April 27, 2020
Founder stories: how to get 'in the zone' when working remote
Autopilot co-founder and CTO Chris Sharkey reflects on building a successful startup from a small room in his business partner’s house. During that time, he discovered the importance of getting in the right frame of mind for work - remote or otherwise.
“Working from home sounds quaint and funny in a summarised anecdote, but the realities of it can feel much more stressful. Even though our business proved to be successful, it sure didn’t feel like it at the time. It really did just feel like sitting in a small room with a dog, Chester, who would sit at my feet and work through his flatulence challenges all day.”
When I was building the holiday rental booking app Stayz, I only worked from home. Not my home, but my business partner Rob’s place. The room I worked in was small, with a 1990s computer desk where the drawer slid out for the keyboard, a 15” CRT monitor and a ball mouse. Behind the desk was a small cream fold-out 2-seater couch, which was also my bed.
I’d wake up each day at about 9 am, get up off the couch-bed, go have a shower, then come back and fold the couch-bed into just a couch, then get into the big leather chair and start working. I basically considered my time each week at Rob’s place as 100% work time. I was there Monday to Friday and went home on weekends to sleep. I’d be implementing features, answering support emails, researching competitors, working on SEO and an endless list of tasks which Rob and I would discuss.
I had no recreation at all. When Rob used to have visitors they would ask him: "Who’s the guy working in your office?" Rob would reply, “That’s Chris, he is going to make me a millionaire!” Then they’d ask him how much he was paying me. His response? $5 an hour. "Slave labor," he told them.
So one day, one of Rob’s concerned friends came to me in the room and deliberately found me alone. She said, “Is it true that Rob only pays you $5 an hour to work on the business?” I replied, truthfully, “No, he doesn’t pay me at all!”
Working from home sounds quaint and funny in a summarised anecdote, but the realities of it can feel much more stressful. Even though our business proved to be successful, it sure didn’t feel like it at the time. It really did just feel like sitting in a small room with a dog, Chester, who would sit at my feet and work through his flatulence challenges all day. I'd eat kebabs, drink coke, all whilst working on something I didn’t know if anybody would pay for or not...and for a long time they didn't!
"Working from home gives you more opportunities to be “in the zone.” There’s very few distractions, you work at times which suit you, and if you do get on a roll you can keep it going for as long as you can stand not eating or sleeping or even going to the toilet."
What drove me during that time was the belief that the things I was learning through developing the system and business would be valuable to me for the rest of my life. I also had faith that what we were creating would be of real value to people and make them money. I could see from the feedback of our customers just how much value they were getting from the platform, and I knew instinctively that the value would translate into a healthy business.
Working from home is weird. I’d have whole days where I would just stare at my screen and get nothing at all done. Then I’d have other days where I would be “in the zone” and be so productive that I would get more done in a day than I had done in the previous 2 weeks.
The original "Ozstays" website, which had property listings, a booking form, and photos, was actually made in one 48 hour period. Then on another day I'd spend the whole time just staring at the screen and reading Wikipedia entries about dead actors.
Sometimes, I'd trick myself by leaving obviously unfinished work at the end of the night so I could pick up where I left off the next morning and instantly feel productive. That often led to long periods of productivity because I'd always discover more work to do while I worked on the task from last night, and it made sense just to continue.
Working from home gives you more opportunities to be “in the zone.” There’s very few distractions, you work at times which suit you, and if you do get on a roll you can keep it going for as long as you can stand not eating or sleeping or even going to the toilet (the latter beneficent in these difficult times).
Correspondingly, if things aren’t working for you, you can take a break without feeling guilty or worrying what people think about you.
I like to think of working on an important project as various levels of thought and execution:
- When I am having good ideas about how to implement the project and I share them
- When other people are having good ideas, and I listen
- When I am working on tasks in a project based on previous discussion
- When, while I’m working on tasks, I have good ideas and writing them down as something to do later
- When I am completing tasks and having good ideas and executing them immediately
The latter is why it is so difficult to stick to a task management system rigidly and be successful as a team. When you’re not in a state of flow, working to tasks is good because it keeps you moving, keeps others updated on your progress, and fits in an overall team approach to getting a project done. When you are in a state of flow however, stopping to worry about administration and potentially breaking the rampage of productivity you are experiencing is an anathema.
The thing is, there’s a lot more to finishing something than you think, even if you’ve completed successful projects before. It simply requires periods of deep work to complete. A big part of this is that not everything can be represented in a design or wireframe. There are implementation details that need to be figured out as you go along. If you can get into a state of mind where you can solve these problems as you go, your work will flow much more smoothly than if you stop each time to discuss, or leave it until later.
Even if you have to make changes later, the comprehensive understanding you get from working the full way through a problem means that your insights in any discussion about it are well informed and complete. The amount of times I’ve considered a task difficult that turned out to be easy, or an easy task that turned out to be difficult is immense. You just don’t know until you really work on it.
"TODOs have their place, but not when you are ‘in the zone’. Your answer should always be “I’m going to do this NOW!” It’s never as hard as you think, and if it is as hard as you think then it isn’t going to be any easier for you later."
There’s a lot more value in finishing something than almost finishing it. If you finish something you can get detailed feedback without having to make excuses for the unfinished bits. You also free your mind for the next task, and improve your self esteem through the feeling of a job well done. So many times when I did “all-nighters”, how tired I felt the next day was physiologically mitigated by how much I had accomplished. If I had finished something I deemed to be worthwhile, I felt less tired!
There’s also the incidental things you do when following a task to completion which have the most impact: the questions you discover as a result of your work, “what happens if a user does X”, “how will the system cope if Y happens”, “it doesn’t make sense to have this option here”, etc. You also find and fix things along the way that would otherwise block completing your task. On the front-end this might be going and making a missing component, on the backend, restructuring the way some data is stored to accommodate the current task, or adding an API endpoint for something that was previously static.
One thing which always slows me down is when I have to make changes to other people’s code or other systems in order to get my work done. For example, I have to add/change/delete code in a shared component or library in order to properly complete my tasks. Sometimes I’ll skirt around the edges with this: produce a work-around or code littered with “TODOs” which should be fixed later. But as Ben Horowitz said in “The Hard thing about Hard things”, these are the lies that losers tell. You’re not going to fix it later, you just don’t want to do the work now to get this done.
TODOs have their place, but not when you are ‘in the zone’. Your answer should always be “I’m going to do this NOW!” It’s never as hard as you think, and if it is as hard as you think then it isn’t going to be any easier for you later, or when someone with less knowledge about this part of the system approaches the same problem.
The little things count. Getting Title case right, getting the error messages right, making sure the experience for someone on a slow connection is ok. Trying something 4000 times to see what happens if you push it to the limit. Getting logging right, setting up configuration, documenting where necessary, reviewing the design to make sure you’ve covered all of the elements, getting navigation right, fixing a flash in the UI, working out why your call to the database is slower than it should be.
When you’re in the zone, all of these little things are easy. You have all of the things needed to complete these tasks completely right there in your head. It’s in RAM. All the little things which are so trivial and easy to you - the person who knows the most about this task now - are so much more complicated to someone who has never worked on this project, or even yourself when you come back to them later. They will take much, much more time to do than you could do while you’re right in there anyway.
Getting the little things done has other important effects too. It makes things feel more complete, inspires others to produce work of the same quality, and most importantly it starts to inspire the team as a whole as to the completeness of the overall project.
I thought I’d tell this story because many people have not worked from home for an extended period. Many are now in a unique position where their skills and career choice allow them to work from home and be very productive in a difficult and unprecedented situation. It is a unique opportunity for businesses to get through this hard time in a positive way which will impact the lives of their future customers. I would encourage each person to make the most of this pre-apocalyptic purgatory we find ourselves in. Find your own way of getting “in the zone” and producing something of real value.
I hope that at the end of this period you have your own stories about the time you were forced to work from home due to an international pandemic. I hope that you become stronger through what you learn, inspired by what you see from your colleagues, and proud of what you create at a difficult time.