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Advice for software developers who want to work from home

Recorded – watch the full episode on YouTube.

What tips do you have for making a productive environment when working from home?

James Thomson: I have the working from home stuff down perfectly. Well I say “perfectly”, but that's not true. But I've been doing it for 20 years successfully, so that's good. But I'm finding it really hard to work right now. Even with the perfect setup with this new wonderful desk, I've got an app, I can make my desk go up and down with an app. It's brilliant.

You can see the Star Wars figures behind me. What you can't see in front of me is I have a whole bunch of signed comic book art signed by artists that I really like. And so I've created this little workspace, which is, anywhere I look there's nice things. I've got some of my old childhood space Lego sitting on a shelf right there.

I've got a bunch of Wonder Woman figures and Harlequin figures and there's a Star Wars section. My shelves were covered in old Apple developer discs and that was what I saw from my desk and I was like, why do I have 20-year-old developer discs? There's no point to this. I think I sent them all to Steve Troughton-Smith as it turned out.

“I’ve made this perfect working environment or as perfect as I can do it. And still, I'm finding it incredibly hard to work.”

And then I replaced it all with nice stuff. I've got all this stuff around me. I've made this perfect working environment or as perfect as I can do it. And still, I'm finding it incredibly hard to work. To actually sit down and do what is real my day-to-day job. Because there's just so much going on. In the UK we are, as we're recording this, on day one of lockdown. And there's scary stuff happening, and there's going to be scary stuff happening for a while.

So anyone out there who hasn't done working from home and is thinking, “I’m not doing this right because I'm finding it really hard to focus or whatever.” I’m finding it really hard to focus as well. So I am messing around with the Dice app right now, because it's my comfort place. This is like sitting eating pizza and wine gums and whatever of development.

“And it's not a perfect environment. But even if you have the perfect environment, don't feel bad right now that you are having trouble focusing, because everyone is.”

There are people who are working from home and they have a family around them. They have kids who are now studying from home as well, or not studying as the case may be. There are people who don't have the right computers or set up or maybe they've got one computer and the kids need to use it for their schoolwork and they need to use it for doing their job.

And it's not a perfect environment. But even if you have the perfect environment, don't feel bad right now that you are having trouble focusing, because everyone is. Not a lot of people talk about mental health and things like that. And there's a lot of aspects of that for working for yourself and working from home and... it's going to take a lot of people, a lot of time to adjust. Even in the best circumstances. And we're probably way far away from best circumstances right now.

Not to get too heavy about things, but it's more to say to people, cut yourself a break because it's going to be hard. And if it takes you weeks or months to get into the mode where you can actually work, that's normal.

James Thomson: There are things you can do. That's one of the things we can talk about, is in terms of how to create a good environment for working from home. One of the things that I do, which I'm luckily able to do, is we have one of the rooms of our flat or apartment be our office. It's also the spare room, where people come and stay if we have guests.

So it's got a foldout bed, but it has two desks in it. And so we know generally if we're in this room, we're working. And if we're in another room, we're not working.

Paul Hudson: So the clear division between your home life and, “I am now at the actual job now, it might be Dice, but it's still working.”

James Thomson: Yeah. And those lines get blurry. I will sit on the sofa in an evening and I'll be answering tech support emails or something like that. Things that are low stress, or whatever. But I also, I don't have any social media or anything on my iMac, which I'm sitting in front of now. And all of that is on my 2015 MacBook Pro, which is, got all my email and all that stuff on it.

"You could have two accounts on your machine, if you only have one machine. Or you could have accounts for the kids, down time and work. When I'm logged into this account, this is work."

So I know that if I'm sat in front of this computer, this is work time. And my brain is reasonably good at doing that. And yes, I can do that because I have the space to do it and I have two separate machines. But there are things that you can do. You could have two accounts on your machine, if you only have one machine. Or you could have accounts for the kids, down time and work. When I'm logged into this account, this is work. Or just setting yourself hours of the day is another thing. If you can say, “it’s 10 o'clock, I am going to work and then I'm going to have a break from 12 to 1, and then I'm going to work from one to five or whatever it is. And I'm going to try and not work outside those hours. And I'm going to try and not sit on Twitter talking about nonsense or reading about pandemics incessantly, which I certainly have not been doing for the last few weeks.”

Just trying to have that sort of separation is really helpful for your brain. And noise canceling headphones are great, if you can afford them and if you're in an environment where there's noise of other people. Yeah, I've been using the AirPods Pro noise canceling for my desk work just now. I don't have any full over-ear noise canceling headphones.

But those are really helpful in getting you that focus, if you can do it. And I know it's difficult for a lot of people, because if you have kids running in and running up to you that's, it's hard. And there might be a period of trying to explain to them that just because mummy or daddy is here, does not mean that this is the weekend or whatever. And if you can do it, signs on the door or something, some kind of indication to other people that, the equivalent of a do not disturb sign. And it's not going to be enforceable, a hundred percent of the time.

But especially if you're in the house by yourself and you have kids there, that's obviously not as easy to do. But there are things that you can do to kind of, like having a nice environment around you. As I was saying.

"You could, if you've not got multiple rooms, you could rope off one section of your room in some fashion. Stick a clothes line up in somewhere and put a blanket across it. And it's like, this is the living room, this is the office. And just sort of try and subdivide it."

Paul Hudson: That's actually really critical, isn't it? Because you've mentioned this Mac or this desktop or this user is my work user, these timeframes, or this room in my house. But really, it sounds like getting in the right environment, so you are in work mode. This is work time now. It's pretty core.

James Thomson: Yeah. I've seen some people, some of the BBC correspondents who have set up little workstations inside a wardrobe. Because it's got good sound qualities, so they can sit in there with a microphone and they can do things and recording. You can be creative with things.

You could, if you don’t have multiple rooms, you could rope off one section of your room in some fashion. Stick a clothes line up in somewhere and put a blanket across it. And it's like, this is the living room, this is the office. And just sort of try and subdivide it.

Paul Hudson: Certainly it sounds like that having a different user on your Mac is almost like the modern day equivalent of the old “don't work from home in your dressing gown.” Actually get dressed, like you really mean it.

James Thomson: That is an important part as well. Don't sit around in your pajamas all day, don't work in your pajamas. I'm not saying that you have to be wearing a suit and tie. I'm wearing a nice Dice-related T-shirt here, but I'm wearing comfortable sweat pants on the bottom of the stream that you can't see.

But, make some effort. Wash. All of these things that seem like they should be obvious. Making an effort for yourself is important. And don't have snacks at your desk is another one.

“You have access to all the entertainment devices in your house... But just because you have all that stuff, don't bring it into your work environment.”

Paul Hudson: I've seen folks who have Nintendo Switches at their desk. I'm like, “how do you do that?” I couldn't do that. I'm too easily distracted with the Switch being right there.

James Thomson: Yeah. Just because you have access to all the entertainment devices in your house and like Disney+ launched here today, and so I've just instantly got another thousand billion hours of content. But just because you have all that stuff, don't bring it into your work environment.

The snack stuff is more a long-term thing. I put on a ton of weight after I started doing this, because one of the things, especially now it's harder to get out, but working from home you're not moving as much. So you effectively lead a sedentary lifestyle. If you eat whatever you want, you'll start to put on weight. And I did that over a period of, well, a good 18 years or something. And it's only in the last couple of years that I've kind of been trying actively more to keep that under control.

"Looking after your health, getting up, I mean these are more longer term things. But it's all important and I think, exercise has been proven to have an effect on mental health."

I did buy myself an exercise machine, which is sitting in the living room gathering dust as we speak. And I'm trying, I'm going to try and work that into my loose schedule to get more exercise. I mean, we can still go outside. but if you sit and eat anything, it's going to be bad for your system. And sitting in a chair all the time is also bad for your system, as anyone who does it even in an office knows.

Looking after your health, getting up, I mean these are more longer term things. But it's all important, and I think exercise has been proven to have an effect on mental health. If you let any of this stuff just start to slide, it can snowball and it all starts to affect each other. Even in, as we've been saying, even in the best possible situation that you're in. And we're not in the best possible situation.

Paul Hudson: Certainly, I've found that under normal circumstances, if I'm doing some research or some experimentation, I can work really hard on a thing for a day or two and it ends up being a dud, right? It gets nowhere. It didn't pan out like I planned.

James Thomson: Yeah. And I've done that too. And I've sat and I was like, well let's work on this feature. I'll work on it for two days, and get to the end of it. And I was like, “this isn't going to work.” Because I've discovered some limitations or something about my approach wasn't right, but this is a dead end.

That is a general thing of working for yourself in indie stuff. There is going to be experimentation which doesn't get anywhere. And it's not, I said ship everything, but of course I didn't ship everything. I shipped the things that were fun. One thing I've been doing, I've built up this huge backlog of books and comics and things like that. I'm going to sit down and I'm going to just take some time to read one of these things. Try and do that once a day.

Because I've got this big stack of them, which have been from Christmas and birthdays where people buy you things. Well let's sit down, take some time out and not spend the time looking at social media or watching messages to the nation and that sort of stuff. Let's find some distraction. And you shouldn't feel guilty for that at all.

With all this stuff, you shouldn't feel guilty. There is a point, if you're just lying around in your pajamas eating ice cream and you're supposed to be doing a day job, there is another extreme to it, but you should kind of treat yourself. We managed to get out to the supermarket to do basically a couple of weeks worth of supplies, because we're not planning on going out at all, as much as we can.

I'm going to buy the chocolate biscuits. I wouldn't normally buy the chocolate biscuits, but I think I deserve a chocolate biscuit every now and again. We're in a great position now where a lot of the stuff we can get is digital. If you want a new game for your Switch or you want a film or you want a comic or something like that, there are ways to get all that stuff as well.

Take advantage of that stuff. And if you're thinking, I should have always played so-and-so game. You can play it. In moderation.

This transcript was recorded as part of Swiftly Speaking. You can watch the full original episode on YouTube, or subscribe to the audio version on Apple Podcasts.

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