Well, maybe. Or in some ways, not so much.
I realised that this summer I have actually been working remotely for 18 years (as this phase of my life started with the birth of my eldest daughter, I now have a visible reminder who is considerably taller than I am). As such, you would reasonably expect that I would have got the work-remotely thing completely sorted out by now, at the very least I’d feel some kind of ‘coming of age’ or a sense of being grown-up about it.
That was the feeling I needed this summer, when for complicated personal reasons I embarked on a month-long non-holiday - a period which included 4 countries, clearing and redecorating a house, a major speaking event and several important meetings. No problem, I thought confidently as I packed up my laptop. I can work from anywhere… I am liberated and laid back and ready for the road. No more envying those unencumbered 20-something ‘digital nomads’ who wander the world in a haze of hotspots, this summer too I shall be truly flexible, and Get Things Done wherever I go. I was going to be unstoppable. Oh, yes. And what was that, another meet-up? “Sure, let’s get it in the diary, after all it’s only a short way from where I’ll be anyway, and I am so flexible…” I felt The Power of Remote.
The grown-up reality?
Massive overscheduling, tremendous stress, some very close-run risks of badly letting down clients, and proof that you never get too old to learn. Oh, and throw in a horrible London heatwave and one flight delayed for 20 hours... You get the picture.
The single biggest lesson the summer of 2018 taught me, was that YES when you really have to you can work from anywhere - but all work is not created equal.
Now this is something I would have said I was aware of, being a big fan of publications like The One Thing by Gary Keller, and also Cal Newport’s Deep Work. Theory rocks. But what I didn’t fully appreciate when trying to pare down a schedule for travel, was how easy it is to end up seriously overloading on that very high-concentration task type, which requires the most focussed attention. And that this is precisely the worst kind of ‘get it done anywhere’ kind of work.
A lot of less intense work I was able to get ahead on, delegate, outsource, delay or otherwise minimise, with an eye to not being available to work full time and having prolonged periods of travel. So that left me with a totteringly top-heavy to-do list of mission-critical things like writing, research and pitching... These are things which I would normally carefully carve out time for in my working day and week, planning carefully to optimise factors like lack of interruption, distraction potential, and blood-caffeine levels, in order to accomplish them most effectively. Not things I would plan to cram in around errands and travel.
So what happened? Well, it did all get done, though by the skin of my teeth in some cases, and not without far greater pressure than I prefer to create for myself. And also by taking myself off in desperation to the nearest coffeeshop (never my personal top choice) for uninterrupted high-concentration work, but, sometimes the best choice is a compromise. We are fortunate enough to live in a time where we genuinely do have a lot of options about how and where we work, and travel time throws a spotlight on that.
But this degree of open-endedness means paying greater attention, in the good old ‘Getting Things Done’ paradigm, to the context of work. When David Allen wrote the first edition of this seminal book back in 2002, he was thinking of context in terms of access to technology, such as whether it was a good time to use the phone or see our email or have access to certain colleagues - and given that most of us nowadays have 24/7 access to every possible task on our list and resources required, and because of this degree of accessibility, we may overlook the importance of the context dimension in everyday life. When you are comfortably in your groove you know what needs doing and can prioritise around your commitments and objectives successfully, depending on the importance and urgency of the task itself - without having to think about the kind of situation in which you’d best carry it out. Recently some GTD commentators like Jeff Kirvin have talked about contexts more abstractly, in terms of energy levels and concentration, and this makes a lot of sense.
Had I reviewed my commitments prior to travel through a lens of context, I’d have quickly realised I had seriously overstacked the generative concentrated tasks which required complete attention, and somehow planned to get them done during a week spent hot-desking at a relatives house or on train journeys - both perfectly good places to accomplish certain things, but far from ideal for this kind of work, at least they are for me (and self-knowledge is critical here).
Lessons for the future
Next year, I know there are things I will do differently - in fact, perhaps I will even take a proper holiday! But in terms of generally being away from whatever your workplace usually looks like to you, for example whilst travelling, I would suggest bearing mind the following general learning points:
Prioritise. Even though it leaves you with the most important stuff inevitably, you still need to do the ruthless “80/20” before you start in order to plan the rest of it. If you can identify the 20% of the tasks which bring the greatest value, and which most need your attention, then you can focus on them first. The exact Pareto’s Law ratio might not apply perfectly, but it’s easy to let less critical tasks crowd into your time when your day is more flexible.
Don’t take connectivity for granted, even within the EU, think ahead to availability and cost of broadband. Also don’t forget power - it’s worth carrying a back up ‘brick’ to juice up your phone battery, if you are using to hotspot it can expire fast.
Upgrade a rail ticket or airport lounge, if it means access to decent connectivity and peace - because the cost benefit is obvious.
When actually travelling, emphasise consumption rather than creation of information. Long journeys are great for reading, listening to podcasts, ripping through your Pocket queue (we discussed this nifty app in a recent podcast), and also for watching videos.
Have the right device with you, to do the work you plan to do. Just because you can theoretically do something on a device doesn’t make it the right choice - take it from someone who found herself doing copy-edits on a phone. On a train… Never again.
Don’t overschedule - just because you happen to be in the same country as someone you don’t always see, it doesn’t mean you have to go and meet them. Of course it might be the perfect thing to do for many reasons, but don’t feel that you have to if it means you’ll spend a day to accomplish a meeting which would have been an hour long on Zoom.
Pay attention to your energy, especially if you are expending this on socialising for work or pleasure, possibly eating and sleeping more erratically, (or you didn’t properly read the point above re overscheduling).
Make sure family and friends understand. After nearly 2 decades, I have to say my travelling tribe are pretty well trained and on-message now: “Don’t speak to Mummy whilst her headphones are on!” (and stay off the flakey borrowed broadband too, until she has finished her call). People you visit, where you are the guest, might require more orientation about this. And try to stay cool, when relatives turn out to have terrible broadband, after having assured you it was great! If they only use it for Facebook and games, it’s not their fault if you can’t easily make a video call...
Try to streamline and also stay on top of the faffy bits of admin, which you can potentially defer, but are horrible when they mount up. Use little windows of time to line up social media (and you really can do that on your phone), scan and ditch receipts rather than stuffing them in a file to process at home - your Future Self will be eternally grateful.
Home is where my work is…
So, I am writing this now back at my desk.
In my ergonomic chair that is the right height, with my big paper planner open, and all my different pens, and the reassurance that I could actually print something though I rarely ever do. Then I could even shred it if I wanted to! Though I don’t have to do so immediately as it’s not a shared or public area. In fact I can leave all my stuff right here overnight as well...
And whilst the summer adventures were fun and creative and energising in many ways, I’m reminded that I love the freedom to be able to work from anywhere… But I usually love it most of all when that means right here in my ‘home office’. So much for the joining the digital nomads, mac-back-packing and surfing of the physical kind, I know where I fit in.
Everybody’s different, but we all tend to settle into our routines and grooves - it’s good to shake them up and test them once in a while, but whether you’re headed off to your funky co-working or coffeeshop, or working at home in pyjamas, true flexibility is about what works for YOU.
And if you’re thinking about taking a “work holiday” or “workation”, check out the very first episode of 21st Century Work Life podcast: Happiness at Work and Work Holidays.
This and other blog posts have been collated into our book on leading remote teams: Thinking Remote: Inspiration for Leaders of Distributed Teams. Available in paperback, ebook and audiobook.