I've done back-to-back two hour sprints. I make lunch by myself, eat quickly, and get back to work. All of a sudden, I'm browsing through NBA news, politics, really anything to distract myself. I turn on a "distraction blocker" and go back and face my work. But I just can't do it. I start feeling guilty. Why am I so terrible and unproductive?
This was me, in 2018, during my first stint working remotely. I'd sold my SF-based company to a company in Santa Clara, and after spending 3 hrs per day commuting, I made the switch to remote work. I was resolved to be mature and productive while working remotely, but I discovered it was a massive struggle.
Now, almost all of my friends are going through the same process, only with even more reason to be distracted - a global pandemic.
In this article, I discuss how loneliness distracted me and how I got over the hurdle of remaining productive while working remotely. This focuses primarily on my time working at a company, and not on my current endeavor as an entrepreneur; the entrepreneur's struggles with loneliness are quite different. I hope this can help others going through the same process today.
Why loneliness is distracting
I believe that loneliness distracted me for a few main reasons.
The need for validation
This may sound selfish - in fact, it is. I need validation that the work I'm doing is important, and that generally needs to be reinforced in some way, shape, or form quite frequently.
For me, validation can be quite simple. "Hey Doug, how's it going on X? We really need to get it done soon for Y reason." I already was working on X and knew about Y, and honestly I could be annoyed by the reminder. However, I certainly feel better about the necessity of Y getting done.
When working remotely, tasks tend to be dealt with more asynchronously, which removes the human aspects of why things need to be done. In my role, I spent some of my time engineering. I would pull work out of Jira, complete it, and then move on to the next task. Efficient, but soulless.
I could reason about the reasons that the work was important. But the lack of a human "backing" of that work made it hard for me to feel it was important on a deeper level.
Sometimes, I'd get the same message pinged over Slack or e-mail. "OK, I'm working on it." Fire off another text message into the ether. It helped a bit, but I still yearned for human contact.
Human = community
As I thought harder about the reasons I needed social interaction, I realized that outside of validation, I didn't have a clear answer. Frankly, I think it's just biological. Humans are social animals, and they need to interact with one another.
This thesis is validated by a ton of research and probably doesn't come as a surprise. But why does a lack of social interaction lead to distraction?
For me, it has to do with happiness, and the impact of happiness on productivity. Part of being unhappy is, either consciously or subconsciously, searching for happiness. That search for happiness takes us out of our lonely workspace and into various "communities" online. We seek our community outside of work rather than inside it.
Healthy vs unhealthy distraction
To some degree, distraction is necessary and healthy. There's tons of research out there on ways to optimize productivity, and researchers generally recommend taking at least 5 minutes off every other hour. The problem with being alone is that you tend to distract yourself in a less healthy way.
The root of this issue is social media and the modern internet. Social media and online news outlets are built to capture your attention and keep your eyeballs for as long as possible. Your office, and your office mates, are not. So when you fall off the horse alone in front of your computer and find yourself on Instagram, it is much more difficult to get back on.
For me, Twitter and the NBA news outlets (Bleacher Report etc) were especially bad; they would suck me in, and I could easily be lost for an hour or more. In the office, I'd grab a snack, chat for 5 minutes at the water cooler, and get back to work feeling more fulfilled in far less time.
How to be less lonely and more productive
Here's how I became less lonely and more productive working remotely.
Text → Audio / Video
Text communication is impersonal. You could send 100 Slack message or e-mails per day and still feel totally socially unfulfilled. If you're in a role where you don't regularly get on audio / video with your co-workers, find a way to do it as much as possible.
Moreover, think carefully about how you do video, especially in hybrid scenarios where some people are in the office and some are at home. "Brady Bunch" conferencing, where everyone is visually equal, is helpful. Check out my post on this for more details.
Increase communication by reducing friction
Reduce friction in communication generally so that people communicate more.
For me, this involved becoming comfortable shooting links to video conferencing around and expecting people to just hop into them. That way, I could get people into audio / video faster and with less back-and-forth beforehand.
Take healthy breaks
I have other housemates who work remotely, and I started walking to the local coffee shop at least once per day in the early afternoon. Alongside lunch, this provided a healthy break where I could communicate socially and return feeling refresh.
When my other housemates aren't working remotely or are traveling and I'm totally by myself, I actually still do the same thing, just by myself. Along the way, I call my parents, siblings, people at work, whoever. Using that time to be social became crucial for me. Even if I don't speak to anyone, being in a coffee shop environment for a few minutes seems to trigger some sort of social happiness for me.
In an office, I would see other people at the water cooler. I could look up and see other people around me working. I passively heard people moving around in the office. I knew I was part of a team working towards a shared mission.
It's important to create that sense of togetherness when working remote. Create some way of feeling present with your team.
One step at a time
Especially now, taking things one step at a time is critical to moving forwards in the face of loneliness, anxiety, and the many other emotions you may be going through. Try to focus as hard as you can on the next thing directly in front of you, do that thing, then continue onwards.
Plug: my new solution
After working remotely for a while, I decided to build my own solution to this problem. I co-founded Pragli, a virtual office for remote teams.
Pragli enables teams to very quickly start audio/video communication. It also builds closeness by creating water-cooler spaces and by passively showing your team with live avatars.