More people than ever are working from home. The global pandemic of 2020 has transformed many of our work routines, environments, and means of communicating. Chances are if you are employed in the technology sector, you are working remotely for at least a part of your office hours. As someone who had remote working days before the pandemic, I had the fortune to be able to cultivate some habits to help optimize my work regimen and avoid burnout. If this transition to remote work has come as a shock to you and you need some help finding your feet, or you’ve got into a rhythm but would like to boost your efficiency working at home, this post is for you. Read on for seven of the best tips for remote working for data scientists.
Table of contents
Keep A Routine
With your commute effectively reduced to going from your bedroom to your desk, it is crucial to establish a routine and a sense of “going to work.” A routine will help you differentiate between your “rest state” and your “work state.” Performing several easy habits before starting your day will increase your alertness, sense of wellbeing, and motivation. These include:
- Standard hygiene: shower/bath, brushing teeth
- Changing into clothes, you would wear to the office.
- Going for a walk or cycle to simulate your commute and give you a real change of environment.
- Doing a short exercise session to help get some feel-good hormones flowing.
- Listen to a short podcast while you are getting ready. Hearing other people’s voices will simulate the feeling of being around people on a commute or being in the office kitchen, getting your morning drink. It will also help prepare your brain to start receiving and digesting information.
A few of these may seem obvious, but with working from home it is easy to slip into negative habits, simply because you do not have to go out into the world. If you stick to these habits, your workday will feel like a workday and you will be productive.
Maintain Periodic Breaks
This tip will probably be the most essential for a lot of people. By enforcing periodic breaks, you are significantly reducing the risk of burnout. It is very easy, once you have got into a rhythm or you’ve solved a bug in your code, or you’ve some results to analyze to work through periods that would typically be your time away from the desk if you were at the office. You may feel like you do not need a break and that you want to make the most out of your sudden spurt of productivity, but that feeling will be short-lived. Breaks allow you to pace yourself and to do more work throughout the day. Think of a sprinter’s training routine; it involves periodic bursts of high effort followed by rest periods. If a sprinter were to try to maintain continuous high effort with no rest for several training sessions, they would very quickly get injured or overtrained, resulting in a severe drop in performance. You can think of your mind as a sprinter’s body, the more you pay attention to the rest aspect of your work routine, the more resources you will have to put into your work. Ensuring you take breaks will also reduce the likelihood of procrastination and give you a chance to recharge your attention. Techniques like the Pomodoro Technique integrate periodic breaks to enhance focus and have proven to be very useful. It is crucial that you think of break periods as part of work, and do not succumb to the typical self-flagellating mantras such as “no rest for the wicked” and “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” These mantras are more likely to produce short term gains but long term misery, so they are more suited for those times where the pressure is on, and a solution needs to be churned out in a short turnaround. These instances should be the exception, not the rule. The mantra to take from this is “work smarter, not harder.”
Take Time Away From a Problem
This tip is related to maintaining periodic breaks but is focused on the skill of problem-solving. I am sure at some point in your life you have come across a problem, whether that is a question on an online course or writing an algorithm that seemed impossible to solve. The more you look at the problem, the more you find yourself going in loops of reasoning, and then the impending paranoia of being a failure might creep in, causing you to give up in frustration. Before you get to that stage, walk away from the problem after attempting a few different strategies. The main reason for this is simply: you need fresh eyes. The more you read something, the fewer errors you pick out. We share documents with other people, in part because they have not seen them before. By moving away from the problem, you allow your thoughts to settle. With remote work, it is more challenging to reach out to a colleague than it was in an office where you could just turn around or go to the kitchen. In addition to problem-solving, find people in your team that are approachable to whom you can describe your problem. Not only does vocalizing help crystallize what you do know about your problem, it presents the opportunity to get to a solution through teamwork. Furthermore, by sharing your problem, you are unloading some of the pressure you may be putting on yourself and preventing yourself from dwelling and feeling helpless. By being proactive in temporarily walking away and communicating, you will be a problem-solving machine.
Recognize When You’re Not Feeling OK
This point also applies outside of the realm of remote work. At the time of writing, there has been a period of great upheaval and grief that will leave a lasting impact on everyone in the world. It is reasonable to feel down, and things can feel like they are getting on top of you. You can assess your wellbeing, and let human resources or your line manager know if you are suffering. Burnout is a genuine thing and needs to be respected, especially in the modern world, where productivity viewed as the sole quality to have and often at the expense of life balance and health. Hold your health as the most crucial aspect of your life. If your place of work does not prioritize the wellbeing of the staff, then consider looking for somewhere else to work. Find friends, family, and people you can confide in to share your thoughts and feelings. Also, realize you are not the only one in the world who might not feel OK, and it is no indication of a flaw.
Find A Hobby That Does Not Involve a Screen
Often as a tech-loving group, our hobbies tend to revolve around computers and gadgets, whether that is gaming, building a software project on Github or testing new models (GPT-2 anyone?). When you are working remotely, there is less of a chance that you will go outside as you do not need to commute. If you are not changing the position to go from work to play, then you are not simulating and start/end-of-work transition. You are blending your work and play environments, which can make it harder to be focused and can invite procrastination. A similar issue occurs with working in bed; it associates stress with an environment designed for rest, which means it can become more challenging to switch off when you need to. That is not to say you should dispel of all your desk related hobbies, but try to find at least one hobby that means you have to separate yourself from your desk. That could be juggling, board games, yoga, going for a walk, or any other countless activities you can choose alongside your favorite computer-related one. By doing so, you will have well-defined work and play environments and be able to switch into work or play mode when needed.
Set Out Short, Medium and Long Term Tasks
One of the biggest challenges with remote working is the feeling that every day is identical. I often hear in my Zoom meeting from colleagues that “They do not know what day it is?” or “It is Wednesday already?”. If you lose a sense of time, it is possible to lose sight of progress and just feel like you on a constant loop or a hamster wheel. To prevent these feelings from occurring, you can set out tangible and attainable goals for your work. You want to start with small daily tasks that you can tick off after a few hours. That could be, for example, “finish collating dataset” or ” upload documentation to Git repo.” Then you want goals that may require several weeks to months of work to achieve; these might involve performing a set of experiments or presenting results at a conference. These goals are to motivate you and allow you to frame your work and manifest deadlines to ensure you get to them. Lastly, you should outline long term goals; these will be mostly individual and career progression based. The goals allow you to focus on your ambition, and here you see yourself in the future on a scale of 3-5 years. Examples could be progressing to owning a team, having a certain number of publications, or developing a new product. You will find that your manager expects you to have a sense of ambition, and you should always be able to vocalize where you want to go and what you are interested in doing. Not only will this give the sense that you are passionate and want to grow with the company, but will anchor you in real and time-based milestones that can add structure to your remote work regimen.
Bonus: Work In Different Environments
The previous tips were focused primarily on working from home and ways to overcome the pitfalls that come with it. However, this bonus tip unites all the earlier advice to get the most out of remote working. If you have the opportunity to work somewhere that has the facilities to support you throughout (read Wi-Fi and coffee), take advantage of it for a part of your working week. Introducing variety will help keep you engaged and will allow you to simulate a commute and give you a distinct work environment. If where you work is offering the opportunity to meet, and it is safe to do so, you have an excellent opportunity to have human interaction, not via software, and to collaborate and share ideas. Meeting up will help mitigate loneliness and boost morale. Working in different environments is also very valuable for cohabiting partners. If you are limited in space at home, you could find yourself working on top of your partner or your family, which can add to your overall stress. By having periods in your week or month where you are safely outside of the house, you can reduce your stress and limit the strain on your relationships at home.
Remote working is not an easy feat. At face value, it is beneficial as it negates lengthy commutes for some and grants you additional flexibility and freedom. Often people experience a boost in productivity by having work from home days. But long-term remote working requires some forethought and planning to overcome the often unnoticed blocks that can build up and make your work experience more stressful than it needs to be. Pay extra caution to the risk of burnout and over-emphasis on productivity. It is tempting to use all the extra hours available to you at home to work endlessly, but balance is necessary for being productive and energized to work in the long term. Value your time and your environment, which includes your surroundings and your person. I hope the points outlined in the post can help you in your remote work adventure.