Onboarding: notes from a remote-team newbie, part 3

Hi, I’m Holly. I just started at Open Door Teams, and this is my first full-time remote position. ODT is a remote (or, a better word, I think, is ‘dispersed’ - more on that later) team. I’m keeping a journal of impressions, frustrations, victories, failures, and general observations as I progress through the phases of Onboarding Newbie to Remote Team Wonderworker. I have permission to be both blunt and truthful. Please follow along. I welcome your comments and insights.

Distractions Remote Work

As I sat down to type this I accidentally knocked my drink over, spilling water onto both my lap and the floor beneath my desk. I was tending to the former while my cat wandered into the latter and tracked it out of the room. I went to the kitchen for a towel to clean up the mess, and the cat followed, yowling at my heels (I don’t know, he’s a moody cuss—and maybe the wet paws annoyed him). After I mopped up the spill, I headed back through the kitchen to toss the towel onto the washing machine in the garage, at which point the cat, no longer kicking up a racket, darted through the open door into the garage. Oh, for the love. Good news though: my lap and floor (and the cat’s paws, I assume) are currently dry.

All of that is to say this: I guess it’s time to talk about distractions.

When I googled remote work in preparation for this job, the results were largely about how not commuting is glorious (debatable) and distractions are everywhere. In fact, a good portion of what I read focused heavily on how to minimize distractions. Okay, fair enough. I just spent ten minutes dealing with a spill and a cat and a towel so I can’t really claim that I don't get distracted. But I’m not convinced by even half that working from home is more distracting. It’s just distracting in a different way.

The cat vs. the breakroom

My last workplace was pretty interrupt-driven. So maybe I’m on a bit of a high here in my quiet, two-bedroom house set back from a lightly-traveled road and occupied by one me, one kid, and one cat. Gone are the incessantly ringing phones, the sound of CNN blaring from down the hall, the co-workers popping into my office at regular intervals. No more cake in the break room or the intermittent beeping of someone else’s printer jam. Not to mention the fact that now when I want to visit the ladies’ room I don’t have to traipse through a busy retail outlet to do it (long story).

These days the interruptions are less the pantsuit-and-conference-room variety and more the hairball-under-the-sofa variety. Inelegant, yes. But in that lack of glamour is a gift: the less businessy the distraction, the easier it is to recognize. I am not, in other words, under any illusions that I’m somehow working when I’m wrangling the cat out of the garage. I couldn’t say the same about eavesdropping on CNN. That feels more work-y. Doesn’t it? It’s easier now to tell when I’m pulled away from work. Which, in turn, allows me to get back to it faster.

With one exception: when the distraction in question is my own brain.

And in this corner, weighing in at 3 pounds...

Oh, the thoughts. I think them. I think about thinking them. I ponder and wonder and muse. And I’ll be the first to defend this sort of rambling contemplation—more of my knottier problems have finally been solved by a meditative stroll than by determined force of will. But I suspect that’s because those meditative strolls came on the heels of concentrated effort.

I need to focus; I need to drift. Both. Alas, drifting’s easier. And it’s even easier when working remotely.

One unintended consequence of all that onsite noise and interruption is that there’s little opportunity for my mind to wander. Now I can wander whole galaxies. I maintain that that’s mostly a plus—writing was a component of my last job too, and I’m not saying the quality of my output was terrible, but there’s no doubt that I write better when I’m free to mull. It’s just that there’s such a thing as mulling too much. Still, there’s a tipping point. And it can be avoided.

Habits win where fights are lost.

Finding the line between Optimal Mull and Over-Mull sounds like art, but it’s really more science. Which is to say there are concrete things I can do, real tools I can use to stay on the right side of that line. (Most of the time.) For me, this is what helps the most:

  • Break projects down
    There are lots of project management tools out there. Here at Open Door Teams we use Pivotal Tracker and Basecamp. But post-its on a whiteboard works too. Or pencil and paper. The point is to break things down into limited, well-defined tasks. This imposes parameters on my work. The parameters, in turn, help me stay focused even when I’m in contemplative mode. I’m contemplating the task at hand, not what it means to be human or why time seems to pass faster as we get older. (Not that I don’t think about those things at other times. I totally do.) And it’s worth noting that I don’t necessarily do this project breakdown upfront. I do what I can upfront. Then I break down further as I go.

  • Plan the day
    I’m not talking about an ironclad commitment to execute specific tasks at specific times. I’m talking about thinking, at the end of my work session, how’d it go today? And what would I like to work on tomorrow? Then I add those tasks to my day plan for the next day and log out. Simple. But that little bit of thought makes a huge difference because it forces me to be intentional about how I use my time. I’m not just going wherever the wind takes me—a sure path to over-mulling; I’m making deliberate choices. That way, when I do drift, I drift with purpose.

  • Don't multitask
    When I was in college I worked at this cute little pasta house in the Midwest. The lunch rush was no joke, and I always had my mind on about a hundred different things. Or so I thought at the time. Looking back now I see that I was intently focused on what was happening there in that dining room and nothing else. So yes, I was noticing this near-empty water glass and that table filling up and so on, but those things were all part of the same framework. I wasn’t taking an order and then texting a friend about meeting up later. I wasn’t multitasking. I was just tasking. A lot. Today my work involves less food (read: none) and more screens, but the idea is the same: operate from one context at a time. It doesn’t just discourage excessive reveries; it actively fosters focus.

  • Track time
    We use Daycast here (for day planning too), but there are lots of time-tracking tools to choose from. The best one is the one that suits you, the one you’ll actually use. Because tracking time is a great way to stay on task. It is for me, anyway. I clock in and out of tasks as I work, and one of the benefits of that behavior is that it triggers a kind of internal alert when my thinking veers into territory that’s not billable to the task at hand. Which either pulls me back or compels me to clock into the more appropriate task and continue pondering. It has to be a habit for this to work effectively, but if it is? It’s really quite effective.

So yes, my brain can be a formidable opponent when working from home. But with the right tools and habits, I don’t have to fight to stay focused.

I say tomahto.

Having said all of that I will say this: If my last workplace had been quiet and light on the interruptions, and if my house was home to more humans and animals than it is, I’d probably consider onsite to be the less distracting environment. As it is, I say it’s remote.

But I get why that’s not true for everyone.


Next up: part four | Photo by Hector Bermudez