What I Learned Working from Anywhere
Writing from her workspace at home, co-founder and CEO Trish Lim gives a glimpse of what life was like on the go and what productivity looks like now. She gives useful advice on how to navigate your way through your own #WFH journey and find purpose in your day-to-day tasks.
I do not have a pretty workspace.
My table is against a wide window that lets in the light, but it is neither neat nor organized. It’s not Instagram-worthy. I have a pile of books and notebooks stacked haphazardly on one side, an assortment of wires, USBs, and defunct charges strewn on top of old yellow post-its, paper clips and business cards. My GoPro, which once saw more active days, sits atop a box marked with my name – a giveaway from an event I had attended some time ago. A second-hand bright-colored Lomography camera lies lens up on a desk organizer that organizes an assortment of clutter, gift items that I never had the heart to throw away.
It is a mess. But it’s where I get my work done – for now.
Before the time of enforced home quarantine and social distancing, I was never one to stay still for long. I had worked as a freelance creative before managing Woven and I had spent most of my time traveling around the Philippines. I had called many places my workspace: the back of taxis, bamboo longhouses, homestay common rooms, beach chairs, wooden tables overseeing mountain vistas, and even the barracks of a military camp. At Woven, I had to travel frequently as well and train myself to type up reports in airports or the workshops of our partner artisans (where there would be the mixed sounds of sewing machines, idle chatter, motorcycle engines, and occasionally, loud karaoke music).
Even when not traveling, I was always carrying a bulky set of “work essentials” everywhere. People remarked, “Ang dami mong dala.” And it’s because I tended to bring with me the things I felt I should constantly be doing – writing, sketching, reading, photographing, even painting. I anticipated the lull in productivity that was wont to happen, and I tried to be ready to fill that awful void of un-productivity.
On the field, I’ve learned to be more lightweight. My camera bag contained a slim notebook, a pen, chargers, my phone. If I’m hunkering down somewhere, I carried my laptop in a backpack. Life in transit taught me to whittle it down, to settle into the spaces between the somethings with only a few items. I took me a long time - a series of adventures and misadventures - to discover what was truly essential.
Learning to work from anywhere has helped me navigate through the hardest endeavor of all: working from home. I’ve collected some learnings that may come in handy for anyone struggling to get their tasks done in these difficult times. I hope that they are useful to you and feel free to share your own tips in the comments section below!
Build Your Lists Around What's Essential
I’ve kept a planner ever since I was in high school; the act of writing to-dos and crossing them off as soon as I get them done is just oh-so-satisfying. In the last years, I’ve been using a bullet journal to organize my daily tasks. On busy days, though, I struggle with the jumble of activities and thoughts in my head that even listing them down becomes cumbersome.
To cope, at the start of the week, I determine the really big and important stuff that needs to be done. I tend to follow a theme; for example, if I want to focus on product development, I’ll build my tasks around that so I don’t get distracted to pursue something else (which happens a lot). It’s a good way for me to focus on what matters and what will result in the most impact for Woven. I ask myself, “What’s the one thing I need to do that will yield the best outcomes for the enterprise?”
Since I also need to oversee other parts of the business, I categorize my lists into easy, medium, and difficult tasks based on the amount of effort or time needed to complete them. I try to get through the easy ones as quick as I can (replying to emails, checking reports, sending out deliveries, etc.) so I can pour more energy and attention into the harder tasks.
On some days (like Thursdays), I have no time to write everything down. So, I make a mental checklist and jot them down after I’ve accomplished the task just so I can cross them out. It’s petty, but it really gives me a good feeling to strike it off!
Have a Work Prompt
I don’t know what else to call it, but it’s something that gets you in the mindset or mood to work. It can be a piece of music, a quote or inspirational talk, a vision board, or a certain action. For me, it’s the song “Rhapsody in Blue” by George Gershwin. I used to listen to it a lot when I needed to zone out and finish a piece for a deadline. It’s long enough to give me the time I need to gain momentum so that whatever song that follows will carry me through the rest of my work.
Whenever I have a tough time concentrating, I play the song and it instantly brings me to that same headspace. It’s like a switch turning on in my brain that signals that it’s time to work. Other prompts that have done the job for me involve opening a blank document and immediately saving it in the title I intend for it. If I don’t save it, I just end up staring at a white space for a long time. Properly labeling it somehow pressures my brain to start filling it up.
The time of day also has an effect on performance. I’ve learned to adjust my work schedule based on how I feel and think at certain time slots. For example, I’m most creative and inspired in the morning. When I need to write or design something new, I try to wake up extra early to do brainstorming and churn out initial drafts. My energy dips at around 11am to 2pm so I do my easy tasks then. But at 4PM, I experience another surge in productivity and this is when I do any reviewing and editing.
Anticipate the Distractions
Know what distracts you from crucial work. Is it social media? YouTube videos? Your super comfy bed? For others, it’s the work emails and the calls from colleagues asking for multiple meetings. We know it’s all part of the job, but when you have a deadline, they affect the quality of your work. Make sure to block off some alone time: turn off your notifications, place your phone inside your drawer, or flip off the WiFi.
For the past months, I’ve noticed that many of these small distractions cumulate on a Thursday. Maybe that’s just me, but I dread Thursdays because suddenly I get a barrage of emails and text messages following up on one thing or another. After a string of Terror Thursdays, I’ve come to accept it for what it is and just go on the offensive. I now schedule important meetings on anything but a Thursday and try to accomplish most of my tasks by Wednesday.
Then of course, there are days when you just can’t. Be kind to yourself and don't beat yourself up for it! Step outside, drink a cup of coffee, or take a nap. During these moments, I set up a space where I can relax and do something unrelated to work. It could even lead to fresh ideas and a revitalized mindset. If need be, have a person who will give you the pep talk or reality check you need.
At the end of the day, it’s not about the physical space but about knowing yourself better and defining the purpose behind your work. For me, working from anywhere was a privilege – I got to travel and pursue different passions that later fueled my work at Woven. But it was a privilege that I knew I had to work hard for. I cannot deny that I aspire for a Pinterest-inspired workspace. But sometimes, obsessing about such details distracts and detracts me from my real purpose, which is to write, create products, converse meaningfully with people, and even do some accounting.
It used to be that I could pack a bag, stuff in my work essentials, and head out the door whenever things got to be too much. Nowadays when I’m stuck, I have to face the discomforts of not doing anything in the comforts of my own home.
To be honest, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all method to get your work in order. We all have our quirks and distractions, different lifestyles, complications, and commitments. The only assurance I can give is that I’m there with you; I’m also still figuring things out as I go along. I constantly struggle and fail at being my most productive and creative self. Something I dearly miss about the pre-pandemic era was the freedom to go to coffee shops because whenever I hit a dead-end, I knew I could always go to a nearby café for a more conducive work environment (and the promise of extra strong caffeine). There, I could be amongst other people – students, teachers, employees and fellow freelancers – who were grappling with their own deadlines and pressures from work.
These days, to stay present, to commit yourself wholly to the work and just get sh*t done feels like a whipping, a self-flagellation in a time when things seem to be falling apart. It used to be that I could pack a bag, stuff in my work essentials, and head out the door whenever things got to be too much. Nowadays when I’m stuck, I have to face the discomforts of not doing anything in the comforts of my own home. And that’s demotivating on so many levels.
But I count myself lucky because here I am, able-bodied and way too chatty, sharing my anxieties and hopefully some useful advice for your own #WFH journey. Not many have the luxury to do so. And sometimes it’s that thought that does the trick for me; it snaps me right out of my stupor. After more than six months in quarantine, I’ve learned to accept what I can’t change and appreciate what I do have – a messy desk that needs organizing, reminding me that I have more than I could possibly ask for.