ProfLife – Being Productive Out of the Office

One of the great things about being a professor is that we’re essentially trained to be project managers – people who are specialists in a given topic area but also trained through graduate school to be self-sufficient. It surprises many to learn that when I’m assigned a course to teach, I receive very few ‘mandated’ guidelines. Yes, periodically we have required sections in our syllabi on university policies, or perhaps my curriculum committee (of which I’m a member) requires certain courses to use the same book or have a common assignment. But otherwise, no one tells me what content I must teach, what assignments I must give, or how to evaluate my student’s work. The same is true in the realm of scholarship and service – I am expected to select my own projects, manage them to completion, and provide service to my institution and discipline. When it comes to my formal workday, I’m expected to be in the classroom to teach when assigned, to be available for 10 office hours a week, and to be available for meetings as needed. Beyond that, there is no 8-5 expectation on professors – we’re asked to fit our lives around specific class times, not a traditional workday (Which is also why, at my institution, we don’t get personal leave).

However this level of freedom can be challenging for some. Recently one of my colleagues posted on Twitter a request:

As someone who has worked from home a lot in my past (I lived 50 minutes away from my undergrad institution, 120 minutes away from my graduate institution, and a 2 hour commute away from my postdoc), I’ve picked up a few tips I’m happy to share.

1. Have The Essentials At Home

My Home Office Setup, an Apple 27” Cinema Display connected to a 2015 MacBook Pro, with full size keyboard, external trackpad. Wireless headphones and desk fan off to the right.

It is extremely important to have everything you need in your home workspace. In 2010 I bought a 27” Apple Cinema Display for work, and while pricey ($999) I fell in love with it at work. So when I had enough money, I bought a second one for my home office. There is absolutely no way I’d be able to do as much work at home if I didn’t have a large monitor on par with what I have at my office. The portability of a laptop, in my case a 2015 MacBook Pro, is key for a mobile professional – but you need to have a good place to park it at home where you can enjoy larger full-sized screens and peripherals. Also included in the setup is a full keyboard with number pad (essential for entering data), and an external trackpad so I don’t have to reach forward to touch the one on my Mac. Finally I have a set of wireless headphones (Beats Solo 3’s) that I can use to block out the world if need be.

However physical setup is only one part of the essentials – you also need to be able work on anything you need, anywhere you are. To do this, I leverage cloud storage extensively (OneDrive is my preferred storage provider these days, I purchase a home version of Office 365, which provides MS Office + 1 TB of space), as well as iCloud storage. I also install TeamViewer (Free for personal use) on my computer on campus so that I can securely connect up to it remotely in case I do happen to leave a file there. I also never use USB drives if I can avoid them – it’s horrible to have just 1 version of a file, and even worse if you lose the USB drive that the file is stored on, or if the USB drive fails!

2. Have a working To-Do Setup, With Start Dates

One thing I realized years ago was that I needed a To-Do list, and more importantly, I needed one that didn’t show me things I couldn’t do just yet. Having dozens of tasks ahead can be daunting, but it’s even worse when you see things that there is no way you can complete – perhaps you’re waiting on someone else, or they’ve told you “We’ll make a decision on that 3 months from now”. Leave the to-do on the list, and you feel like you’re not accomplishing anything. Take it off, and you never remember to put it back.

So years ago I started setting “start” dates on all of my tasks, so that I wouldn’t see them on my list until the first day I could do them. This helps me focus much more on what I need to do, versus what I will do down the line. It also means that I don’t fear putting a task on my list for the far future. I’ve actually had people remark to me “Wow, I can’t believe you remembered that” – it wasn’t memory, it was the item I put on my to-do list a year ago!

3. Be Mobile

I didn’t have an office for the first half of my professional life. I lived completely out of a bag, setting up shop at coffee shops, fast food restaurants, libraries, and in my car. As a former Windows Mobile MVP, I learned a number of tricks for staying productive while away from a dedicated workspace. They include…

  • Having a dedicated set of mobile tools – power cables, chargers, mobile mouse, anything I could possibly need. I don’t take all of them everywhere everyday, but I do keep them in a special case at home, so I can easily pull out what I need for that day. Also makes traveling a breeze – everything is in one place, and I don’t have to tear apart my home every time I pack – my bedside charger stays where it is, for example.
  • Exploring all possible productivity applications to see if they’re worthwhile. Some are, some aren’t. For example, recently I’ve been using Siri Shortcuts on my iPhone and iPad to script my nightly journal entry, to quickly open up files that I use frequently (e.g., open this specific spreadsheet), and more. Lately the mobile Microsoft Office suite has really stepped up it’s game – I can pull up pretty much anything on my phone or iPad that I can bring up on my computer.
  • Upgrade your tools as needed and use them to your advantage. See this as an investment in yourself and your productivity. While it’s tempting to tell people “Look, I just use my phone to make phone calls”, you’re basically saying to them “Look, I use this thing for just a small fraction of what it can do.”

4. Stop saying “I don’t have time”

I’ve heard people say “I don’t have time to learn X” or “I don’t have time to work on Y”. To them, I say “You can’t afford NOT to learn X” or “work on Y”. XKCD comics has a good example of what I mean here – this one. Think of learning new skills as an investment – one that crosses over from work to personal life, office to home productivity.

5. Have a Clear Goal

Finally, when I’m working remotely, I realize I need a clear goal of what I need to do. When working at my office, this happens somewhat naturally – my mind natively thinks of things that I do at work. However when I’m out of my office, I need to remind myself (with the help of my to-do list) what needs to get done, when it needs to get done, and what today’s task builds on for the future. It helps me avoid distraction, because I know what needs to get done. I’m not wandering aimlessly at home thinking “Wouldn’t it be more fulfilling to watch TV right now” – I instead have the thought “It’s going to be great to get this done before I go to my office tomorrow morning”.

Working from home (or anywhere other than your office) is a freeing experience, and something that I definitely think is useful for an academic – part of our jobs is to be in tune with the world around us, lest we become antiquated. However it can be challenging, and ultimately everyone finds their own solution. Just keep plugging away at the problems you find in your own system until you have it up and running smoothly!

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