Working Alone

When was the last time you worked by yourself for any serious length of time? As one of the perks at my current employer, engineering and product teams are encouraged to work from home on Tuesdays. For me it’s the best way to re-energize after the “collaboration fatigue” of a typical week.

Yet, alone, there is nothing directing your tasks or conversation (and thus your mind). Nothing which is not in your direct control. If you started the day with a goal to achieve (congrats to you!), then you are only reason it didn’t get done. This is both empowering and daunting, as many of us feel the weight of distractions throughout the day as a minute-by-minute threat to our productivity. But to work from home, alone, is to say to the world: “On this day, it’s on me to be effective and, damn it, at least give myself a chance!”

Taking the time to work alone brings clarity to things easily deferred in the maelstrom of the modern day workplace. Haven’t cleaned up your product roadmap? Need to file some expenses ahead of a deadline? These are the non-critical tasks that pile up throughout the course of a week, so easily abandoned as the invasive “open office” brings new issues to light at a lightning pace.

It’s not that we don’t love our coworkers or care about their issues. We even enjoy the office dogs (Captain Crunch and Amelia)! Each interaction at the office cements our commitment to each other, the mission of the company, and the idea that we are a work family. But just as spending too much time with one’s family can create anxiety, so too can an extended period of time with your work brethren. It becomes impossible, at times, to relax enough to just bare down and do the work.

“Your ability to generate power is directly proportional to your ability to relax.”
– David Allen

So, here are a few things I make sure to do when working alone…

Take Regular Breaks

I find it’s critical to stop working at regular intervals and get my head out of the work. I’ll take a stroll around the block, pace around the house, or stretch my back for a few minutes. Anything that relieves the mental pressure of staying focused for too long without coming up for air (as would happen naturally in an office setting).

Do Your Best Work

Save the work of highest value for your time alone. Since at the office there is such a high likelihood that you will be disrupted, the critical work requiring high levels of focus should be diverted to alone time. Focused time to work is a gift and should only be spent on things worth the dedicated effort.

Plan the Day

Don’t let a quiet, distraction-free work environment go to waste by not starting the day with a plan (or making the plan the first part of your day). This is something I absolutely struggle with, as I tend to just dig in first thing. But on a day of prescribed enhanced effectiveness, I believe it’s best to have a plan of attack.

Enjoy It While it Lasts

Focus is fleeting. The common reaction to having a long period of uninterrupted time, I’ve noticed, is to actually fritter it away doing low value work. Knowledge workers, I believe, have become imprinted with the behavior of the busy workplace, letting their minds become distracted and then later hating themselves for it! We should relieve ourselves of the idea of the “perfect” work day and just enjoy the productive time we have.

So, take a break. Go home, to a coffee shop, or to a quiet park and get comfortable with silence as it pushes you to begin closing loops in your mind. Be mindful of the fact that you are in charge of the day, that there is nothing you should allow to distract the day’s effort.

And most of all, relax, and get to work.