How I work from home and get things done (without losing my mind)

By: Peter Nguyen
Last Updated: March 16, 2020

So you’re working from home for reasons we don’t need to keep talking about. 

I got your back. 

I’ve worked from home for 75% of my career. 

When I’m not out shopping with clients, I’ve run this business from a tiny desk in my equally small NYC studio apartment that I share with my wife.

A lot of people have asked me over the years about my desk setup and how I stay productive, and I thought now was the perfect opportunity to share how I work from home.

Don’t take this as a definitive guide, nor take it as me declaring I discovered some magic routine for productivity. Confession: I still find myself giving in and wasting hours on Youtube when I should be working every once in a while.

Many of these tips and setups I stole from more productive, more successful people. A lot of my gear is old. I JUST got a proper desk chair a few weeks ago. It just goes to show it doesn’t have to be perfect and up to date for you to get shit done. 

You too will be reading more of these “how to work from home” posts over the next few weeks, so I recommend doing what I did: test bits of my advice out along with others and see what sticks.

My work setup as of March 2020


Notes about my setup:

  • Best addition to my setup has been my 2nd monitor. I mainly use it for outlines/drafts when I’m writing, my calendar, Spotify, and Apple notes (where I make my checklist or client notes during a call). 
  • 2nd best addition: Apple Airpods Pro. I was surprised how much noise cancellation helps me get in the zone and focus. Even without any music, you don’t realize how distracting ambient noise can be. 
  • About my mouse and keyboard: I’ve been testing a compact mechanical keyboard for a while. I love typing on the mechanical keyboard, but it didn’t have arrows or a number pad, which I found myself needing often. I’ve recently switched back to an external Apple Keyboard. I use a trackpad because I have some carpal tunnel strain in my right hand.

How I work and stay (mostly) productive

1. Batch work in my calendar

If I could pick only one thing to focus on when it came from working from home, it wouldn’t be a beautiful desk or a fancy keyboard, it would be organizing my time.

I used to feel overwhelmed constantly switching between different tasks like writing, answering emails, and editing images in Photoshop. It made me feel like I could never give something my full attention.

There are a good handful of studies that talk about how task switching is a productivity killer. If you’re like me and find that it can take you a while to “get in the zone” for specific tasks, I would recommend organizing your days around a single task. (e.g., writing day, client call days, sales call days, meetings day, etc.)

Here’s what my current calendar looks like:

  • Sunday: Plan week, off day (no work-related work)
  • Monday: Writing Block (Outlines and drafts)
  • Tuesday: Client work
  • Wednesday: Client work
  • Thursday: Calls (Sales calls, meetings, client calls)
  • Friday: Writing block (Final drafts)
  • Saturday: Client Shopping

This calendar is not set in stone. If you notice the screenshot of this week’s calendar, I don’t have any calls scheduled other than my with my therapist, so I added a writing block. I’ve canceled my client shopping this month due to the virus, so my Saturdays now are wide open. (I’m considering just taking the day off now for fun personal projects.)

Change that’s had the biggest impact for me: moving all my calls to one day. I used to take client and sales calls every day of the week, assuming it was better to be available to my clients when it was convenient for them. This destroyed my productivity and personal life. I had to adjust my writing time and even cancel lunch with friends because someone booked a sales call at the last minute.

I realized the fear of not being available at all times of the week was pure paranoia made up by me. Nobody has ever complained I only take calls on Thursday. If there was no convenient time for them coming up, they simply chose another Thursday.

I start most of my days with a workout I’ve been pretty serious about my fitness lately and noticed that I’d skip the gym when I scheduled it in the evening. I wake up around 6:30am everyday, so my energy dips as the day goes on, so I now workout in the morning.

I take a short break around 2pm When it’s nice out, I make a coffee and go outside around my building. When it’s gross out, I’ll fuck around on the internet or Instagram. I recommend paying attention to your energy/focus levels through the day to see when it’s a good time to hit pause for a moment.

I save answering my emails for the end of the day I batch them to avoid getting stuck answering emails all day. I also found answering emails in the morning just mentally exhausted me. 

2. Set a start and end time for work

My official work hours are from 11am – 5pm. I try to stick within this range. One of the more surprising things was discovering how hard it is to STOP working. When your home is your office, your worker bee mind can always find something to do. Don’t forget to give your brain a break.

3. Switch my mind into work mode by dressing up

If you’re new to working from home, this probably sounds ridiculous. (Of course a personal stylist is telling you to dress up.) I’ve already been seeing so many people on twitter rolling their eyes at this piece of advice.

So I’m giving you permission to work in your comfortable sweats and a beat-up tee for a week. Enjoy it! 

The biggest challenge with working from home is flipping that switch in your mind to get into “work mode”. One of the easiest ways I’ve found is by taking a shower and changing out of your “bumming around the house” clothes. (Just think about how much more you want to exercise when you put on your workout clothes and you understand why this helps.)

(Center) Weekly meals prepped and divided into days

4. Meal Prep for the week 

Outside of people pinging me and Instagram, the biggest time killer for me was figuring out what to eat. Now I meal prep for the week every Sunday.

My preps aren’t even full meals. I usually cook a week’s worth of chicken thighs in a slow cooker and portion them out. Now it takes me about 5 minutes to make delicious tacos for lunch and dinner. (If you’re curious, I really love the Brilliance food containers by Rubbermaid)

5. I like working to Lo-fi/jazzy music

I find lyrics distracting, and anything too fast or aggressive makes it hard to focus. I’m usually playing the Lo-Fi Beats playlist on Spotify.

Quick Tips on Staying Productive

Create a simple checklist Uncertainty is anxiety’s best friend. If you’re feeling overwhelmed with setting your own schedule or workflow, creating a simple checklist is a great way to cure it. 

Charge your phone in another room Have you ever found yourself checking Instagram, refreshing it, closing the app, and opening the app again within 1 minute? Because I have. One thing I started doing a few years ago was charging my phone in my bathroom, so I’m not constantly checking in.

Block distracting apps/websites via Freedom I also like using an app called Freedom, which blocks you from using apps and websites across all your devices. You can select which apps and sites Freedom blocks from loading (everything from Instagram, Facebook, to news and reddit.), along with how long. There’s even a “Nuclear Mode” that keeps you in blocked mode even if you uninstall the app. Great for when you really want to focus on a project.

Questions from My Instagram 

Question: “With instant messaging: best way to buffer response times to co-workers and clients?”

Set expectations and boundaries. 

If you check-in via Slack or email every 30-minutes with co-workers, you’re signaling to them that it’s ok that they do the same with you. 

Just like I shifted my client calls to Thursday, I would suggest doing something similar. 

A message like “Hey, I know how annoying and distracting constant Slack messages can be, let’s check-in at the end of the day for 15 mins to see how the project is going via Zoom. If it’s urgent, let’s call instead of texting.” is short, clear, and effective.

With clients, I find that most clients just need a time they can expect a response or a deliverable.

It doesn’t have to be “I’m going to send you X on Friday at 12pm.” Simply saying “I’ll have it to you by the end of the week” or “I can’t give this the time it needs right now. I’ll send you an update in the next day or two.” is good enough.

Question: “How do you stay focused on work and not *waves hands* the hellscape?

I realized that there’s a point of diminishing returns with being informed. I think of it as weighing yourself during a fitness goal. 

Checking your weight every day is an excellent way to stay on track. Checking your weight every hour is obsessive, unhelpful, and will drive you nuts.

Also, unless you are a journalist/news site, you aren’t obligated to continually post, share, correct strangers on the internet about what’s going on. 

Question: “How do you separate home from work when your bed is right there??

Make your bed first thing in the morning. Change into work clothes. Have a dedicated space for your laptop, even if it’s a repurposed dining table or kitchen counter. 

Question: “How do you deal with the lack of social interactions?

Set work hours for yourself. For me, it’s from 11am-5:00pm. You’ll find that when your home is your office, it’s equally challenging to STOP working. If you’re fortunate to live with people, “leave” work at the same time every day, share a meal, play some games, talk. 

If you live alone, set a “Happy hour” time every day to meet up with your friends on Zoom! 

Question: “How to get work done when your [significant other] is also home!! We just distract each other.”

I tell my wife when I put on my headphones I’m “plugging in” to work, which means don’t bother me no matter how cute that cat video is on Instagram. 

I’d also recommend setting a lunchtime and break time where you can catch up. 

I hope this was helpful! If you have anymore questions, feel free to ask me on Instagram @TheEssentialMan

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