19 ways Hotjar's remote team stays focused and productive
There are days when the simple act of getting stuff done requires a lot of effort. We’ve all been there: a deadline is looming, there are too many distractions, burnout is approaching fast. Sometimes, even finding the self-discipline to start work can be... a lot of work.
Back in June we had a team meet-up in Marbella, Spain, to work together in the same physical space for a few days and get to know each other ‘in real life’—we are fully remote the rest of the year! Between a glass of chilled gazpacho and an inflatable unicorn (true story), my colleagues and I shared our favorite techniques and routines to stay focused, organized, and productive. Here are some things that work for us: please let us know of any others that can help!
1. Start your day by getting in the zone
Morning routine and self-discipline are usually important to ‘get in the zone’ for the day, and half of the Hotjar team finds it quite easy to get up and be energized in the morning (the other half still crawls out of bed ever so slowly and struggles for a while to be productive… but we're not going to talk about it!).
Here are a few tips from our early risers:
I started exercising randomly in college and slowly noticed that my mood and ability to concentrate increased when I exercised early in the morning. It’s especially good for making the morning productive; it’s something you can 100% control about your day, that makes you feel good and establishes a baseline for the day to come. As for the exercise itself, I like to vary it: I'm not doing hardcore gym every day, sometimes it can be just a light jog in the park.
Doing a spot of yoga in the morning mellows me out and gets me pumped for the day. Depending on how I am feeling in the morning, I'll choose a video from my favorite YouTube Yogi, Yoga with Adriene, from 15 minutes (when I am super-drained) to 45 (when I'm ready for anything). I like doing it in the spare bedroom upstairs: it gets tons of sunlight in and warms me up while I stretch.
Fun fact: a few weeks later, Karissa invited the team to a 30-day Yoga Challenge. We are now on day 23!
2. Structure your work schedule to suit your lifestyle
When I started at Hotjar, I had never worked remotely before and loved the idea of the freedom that came with the job. Psychologically, it put me in a great mindset. However, I struggled with getting out of my previous ‘office’ structure and into a structure that fits my life and day-to-day things.
I am trying to focus on that and feel like I am getting better. I try to schedule in 'life things' in my calendar and seek to stick to them: I find it breaks up my day and really makes it easier for me to focus and work productively and efficiently.
This is my first fully remote job, so I am still learning how to do things. I don’t have a perfect routine/structure yet, but I like to keep a structured schedule: I try to start and aim to finish at the same time every day. I also block out time to have lunch at the same hour every day and that helps with structure, too.
David, Founder & CEO, suffered from burnout before starting his Hotjar adventure. Because it’s easy to work long hours, take few breaks, or just overwork in general when building a business remotely, he now brings structure into his days by always blocking out lunch and dinner hours.
I hear what you’re saying: isn’t a fully flexible schedule one of the major perks of working remotely? If regimented structure is not for you, you can follow the example of our VP of Operations Ken, who uses the flexibility of a remote job to travel and hang out with his family… because he can!
Since joining Hotjar, Ken and his family have lived for more than 1 month in Mexico, US, UK, Netherlands, Cyprus, and South Africa, and he's also visited and done some amount of work from Norway, Malta, Spain, and Belgium (!).
He has a few fixed meetings in his schedule so the team knows when to reach him, and he focuses on optimizing where his distractions are coming in, so he can make the most out of the time he chooses to spend at the ‘office’.
3. Work from home? Make your space productive
We recently topped a list of “quirky employee perks and benefits” with our €4,000 home office budget, which allows us to set up our own customized workspace. Most of us working from home emphasize the importance of making a clear distinction between ‘office space’ and the rest of the house, even if that distinction amounts to a desk in the corner of a room.
This differentiation helps get you in the mindset of “I am at my desk = I am at work,” and also allows your family/friends/housemates to know when not to disturb you.
Make sure your workspace isn't in a casual/hangout place in your home. I have a nook in my apartment that is away from everything else—the kitchen, my bedroom, and the bathroom. So if I need something, it gives me an excuse to get up, walk around, clear my head, etc. When I go upstairs to my nook, it's back to business.
Have a work-only area. If you work from your sofa, psychologically it's your desk. If you work from bed, the same thing.
By not having a physical cut-off, it's impossible to have a psychological cut-off.
For our US Hero Maria, a different way of being productive is surrounding herself with things she loves. Her office is a bright and happy place: there are brightly colored buttons all over her desk, with a dinosaur and unicorn standing in them (from her daughter), plus “a book of odd medical photos from ye olden day, glass skull votives, and tons of yarn for crochet breaks when needed”. Check it out:
4. Working from home is hard? Try a co-working space
As of June 2017, every Hotjar team member gets a monthly working space allowance. Those of us who prefer not to work from home have been enjoying co-working spaces as their go-to solution.
My home studio does not really ‘encourage’ focused working, plus going to a co-working space gives me structure throughout the day. The space has different meeting rooms so I can jump on calls and move around. Being an active person I find it hard to be sat in a place; physically moving from a stand-up desk to a meeting room to a hot-desk helps me stay focused.
I stay the most organized and focused by leaving the house entirely, so I go to a co-working space in São Paulo, just 5 minutes from home. I get coffee and take breaks, and when I do I talk to people and socialize… and practice Portuguese! This is my only time learning the language, so I make the most out of it.
5. Have a personal board to visualize what needs to be done
I bought the biggest whiteboard I could so I’d have as much space as possible. I divide that into a section for random ideas, which I fill as soon as the idea comes to me, and a section for stuff that needs to get done. I usually fill it in at the beginning of the week, although tasks and priorities might change as the week goes on. This helps me get a bigger picture of what is going on.
Not a fan of whiteboards, or not enough space? Neil uses Trello for his personal Kanban:
Here are a few insights on how he uses the system:
This board has 3 columns: ‘must happen today’, ‘must happen this week’ and ‘must happen, no date’. Only 3 items can ever be in the first two columns: this allows me to make sure I’m on top of all my projects and means that if anything comes in, it can be accommodated.
Some people struggle with the idea that there's always important things to do. And yes, there will ALWAYS be something else to do. But using a kanban with only 3 priority items, you can focus on what's important and keep yourself accountable to what really needs to be done.
6. Make daily lists to stay on top of your tasks
Our Finance Coordinator Melissa is a big fan of lists. She tends to write a very detailed list at the beginning of each day—precision is paramount when sorting out payments and logistics. She uses different colors every day; occasionally, her 3-year old Liam will add his own scribbles in too!
I use Trello to list everything I need to do that takes longer than 10 mins. If it takes less, I just do things there and then as they come up. I divide my tasks into 6 groups: everything, priorities, this week, today, in progress, done. I look at it every day—it’s definitely useful to list down things I need to do, no matter how trivial.
Whenever I have an idea popping into my head, I go to my Notes app on my phone or computer and write it down in a note called ‘inbox’. At the start of every week, I look at my inbox notes and choose three of four 'Big Rocks' to work on for the week. Then, every day, I create a simple to-do list for the day with the biggest rock(s) on top. This comes from the book Zen to Done.
7. Write things down
Melissa’s lists and Paul’s whiteboard should have tipped you off—for a digital team, we are surprisingly partial to writing things manually. Apparently, writing things down helps you store and process information more completely; it is also step 1 in the established (and recommended!) Getting Things Done (GTD) framework.
I have an obsession with stationery, pens, fountain pens (with green ink) and Muji paper. I use their dotted notebooks to make physical lists of tasks and to-dos: writing helps me stop, think, and focus on one thing. There's something about ingraining what you're actually writing on paper into your brain, that I just can’t get from typing.
Our Recruitment Coordinator Sara has also recently picked up a trick from a few people she interviewed for a position at Hotjar: keeping a Bullet Journal, which is meant to teach you “to do more with less”. The journal helps Sara get a better at-a-glance sense of what needs to be done, and writing about it makes her feel less overwhelmed. Plus, she finds great satisfaction scoring her to-dos off when she’s done!
8. Customize your calendar apps
Color-coding my Google calendar is super-useful. When I realized I could change the color of my meetings, I immediately started doing it. At first I went too far, as in I color-coded EVERY meeting and it just looked messy. Then I decided that I really just wanted my important calls to stand out, to make sure I am properly prepared ahead of them. The red color really made them seem more important than the rest!
It can be quite a nightmare to co-ordinate with others and find a meeting time that works, especially when you have a very busy calendar. Calendly is a massive help for me when scheduling calls. It's always extremely useful for interviews, since multiple people need to be on a call... before, I used to check everyone's calendar, now I just send out the link and Calendly takes care of it. I would probably waste around 2-3 hours a week without it.
...which leads us to:
9. Pay attention to time zones
Working with a remote international team, there will be times when you need urgent feedback and your colleagues might be having dinner or just waking up on the other side of the planet.
This app I oddly share my name with, Fio, helps you work out who might be available. Just add in the country/city of the colleague(s) you usually reach out to and voilà: you will never again wonder whether to say “good morning” or “good evening” when they show up to help.
10. Use your time strategically
Whenever a new person joins Hotjar, they are sent a copy of The Pomodoro Technique:
Pomodoros are great! They're not easy to stick to, but after a couple of months of trying I'm starting to get the hang of it. You don't need to use them for a whole day to benefit from them, even just doing pomodoros for 2 hours is great.
Hotjar bought me two hourglass-style Pomodoro timers (see photo below!) and these things have been a lifesaver. Before I was using either the timer on my computer or phone but it was hard for me to stick to it. With the two timers on my desk (work & relax) it's always staring right at me. When I look up and sand isn't falling from either, I know it's time to get to work.
Pomodoros work well to help you stay focused, and also force you to take some necessary breaks from work you might otherwise ignore (and if you want to keep it digital, the folks at Jotform curated a list of the best pomodoro apps available). For some of us, they work even better when coupled with a time-tracker:
I am quite the stats nerd, so I use Toggl to track how long it takes me to complete each piece of work. At the end of each quarter, I download a spreadsheet with all my data, check the exact activity breakdown, and figure out if I there is anything that needs looking into. For example: if it turns out that a third of my time is spent editing, I can take that into account for the future and re-allocate my tasks accordingly.
I use an app called RescueTime. It’s a time-tracker system to figure out how much time I have spent on stuff. It also helps me notice distractions.
11. Optimize your inbox
If you’re anything like us, you’re probably getting between 50 and 100 emails per day (argh) and you don’t need to be a remote worker to know how time-consuming reading and replying to them all is. We've found that the Right Inbox for Gmail is a very useful tool for next-level email productivity. Here are other ways a few of us deal with it:
Email is my biggest enemy. I avoid looking at it in the morning. I have trained Gmail to know what goes into important and what stays as unread; I power through the unread pile every evening. I also use Gmail’s advanced search function to find things quickly whenever I need them.
My days start and end with a goal of inbox zero. I use my inbox as a task list and sort emails accordingly. I try to avoid time in my inbox during the day to focus on specific tasks.
12. Use sound for better focus
This one seems pretty self-explanatory, but what do exactly mean by 'sound'? Some of us (not going to name names here) work particularly well to the rhythm of 1980s pop on Spotify, while others prefer less catchy tunes:
My wife and kids are frequently around; sometimes they will be doing homeschooling in the same house or room I am in, so I take my headphones and turn on the noise canceling. I use a white noise generator to keep background noise calm and staying focused.
I use Brain.fm: it’s music developed by an AI engine to help you focus, relax, and sleep. When you start the player, you can set the length of the piece as well. I do perceive an actual difference, especially when I am in a distracted/procrastinating kind of mood. It helps me concentrate!
13. Pair up with a teammate to learn faster
An established practice in traditional programming, where teammates share the same workstation, pairing has been working just as well for our remote developers and designers:
I am in St Paul’s Bay, Malta and work with Zander (UX Designer) who is in London. We pick a task during a Hangout meeting in the morning, share a screen, work and talk together for 1 or 2 hours. We will then split and work separately, before having a second pairing session in the afternoon.
We take turns being the ‘driver’ and the ‘navigator’, which has also helped me get trained into understanding better UX and become competent with front-end things. My progress has been infinitely faster this way!
14. Work the way you want to work
There are many perks to working remotely (Invision has come up with a 50-strong list), but one of the greatest is the ability to develop your own productivity rituals and routines—some of which wouldn’t quite work in an office:
The biggest thing (and most specific to this type of work) is to take advantage of the fact that no one can see me, so I spend the better part of my day wearing pajamas or something comfy and emphatically singing along to my pandora stations while working — with a bit of desk dancing when appropriate. It helps me not feel stagnant and get/stay excited, as well as maintain a very optimistic tone.
Our Operations Coordinator Mariella takes physical breaks away from the screen every couple of hours to do things she enjoys, like cooking a meal or walking the dog. Another thing she does is water and prune her plants: she finds it helps her productivity simply because she's taken a real break, enjoyed the sunshine on her skin and stretched her legs.
Typically I work at my local cafe until lunchtime. This keeps me out of the house in the morning when my roommates/boyfriend are most active (distracting). During my lunch, I walk home and sit down at my desk to power through the rest of the day. The change of scenery and walk help me recenter and get some exercise too. Being home for the remainder of the day feels like a reward for a productive morning.
Another hack I implement to stay active during the day is doing short exercises when I get up from my desk. So every time I get up to go to the toilet I will do 10 pushups or 10 squats. Each day I will increase the number of reps until I hit a ceiling and switch the exercise for a while.
15. Be self-disciplined
We all know that social media can be a huge distraction. Our Customer Success Manager Shira has a hard rule: no social media unless on a break. This works because it keeps her focused on priority tasks, and she also finds herself having extra time to allocate towards long-term projects.
Shira also recommends putting your phone on silent (unless you're a parent!) and keeping it in a drawer until break-time. This is the best way to keep your mind clear and centered.
I have all notifications disabled excluding work-related apps to avoid any outside distractions during the day. I think this is super important and helps when you take control of how people reach you: switching it to pull vs push made a massive impact on my productivity.
Our Content Strategist Louis uses the BlockSite add-on that stops him from going to websites like Reddit, Twitter, Analytics, and the like. Whenever he tries to get onto one of the websites he added to his block list, he’ll be greeted by a message from the add-on mascot Mr. Wips:
16. Ask for feedback sooner, rather than later
The art of asking for and giving feedback deserves a blog post of its own, but at a very basic level asking for feedback while working on something, and even before you start, can save you a lot of time and work.
Validate stuff early, then run it by someone else and adapt accordingly. It’s all about breaking it down into layers and adjusting the course as you go along.
Examples of early are: an outline of a blog post, a flowchart for a project, low-fidelity prototype for a design etc. However, the ideal 'earliest' point of asking for feedback is at the stage of planning or defining a project, story, etc. The better we become at defining and planning stuff, the less feedback we will need.
Suggested reading on feedback loops and different types of feedback: The Personal MBA.
17. Wind down at the end of each day
You're almost done with work (and also with this post)! A few very important tips to wrap up your day nicely:
The first few weeks at Hotjar I was opening my laptop super early and not really closing it, but after a month I have developed a very solid ‘I'm done for the day and am only opening later in the evening for 15 minutes’ rule. My morning and end do have definite endings, so I feel like I'm done: I treat myself to something at the end of the day, make myself a good sandwich, walk to the beach, enjoy a happy hour.
I choose not to have any work apps on my phone. I had that before, suffered burnout, and developed anxiety just listening to the sound of it ringing. So I made a very hard rule about not having work apps and I’m committed to keeping it that way. I feel that I need to be properly “off” work when the day is done.
18. Do a personal retrospective
You don’t need to be an Agile practitioner to benefit from one of Agile’s most famous practices, the retrospective—a ‘review session’ that helps teams reflect on work they just delivered, how it went, and what they can learn and improve from it (note: if you want to see how it works, we have a free retrospective template you can use).
A personal retrospective works in the same way, except it’s just you looking back at what you did over the past week(s), and trying to optimize your working habits and practices:
I think it's always a good idea to have personal retrospectives every few weeks. Think about what you're spending your time on and decide whether there are any bad habits you should change. When working remotely, it's easy to spend too much time working on something that doesn't really provide any value, so it's good to take a step back every now and then and reflect on what you're achieving and how you can get more out of your time.
Sometimes seeing things listed neatly on Trello or whatever productivity tool you choose gives you the feeling that everything is under control; but I tend to stop every once in awhile, take note of what is making me happy or stressing me out, and try to come up with an optimization plan. It’s ok to stop and ask: is this the best way to do it? Can I spend any time investigating an alternative solution, instead of jumping in head first? What can I change to make this work better from now on?
19. Develop a ‘growth mindset’
Each Hotjar team member recently got a copy of Dr. Carol Dweck’s Mindset. It’s an interesting read that explores the concept of how developing a flexible, learning-oriented mindset helps people be motivated and productive. It could prove very useful you are struggling with focus and achievement, and also if you tend to compare yourself to colleagues or remote fellow workers who seem to be ‘better’ at it:
"Think of times other people outdid you and you just assumed they were smarter or more talented. Now consider the idea that they just used better strategies, taught themselves more, practiced harder, and worked their way through obstacles. You can do that, too, if you want to."
Well, that's a wrap!
What are YOUR focus and productivity strategies? Have you got anything that can help us and our fellow remote workers? Please add them to the comments below: we are super-curious to find out what we can learn from you.