the Zuck doesn’t do that, and Jeff Bezos doesn’t do that. In fact, the beach-residing, swimsuit-wearing remote worker represents the exact antithesis of one of Crossover’s foundational principles: Deep Work.
You cannot do deep work on a beach full of frolicking people, you cannot do deep work if you’re drinking, and you definitely cannot do deep work when your mind thinks it’s vacationing. Worst of all, the stock image remote worker mixes deep recovery with deep work and loses the value of both.
To understand how to do deep work remotely, we’ve adapted a couple of strategies from Cal Newport’s book Deep Work:
Build a “Work Tower”
Newport tells us that psychiatrist Carl Jung built himself a tower in Switzerland where he retreated to focus on his work and where he spent his most productive periods of research and writing.
This concept of having a “work tower”—a space sent aside just for work—is a helpful practice for remote workers. Any clearly demarcated space where you can work without interruptions and distractions will do. If you aren’t able to create a space like this in your home, many remote workers have had success finding “towers” in public places like libraries, quiet coffee shops, or co-working spaces.
Create a Time-to-Work Ritual
Use a ritual to get your brain into work mode. Just as your work tower demarcates a physical space that is sacred to your work, your work ritual will demarcate mental space where only work is allowed in. No thoughts of Netflix or your next snack, just good, uninterrupted work.
A good ritual takes between five and 20 minutes. It signals to every part of your body and brain that “work is starting now,” just as pulling into the office parking lot might signal for non-remote workers. It will often involve more than one sense.
My ritual starts with brewing an espresso and reviewing my action items and calendar in the kitchen. Then I move to my work tower with the coffee, put my headphones on, and turn on brain.fm. Finally, I get online to start working.
At the end of the work day, I review my actions and calendar for the next day and log everything in my list-making journal. Then I quit Skype and Slack, turn off brain.fm, and close the journal, signaling a physical end to my work day. Ideally, you wouldn’t go back to work once your end ritual is done, but we’re imperfect creatures. I check work email up to four times after my end ritual, but never do any deep work.
Do you have a work location or ritual that that helps you focus as a remote worker? Share in the comments!