Article / SD Times

Work Alone? Get in the Zone! Productivity Tips to Get More Done on Your Own in 2016

Solo developer and tech workers who struggle to stay motivated are abandoning the living room couch for trendy coworking spaces. Team members are chatting on Slack. And everyone’s ignoring email. Read on for more ways to stay focused when no one is looking over your shoulder.
By Alexandra Weber Morales

Originally published in SD Times, January 2016 (print exclusive)

In today’s “gig economy,” an increasing number of workers are freelancers, entrepreneurs, or remote employees. Being your own boss isn’t always intuitive, however — so we asked solo developers, startup founders and other tech types for tips on how to get in the zone when you work alone.

Embrace that hip new coworking space

In the early days of telecommuting, the commute-free home office was many a solopreneur’s dream. But just as paper has taken second place to reading on the internet, joining a coworking space is increasingly seen as a productivity imperative.

“I’ve tried working in a number of different places — coworking space, home office, and coffee shops — and I’ve found that coworking space is the most productive for me,” said Lingke Wang, CTO and co-founder of a startup called Ovid. “The reason is two-fold. First, I prefer dual monitors plus an external keyboard and mouse when programming. I like to have one screen where I code and another where I can view the application, run tests and read documentation. This is alone increases my productivity two-fold beyond my one-screen laptop. Furthermore, when I type for an extended amount of time on my laptop keyboard, my wrists will begin to hurt. My ergonomic external keyboard helps solve this problem.”

In addition to having a custom set-up at his coworking space, he appreciates the focus and higher energy than he had in his home office. “I used to have a home office, but I found myself to be lazier because home is where I relax. I eventually moved to a coworking space where I can fully separate work and personal life,” he said.

John Lin, head of product for another startup, Roomi, notes that “a co-working space can cost upwards of $400 a month per desk in popular startup cities with expensive rents, such as San Francisco and New York. But the most valuable intangible of a co-working environment is the community that you’re surrounded by on a daily basis. Everyone in these spaces is going through the struggle together, which can be both motivating and inspiring.”

“Accelerators and incubators are less about boosting productivity and more about giving you more resources — typically people and money — with which you can do your work, and giving you more time to work,” notes Darren Buckner, founder and CEO of Workfrom.


Keep unusual hours at home — and host meetups

For some, the home court advantage is real. David Mercer, founder of Smart Modern Entrepreneurs, says he works quickest alone: “I also prefer to work at strange times. If I have difficult problems to solve, I like to pace around or go for walks — which tends to be frowned on in formal corporate environments.”

A novel idea is to use your living space as a coworking hub for others. “Even though they work for different companies, I invite friends over to work from my house. It creates a social environment and keeps you accountable,” said Charlie Cohn, head of marketing at StudySoup.

The remote-work setup is essentially an engineering problem — so treat it like one. “For me, being at home in a well-structured environment works best, but my colleague who does backend prefers to be in a busy coffee shop. Just be lean, try, test and iterate until you find your own best solution,” said Vitor Avelino, tech lead and co-founder of

Don’t answer your email, manage it

As anyone who has read The Four Hour Work-Week by Tim Ferriss or Getting Things Done by David Allen knows, email is a major barrier to productivity and source of infinite interruptions. To get in the zone, Rogelio Triviño disconnects email and social media incoming messages: “Check messages one or twice a day, using these moments to disconnect from your tasks and with a time limit. Order incoming requests on a notes script. I use Google Keep for tasks, lists and to dos,” he said.

Sean Tepper, author of Earn More, Work Less, Live Free, agrees that checking email twice a day in 30 minutes or less per session is the ticket: “By dedicating specific time slots for checking emails, you will actually be able to cruise through more emails in less time. By removing email-checking from the core part of your day, you will be able to dedicate your time to higher priority, uninterrupted, billable tasks. It will be tempting to open your inbox, but I strongly advise not to. Leave it aside. If a client has an emergency, that is what a phone is for,” he said.

Pace yourself and get a robot — or not

Jeff Gambara is an Oregon-based DevOps and quality hacker at the open source machine learning company, which is based in Mountain View, CA. “Working remotely requires a different approach to pacing and self organization. Remember that you can’t rely on the visual and social queues of when people go for lunch or other socialization, so set aside a few moments for yourself so that you’re not working endlessly,” Gambara said.

He also recommends getting a robot or other telepresence device, so you can virtually “go to where the action is.” But you might want to wait until virtual reality improves: “We proposed the iPad robots but didn’t do them. I think that telepresence — the tools for that unfortunately kind of suck. I could Skype you or we could FaceTime, but if we have a meeting where people are jumping up and standing around a whiteboard — it’s hard to have that communication to someone sitting in front of a monitor,” said Greg Beckman, director of engineering for OpenText Core, an enterprise information management SaaS out of Waterloo, Ontario.

Don’t fear the phone

Beckman manages a team of 60 across Canada and the U.S. Of his 15-20 remote technical workers, only about five work from home, he said. He finds it critical to bring remote workers into nearby offices as often as possible, and to keep communication channels open. But he has found that Millennial employees can be reluctant to use the channel invented by Alexander Graham Bell.

“I’ve got a very young team, not as many senior developers, and with that can come a reluctance to even just pick up the phone and use other forms of communication rather than just chat and IM. We’ve had a couple situations where the personal touch has lacked,” said Beckman.

Pair program

Though such agile practices as stand-up meetings and two-week iterations have become commonplace, pair programming is less common. For some remote workers, it’s a life-saver nonetheless, said Steve Gibson, director at the San Francisco web company JotForm: “Find a pair programming partner. This is a method of programming where two people work together on the same programming task. In theory it means you’ll get half as much work done. Advocates of it say that the code ends up more robust, is produced faster, and both developers learn from each other as they go. For those working outside an office, it also gives much needed social interaction.”

Run multiple projects simultaneously

If you’re a fan of keying your work activities to your energy levels and moods, one suggestion is to embrace a form of multi-tasking that pits your avoidance behaviors against each other: “A recipe to not procrastinate is to run several projects at the same time, going everyday with the one that fits your mood,” said Triviño, who is working toward the launch of and writing a software development buyers guide.

Pick up Slack

Google Docs or DropBox for cloud-based document management, Jira for issue tracking, Skype and FaceTime for messaging, virtual assistant apps and agencies — these are just a few of the plethora of productivity tools now available to remote workers. But one consistently came up among the developers interviewed for this space: Slack. At the most basic level a simple chat tool, Slack also has automation channels to integrate notifications from various workflow systems.

“Slack is one of those Silicon Valley darlings right now. We’ve used other tools like Microsoft Link or a homegrown one, but we’ve found that Slack is more seamless. It just ties everything together,” said Beckman, who notes that the tool can also help cement group culture. “Certain commands pop up a meme — the Slack channel will Google search an image for ‘ship it.’”

Andrey Khusid, CEO of Realtimeboard, a virtual whiteboard service, concurs: “We have several corporate Slack channels separated by topics, and each employee has installed it in his smartphone, so notifications come in real time. If you are a freelancer, you can join the Slack group of the most relevant community.”

Only connect

However you earn your bread in the gig economy, it’s critical to find ways to interface with other carbon-based life-forms — and here in the third dimension, not virtually. Conferences, Toastmasters events, accelerators, coworking spaces, technology user groups, volunteer opportunities and meetups can put you face-to-face with new ideas and energizing possibilities.

“It is extremely valuable to share ideas with others. Often people will bring new perspectives, mention new technologies, apps, trends, or articles that can really help you. Don’t stay isolated for long periods of time — and online forums, Google, and YouTube don’t count,” said Mercer.


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