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Seven Paths to Discipline for Remote Workers

If I had a dollar for every time someone has told me they don't know how I work at home with "all those distractions," I'd buy a few albums by bands that I know help me concentrate.

We all know that successful remote work takes more than a good playlist. It requires discipline, the kind that keeps you at your desk when no one will know if you're not there. The kind of discipline that keeps the television off and your brain switched on.

I've heard people say we're born either disciplined or not. I don't believe it. Anyone can learn to be disciplined in work—sufficiently to toil from home, with "all those distractions," even though the only distractions I see right now are dirty dishes and wet washing. Similarly, even the most disciplined of us have days in which we lack focus and struggle to get anything done.

If you're looking to be more disciplined, here are some tactics that I've found can help.

1. Plan your day. If you don't know what you need to do—or what's coming up—it can be difficult to maintain your discipline because there's no pressure to do so.

A first step to greater discipline is to set aside time in your diary for every task you need to do. Some of the time slots and tasks may change, but the plan will at least set expectations for what you need to achieve.

2. Plan your breaks. That wet washing of mine really needs to be hung out to dry. Household tasks often assail the home worker. There's no point in trying to ignore them. Instead put them into your daily schedule along with "legitimate" work breaks such as lunchtime. Build them into "break" time around your other tasks or slot them in at lunch. If you plan these tasks, you'll know they'll get done, which gets them off your mind and allows you to focus on your work.

3. Chunk tasks and set time goals. Look at each work job you need to do today and think about what's involved. By breaking large tasks into smaller chunks and estimating a time frame for the completion of each, you give yourself mini-goals that are easy to achieve and that give you a continuous sense of progress. You'll probably get a kick out of beating your estimates now and then.

4. Develop a reward strategy. Your reward strategy is a way to pat yourself on the back for your achievements during the day. It might involve a coffee break, a round of exercise, a few moments to hang up the wet washing, or five minutes to catch up on the news. Long-break rewards should be slotted into your schedule, so you can see them on the list and they can help motivate you to get through your tasks. Use breaks strategically so that you're duly rewarded for your discipline at logical points through the day.

5. Let your chat client show when you're away. More than a few remote workers I've dealt with have set their chat client status to show that they're always at their desks. Not only is this annoying for colleagues trying to get in touch with you when you're not there, but it provides you with a nice, fluffy layer of protection from accountability during the time you're not at your desk. Set your chat client status to its default, so that it switches to an "away" message when you haven't touched your computer for five or 10 minutes. It's bound to help you feel more immediately accountable for how you fill time on your work-from-home day.

6. Make delivery promises and stick to them. To build that sense of external accountability, start making unprompted promises to deliver work to your colleagues. I'm not just talking about big-ticket deadlines; I'm talking about everyday tasks that contribute to your colleagues' projects. Making a commitment to deliver to someone will almost certainly help you be more disciplined about how you work and prioritize what you have to do each day. Having to live up to someone's expectations is a great motivator.

7. Do something you enjoy. I find that if I'm passionate about what I'm doing, I'm usually pretty disciplined about it.

Even if you're having an off day, it's much easier to be disciplined about your tasks if you believe in them. If you feel that the things you must do are pointless, meaningless, or a waste of time, you'll probably be more drawn to playing with the pooch or watching TV than getting the job done.

So what do you think supports a disciplined approach when you're working from home?

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