I quit my job.
It was December, 1999. I had gotten married three months earlier. My wife and I were both students at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.
We were poor. We had one, cheap car, with no air conditioning, and lived in a small studio apartment with cinderblock walls and a vintage fridge, the kind that would be popular today if it was in good working order, which ours was not.
The job I quit was a good one. I was a web designer, I got paid $13/hr, and learning from the creative director was a better crash course in high-end design than any college class I could have taken. But the company owners approached me with an offer I couldn’t refuse–3,000 shares of the very first round of stock options ever offered by the company, health benefits, and a full-time salary of $30,000 per year. The company was growing fast and nobody, myself least of all, would have been shocked to know that someday it would be acquired for $1.8B. There was just one catch–I had to quit school.
I turned the offer down.
In part, it just didn’t feel right. I’m not one of those people who believes college is a must-have (I recently contributed a chapter to a book called Skip College), but something whispered in my ear that I needed to finish my degree.
There was something else.
Since I was a kid I had an entrepreneurial spark, something that made me look at money-making operations and say “I could do that.” After five months–the longest I had worked for any one employer–I was already itching to leave and start my own business, and the offer to work full-time felt more like a push out of the nest, an offer to strike out on my own. That was the offer I couldn’t refuse.
Setting Up A Home Office
Deciding what my business would be wasn’t hard–there was only one thing I knew how to do and that was design websites. The harder part was convincing my wife we needed to invest in a super high-speed internet connection. Only the finest would do, and that meant a 128K DSL line (twice as fast as 56K dial up!).
“Isn’t 56K fast enough?”
“It…it just isn’t, it will take me so much longer to load webpages and get my work done.”
“Fine, whatever, I trust you to make the right decision.”
Trust should never be extended by a wife to a husband who is trying to justify why he needs to buy something “faster.”
The only other thing I needed was a computer, a desk, and a chair, and I already had all of that in our studio apartment. I was ready for business.
Lesson 1 – Dedicated Space
“I can’t sleep,” my wife said.
“Because you’re typing two feet from my head.”
The desk in our studio apartment was built into the wall, it couldn’t be moved. It’s also where the phone line came into the apartment that powered the DSL modem. And even if I moved the computer to the furthest corner of the apartment, it would only be 10 feet away and my typing would likely be just as loud.
When kids came along, dedicated space went from a nice-to-have to must-have. Babies are easy enough to deal with when you’re working, but as soon as kids are old enough to reach over the top of the desk and whack the keyboard, or throw a cup of milk on it, then you need a home office with a door that locks.
Lesson 2 – Office Hours
As long as my wife lived in a studio apartment the only solution we found to the problem of me making noise while she tried to sleep was for me to not work late at night. Once I had dedicated space I could work late without disturbing anyone else…but that caused other problems, and led to the greatest improvement I’ve ever seen in my personal productivity–strict office hours.
I hope young entrepreneurs today are smarter than I was when I got my start. I thought there was something glorious about working all the time and sacrificing yourself for the business. I also thought that working harder was the solution to every business problem. Since my business had lots of problems I worked 100+ hours a week for seven years. Due to religious observance I didn’t work Sundays, which meant the other six days of the week I was putting in about 16 hours a day. On the days when I slept on the office floor from 3 am until 6 am, and then started working again, it was more.
Turns out I was wrong about a lot of things. Sacrificing yourself for a business isn’t noble or glorious, it’s stupid. The business exists to serve you (and others), not the other way around. Not only that, it’s counter-productive. In a study by Stanford economics professor John Pencavel, he found that productivity goes down, way down, when a person works more than 50 hours a week. If you work more than 55 hours per week, your productivity drops to the point of zero. That’s right, if you work 100 hours per week you get no more than the person who works 55 hours.
I’m sure there are temporary exceptions to this finding, but looking back on the seven years I knocked myself out for the business, this rings so true for me that it’s hard not to get depressed about it. Think about it, 7 years x 52 weeks x 45 extra, useless hours worked each week = 16,380 wasted hours…wait, that math can’t be right. If you divide 16,380 by 24, that’s 682.5 days of wasted effort. But nobody works 24 hours a day, so it would be more accurate to say that it’s…ugh, this is even worse. 5.61 years of useless work, seven days a week, with no vacation.
Seriously, this is the first time I’ve ever worked this out, and maybe, just maybe if I could look at all that effort and say “Well, I made sacrifices, but if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” then maybe I’d feel a little better, but I can’t. Instead, what I see is that without healthy boundaries I was a poor excuse for an entrepreneur, not to mention husband. I made bad decisions, perhaps from the lack of sleep and subsequent brain power, that landed me in $500,000 of debt and almost put me out of business.
Thankfully I woke up.
In 2007, I hit rock bottom and realized if I didn’t get my life in shape, physically, mentally, and spiritually, I was going to die young and leave my wife with a big pile of business debt to pay off.
The first thing I did was to get into the gym. The second thing I did was to set office hours, real office hours.
A few years before, my wife had put her foot down about my late nights working and we came to an agreement that I would leave work by 10 pm each night. I felt this was highly reasonable of me, but by 2007 even I realized this wasn’t sustainable, plus I kept breaking that rule because of emergencies (never trust an entrepreneur to accurately define “emergency” when the reaction to that emergency also happens to be what the entrepreneur already wants to do).
I decided I was done working long hours. From now on I was going to work 40 hours per week, or less. I would stop work each day at 5 pm. I wouldn’t work weekends. The hardest part was at the time I made this decision, I didn’t know how this could possibly work. I was still under the misunderstanding that more work = getting more done. I figured I was about to put my business out of business, I just didn’t care anymore. Bankruptcy was better than death.
Then a funny thing happened–the less I worked, the more I got done. And it wasn’t just a minor difference, I mean I went from racking up $20-30K in debt each month, and not getting paid a dime for four years straight, to paying myself, and paying off $10-20K in debt each month. It all happened within two months, and working less was the key.
There’s something interesting about working 100-hour weeks, which is that when you do, you feel as though you have unlimited time. That means you can do whatever you want because hey, unlimited time! When I put a boundary on myself and set office hours, that illusion disappeared. I knew I had limited time to get things done, so I prioritized my time and made better decisions about where to focus my attention.
Set office hours, work less, get more done.
Lesson 3 – Make Rules & Set Expectations
When I got married and started working from home, the only expectation I had was that my wife wouldn’t care what I did. It’s a bit of a miracle I’m still married.
Over the years of unmet expectations on both sides, we learned to work together to make rules and set expectations. This became even more important when kids came along. An open door to a home office is, for a child, an invitation to turn it into a playroom. Some of the rules we have in our house include:
- Me: Close the office door. If I really don’t want anyone to come in, it’s my responsibility to lock it.
- Me: If I’m recording something, I have a sign I flip over on the outside of the door to let everyone know, and to keep the noise to a minimum.
- Kids: Don’t peek in the home office windows and make faces while someone is on a phone call or hosting a webinar.
- Everyone: Don’t yell across the house to someone who’s in the office.
- Kids: (Mostly one kid in particular) Don’t stomp loudly up the stairs that go right behind the home office.
- Kids: Don’t go in dad’s office without asking mom first.
- Did I mention the importance of locking the door?
Follow these rules, or else:
Other expectations we’ve set:
- Work ends at 5 pm.
- No work on weekends, unless there’s an emergency.
- Dad pauses work to have lunch with the family.
The exact rules and expectations may not be as important as making sure everyone understands and agrees to what they are.
Lesson 4 – Connect With People
This is a tough one for me. As the COVID-19 crisis began to unfold in the US and we were told to self-isolate it sounds like a dream-come-true for an introvert like me who’s a big fan of Quiet by Susan Cain. I can go ten years without talking to a best friend and not notice. The next time we meet they’ll still be my best friend and we can pick up right where we left off, as though no time had gone by at all. I don’t get lonely. I’ve never been homesick.
However, even a hermit like me has to admit there are benefits to connecting via email, chat, phone, video, and especially in person. It’s good for mental health, and apparently physical health as well. And even if you want to focus only on business benefits, there are things that happen when you connect with others, especially in person, that simply wouldn’t happen any other way.
Lesson 5 – Move Around
According to the New York Times:
Studies have shown that sitting motionless reduces blood flow to the legs, increasing the risk for atherosclerosis, the buildup of plaques in the arteries. People who sit for more than eight or nine hours daily, which for many of us describes a typical workday, also are at heightened risk for diabetes, depression and obesity compared with people who move more often.
I’ve never been a “sports” guy, but I grew up skateboarding and in high school worked out at a gym. I mountain biked enough when I was young to break an arm doing it, and was also on a swim team for a few years. As a kid, I didn’t have to worry about exercise or movement, it came with the territory.
Everything changed when I got married. I slowed down. Not immediately, but over time one activity faded away, and then another. I was busy with school, super busy with work, and on any given day when I asked myself “What’s more important? Skateboarding, or making payroll?” the business emergency always won, and there was always a business emergency.
It wasn’t until I packed on 50 lbs and couldn’t walk up a single flight of stairs without wheezing for five minutes afterward I realized something was wrong. As I examined my behavior, I came to the conclusion that seven years of nonstop sitting in front of a computer and snacking on junk food is unhealthy. I knew I needed to make dramatic changes to save my health, and my life, but I had no time–every moment was reserved for the business and its endless parade of things that had to be handled now!
It took the aforementioned leap of faith to get me to a better place, a place where I could truthfully say that my health was more important to me than my business. Now, this is what my fitness routine looks like:
- MTWThF (and sometimes Saturday morning): Yoga and calisthenics
- MWF: Run
- TTh: Swim
During the day I try to get up once an hour and do pushups, chin ups (a chin up bar is the one piece of workout equipment I have), get a drink of water, run an errand, or eat a healthy snack like a handful of nuts. Anything other than sitting in place for 10 hours straight is an improvement over what my work day used to look like, but moving for five minutes, once an hour, as well as at least an hour of strenuous exertion each day, is closer to the ideal.
Other ways to move around include:
- Meet in person. I know, it’s so inefficient, isn’t it? But in addition to getting on your feet, meeting in person allows you to develop better relationships.
- Walk and talk. Got a phone call? Take it outside. Walk around the block, or your house, while speaking on the phone. It will also help you focus and not get distracted from your call by incoming emails and other notifications.
- Use a standing desk. I stood at one for six years straight, every hour, every day (I didn’t even own a chair during that time) and I loved it. Note: A good standing mat is a must-have.
One more way to “move around” as you work remotely is to literally move somewhere. I have friends who have worked remotely for weeks or months at a time in Hawaii, Bali, and Costa Rica. That’ll shake things up.
Lesson 6 – Morning Routine
Working at an office outside the home forces you into a morning routine, but what about when you can start work at 10 am, in your pajamas, and nobody will ever know? Maybe you’re made of better stuff than I am, but I don’t do well working at home unless I stick to my morning routine.
The first thing to know about an effective morning routine is that it starts with a disciplined evening routine. Mine may sound a bit crazy, but it’s the only routine I’ve found that works:
5:00 pm: Dinner with family, family activities (we play games, have parent-kid dates, and read books–we’re currently reading Little Women together).
7:00 pm: Everyone gets ready for bed.
7:20 pm: Family prayer, hugs, saying goodnight, individual parent-kid talk time or reading time, more getting ready for bed.
8:00 pm: Lights out.
4:00 am: Wake up, drink a bunch of water, wash face, etc. Morning personal prayers, affirmations, journaling, book writing.
5:00 am: Yoga, dress for running or get ready for swimming.
6:00 am: Plan day, start checking email.
6:30 am: Family gospel study.
7:00 am: Go run or swim.
8:00-8:30ish: Shower, dress.
9:00: Start work day.
How often do I get all this done? Never, at least not in the same day. But I get to most of it, most of the time, and on the days I do I have much better days.
In case you’ve read The Miracle Morning by Hal Elrod, I think it’s a good book, worth reading. I used to follow a lot more of what’s in it, but there are parts I don’t fully endorse (if I recall correctly, Elrod doesn’t quite buy into the idea that healthy, adult humans generally need 7-8 hours of quality sleep). I’m glad to see the current emphasis on sleep championed by Arianna Huffington, amongst others.
Lesson 7 – Sound Proofing
I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is that it’s easy and relatively cheap to sound proof your home office. The bad news is it doesn’t really work. There is no amount of sound proofing that will eliminate the sound of a toddler holding a toy car in his hand and banging it with all his force on your office door, repeatedly, while yelling “Daddy!!!! Come out!!!” I haven’t actually run the data, but I’m pretty sure the likelihood of this happening, and the volume level involved, correlate perfectly with how important the phone call is that you’re on. However, acoustics can be improved with a few minor additions.
The key is that you want to trap sound. Instead of bouncing from one wall to another, the sound needs to go in something or behind something and bounce around in that contained space until it loses steam. For example, if you put a cloth sofa in your home office, as sound bounces around your office some of it will be absorbed directly into the material of the sofa. Other sounds will go under or behind the sofa and not be able to get back out.
In addition to furniture, other items that will break up and trap sounds flying around your office include:
- Pictures on the walls
- Tapestries (more absorbent than a framed picture behind glass)
- Jackets and coats hanging on clothes hooks
- Shag carpet
- Piles of books
- Curtains or window shades
- Computer monitors
- Computer equipment
- Miscellaneous stuff on shelves
- Acoustic tiles
A note on the acoustic tiles. I’ve put these up in multiple apartments, and unless you want to have to completely repaint the walls where you put them, I recommend the following materials and methods:
- Foam acoustic tiles
- 3M Command sticky mounting strips
- Gorilla heavy duty spray glue
- A bunch of cardboard
- Something to cut the cardboard with
You want to stick the foam on the wall, but if you were to simply spray the back of the foam with the glue and stick them on the wall, guess what happens when you move, or need to take the foam down? Either big chunks of the foam tear away and stay stuck to the wall, or the paint comes off the wall. Either way, it’s a big mess.
The solution is the 3M Command strips, because they stick to the wall and can be removed without damaging it (I really don’t know how they do it, I mean, they’re just stuck to the paint, right? Why doesn’t the paint come off? I don’t know, but it doesn’t.). The problem with the 3M Command strips is they don’t stick very well to the foam. That’s where the cardboard comes in.
Cut the cardboard into square a little smaller than the foam tiles, spray one side of the cardboard with the glue, then stick the cardboard onto the back of the foam tile. Once that’s dried (it takes just a few minutes), put two of the strips on the upper corners of the cardboard, on the back of the tile, and stick it on the wall. Now the tiles look great and they can be easily removed without damaging the wall.
You don’t need to stick these tiles all over the place. In my home office I have a 3’x4′ area of one wall covered with them and that alone absorbs a lot of sound. Between that, my shag carpet from Ikea, and the furniture in my office I’ve been able to create a very acoustically friendly environment for podcast recording, video, and phone calls. It doesn’t do much for when my kids run up the stairs right outside my office, however.
Q: Why do people alternate the tiles so some go one way, and some go another?
A: I’m pretty sure it’s just for looks.
What about you?
Do you work from a home office? What lessons have you learned? What rules do you have in place? I’d love to get ideas for where I can improve my remote work experience.Liked it? Share it!