A quick internet search on productivity will turn up hundreds of tips, tools, and life hacks. Try these new task managers, start your day with an ice bath plunge, down this bulletproof coffee, use this paper planner, and so-on.
These are all good, truly. I have been known to test them all (well, not the ice bath yet). In fact, I have my own arsenal of favourite tools and tips I’ll share below, but none of them ended up in my dock or routine by chance. I believe the one productivity tip to rule them all is know thyself. Self-awareness is key to sorting through the noise to create a workflow that works for you and leads to true productivity.
My former employer was a nonprofit organization that transitioned to fully remote in 2017. Our team went through a period of self-reflection to find new tools and workflows that were optimal for sharing information, staying connected, and achieving results more independently.
In the remote working world, self-awareness is crucial. You generally have much more autonomy over your schedule and systems, which means you can easily clock out for an afternoon hike, get lost in a sub-Reddit thread, or run a house-cleaning gauntlet for hours on end. Of course, these things are all fine if you know how to integrate them into your workload.
People who excel at remote work say this freedom allows their productivity levels to skyrocket, while others struggle to find motivation and momentum amidst all the distractions.
If you find yourself in this latter group, don’t give up. While remote working isn’t for everyone, taking time to develop a self-awareness around your personal work style could be what you need to shift into the proper gear.
Think back to times in your life that you have been in the flow, the state of mind where you are so focused, disciplined, and in tune with your abilities that the world around you disappears. What task were you doing and how excited were you to get started? How did you prepare, what was the environment, how did you organize your work? Were you in the office, at home, at a co-working space or maybe in a local cafe?
Don’t underestimate the details here. Consider the noise level of the space, the time of day, the amount of “clutter” surrounding you, the temperature, the amount of time you had available to focus, even the quality of sleep you got the night before.
Memory fuzzy? Keep a log for the next two weeks to record these details and see what patterns emerge. Online tools such as RescueTime, FocusMe, and Timeular can help you uncover and track your existing work habits and distractions.
Through this kind of self-analysis, I’ve learned that changing my environment gives me a big productivity boost. My work is varied, so I have different types of deliverables that require different levels of focus. The goal is to know how to produce my best work for each type of task.
Choose the Right Setting
I am writing this article lounging outside on my deck on a warm spring afternoon, wearing my favorite noise-canceling headphones streaming Marconi Union’s Weightless. My family is building a fire and tending the garden, so the headphones are key here – without them, I’d be subject to far too many (well-meaning) interruptions.
Yesterday I had onboarding interviews with three remote working candidates for acework, a new remote work matching platform. Our vetting process includes a remote readiness assessment to connect candidates to career opportunities in our network, so those were naturally performed upright at my desk in my home office, no distractions allowed. Much like the headphones, I have an On Air sign on my office door to signal I am off limits.
Other work, like planning my week, preparing for candidate interviews, and responding to email inquiries, are often done at a local cafe or co-working space. I typically don’t wear headphones in those settings since I can enjoy the bustle and background noise without fear of interruption.
A service like Croissant’s coworking packages are ideal since they work on an hourly, drop-in basis. This way you don’t have to commit to a whole day of coworking when you visit a space to get certain types work accomplished.
The takeaway is that if I tried to do these different types of work while sitting in one place all day, it would probably take me two or three times longer. Continually optimize yourself for the task at hand by considering your location, time of day, and environmental inputs.
Use the Right (Productivity) Tools
Once you’re in the right space, it’s easier to use your time effectively and achieve your ideal flow when you have a routine and use the right tools. It’s defeating to pay 5 bucks an hour but after 4 hours all you’ve only managed to drink 3 “free” coffees and look at cat memes.
We all know the standard tools most remote workers use these days (Slack, Trello, Zoom, etc.) but here some of my favorite, lesser known productivity tools that might really improve your workflow:
In a recent effort to streamline my tools and attention, my new preferred tool for task management, note taking, wiki, etc. is the all-in-one workspace, Notion. Notion’s strength is that it is both beautifully simple, yet able to display deep and complex amounts of content. In a short time, it has already transformed the way I process and store information both individually and with my colleagues, so am excited to see how the platform develops over time.
If you have a lot of apps open daily, and especially if you have multiple logins for different employers or clients, try Shift to streamline your workflow. I have five Gmail accounts and a half dozen apps connected (And.co, Asana, Calendly, Mailchimp, Notion, Slack), which keeps my browser open for browsing.
Some remote workers don’t hit their stride until after midnight, but you might not want your team to know you sent that email at 3am. Use Boomerang for Gmail to schedule emails to be sent at a more “acceptable” hour. It also has other useful features like reminding yourself to follow up if you don’t receive a reply and returning a message to your inbox at a later date.
If soundscape is an important factor for your ability to focus, check out Focus at Will and Brain.FM, both music services that use neuroscience to help you achieve deep focus. (In case you missed it above, check out Weightless by Marconi Union, a 10-hour “song” that was engineered with sound therapists to reduce listener anxiety by 65%.)
Increase Productivity in meetings
Do you work with a remote team that spans multiple time zones? Check out Time Zone Converter, a beautifully designed menu-bar app that not only displays the current time but has a timeline that responsively displays relative times as you scroll.
As remote workers, virtual meetings are part of our every day. Do yourself a favor and install Muzzle, a free app that will turn off all notifications while you are screensharing. You may not be inundated with embarrassing notifications like they suggest, but you’ll present as more professional regardless.
And to further up your virtual meeting game, install Krisp to add noise canceling to your computer’s mic so that others hear only your voice and remove the background noise coming from other call participants. Barking dogs, be gone!
Evolve Your Process
Over the years, I’ve continuously adapted my tools and routine to changes in my professional and personal circumstances. I am sure that will always be the case.
Who “you” are today will be different than “you” a year from now. Tune into your personal flow states, identify what’s no longer working well, and find ways to continuously optimize your tools and routines. The most productive version of yourself will emerge again and again.
Acework is a new remote work matching platform connecting talent with remote career opportunities. We facilitate finding remote and location-independent jobs for vetted top talent and match them with companies hiring remotely and looking to build distributed teams. Apply on our website to become part of the network.