As a remote agency, we often work alone even though we speak continuously and collaborate on projects throughout the day. It can sometimes be lonely and other times empowering, but the key to finding the right balance is to make sure you discipline yourself and get the most out of the situation and your productivity.
Working for yourself does not mean you can just sit and watch Netflix all day. When you work independently, it takes a lot of hard work, and it’s definitely not for everyone. We are 18 months into our journey to self-management and we’re still working out a lot of things – it’s not an overnight step to take, but it’s definitely worth the effort. It’s especially fun if you have the right people along for the ride!
Here are our best insights into working autonomously and our top tips for staying focused.
Autonomous working is all about routine
“Routine, Routine, Routine. Even if it is simply the same morning routine before work, it helps put you in the right frame of mind and can help with motivation. I have also found that instead of trying to make my workspace clean of all distraction, that letting in the odd distraction keeps me more focused than a blank and silent room.
Music helps keep me on track, and although my preference changes every other day, having the right playlist can improve your productivity tenfold. Choose instrumental songs (those without lyrics!) to help avoid distraction and an impromptu karaoke session. Don’t be afraid to take breaks. Instead of just avoiding a piece of work for 5 minutes at a time, take 20-30 minutes off. I like to go for a walk or do some exercise, something ‘off-screen’ to help keep me focused.”
Plan and track time spent on each project.
Working autonomously can become a trap if you don’t manage your time right. It’s easy to get in a flow and spend more hours on projects than you should (for your personal or the budget’s sake). Tracking the hours spent on each project on a daily basis and automatically having an overview of the total time spent this month has helped me to work in a much more structured and relaxed way without surprises.
I’ve tried several apps and extensions such as to Todoist and Trello with plugins, but for me, the visual overview that a Google sheet provides works best. Feel free to download a template of the document I use.
Find a work spot that helps you to be productive.
I live in a very small apartment in Amsterdam, and if I work from my home a couple of days in a row, I start feeling low on energy and can’t relax anymore in my living space. Having a place you can calm down and unwind is just as important as having a work spot where you can focus, so they shouldn’t influence each other, in my opinion. I find working from coffee shops gets expensive and I get distracted easily by all the movement, background music and talking. For me, working from the library, cut off from the noise with my headphones on, while still having the vibrant energy of people around me is the perfect balance of focus and a positive vibe. Try out different environments to find your ideal spot.
Currently, three of my favourite playlists to listen to while working from the library:
Spotify Playlist 1: Synthetic
Spotify Playlist 2: Calm & Focused
Spotify Album: Beyond the Gates – Wojciech Golczewski”
Time blocking can keep you sane
“Solid time management is the key to working autonomously for me. I have tried multiple tools, but TickTick, along with Trello and a good Spotify playlist are my tools of choice. Time blocking is something that keeps me sane and allows me to track the time I spend on projects and also create a healthy work-life balance. It’s very easy to get distracted when working around the home and so I have recently started working from co-working spaces and finding myself being much more productive.
Regular communication within the team is necessary to stay motivated and focused on a project and asking for help when needed is recommended. It can be easy to feel alone and unsupported, so this regular contact is a vital ingredient to team morale and feeling like a part of the team. Frequent breaks to stretch and stay hydrated are essential when staring at a screen for long periods of time too.”
“Working autonomously can be bliss, but it can also become a burden if you don’t find the right setup for you. Take advantage of the freedom it gives you and become responsible for your own growth. Being able to organise my working day by myself, with no constraints, puts all the responsibility of being efficient and overcoming my limits on me. I am responsible for my learning, for meeting my deadlines, for improving my communication skills or for taking advantage of new opportunities.
An important aspect that’s very challenging when working autonomously is continuously learning and networking. I sometimes fill in my day with tasks and calls with my team and postpone attending a meetup or going on a course. Even when I work from different cafes or coworking spaces, I tend to be very absorbed by my own work. What I noticed works for me is having a calendar with courses and events that are relevant in my current role, like a leadership course, a conference for better business, meetups or Twitter chats and include these when planning how my weeks will look like. It’s important to have dedicated time to learning and networking and try to put new ideas into practice. Being open to different kind of learning opportunities and becoming autonomous in learning, first of all, is an excellent step towards developing a proper mindset for autonomous working.”
“I believe that working autonomously requires self-discipline and efficiency. I try to apply the 80/20 rule by choosing each day two or three of the most critical tasks that I believe will make a difference on my weekly or monthly workload. I used to track my time, but I stopped because it ended up being disruptive and difficult to put into practice since some of my daily tasks don’t fall into specific categories or clients.
When I set a goal, I use two tools that help me finishing it: An app called “Pomodone” based on the Pomodoro technique. It’s a time-management tool that tracks time and breaks the work down into short intervals of 25 minutes, with short breaks of 5 minutes in between. The second tool is a paid music streaming service called “Focus@Will”. This service provides an instrumental playlist designed to increase focus and boost productivity based on your personality or your mood. After trying several tools, these two are my favourite.”
An independent working style requires focus & self-discipline
“If you are still working, or have previously worked, in an office, working autonomously can give you a sense of freedom from some of the rules that (still) reign in traditional companies. Every day you can choose the best place, music, clothing and apps to motivate, organise and help you achieve your goals.
On the contrary to what many people think, working autonomously you end up being much more efficient than if you were in an office being micromanaged. BUT to achieve this, you must stay strictly attached to 2 of your most important allies: focus & self-discipline.
“Working remotely means navigating through both perks and challenges that come with an independent lifestyle, which may not be an easy task for many of us. One of the first things that I discovered early on is the fact that there is no fixed formula for making this work – it depends a great deal on what works best for each individual. My advice would be to test, test, test – what works and what doesn’t regarding when, how and where work needs to happen so that your day can be as productive and efficient as possible. This personalised formula might take a while to figure out (testing various tools or various scheduling formulas, working at different times of the day) – but patience will ensure you get there.
One of the perks of working autonomously is that, with time, you get to know yourself very well and learn to adapt your working day to different environments, which is very valuable on the long-term and helps you really take advantage of the freedom to organise your working day.
At the moment, I am working mostly from home (as I have organised a tiny office corner in my house that I feel very comfortable in) and from coffee shops as well. I am currently going through a period of waking up early in the morning, so I take advantage of that by setting up a morning routine (doing 30 mins of exercise, reading a few pages and starting work by 9am the latest) – which works right now but I am aware in a few months might change.
As it can quickly become quite a lonely experience, I make sure to combine remote work with attending offline events, meetups, joining communities of peers interested in the same things as myself and keeping up to date with what is happening in the industry. I do this while at home but also while travelling – as I have discovered that these kinds of events/communities can be the best introduction to a new city and the best way to connect to like-minded individuals.”
– Ana M
“To work remotely and autonomously, you need first to battle your own skeletons in the closet. If you want to work on your own so you are not ‘bothered’ or ‘stressed’, think again. The working part does not change that much, all the things you do in a ‘standard’ office are pretty much the same. You stay in front of a screen performing the exact same tasks as you would if you were working from an office. But boy, you get to choose the chair and the place and, even better, the time. Basically, you perform those exact same tasks in a way that completely suits you.
Of course, the superpower of bending time and space comes with responsibilities. You might be physically alone, but in fact, you are not – you have to find ways to remember that. For me, the tools that we use really help me. Slack is my friend and you can always be on the lookout for the little green circles, actual people that you can talk to. You are also not alone when it comes to responsibilities, there is a whole team that needs to be updated on what you are doing/have done and some tasks are required to be completed so they can start working. Communication is key, you have to make it as easy and natural as possible.
Another thing that you need to work with a lot, if you think this working- style is for you, is honesty. It is difficult for people to check in with you, so it is vital always to make sure people know you are ‘around’ and roughly be aware of your real workload.”
“After you get the taste of working autonomously, you will realise it is challenging to go back to a traditional working environment. It’s like trying out a mobile phone and getting used to the mobility and then having to go back to a landline and depend on the length of the phone cord.
In my opinion, the most significant advantage of working autonomously is the flexibility it gives you. You have the freedom to work from home, from coffee shops, from coworking spaces, from the train while travelling to other cities, next to a beach or in the middle of the mountains, basically anywhere as long as you have a laptop with internet connection. You might think it’s hard to concentrate and get work done when sitting on a beach, but for me, it works, as long as I have a coffee next to me and some music in my headphones. Whatever works, as Woody Allen would say.”