Work ethic is not something you are born with. Discipline is a skill you can learn, all it takes to acquire is…. well, a little discipline. Let’s talk about three methods you can start using today to improve this skill. But be careful. it is possible to over-do it, which we will talk about last, so stick around until the end to make sure you are not going overboard.
A disciplined approach to remote work
Discipline is a useful skill no matter what your profession. And to define our terms here, when I am using the term “discipline”, I am not referring to formal workplace reprimands or even corporal punishment (unless you are into that sort of thing). I’m referring to the character trait of being self-disciplined, or organized, methodical, and accountable to yourself and others.
As more teams move to remote virtual offices, many of us who thought that we were disciplined now find ourselves crumbling to pieces without the structure and routine of a regular office environment. And because Discipline is a learned behavior, today we are going to talk about three very simple things that we can do to become more disciplined at working remotely.
One note that there are literally whole books written just on just this subject, so this will certainly not be a comprehensive list, but it is what I find most useful for staying focused while working remotely.
Tip #1 to improve discipline – Create a schedule
You need to create a schedule. So this first tip is pretty obvious, and I am actually really cringing that I am including it. It’s not an innovative or sexy or new idea. It’s at the top of countless other lists in countless other books and videos. It’s so unoriginal. But then again, there is a reason why it is at the top of all those lists. Because it works!
The other reason that it is in all those books is because NOBODY DOES IT. This is something that most of us think that we do, but we don’t. Many of us confuse having a schedule with having a calendar.
I have a calendar. Heck, I have a ton of calendars attached to all of my email addresses that I have for work and personal use. But that is not to say that I have a schedule. A calendar tells you what is coming up so that you can react to it. A schedule is something that you proactively create and manage to reduce unpredictability and stress. The difference is not so much in what you use for your schedule, but how you approach it. For example, let’s look at two different ways of using Google Calendar.
To create a schedule, you sit down and YOU plan out your day, rather than letting you calendar to plan your day for you. When we talked about setting up office hours on your calendar and blocking out times when you are not available. This is a form of creating a schedule because you are consciously controlling when people can schedule meetings with you.
You will never be able to completely control your day. There will always be unexpected meetings that pop up and (hopefully metaphorical) fires to put out. However, you can minimize distraction and more importantly over time you will start to form habits, which will then develop into discipline. To start, you may respond to emails every day between 9:00 and 10:00 because it is on your schedule, but then you find yourself doing it because you find that it is very helpful. Last you will find yourself doing it simply because it is what you do – the discipline is so firmly baked into your schedule that you do it almost automatically.
Tip #2 to improve discipline – Break tasks down into bite-sized pieces
Like the previous tip, this is a great tip no matter what you are doing or where you are working from. Big jobs can seem incredibly overwhelming and you don’t even know where to begin. When you work remotely, this sense of intimidation can be multiplied because you don’t have team members to rely upon for encouragement.
Every project can be broken down into smaller and smaller parts. Every single project. I have yet to come across a project that could not be broken down further. The only reason we ever stop breaking down processes into smaller and smaller steps is because eventually, it becomes more difficult to track the steps than it helps.
Once again, though, let’s take a look at an example that we can all (hopefully) relate to: doing the laundry.
As you can see here, we can break down into more and more ridiculously contrived steps… But at some point it makes sense to strike a balance between simplicity and completeness. We can in theory continue breaking down this process into smaller and smaller step, but at a certain point it just gets silly to do so… At a certain point, breaking down steps further does not provide you with any more control or supervision over the process, so you should stop where it makes sense to you.
Tip #3 to improve discipline – Be accountable to others
Especially if you are working remotely, it is very important to make sure that you are staying accountable to others. In my experience, accountability is the principle to suffer the most when teams suddenly go remote. Previously, everybody was in the same office so there was natural accountability that happens. You don’t leave early because you don‘t want your teammates to think that you are a slacker.
Many times this is a healthy change because people aren’t as liable to be doing things just because that is the way they have always been done. For example, perhaps you’ve finished all your work for the day and there is literally nothing else to do. In an office environment, you would probably feel pressured to make up some busywork to look, well… busy. But in a remote environment, you can use such time for more productive purposes, such as taking a nap.
However, accountability is absolutely essential to any well functioning team or any well-functioning individual. Just how crucial it depends on the individual, though. We are going to talk more about this when we talk about intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation in another chapter, but for now, it is enough to simply recognize that some people thrive in low-accountability environments, whereas some people have a hard time getting motivated.
Regardless of where you fall on that spectrum, if you are working remotely, you need to stay accountable at least to a certain degree. How you do this is up to you, as everybody is different, but here are some techniques that I have seen work very well:
- Schedule daily status meetings
- Have an accountability partner
- Set up status dashboards so everybody can see your status
- Send regular status reports to your stakeholders
Basically, find somebody to be accountable to, and then make sure that you are communicating with them regularly on status. It can be tempting when working remotely to slack off a bit if somebody is not (metaphorically) looking over your shoulder. So find somebody to look over your shoulder. Doing this is going to give you that extra motivation you need to get your work done well and on time.
Tech Tip: Use Calendly or another app to manage scheduling
A great way to do all of these things is to use a task management app. Sometimes, my favorite task management app is my trusty notebooks, which I scribble hand-written notes into constantly. I used to ONLY use a handwritten notebook, but several years ago I started to force myself out of this comfort zone and I also use more sophisticated project management tools, as well, and there are plenty available that are free to use for single users. I’ve used a lot of these different tools when selecting one for my company, and I finally settled on using Zoho Projects, not necessarily because it is a great project management tool by itself, but because it had decent integrations with the rest of our ecosystem. But what I DO like about it is that it allows us to collaborate and see each other’s progress, which allows for that layer of accountability that we were talking about.
Warning: Too much discipline can lead to inflexibility
Keep in mind though that too much discipline can be counterproductive, as it is essentially the same as being rigid or inflexible. As we work more and more from virtual offices, the need for flexibility is only increasing. WHereas in the past, discipline was (for many jobs) valued more highly than flexibility, nowadays these traits are in equally high demand, so there is a need to balance thm.
Enjoy the perks of remote work while remaining disciplined
As I said in the beginning of this section, discipline is a useful skill no matter what your profession. Working remotely certainly has its perks, but too often work ethic starts to fail when working remotely. By creating a schedule, breaking down your day and your tasks into manageable chunks, and holding yourself accountable to your team, you can continue to exercise your discipline skills no matter where you are.
In addition to being the managing editor of Remotely Possible, Tucker Johnson is the co-owner and producer at MultiLingual Media, which publishes resources on language, technology, and business. He is also the co-founder of Nidmzi Insights, a global market research and consulting firm focused on helping companies navigate the complex waters of globalization, internationalization, and localization. Tucker is also the author of “The General Theory of the Translation Company” (available on Amazon) and teaches account management for the master’s program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies and guest lectures at universities around the world.