It’s been a year and a half since I started to work from home. Our team spans several time zones, and the variance in daytime hours means we’re not all working on the same 9 AM – 6 PM clock. We get the freedom to clock in however we wish, as long as we get our minimum 40 hours and weekly tasks done.
Sounds great, right?
It is, in many ways, but it’s also a huge test of initiative and self-motivation. The New Yorker ran a piece called “I Work From Home” last year, and it’s as hilarious as it is devastating in its accuracy. How many people working at home haven’t had to beat away the temptations of all-day pajamas and endless snacking?
Starting out, I barely had any idea what to do with myself, let alone how to be a consistently productive team member. Not having the usual workplace markers makes it far too easy to lapse into unproductive self-deception. When you don’t need “outside clothes” for your day job, you can park your laptop on top of your blankets and claim that you’re working up to tackling your to-do list. If you’re not careful, that mantra can carry you through a funny YouTube video, a series of Buzzfeed quizzes, a cool Twitter link, and so on—until you emerge, dazed, at 10 PM on a workday without a single item crossed off your list.
A year and a half is a long time, though. Over those weeks and months, I’ve tested various tricks and tools for keeping temptation—-and that end-of-day abashment—away. No workflow is ever perfect, but mine has become much better than before, and that’s all thanks to these apps and programs.
Momentum gives you a clean, focused dashboard to replace your browser’s default New Tab page. The dashboard consists of a clock, a random inspirational quote, a soothing background image, and, optionally, reminders for your day.
Momentum’s brilliance stems from its simplicity: it turns each tab you open into a fresh slate. That’s it, and what a powerful effect it has. I think of my Momentum dashboard as a gentle landing pad. Rather than being thrown down a grubby new rabbit hole teeming with links, apps, bookmarks, and last night’s most recent bedtime puppy video, I find space to breathe and a few quiet seconds to do so. Then I proceed with whatever it is I opened the browser tab for.
There are great touches like a weather widget, a to-do list, and the option to strip away productivity reminders once you’re off the clock. Premium users get additional features like custom fonts and more widgets to enhance functionality. But all of that’s window dressing, literally and metaphorically. Momentum’s main purpose is to give you a much-needed pause, and Premium subscription or not, it does the job well.
ColdTurkey locked me out of my computer once. True story. I mention that not as a criticism but as a commendation. Many “distraction blockers” are too easy to circumvent, and most focus on browsers and distractions found on the internet. Cold Turkey recognizes that VLC Media Player or Steam can be just as time-sucking as Chrome or Firefox, and it gives you a way to block all of those while you’re working.
Cold Turkey has broad and powerful blocking abilities, but its flexibility keeps it from being unwieldy or annoying. You’re monitored via a program that runs in the background and an extension that tracks regular and incognito browsing. This means Cold Turkey neutralizes both Internet distractions and the time-sink apps and programs lurking in your computer. For easy organization, you can create different block lists, as well as a recurring schedule for when these lists apply. Alternatively, you can allow yourself a certain chunk of “distracting” time each day, and Cold Turkey simply deducts from that pool whenever you visit something on your active block list.
When I first tried Cold Turkey a few years back, it was a barebones program. I don’t mean it was any less powerful—it blocked my designated distractions effectively. So effectively, in fact, that it drove me up the wall, and I found myself restarting my laptop several times to try and wrench some entertainment back out of the program’s forbidding clutches. It didn’t work, and I uninstalled Cold Turkey because I felt shut out of my own computer.
These days, though, Cold Turkey wields its power with a bit more grace. Pages get blocked with inspirational quotes; granular scheduling gives you more say over how the program structures your work hours. Other distraction blockers hardly put up a fight; the old Cold Turkey sometimes felt like it beat you into submission. The latest iterations have settled on a good compromise: the app isn’t a domineering taskmaster so much as it is a responsible companion.
If there’s one thing Cold Turkey sucks at, it’s collecting activity data. That’s where RescueTime comes in. RescueTime takes a similar approach with a background program and a browser extension tracking your computer activity. It recognizes programs and, within your browser, different sites, so you get a detailed view of where your time goes. Each activity slots into a category that can be weighted from “Very Productive” to “Very Distracting.” RescueTime then calculates your average productivity score (per day, week, month, year), with the option to view hourly or per-category breakdowns.
RescueTime comes in free and premium versions. I first tried the Premium version for a couple of months to test extra features like more detailed reports and offline activity logging[You can basically self-report work that doesn’t involve your computer]. It’s great, especially if you want to see the specifics of your time use and working habits. But I’ve since switched back to the free version, which works fine for people who just want a fuss-free tool for keeping themselves accountable.
Remote work denies you the advantages of sharing a workspace with colleagues, who can remind you of pending tasks or keep you updated on all the projects you’re working on. To-do lists aren’t quite as personable, but they can help fill that gap.
There are tons of to-do list apps out there, so this is more a matter of personal preference. I like Wunderlist because it has excellent mobile and desktop apps that sync seamlessly. I’ve used it on Android, iOS, and Windows, and I can switch from phone to laptop and back without a hitch. Adding tasks to Wunderlist is a simple process, but the app can handle more complex demands like nested lists, sub-tasks, or recurring tasks if needed. The interface works smoothly and never feels cluttered. There’s a premium version, but the free one has served me well so far.
Tons of productivity routines incorporate the Pomodoro technique, and mine is no exception. Writing and programming involve hours sitting at a desk and staring at a screen; folding short and long breaks into those hours staves off fatigue and burnout.
There’s no shortage of Pomodoro timers out there. I’ve gone through focusbooster, Tomighty, various online timers, and even Workrave, which isn’t so much a Pomodoro timer as it is a periodic break-time reminder. I’ve only been using Stretchly for a few days, but I already like how it handles timing and reminders. This simple, lightweight app uses unobtrusive reminders and gentle suggestions for each micro- and regular break. You can also customize break durations and frequency, as well as the alert sounds and the interface color scheme. It’s an app that you can set and forget—at least until the next micro-break rolls around.
Right now, I’m writing this post in Scrivener. In fact, I wrote most of this blog’s posts on Scrivener. If I’d had the money for a Scrivener license in college, I would’ve written my thesis and research papers on Scrivener. It’s that good.
I first fell in love with Scrivener in high school, when I tried the free trial on my Macbook. The program was macOS-only then, so when I switched to Windows laptops, I didn’t even bother fretting over the price of the full version. A few years on, I learned that Scrivener finally had a Windows version. Armed with a NaNoWriMo discount coupon and part-time job wages, I bought a license. It’s one of the best purchases I’ve made since I started earning my own money.
What’s there to say about Scrivener that other users haven’t already said? It’s a well-designed, robust writing tool that conforms to most purposes, workflows, and writing quirks. There’s a bit of a learning curve, but the conveniences of Scrivener’s many wonderful features are worth the effort.
All the gushing over Scrivener notwithstanding, OneNote is my content workhorse. It houses all my web clippings, meeting and progress notes, pitches, research, and correspondence for projects current and future. I have separate notebooks for different projects, some of which might fall under higher-level section groupings. It’s a great repository for more utilitarian bits of information, especially those that aren’t connected to a specific writing project.
OneNote’s OneDrive integration and excellent mobile/web apps add points in its favor. Everything gets synced automatically with my OneDrive account, giving me local and cloud copies of my work. I can access all of that data from my phone; if I have to work on a different device, I can just sign into the web service to browse my notes. By serving as an accessible central hub for crucial project data and updates, OneNote simplifies my workflow and unshackles it from my desk and laptop with little consequence.
Pocket lets you save content for later reading. This is more of an indirect aid to maintaining focus: instead of diverting attention to a new, interesting link, I can save the material to Pocket and read it at a more convenient time.
What I love about Pocket is its ubiquity: I use it on my browser, on my phone, on my Kindle. The content you save is tied to your account, not to a particular device, so you can store and access material regardless of what gadget you happen to be using. Pocket supports tags, sorting, and search, so the Pocket List (your library of saved items) doesn’t turn into an incomprehensible link-dump.
Granted, the risk remains. Luckily there are web apps like Pocket to Kindle, which automatically forwards Pocket List items to the Kindle. This was the missing link in my Pocket usage. I used to forget to go back and read my Pocket items; now, I can just check my Kindle for the day’s selection.
Boomerang straightened out my email. If you lose hours wrestling with your inbox—or several inboxes—every day, as I once did, this extension deserves a spot in your browser. Boomerang for Gmail lets you “boomerang” emails, i.e., take them out of your inbox to return at your preferred time. It also lets you schedule messages, which is the feature I use most: I can write work updates, inquiries, pitches, and so on ahead of time, then have Boomerang send the emails later when my colleagues expect to receive them.
For people who need more email-fu in their lives, Boomerang offers other valuable features like Inbox Pause, which halts email arrivals for a specified period, or response tracking, which reminds you to follow up if one of your emails hasn’t received a reply yet.