Graham’s WFH Tip #4 – Thinking Music

It’s WFH Tips time again 😊

This time we are going to be thinking about the impact of music, and a bit about other sounds in our working environment.

What I really want to encourage you to do in this post is to consider the soundscape around you. Whoever you are, and whatever your preference, sound can have a significant impact on your creativity and productivity. There are elements of the soundscape that we probably can’t influence too much – if you live in a city, it’s unrealistic to expect complete silence – but you can control what sounds you put into your environment. Now you are working from home control of the soundscape is part of your new autonomy so make the most of it.

I wrote a little time ago about the power of a ticking clock, which has become part of my daily soundscape. I also love having music playing while I’m working, but it must be the right kind of music. There is music that helps me to focus, and music that is distracting or even annoying.

When it comes to music, people have all sorts of preferences – that’s part of the joy of music, after all. While I prefer music, others prefer silence, and that’s great as well, personally I find silence lonely.

If you search the internet, you will find people declaring music as a productivity improver, the popular posts are mostly subjective, but there are some that focus on research. One of the better ones is comes from Cognition Today – How does background music affect work productivity and creativity? 9 research findings – Cognition Today. As you might expect, the answer isn’t that music = better productivity, it’s more subtle than that. Let’s face it the definition of productivity is itself dependent upon the context in which it is being measured and the role being performed. Perhaps the most interesting study is the last one in this article that basically says that if you think music is helpful then it will be, but if you think it’s distracting, then that’s also likely to be true.

These are my focus music tips, which I accept may be completely opposite to yours:

  • Instrumental music – I find music with lyrics distracting, which aligns with some of the studies.
  • Curate your playlists – I use Spotify for my music and have playlists specifically built for focussing. I have different ones for types of instrumental music. It’s worth the effort to curate ones where the music fits with what you regard as pleasurable.
  • Observe the emotions – instrumental music can have a significant impact on our mood and it can creep up on you. One of my focus playlists includes music from soundtracks. When I was first building this playlist, I copied in some music from a nature program which accompanied a scene where a leopard seal was chasing a penguin. When I noticed that it was subconsciously making me stressed, I removed it.
  • Time for a change – I have several playlists because I find that music can move from pleasurable to annoying if I listen to it too much. That’s also one of the reasons that the playlists are long.
  • Keep it low – there are times when I like loud music, it’s not great for focus.
  • But not too low – music that is too low can also be distracting.

The music in my home office plays through a smart speaker which enables me to quickly turn it off when I need to respond to a call or other interaction. If I am at home on my own, I play the same music throughout the house. There’s something about walking into an empty room where music is playing that I find reassuring.

One of my favourite pieces of thinking music, at the moment, is the soundtrack to Planet Earth II. I’d love to hear some of your choices.

Here are a few of my playlists if you fancy a listen:

“My idea is that there is music in the air, music all around us; the world is full of it, and you simply take as much as you require.”

Edward Elgar

Header Image: This is a local sunset looking out across the Irish Sea and the wonderful expanse of wind turbines. You can just see the turbine sticking up alongside the setting sun.

Graham’s WFH Tip #3 – Put your Superpowers to work (but don’t overuse them)

Working from home means that you are working in a different location, but it doesn’t mean that you have to work in the same way. You have been liberated from the office, which for most of us was a noisy open plan disaster of a location where you were impacted by all sorts of other people’s poor behaviour. You now work in a location where, for most of us, you have significantly more control.

There is no need to work in the same way as you did in the office – you have superpowers.

You have the superpower of invisibility.

You are no longer at the beck and call of everyone who just happens to be walking around the office farm. There is no need to join others for a brew, or for lunch, just because it would be impolite not to join them. No one needs to know where you are – you are invisible, unless you make yourself visible.

Many people make the mistake of giving up their invisibility too easily. They feel like they need to answer every email and every text immediately. If there’s a call they feel like they have to join it. There’s a worry that others might think that they aren’t working hard enough if they aren’t immediately responsive. This is a mistake, by going invisible you will achieve far more.

You have the superpower of focus.

Open plan offices are such distracted places. The noise, the interruptions, the coming and the going. For many of us we are employed for our ability to solve problems and solving problems requires focus. Outside of the bustle of the office factory you can make the space to focus. You do need to talk to people and let them know about your progress, you need to collaborate with people and seek consensus, but you shouldn’t let that steal your focus time. In your focus time is your strength.

You have the superpower of time shifting

The 9-to-5 is such a cliché yet there are millions of people following it every day.

Why?

Some of this is a particularly British thing. In my culture good people are in the office from 9-to-5, five days a week and only take 30 mins for lunch. If you are particularly hard working you will take your lunch at your desk and not leave until 6. No one would dream of taking time out in the middle of the day, and if they did they would definitely make sure that everyone knew that they were just popping out for an hour to have a major organ removed. Presenteeism is highly valued.

Even organisation that have flexible working hour look on people who start early and leave early, or start late and leave late, with a suspicious eye.

There is good scientific evidence for this being a terrible way to organise a business if you want to get the best out of people. Some people work better early, others work better later. For most of us an afternoon nap would be highly beneficial. The four day working week has been shown to provide significantly better productivity. Taking time off work when ill leads to fast recovery. It goes on.

How much time flexibility you have depends on your role and your employer. For many reasons I have high levels of flexibility and I aim to put it to good use. I try to stick to a routine, as I suggested in the first tip, but it’s not 9-to-5. It’s taken me a long while to settle on a working schedule that, I hope, makes me productive. I don’t know what time flexibility you have, but perhaps you have more flexibility than you think you do?

You have the superpower of autonomy

I’ve previously quoted Daniel Pink as saying this (emphasis mine):

“When it comes to motivation, there’s a gap between what science knows and what business does. Our current business operating system–which is built around external, carrot-and-stick motivators–doesn’t work and often does harm. We need an upgrade. And the science shows the way. This new approach has three essential elements:

1. Autonomy – the desire to direct our own lives.
2. Mastery – the urge to get better and better at something that matters.
3. Purpose – the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.”

Daniel Pink

I return to these three words regularly – autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Working from home should extend your autonomy and you should seize it with both hands.

You have the superpower of space shifting.

The

You have the superpower of space shifting.

The desk isn’t always the best place to work – I’m going to spend some more time on this one in a dedicated post, so that’s probably enough for now.

I titled this post “Put your Superpowers to work (but don’t overuse them)”. Overuse of your superpowers can be detrimental to your own wellbeing and also to your productivity. Time shifting needs to be balanced with routine. Focus needs to be balanced with communication and collaboration. Invisibility needs to be balanced with visibility.

Time to get those superpower to work, don’t be shy…

Header Image: A lovely day in the Lake District – this is Buttermere. A glorious walk, a lovely swim. While we were there we were enthralled watching a crew filming aerobatic paraglider sequences followed by a helicopter – not something you see every day. They were apparently for a future Mission Impossible. We didn’t see Tom Cruise, although there was no way of knowing if he was flying one of the paragliders.

Graham’s WFH Tip #2 – Wear Work Clothes

What do you wear when you are working from home? Do you have work clothes? I do, and I find it extremely helpful.

Perhaps you are the person who embodies one of those overused WFH caricature and works in your pyjamas? Or, perhaps you are someone who wears a shirt and tie above and Hawaiian shorts below? Maybe you just wear what you wear and don’t really give it any thought?

There are several advantages to having work clothes, a uniform.

Tip #2: Pick a uniform for work, wear it for work, change out of it when you are not at work.

You’ll feel better for it.

I feel I need to apologise a bit here, I am writing from a male perspective. I know that the pressures are different for women, but I don’t feel at all qualified to talk into that context – not being a woman.

Anyway, back to those advantages?

Uniformity requires limited thinking

When I talk about work clothes I’m talking about a uniform that you put on each day. I’m not talking about sitting in the home office with a shirt and tie on, although, if that’s what works for you, why not? I’m talking more about have a defined set of clothes that you only use for work, and likewise, you only work when you are wearing those clothes. The variation in these clothes should be kept quite narrow, they should, in essence, be uniform. It helps if they all match with each other.

Uniformity takes away a whole stack of cognitive load – also mentioned in Tip #1. Having a defined set of work clothes removes the morning effort of choosing, effort which, in most of our WFH situations adds no value.

Changing partitions the day

I have work clothes, I also have non-work clothes and I try to keep the two separate. At the end of each day I go to the effort of changing out of my work clothes into my non-work clothes. Whilst this is a physical activity, it is also a mental activity, by changing my clothes I am finishing my working day and moving into my non-working time.

I’m trying to enact a feeling, telling myself that work has finished for the day. This change of clothes partitions my day, I am stopping doing one thing and starting to do something else.

Wearing work cloths means that I am at work

Whilst changing moves me from one mode to another, wearing the WFH uniform reinforces my sense of being at work. Distraction is a challenge when you work from home, the work clothes reinforce my concentration during work time. Again, I’m trying to enact a feeling, the feeling of being at work.

Give a workwear uniform a try, you might actually like it 😊

Addendum: I also have a different aftershave for the weekend and holidays. It provides another mental signal that differentiates work time and non-work time.

Header Image: Looking towards Nicky Nook – a wonderfully names local hill. It’s beautiful around here and the lush greens at this time of the year are stunning

Graham’s WFH Tip #1 – Routine is your friend

When I worked in an office I was unaware of the routines that were being subconsciously marked into my psyche, even before I’d left my home I’d entered into a daily rhythm unawares. When you work in an office the routine starts soon after you awake and continues until after you are home.

One of the joys of working from home is having the flexibility to slot things into your day, you no longer need to follow those structures, this is also one of the greatest dangers of working from home. Let me explain a little more.

Tip #1: Routine is good for us and you should seek to establish a daily routine.

While flexibility is sometimes good for us, the reality is that it is comes with a cognitive burden. Routine tasks do not require us to think, that is one of their characteristics. Have you even noticed how it can be difficult to get ready for the day when you are staying in a hotel. That’s not a difficulty you have at home. You know the morning routine where you live. Most people don’t have to think about the location of their toothbrush, they just brush their teeth. In a hotel, however, it’s something that you have to give thought to, you also have to think about what you do with your toothbrush once you’ve finished brushing. The pathways for you morning ablutions is built into your brain as a stored sequence of tasks that are simply followed.

You only have so much cognitive energy to give in a day, you want to use it wisely, and preferably doing things that add value to the role that you are undertaking. Having a set of routines, that don’t require us to think, frees up our brains for those activities where it’s really needed.

While we don’t have to follow the office routines when we work from home, I suggest that you do.

I’ve got tips for some of the specific routines, which I’ll cover later, but for now, some routines for you to consider:

  • Going to work
  • Leaving work
  • Lunchtime
  • Clothes and getting dressed
  • Start of the day
  • End of the day
  • Focus time
  • Refreshments
  • Breaks
  • Day plan
  • Research and learning
  • Administration
  • Social conversations

You may, or may not, be in control of each of these routines, but I can guarantee that you are in control of some of them. Now imagine that you have to think through each one of these activities as a unique activity each day – exhausting. Routine takes that need to think away from us, and let’s be honest, most of the time, there is no value in each of these activities being different every day.

While I’m here I suppose I ought to talk a bit about how to establish new routines. The simple answer, for me, is to repeatedly do the same thing and eventually it will become the habit. Remember, there is no set number of times you need to do something for it to become a habit, we are all different in that respect. Sometimes we’ll just slot into a habit, at other times we’ll need to work through phases of discomfort before it fits. The point of a routine is to reduce your cognitive load, not to increase it, so there’s no point in stressing over a habit we find difficult, that’s just defeating the purpose of the exercise.

Until next time 😊

Header Image: Local evening light. This is a field close to where I live, somewhere I regularly visit on my routine morning walks.

Graham’s WFH Tips – Some Advice for a Changed World

I’ve worked in a hybrid way for many years. Some days I would be in the office, at others I would do work from home or another location.

My work is now, almost exclusively, done from an upstairs room at the back of my house. I work from home, I don’t “work from home (with a knowing nod and a wink)”, work is the place where I do work.

There are certain things that I do to maintain my productivity and retain my sanity. I figured that it was about time I shared some of that advice, and thus a new series of posts was born.

There’s a huge debate going on at present about the value of working from home, most of this is mired in ignorance and mistrust, although some of it is raising genuine concerns. I’m not aiming to get into all of that because my hope if that it will work out, in time, as people find ways of working that are right for them and their organisation. I’m writing these posts from the perspective that people are going to be working from home, that change has already happened, it’s not a new thing. What they want is to be the best at working from home that they can be. If I can give some tips that help some people along that journey then I will count that as a success.

All of these tips, I’m sure, will have been covered by someone else in a far more erudite way somewhere, I’m not claiming any ownership of them. I will try and link to other more detailed material, but I can’t guarantee that I know where the advice came from.

It might help you to know what kind of work I do, from home, and the type of challenges that I face. Some of the tips are particularly relevant to my context, so may not be as relevant to yours.

I’m an IT Architect which means that I take business needs and translate them into designs that other people build. My current, extended, team is international with members in every continent apart from Antarctica, we are resident in over ten different time zones. I’m regularly in conversation with people at +12 hours and -8 hours from my UK location. Adjusting for daylight saving time, summer time, can be interesting as some people go one way and others go in the opposite direction, on different dates. All of the people in my management chain are in a different time zone to myself. There are many things that I can do without meetings, but I spend a significant amount of my week in meetings.

That’s probably enough for now, I’m sure more will come out as we work our way through the tips.

As we start off on this journey I’m reminded of a quote:

Advice is like snow – the softer it falls, the longer it dwells upon, and the deeper it sinks into the mind.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

As I put this advice out there, I leave its landing to you.

Header Image: This is Crummock Water, it’s a swimming favourite. It’s not quite local, but is local enough that we can go as part of a day trip.

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