Working from home is hard. We’ve all learned this over the past year. Your attention is always whisked around as if by a hurricane.
Well, I’m trying to start a business from home. That’s more akin to climbing a mountain in that hurricane.
I’ve been struggling with discipline and motivation lately. There have been days when I couldn’t get myself to do any work whatsoever. I felt guilty and self-critical, but that didn’t help one bit. Knowing that this can’t continue, I realized I have to work on my self-discipline.
Discipline is not about willpower, it’s about habits and systems. If you rely on forcing yourself to work, every day will be a struggle. But when you shape your life and environment to support you, work may seem almost effortless.
Below are some ideas I know to be helpful from past experience. I don’t practice all of them at the moment, but I’m trying to use a combination of them to build a solid foundation for sustainable work.
Without further ado, and in no particular order:
1. Build a good morning routine
Why have a morning routine? It can set you up for the entire day. Doing beneficial activities habitually can make you healthier, happier, and put you in the right frame of mind to start working.
Examples of activities I do now or have done in the past and why I like them:
- taking a shower makes me feel clean and ready to start the day,
- writing a gratitude journal reminds me that life is pretty f*cking good and puts worries into perspective,
- journaling helps clear my mind of preoccupations,
- meditation fosters focus and calm,
- drinking water or herbal tea hydrates the body, providing energy,
- exercise releases endorphins, causing a burst of energy and euphoria,
- walking lets me get some sun and warm up the body,
- eating a healthy and light breakfast gives me energy
Walking and eating can also be opportunities to catch up on the news or to read, watch or listen to something educational or inspirational.
2. Set a schedule
Try to maintain a regular work schedule. That trains the mind to be in “work mode” at specific times and allows you to relax guilt-free outside of them.
My schedule still varies, but I try to work from 9 am to noon, then 1 pm to 4 pm, and then maybe an hour or two in the evening.
It may also help to devote blocks of time to specific activities (known as timeboxing). For example, I try to finish each week’s YouTube video on Friday mornings.
3. Track how you spend time
Track how much you work. Because what gets measured gets managed.
I use this freeware app. It’s like a Pomodoro timer, but customizable. Setting a daily target motivates me to work and reaching it gives me satisfaction and a feeling that I spent the day well.
My configuration is 30-minute work intervals with 5-minute breaks, but I don’t follow it strictly. If I’m “in the flow”, I go over 30 minutes and start the next interval. If I’m struggling, I’ll take a break. The daily target is 8 intervals, or 4 hours of focussed work.
4. Create a space for work
Have a space dedicated to work. That means no working on the sofa, in bed, or at the dining table.
The reason is to train your brain to be in “work mode” in response to certain stimuli. Trying to work in the context in which you usually relax will blur the line between work and leisure, leaving you unfocused when trying to work and stressed while attempting to relax.
I also like to wear proper (ish) clothes rather than homewear for the same reason.
Ideally have a separate room serving as a home office. At the very least tuck a desk in the corner, put all your equipment there, and keep it clean and neat.
5. Avoid distractions
Avoid social media, your phone, reading the news and everything else you use to procrastinate. This may mean:
- setting your phone to airplane mode or leaving it in another room
- using a website blocking browser extension
- keeping your work space clean and organized, so your mind doesn’t see anything it can latch on
Things can get tricky if your partner, family, or roommate demand your attention. My girlfriend is the queen of distraction. I’ve found it’s a matter of setting boundaries: explain how important being able to focus on work is and promise to give them your attention outside of work hours.
6. Take care of your health
I hope it goes without saying how important this is, not only for work.
In terms of physical health, cultivate the great triad of sleep, diet and exercise.
Consider giving up caffeine and alcohol. Caffeine contributes to stress, and both of these drugs mess up sleep quality. I’m in the middle of a 100-day no-caffeine challenge and have also given up alcohol for March.
The benefits for sleep are amazing. Waking up from deep sleep and remembering your dreams is incredibly relaxing. It’s like digging up a treasure in your basement. Something I always had access to, but couldn’t grasp until I made it a point to work on my health.
Nurture your mental health too. Meditating, socializing and hobbies are great reminders that work is not the only important part of life.
7. Pursue hobbies & leisure
Popular advice says:
Find three hobbies you love: one to make you money, one to keep you in shape, and one to be creative.
Ventures outside the main job can provide an alternative source of satisfaction and a sense of progress. For instance, if you’re stuck on a frustrating problem at work, you can still be satisfied with beating your personal best for deadlift, or writing a song. Not to mention, hobbies can relax you and fill you with joy.
There’s not need to limit yourself to 3 hobbies. Have a dozen that you pursue at different times, whenever they strike your fancy.
Downtime is important as well. I try to keep evenings and at least one day per week completely without work or hobbies. Relax, enjoy myself and recharge.
8. Make a public commitment
It’s amazing what announcing a goal publicly does to your motivation. You feel a sort of peer pressure, the same kind that made you try cigarettes in high school, but this time pushing you to work on your goals.
An example is the first post on this blog. I announced my plans for 2021 to the world in order to make it much harder to back out. Imagine me running into somebody who asks:
“So, how’s your business going?”
“Emm… not so well, but I finished Call of Duty!”
9. Find accountability partners
If you’re working in a team, that’s already provided for you.
My business partner for CoffeePals Chris and I have daily 3-hour coworking sessions. We hop on a video call and work on our respective tasks. We don’t talk all the time and don’t even share our screens. The mere fact that my camera is on and that there’s somebody on the other side makes me feel that now is the time to work rather than screw around.
If you don’t have any partners, you can still find somebody to match up with. Either a friend, who may be working on their own stuff, or a total stranger via a service like Focusmate.
You can also use a service like Stickk, which lets you add financial stakes to your commitments, increasing the subjective cost of failure. You can also nominate referees to help keep you accountable. I’m currently using Stickk for a 100-day challenge. It charges me $50 for every day I miss my target. Fortunately, I haven’t paid a dime… yet.
Meditation has a multitude of profound benefits going well beyond productivity.
It has helped me be calmer and more focused, have better relationships, and explore the nature of my mind.
These days I use Sam Harris’ excellent app Waking Up. Meditating right before work helps me clear my head and start the working day off with focus.
For more info, check out my dedicated article.
11. Just start
We often get in the mood to do something simply by doing it.
If work feels overwhelming, commit to doing it for just 5 minutes. Give yourself the permission to stop after that.
This reduces the stakes and makes it much easier to start. However, often you’ll find that after 5 minutes you’re sufficiently warmed up that you want to keep going.
I use a similar trick for running. Some days I just don’t feel like running. So I decide to go for a walk, wearing my running clothes. If I decide to start running, great. If not, I still get a nice walk.