Locklin on science

Secrets of a successful shut in

Posted in Locklin notebook by Scott Locklin on November 15, 2020

My bona fides: I’ve effectively been doing the “work from home” thing since 2007. There’s been times here and there where I visit customer sites, or have been traveling a lot, but it is more or less the same thing for 13 years. I’ve helped build a couple of businesses, kept in decent shape, traveled, read many great books, written a few hundred thousand words for the general public, have maintained an active and satisfying social life and many great friendships. I’m no role model, but most people could do worse, and I did it all almost entirely with a 10 second commute from bed to desk. It may be new to you, but you can have a good life living like this. 

First thing: when you get up in the morning, get the fuck up. Then get some exercise. Touch your toes, swing a kettlebell, go for a run, do yoga. Doesn’t really matter what you do; just do something. Get your blood flowing to your brain before you get to work. Some people do their full exercise program in the morning; I train too hard to do that and be productive. So, for me, the mornings are just a little warm up (karate warmup or Farmer Burns, maybe Indian clubs routines), joint mobility (Pavel Tsatsouline and Max Shank routines) and stretching. 


Next thing: get dressed. Take a shower, put your pants on; you’re going to work, so you should behave like you’re going to work as in an ordinary work in the office day. I used to actually put on a tie and sports coat (this was before zoom meetings); it’s the right mentality to overdress when you’re working at home. Sure some of you can get away with doing work in your slippers and sweatpants; you shouldn’t try to do this if you’re new at it. Overdress even if you feel dumb. Put the slippers and sweatpants on when you’re done work.

When you sit down to do work; do your work in a special place in your house. If you’re new to this; take your laptop to a place which you put aside for your work. If you have a family, ideally this special place is somewhere they won’t disturb you much. Key is to pattern match on “this is work” -make all your habits agree with this work mindset. You should not goof off there, or if you do, make your physiology such that it’s different during work time and goof off time (aka standing desk for work, sit down for goof off time). You’re trying to fix your brain to the habit of working there.

Lighting: you need bright lights to be fully awake and at work. Nobody has mood lighting in their office. Factories are brightly lit; not always to view the workpiece; it keeps people alert. Open the windows, buy a corn cob light (google it; corn cob lights are amazing); do whatever needs to be done to have a brightly lit workspace. Not optional; if you try to work in a cave, you’ll be moosh headed and worthless and living a half baked life.

Not goofing off: you’re probably goofing off right now reading this. Don’t do it. Use a pihole if you have to and block off your goof off websites this way. Your brain does need little breaks; get up and walk around. If you have to take breaks using computer or checking social media or whatever; try to use a different device than your work computer. 

Pomadoro: the pomadoro technique is a great tool taught to me by Kevin Lawler. I don’t think it is universally applicable, but it is generally applicable. Anything you’re grinding out; pomadoro it. The little breaks keep you fresh, and the schedule keeps you working instead of getting stuck down the  wiki hole. The other thing that makes it super helpful; the regular interrupts keep you from going down a non-productive direction on your work tasks. 

Not over communicating: slack is sort of useful when your company is 20 people; it becomes unweildy beyond that. If you’re like me, your high impact stuff is small projects that don’t require much collaboration. I check slack and email once or twice a day unless I’m managing people, and have all alerts for these things turned off. For those of you who have alerts on your phone (fools!): those need to be turned off as well. Use the telephone for talking on; it saves lots of time compared to thumb typing on your stupid ipotato. It actually feels nicer too; you get no real human interaction from thumb typing, but voice is …. talking to someone at least.

Keeping a schedule: you need to keep regular hours, and not be on call at all hours of the day and night. If you’re working at home, you should be in front of a computer, working.  If you’re messaging people on slack over dinner, unless you’re C-level (and even then), you’re an imbecile and you have not only failed at your job; you have failed at life. 

One of the most difficult professions is that of creative writer. You’re completely alone with your thoughts; there’s nothing else, no process or outside world to interact with (there are successful team writers, but they’re rare). As such, they really “work at home.” One of my favorite books on this is Pressfield’s War of Art. Everyone who does creative work should buy this book and live his advice. For those who don’t, two takeaways; point your lucky work doodad at yourself to give you power, and say a prayer to whatever gods you believe in (or don’t believe in -Pressfield prays to ancient Greek muses). You’re prepping your brain for work.

Frens: no man is an island, during the imbecile lock downs which will occur in the West in coming months, you may become isolated. There are dozens of free video chat softwares out there if you don’t have a work zoom license you can use; stuff like Kosmi allows you to play games and watch videos together. If you have pals nearby and you/they don’t live with elderly family, you should go visit them; don’t be a covidiot. There’s lots of other stuff you need to get right as well; have friends, hobbies, religion, make your bed, clean your room. You should take care of all that as well. But I figured I’d mention talking to your pals, since sometimes people forget.

11 Responses

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  1. William O. B'Livion said, on November 15, 2020 at 7:10 pm

    Pretty much nails it.

    I’ve been telecommuting (mostly) since 2015–well, until April when I started delivering groceries to pay the mortgage.

    > First thing: when you get up in the morning, get the fuck up. Then get some exercise.

    When I’m telecommuting the first thing I do after getting out of bed is either walking or running the dog. This is about 40 minutes of exercise (I don’t run fast anymore). The route I take with Dog has a pullup bar on it. Every other day (or so) I do three sets of pullups and maybe some lunges. Once I stop pushing a grocery cart for a living (not really *hard* physical labor, but it’s something) that will amp up a little bit.

    > Set the pomodoro timer (traditionally to 25 minutes).[1]
    > Work on the task.
    > End work when the timer rings and put a checkmark on a piece of paper.[5]
    > If you have fewer than four checkmarks, take a short break (3–5 minutes) …

    Why break it up your work by having a time go off when you’re just going to reset it? I would think–especially the sorts of programming and other creative work–that would “break the flow”.

    One of the principles of *my* work is “never trigger an alarm you’re supposed to ignore”, and with this method it seems like you’re ignoring 3 out of 4 alarms.

    I am supposed to start a new job on the 23rd. My plan is to set reminders so that every 55 minutes I get up and do 5 minutes of some exercise (kettle bells, jump rope), and then at lunch go do something outside (or the gym on the days it’s open–it’s right across the street), and then after lunch back to the 5/55 routine.

    Of course the 55/5 routine is probably partially conditioned by the educational system, and partially because it’s a round number for time purposes.

    > Lighting: you need bright lights to be fully awake and at work. Nobody has mood lighting in their office.

    Do lots of monitors count? Well, 3 large ones + a LED keyboard light? I don’t really like much more light than that, and found most office lighting too bright.

    Since my bunker is in the basement with only a small casement window, I have a Verilux Happylight that I was using for a while to try to keep my body clock aligned with the sun.

    > Keeping a schedule: you need to keep regular hours, and not be on call at all hours of the day and night.

    This. In the US, outside of certain professions, jobs are usually predicated on a 40 hour workweek. If your boss expects more than that from you that should have been part of the salary/benefit negotiation. Moving from the bosses office to your home office doesn’t change that.

    But very few jobs require more than 60 hours a week–I’ve worked a few (when I was in Iraq we worked 12×6, but special case), but even then you need off time.

    Some jobs are inherently “On Call” jobs–I’m a Systems Administrator/Operations guy by trade, and when production servers go down, sometimes you gotta respond.

    But phone calls and emails of a routine nature? Screw that.

    > If you’re messaging people on slack over dinner, unless
    > you’re C-level (and even then), you’re an imbecile and you
    > have not only failed at your job; you have failed at life.

    More than that, you’re an asshole because you’re ruining other people’s dinners as well.

    > Frens: no man is an island,

    Yup. Helps to have someone living with you, but even then you need to get out and talk to people who aren’t you.

    • Scott Locklin said, on November 15, 2020 at 10:45 pm

      I don’t pomadoro everything; if you’re in the flow in a productive way, it probably does interrupt things. But most of the time you’re not. You’re grinding out some unpleasant parser or whatever, and you have to both point a gun at yourself to keep going on this boring/painful task, AND occasionally come up for air in case you’ve gone down a rat hole. Most programming tasks are like this, for me anyway. It keeps you going, keeps you from being distracted. But for me, even more important: it lets your brain unwind a little and prevents you from going down the mentat hole. Imagine you needed some throwaway thing to get a small task done and you end up rewriting some giant part of a subsystem to make it 50% more groovy or whatever: that’s what pomadoro prevents. You go read an email from your wife, or look at tiwtter for 5 minutes or whatever and come back to the actual blub task, and you catch youself “MY GOD WHAT AM I DOING.”

      That’s one of the biggest dangers for lone engineers; going down mentally satisfying but ultimately useless paths which end up being diversions.

      Good luck on the new job, and feel free to reach out if you have problems.

  2. Rickey said, on November 15, 2020 at 9:19 pm

    Even though I do not telework, I appreciate the sage advice. I was already doing most of those things, especially closing Outlook when I am not actually using it. If something is critical, the person will call me or come to my desk. I never heard of the pomadoro technique so I shall have to give that a try. The only thing I would add is that if you have a task that can be done in “one sitting”, complete it. I know too many persons that will “pre file” their paper work or “pre sort” their emails rather than just directly sending it to its final destination or answering it on the spot. They process the item two or three times instead of just once.

  3. Igor Bukanov said, on November 15, 2020 at 9:28 pm

    Do you have any tips on the temperature? This is something that I expect on average easier to adjust at home than at the office especially if one have separated room for work.

    • Scott Locklin said, on November 15, 2020 at 10:36 pm

      I like it kind of 65 degrees, but I don’t know if it matters. Brain is a thermodynamic machine; it probably works better with adequate cooling. Also warm climates don’t have a lot of good ideas.

  4. chiral3 said, on November 15, 2020 at 11:52 pm

    It’s hard. I have been hugely guilty of sitting down at the flat screens at 7am, maybe eating in the afternoon, and emerging after 8pm. For the first time in almost two decades I don’t have direct responsibility for P&L. I’ve built a strong team, successfully lifting them through the years despite the legal threats, and it was time for me to get out of their way.

    I’ve always been good at solving hard problems. If I’ve had any success it’s been because this has been recognized. Part of solving the problems is removing obstacles so there’s a political / organizational aspect to the strategy, as much as that sucks. As such, my phone goes all the time, but I’ve carved a seat out at that table because I got to the point, years ago, that I wanted to not only drive the bus, but determine where it’s headed.

    I can go deep in narrow ways, or wide in shallow ways. Hardest days for me is having a board meeting or MC meeting in the morning and then having a code review with the team right after. Spending the morning trying to solve a problem myself only to have to stop mid-commit to meet with a regulator. Hard to do good strategy work or solve problems when the day is ten hours interspersed with nine meetings.

    Agree 100% on the space and the light. My office is my library. Having thousands of books behind my flatscreens is comforting. I needed a break the other night and I pulled down Updike and re-read Pigeon Feathers. When I do try to get the blood flowing I run down to my gym, maybe row 1500m for PR, followed by some deadlifts. For me being in nature is important – that’s something else I’d recommend. I grew up climbing in the mountains. A quick one hour hike outside is so much better for my whole body than the gym, even if it’s not nearly as demanding. This morning I got out MTB. Three hours and maybe 10-15 miles of hard climbs and rocky descents, HR peaking out at 182, five more than the calculation would tell me otherwise.

    • Scott Locklin said, on November 16, 2020 at 11:42 am

      Nature is super great and necessary, but I’m assuming everyone is headed into some absurd lock down. I actually wrote most of the above in April and my decline in faith in the human race which coincidentally happened around the same time didn’t inspire me to finish.

      Anyway you’re in management, so you should be giving me pointers, but sometimes you can arrange to have totally meeting free days. I agree the context switch is brutal. Always liked the PG maxim (dialing it down to what he probably did vs what he tells his thralls to do) to do business in morning and coding in the afternoon.

  5. George W. said, on November 16, 2020 at 1:20 am

    For those using their phones too much, a dedicated alarm clock eliminates morning phone habits. Tangible devices like this have productivity advantages over software in many use cases, as is the case with my TI-84+ Silver compared to something like Mathematica. Pen and paper is also underrated. Its curious to see more kids use iYams to take notes in class nowadays; I bet they feel great about saving trees, but I guess Apple didn’t tell them where the Cobalt in their batteries came from.

    Training up attention is highly rewarding, but somewhat difficult. Taking away distractions is a huge part of it. The internet makes this difficult.

    Some amount of goofing off can pay, albeit this is exceeded for an absurdly large majority of the population. I stumbled on this blog with the search term “Quantum Computing is bullshit” while doing research on technological progression (or the lack thereof) and looking for the fields that had the most potential.

    I admit, I’ve never heard of pomedoro. I have some econometric projects due soon–currently trying to use 100GB of climate data and forcing myself to learn R–there’s a lot of work so I’ll give it a shot!

    What’s the ETA for a blog post on investing/personal finance? Looks like the U.S. market is in a giant bubble, but ya never can know for sure.

    • Scott Locklin said, on November 16, 2020 at 11:12 am

      It’s funny I used to use Derive on my HP200lx instead of Mathematica (same software as TI84 I think). There are definitely advantages to paper notebooks; writing things out is good for spatial reasoning and memory and you can plot things and write equations more easily. If there’s anything learned in the last 20 years, thumb typing just makes you a retard.

      I don’t do personal finance. It’s snake oil. Keep cash in your mattress, buy farmland, invest in LINK, start a business, invest in a friend’s business, gold dubloons buried in coffee cans: that all makes about as much sense to me as trying to beat Warren Buffett and Jim SImons (or Chiral3 in the comment above). Rich dudes used to do insurance, then do shady stuff if necessary to make sure they’re in the money (this mostly was good for society). Now those sort of opportunities are mostly socialized away. Stock market is definitely overrated for this sort of thing; I own some index crap in some IRAs, but I never felt real good about it. I can beat futures traders when I put my mind to it. This is a full time job though. It might be my next full time job.

  6. remnny said, on November 16, 2020 at 3:06 am

    >Use the telephone for talking on; it saves lots of time compared to thumb typing on your stupid ipotato. It actually feels nicer too; you get no real human interaction from thumb typing, but voice is …. talking to someone at least.

    That’s exactly why I would prefer not to.

  7. Walt said, on November 16, 2020 at 9:46 pm

    We need to resist these lockdowns to the uttermost. There is no scientific reason to follow them and they are a monstrous infringement upon our liberties.

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