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Remote Work

Context Switching

Being focused and productive is a great feeling. When you switch tasks to something else, there is a delay before you reach maximum focus on the new thing. That delay is the cost of context switching.

Recognizing when you are context switching, and managing it, is an important productivity and happiness skill.

Where The Term Comes From

“Context switching” is a term from computer science. A CPU (central processing unit) is what does a computer’s thinking. It can only focus on one program at a time.

A CPU can appear to run two programs at a time. But it is actually switching back and forth between the two programs. Each time it switches, it spends time unloading the details (context) of one task and loading the new context.

The fastest way for a CPU to run two programs is to finish one completely, then finish the next. If it tries to run both at once, it will take longer. This is because of the time spent switching context back and forth.

More can be said if we want to get into the technical details — like the effect of multiple cores or I/O bottlenecks — but the point remains that, when a computer tries to do too much at once, everything takes longer.

The Cost of Context Switching

Most job tasks require some focus. Maybe you have to keep in mind what client you are dealing with. Maybe you have to keep track of where you are in a list of steps. “Context” is the set of things you keep in mind while you work.

When you switch context to another task, you will need extra time to focus on the new task. That is true whether you are taking a moment to read a notification, or completely switching to some new priority.

Context switching can be quick when you are well rested and familiar with the task. It takes longer when you are tired or unfamiliar with the task. It can take a long time to switch context if you really care about the previous task. You might still be thinking about the previous task for many minutes.

Here’s a thought experiment: say it only takes you two minutes to go from 100% distracted to 100% focused. Every 10 minutes, a notification distracts you (email, instant message, etc.) In an 8 hour day, you will lose close to an hour and a half to context switching.

In reality, it typically takes more than two minutes to reach maximum focus. But you do make progress even when distracted, so the math is more complicated than that.

Ways To Stay Focused

Depending on your situation, there may be unavoidable distractions. Perhaps you have to answer phone calls, or have distracting people in your work place. So you may not be able to avoid distraction completely.

The key is to control what you can control. For example:

  • Notifications – do you get a lot of emails or other messages throughout the day? If you glance at that notification, you are taking your focus off your primary task. Consider turning off message notifications for an hour so you can focus. If you can, deal with messages once per day, then turn them off for the rest of the day.
  • Time boxing – do you have a lot to worry about? Make the conscious decision to focus on one thing for a certain amount of time. Give yourself permission not to think about the other tasks during that time. If your mind is constantly flitting between what you’re doing and what you’re worrying about, you aren’t really focusing on anything.

The general idea is to intentionally pick something to focus on for a certain amount of time.

Trauma

As important as it is to work, there are things that are more viscerally urgent.

An example that school teachers see is traumatized kids. Children have a hard time focusing on school when they are hungry or worried about getting hurt when they get home. Their minds will be constantly flitting back to their visceral concerns. This context switching limits their ability to focus on school.

That’s an extreme example, but adults can have similar issues. Concerns about safety, relationships, or grief are very distracting. Some times, it is OK to work instead of dwelling on those things. Work can be a welcome distraction.

However, consider whether that’s wise in your case. If a phone call, or a few days off work, would improve the situation, try to to do that. Especially if not dealing with it will reduce your productivity for weeks or years.

Categories
Remote Work

Work Without Meetings

Meetings and interruptions are two of the worst things about working in an office. When people work remotely, it becomes a little more difficult to interrupt people and start meetings. That is a good thing.

The Problem With Meetings

In an office environment, the most obvious way to share information is to talk. That could mean scheduling a meeting, or going to someone else’s desk and starting an impromptu meeting. Either way, everyone involved must stop what they are doing and switch their mental context to the meeting. Afterward, everyone will need time to refocus on whatever it was they were trying to do before the meeting.

If somebody was not in the room the first time the meeting happened, the conversation needs to be repeated. And again when a new hire comes along.

The heart of the problem is that meetings are synchronous; everyone has to be doing the same thing at the same time, for however long anyone needs it to happen.

Asynchronous Communication

Asynchronous communication happens without everyone having to do it at the same moment. Email is one example of this. A question can be asked in the morning, and answered later that day — whenever it was natural to write a reply. No one had to interrupt anyone.

This time delay can make the communication smarter. The answerer had a chance to see how the answer looked when written, and revise it. They also have the opportunity to think it over, and check the accuracy of what they’re saying. Also, the reader can check the exact wording of the answer later.

Compare that to a meeting, where it is easy to give the first, not-thought-through answer. It’s also easy misremember the answer in the future.

Email is not perfect. It is easy to lose track of old conversations. Also, the emails are concealed within the email accounts involved in the conversation. When a new hire comes along, they will not have easy access to that conversation. Especially if the people who had the original conversation are on vacation or otherwise not available.

The Best Asynchronous Method

The best asynchronous communication tool I have seen is P2. It’s a private-to-the-team blog that the whole team can post on. Have something to announce or ask? Start a post. Folks can respond to the post with their own thoughts.

Having the communication in the open like this means that all interested parties can contribute to the conversation — no need to guess who has the answer or who will need to know. All P2 conversations are searchable, so they can be found even when you are on vacation.

This solution is especially useful for teams that include multiple time zones. If it can be handled asynchronously, then no one needs to interrupt their personal lives for meetings in the middle of the night.

You can set up a P2 for free on WordPress.com. If you prefer do-it-yourself, the p2 software is open source and free to download.

Sometimes, Synchronous is Good

There are advantages to synchronous communication.

There will be times when something must be resolved immediately. Realtime text chat like Slack can be a useful tool when that comes up.

Communicating well in text is a skill, though, and can be a barrier. In those cases, a voice or video call are good solutions. They add tone of voice and body language to the conversation, which can be helpful.

There is also a human bonding aspect to hearing someone’s voice and seeing their expression. I encourage teams to get together in person from time to time to strengthen that bond, or at least talk a bit on a video call. When people feel a connection to each other as human beings, they tend interact better in text communication.

So use synchronous communication when necessary. But asynchronous is often better.

Building Asynchronous Culture

Communicating well in writing is a skill. Without that skill, written communication can devolve into an ugly bickering match. Bad communication can stop productivity and drive a wedge between people.

For people to work together well, they need to be open and honest with each other. People will only be open and honest if they trust each other. Fear of reprisal or personal attack from team mates distracts from good communication. That is true in any business, whether people work together in an office or not.

The best way to encourage a healthy communication culture is to:

  • Assume positive intent – be generous when you are reading. Interpret with the assumption that the writer means well. Do not look for things to be offended at.
  • Be a considerate writer – focus on the tasks and issues. Avoid making personal accusations. Avoid jokes that can be misinterpreted. Make it easy to assume positive intent.

Closing Thoughts

A business with an asynchronous culture benefits from smarter communication and more focused workers. Workers benefit from fewer interruptions, and more control over their own schedule. A feeling of control is an excellent stress reducer. And having control over one’s own schedule is a powerful tool.

Those are the things that are possible when workers are freed from the demands of frequent interruptions, or having to work around other people’s schedules.

Categories
Remote Work

Remote Work and Family: Dealing With Interruptions

When you work from home, people are tempted to interrupt you. When people see you, it is easy to start a conversation.

Even if the interruption is only for a minute, it can be jarring to mentally switch from work to whatever the other person wants to talk about. And it can take a long time to get back into a work mindset after.

Whether it’s a loved one, a roommate, or a neighbor, these interruptions can hurt your productivity and add stress to your relationship with the other person.

How To Fix This

The best solution is to make it clear when you are trying to focus. Some things you can do to signal that you are trying to focus:

For any of these to work, you will need to let the person know why interruptions are a problem, and how to know when you are focusing on work. Adults who respect you and your need to get work done will honor that, and save non-emergency interruptions for later.

Special Complications

Your specific situation may not be so simple to fix. If you are dealing with children, they may need frequent attention. If you are someone’s caretaker, emergency interruptions may be unavoidable.

Being responsible for somebody is a job all by itself, and trying to do two jobs at once is stressful. Consider whether you could split the parenting / caretaking job with somebody. Even if you cannot free yourself for a full work day, you may be able to get an hour or three to do the work that takes the most focus.

Another option is to see if there’s some room for compromise. If interacting with you once an hour is enough, that may buy you better focus time between talk breaks.

Don’t Work Too Hard

Interruptions can lead to working too hard. If you are working longer hours to make up for the interruptions, or during the night because you’re too busy during the day, be careful. That can easily lead to too little sleep, not enough exercise, and high stress levels. The longer you keep that difficult schedule, the worse your stress and health will become.

If you’re not taking care of yourself, and it is possible to make the situation better now, do it. It gets harder when you’re worn down.

Categories
Remote Work

Remote Work Environment

Setting up your own work environment is both an opportunity and a challenge. It may take some experimenting to figure out what works for you. And your needs may change over time.

Here are some things that have worked for me.

Set up a home office

Set aside a spot in your home as your work space. When you go to that place, you’re working. When you’re done working, leave that place. This is a great tool for shifting to a work mindset quickly. It is also a way to prevent work from being a distraction when you’re not working.

Ideally, the work space would be a desk without distractions nearby. You don’t want piles of laundry, bills, etc. to distract you. If you’re living with other people, having a door that you can close is a great way to close out distractions. The closed door also helps your people know when you’re trying to focus on work.

That assumes you can work from home, and have enough extra space and resources to have a home office. This isn’t an option for everyone.

Get out of your home

Some people work best away from their home. Home may be too noisy / full of preoccupations / small to be a good work space for you. Or maybe there’s a place you feel more inspired. Or perhaps you just want some novelty.

If you can work from a laptop, phone, or tablet, there are options.

  • Libraries are a good place to find quiet and WiFi for free
  • Coffee shops and restaurants often let you use their space and WiFi for hours, though buying something from them is expected. Some of them even encourage telecommuters by providing lots of electrical sockets.
  • There are coworking spaces that will rent you a desk or private office.

Personally, I prefer to work from home most of the time. In my case, home has fewer distractions, I spend less money on food, and has comfortable places to sit. But there are days when I enjoy a change of scenery.

Mix it up

It’s good to have options. Maybe for you that’s a collection of coffee shops and libraries you rotate between. Or perhaps it makes sense to drop off the kids at school, then work at nearby coffee shops until they’re done, then finish off work at home after the initial chaos of kids-returning-home is done.

Today, I started going through my messages in a comfy chair in my living room. It was a cold morning, so I curled up with a blanket and cup of coffee.

When a coworker wanted to do a video chat (we use Zoom,) I moved to my home office and put my desk in standing position so that I could stretch my legs. I stayed at the desk for most of the work day, occasionally switching between sitting and standing.

Toward the end of the day, a cat was nudging me to indicate that I needed to be furniture. So I took my laptop to the bed and sat with my back against some pillows so he could curl up next to me and take a nap.