For everyone now working from home, here is what I’ve learned from years of freelancing. This quick guide is about a series of practical tips for general productivity and project management
We are definitely going through some difficult times and we all have to do our part to mitigate the spread of the nasty virus COVID-19… starting with social distancing and staying at home.
For a lot of people staying and working from home is a weird concept… for a lot of reasons, but I think a pretty big part is that the idea of ‘getting home’ means: ‘I’m done for the day and I’m going to chill for a bit’. So trying to get into a routine to work from home might be something tricky.
I’ve been working from home for a while now and I think I have managed to organize myself to a point where I have a dynamic work-life balance. I hope that what I share in this guide (based purely on my experience) will serve as a reference to help you in the transition.
I decided to put this quick guide together to offer a piece of practical advice and resources that I use on a daily basis to keep me focused, healthy, motivated and of course…productive.
This is a quick disclaimer about my particular circumstances to give you some context before we start. Also, any tips and advice here are purely based on my experience and you should consider your own workflow and tweak them to make them work for you.
The only reason I mentioned these things, is because I know that saying “what’s the fuzz about? working from home is easy’ is a very naive thing to say… Everyone’s circumstances are different, and you might have to take care of your kids for a while, or you might not have considered a space to work from home so there is not a lot of room, etc…
Now, with that being said… I hope that the following resources and practical tips give you some ideas on how to navigate through these difficult times and make the most out of the situation of staying at home.
I’m going to separate this quick guide into 4 categories so you can digest it and navigate it easily.
We are going to talk about project planning, time management, healthy habits, and automation, plus some extra tips, gadgets, and general productivity tips. Here is a quick summary of the tips and resources mentioned in this guide:
For planning everything I do, I use Trello. I’m sure you are familiar with this project management tool, but if not… it is a great online free tool that allows you to visually organize your projects in any way that you want using boards, lists, and tasks.
I have many boards for different purposes but let’s keep it simple so we are going to look at 3 types of boards really…
I’m going to give you a quick idea of how I set up these boards so that you can also do yours and I’m going to start with the Ongoing small projects.
ONGOING SMALL PROJECTS
This type of board is something I have to keep a record and a visual reminder of what are the projects I’m working on for myself and in which stage they are… this board is mainly personal stuff (mostly art-related things).
This type of board has a lot of lists and each list represents a small project. Each card from the project represents a task that needs to be done for that project to be completed… the fewer cards there are on the list… the closer it is to be completed and then the list/project will disappear… that’s it, this is pretty simple. Basically it is a to-do list where you can attach WIPs, references, links, etc.
AGILE DEDICATED PROJECT
The second type is the Agile dedicated project. This is the type of board that I will create for specific projects that are planned to have a lifespan between two weeks to three months (or more). This is the type of board that I will create for most freelance jobs and one that I think will be also useful for you.
It is loosely based on the agile methodology because I like to get things done and iterate faster so that I can get feedback earlier on and refine the deliverables of the project. It is actually very simple in the way that I use it… I have 6 lists on these boards:
Here is how this one works… I put everything that I can think of that is related to the project: things I have to do, requirements, etc… and I put them in a bunch of cards under the backlog or to-do list. Every card represents a task I have to do like ‘Character thumbnails’. And within each card, you can go a bit further and be more specific with sub-tasks… like ‘1. Character thumbnails iteration’ and ‘2. Thumbnails filtering’ (where I go over what I did and discard all the crappy ones). Remember this is for yourself so don’t overdo it if you don’t have to… keep it simple.
In the sprint lists, I put every card that I’m planning to work on the day… this is essentially your ‘I’m working on this today’ pile of tasks. You can also give every card/task a deadline if you want to organize the project chronologically.
NOTE: If you are collaborating and working with a team of people, you might want to add an extra list before Sprint called ‘Sprint planning’. This list helps to set some time aside to plan how you and the rest of the team are going to tackle the next sprint.
In fact with the free version of Trello, you can have one powerup, which is like an addon. So you can add the calendar power-up and as long as you put deadlines on your tasks, they will appear in the calendar format which is pretty handy.
Blocked / Dependencies
The next list is blocked / dependencies… Here I put pretty much anything that hits a roadblock. From a technical challenge I need to figure out like ‘glowing hair strands’ to something that might not be up to me like ‘Approval of 2D concept’ if I’m waiting for the client to send me something… essentially anything that prevents you from completing the project goes here and it is good to keep an eye on this one to make sure you solve things as you work on other stuff.
The completed list is pretty self-explanatory but is good to keep it there and have a visual of all the things you’ve completed. It’s like a big pat on the back at the end of the day when it gets filled with newly completed tasks.
In some projects that need a lot of feedback or if I’m collaborating with someone else in a larger team, I might have another list before ‘Completed’ called Feedback & Revision. This is kind of dependency but I’m just relying on someone else saying ‘we are good to go’ in which case I’ll move that cart to ‘Completed’ or ‘this needs to be tweaked’ in which case I send it back to the backlog or the sprint (depending on the urgency).
Res & Refs
The Res & Refs lists is where I put anything that the client has given me as references like the briefs, some images, links, etc… All that goes in here. I also use this list to add resources and references that I collect myself for the project. This list is extremely handy, especially because you might get the info for the project from different sources like email, Slack, teams, whatever it is… so this allows you to keep everything in one place.
OOS / Wishlist
Finally, there is the OOS/wishlist (OOS = Out of Scope). These are things that are out of the scope of the project but it would be nice to include them within the timeline. Sometimes a project might have different stages and you might want to add some stuff from the next stage and see if you can speed things up. A practical example would be a project where the deliverable is a High-resolution render of a 3D character… This is what was considered in the scope of the project, but if you have the time you might be able to do a quick turntable as a ‘nice-to-have’. This is the type of stuff that goes into this last list.
Alright, that’s about it for the second type of board. For the third type, the Daily MASTER board, we are going to get a bit more into the time management and routines… this is the board that I have permanently open in one of my screens and the one that controls all the rest of my other projects. In this board, I plan everything, not just work stuff but absolutely everything that I need a reminder of from admin stuff like invoicing or meetings, to boring chores around the house.
The setup of the board is actually really simple and this is what I found works really well for me but you could tweak it to consider your own circumstances.
DAILY MASTER BOARD
In this board, I have 7 main lists and then a bunch of other lists based on other projects so they are not necessarily applicable to you… but I’ll explain them anyway.
The 5 main lists are Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday… so pretty much like a calendar.
Then I have another two lists called NEXT WEEK and another one called FOLLOWING WEEK.
You could go a little further and have more lists for the NEXT MONTH and the FOLLOWING MONTH if you want.
The rest of the lists are specific to other projects that have no particular timeline. For example, I have one list called FREELANCE PROJECTS where I list all the projects I’m currently working on or about to start with links to their specific boards (the first type of boards)… just so I have a clear view of what they are and have a sense of my workload. Some freelance projects obviously have deadlines so I will set up those in the individual projects and update the MASTER board to reflect any change.
I have another list for the ZBrushGuides for example, where I put tasks with ideas for tutorials, requests from people for specific guides, tests that I do, etc… basically every task is some kind of update or content for the website.
I have another one for personal project ideas, another one for resources, another one for my students from the 3DConceptArtist website, etc… you get the picture.
How it works:
Now, here is how this ‘MASTER’ board works… In the ‘NEXT WEEK’ list I put absolutely everything I know I have to do next week plus anything else I think of that might get in the way. And when I say everything, I mean everything… I have tasks like ‘call the accountant’, or ‘book a time at the barbershop’, or ‘buy milk for coffee’, or ‘take the rubbish out’.
I know that this might look excessive but I do it for two reasons:
Once I have everything in this list, every Monday morning with a cup of coffee, I drag this list to the first spot on the board and I spend 15 to 20 minutes distributing the tasks through the 5 lists of the days.
Some tasks might have hard deadlines so these ones are pretty easy to organize, but I try to give myself some extra time. I usually fill the Monday pretty quickly as I usually overestimate what I can do on a single day and spread the rest through the week.
Also, the order in which the cards are organized from top to bottom are the order in which I plan to do them.
You don’t have to place all the tasks… there are some things that could definitely wait and can simply stay in this week or if they are definitely not urgent, you can push them all the way to the FOLLOWING WEEK list.
After I organize the week I move the NEXT WEEK list back to its place and make myself a second cup of coffee.
The reason I think this method works much better for me than just having them in a calendar is because of the visual aspect of the cards and the fact you can attach images and WIPs of the work. Also because the way that you see the work piling up if you don’t complete the tasks.
At the end of each day
At the end of each day, and we are going to talk about time management in a second and what a ‘day’ of work means… I go through all the tasks of the day, let’s say a Monday, and archive everything that was completed. In Trello, if you hover over the card and press the letter ‘C’ you can Close that card.
Anything that I couldn’t finish I move it straight to the next day… Tuesday in this example. That way if I was hoping for a relaxing Tuesday with just a couple of things to do… I can clearly see that I might have to update my idea of what that relaxing Tuesday was going to be…
That’s it… remember this is just a reference and you have total control on how to set up your boards and lists to suit your needs.
My advice is to keep it very simple… if the way I do it works for you, great! But if not, start with something basic like 3 lists: To-do, In progress and Done. and expand it from there as you find the need to do so.
Now to wrap up this section, I’m just going to mention the obvious tools for project management: Email and calendar just because I’m going to share how to integrate them with Trello in the automation section
This is a big one and there are a few different factors that will impact the productivity of your day… like distractions, which are the hours of the day that you are most productive at, interruptions of the routine, etc.
So let’s start with some practical but crucial tips:
Clock in and clock out in your own house.
Set a time that you will officially start all activities related to work, and then set a finishing time of your day. It could be the usual 9 to 5 (for some of you used to the studio live of 8 to 8, this will be a great upgrade haha). If you like to wake up earlier, set it to start at 7 and finish at 3… or start late and finish late, up to you. The important thing is to be very conscious of that working time and be strict with it… no mucking around in those hours.
I feel more productive in the mornings, for instance, but I also feel I do my best work late at night so I struggled to balance things at first and it took me a while to get into a comfortable routine. There is a pretty cool book I’d recommend called My Morning Routine: How Successful People Start Every Day Inspired by Benjamin Spall and Michael Xander. This book gives you great insight into some of the most successful people’s routines and how they managed to organize them.
TRACK YOUR TIME
I’ll give you a quick rundown of what my routine looks like, but first, let’s get practical with an awesome app called Toggl. This is a brilliant free app (you can upgrade like Trello) that allows you to track your time per project and per task! It is absolutely fantastic and I think essential for anyone working from home. It has a browser app, a computer app with a widget and a mobile app and it makes it really easy to track where you spend your time.
I have a few generic projects set up in this app like ‘ZBrushGuides’ or ‘Portfolio’ or ‘xxxxxx freelance job’, etc. So all I have to do is select a project from the dropdown and click one button to start tracking my work on that task (I’ll give you some nice tips in the automation section with this app).
What’s really important about this notion of tracking your own time is to gather real data and understand your working habits and how much time you spend on different things. The Toggl app gives you a nice dashboard with analytics of how you have spent your time a day, week, month, etc… is great!
All this data will definitely help you to make more informed decisions on how to organize your time and segment your day. A practical example for those of us taking freelance gigs is to be able to estimate how long a project will take based on previous experience and solid data thanks to this app.
So here is a quick summary of how my ideal workday would look like:
I’m very fortunate to work on what I love doing. In other words… my job is one of my favorite hobbies. This means that after 6:00 pm I take a break, have some time with the family, but I could be back at night on my computer and work on some of my personal projects or test ideas that I have.
I basically ‘continue working’ after 7:30 pm or so… BUT, is nothing related to the client or ‘paid’ work. It’s my own time for doing whatever I want to do. I’m very used to this routine and I can keep going up to 12:00 am or longer and wake up with no problem for the next day.
IMPORTANT: this is not the ideal case for every single day, some days I just ‘clock-out’ and don’t do anything else until the next day. I just spend time with my family or friends in the afternoon or watch some good Scandinavian thriller tv shows to unwind.
Now, the next practical advice in time management is to take breaks. During those main ‘working blocks’ of time of my day, I take regular breaks and they actually make me more productive. I use a very simple method called the Pomodoro technique. I’m sure you are familiar with it, but if not, it is basically a time management method using a timer to break down your working time into intervals of 25 minutes roughly.
The idea is to take short breaks of 3 to 5 min between ‘Pomodoros’ (25-minute blocks), and every 4 ‘Pomodoros’ (roughly an hour and 20 min depending on your short breaks), take a longer break of 15 min, before starting again.
With Toggl you can use the Pomodoro technique with the desktop or the browser app (as I’ve said… this app is brilliant). I use the Desktop app which is super simple and I have a few settings that you can just copy… It basically gives me a little floating timer widget that I can put on the corner of one of my screens and it alerts me every 25 min and every hour for my Pomodoro breaks.
The Toggl app will also remind you to start tracking your time if you are new to the idea of keeping a regular record of your activities… and it will also let you know that the timer has been running for a while with no activity so that you don’t forget to stop it.
Now in terms of continuity of work, it is very important to set clear boundaries, especially now that you will probably have other people around your house… family, housemates, pets, etc…
Although it might be hard at first, it is crucial that you are strict and treat your space of work in the house as your own office. Working from home doesn’t mean that you have more time to do more things at home… sure, you save some time as you don’t have to commute, and the kitchen should be pretty close for a quick snack, BUT something along the lines of “hey, you’ve been home all day and you haven’t mop the floors” is definitely not applicable here… you are home, but you are AT WORK. so make sure you and everyone around you are on the same page.
You can totally ‘mop the floors’ and this could easily be a task in Trello… I’m not suggesting slacking off on home duties haha… I’m just saying that is something to do after you clock out 😉
It is very hard, at least for me, to re-focus on what I was doing after an interruption. Even if it is just a question like “hey do you want coffee?”… although it is a nice gesture, It might take a few precious minutes to go back to where I was… I prefer to be fully concentrated for 25 min and then on my Pomodoro breaks and can be distracted.
Alright, so a very important factor in your ‘work from home’ plan should be taking care of your health. This means getting into some healthy routines like walking a bit if possible (in between pomodoros), stretching and that sort of thing. I’m going to summarise a practical set of things that I use and follow to try to stay healthy.
Posture: This one is probably the most important one if you spend a lot of time in front of the screen. I can’t stress enough how important it is to keep a good posture… In fact, most things I’m going to list down are about keeping a good posture:
Standing Desk: If you can get hold of a standing desk, go for it. If you want to change for a bit and sit down, you can go to the dining table or something like that. I have an electric desk so I can switch it up or down with a button which is very convenient (this is why I mentioned in my disclaimer that I’ve invested in my home office over the years). I’ve found that working while standing not only improves my posture, but it also helps to keep my energy levels up as I can move a bit more than just sitting down.
Chair: If you don’t have access to standing desks or don’t like the idea of it… definitely invest in a good chair with enough back support… this SHOULD be a priority. If you can’t justify a brand new fancy computer chair, Make sure you at least get some lumbar support and something to rest your feet on (slightly higher than the floor).
Vertical Mouse and tablet: If you can get used to a vertical mouse, I’d recommend it or alternate between a mouse and a tablet.
Upright 2: This is a genius little gadget to train your posture. It is very light and you stick it to your back. It will detect if you are slouching and straining your back and it will buzz you so you can correct your posture. I’ve been using it for a few months now and I can really feel the difference.
Meditate: If you can, do it. Keeping a healthy body is just half the job. I find it really hard to meditate… I’m really bad at it. For that reason alone, I got a gadget called MUSE (which is pretty expensive, to be honest), but it has helped me to learn how to meditate. You put it on your head with some earphones and a mobile app. It basically measures your brainwaves (no idea how)… And it plays soothing sounds if your mind is at ease and changes tunes when you are losing concentration and ‘thinking too much’… In these times, it might not be essential to spend money on these gadgets. I’m just listing it here as part of the things that I use and I have acquired over time in case you find it useful for the future.
Night light: Windows has a nice feature that you can set up so that at certain times of the day the light of your screens becomes less blue and less bright… I believe apple devices have something similar. Supposedly to give your eyes some rest in dark environments (at night). I’m not 100% sure that it does much, since I have a good set of lights in the room, but it might be something to consider.
Stretching: Ages ago I worked for a startup that made an app for PC where the entire purpose was to remind people working on a computer to stretch and how to do it… I was doing all the 3D character animation for the stretches and that sort of thing, so I learned quite a bit about the importance of stretching. Nowadays, there are a few apps that give you some nice references for stretching… I usually take my short Pomodoro breaks to do some quick stretching or walk a bit.
Alright, now this is my favorite part of the productivity tips because… well, automating things allows me to be more productive and I think you’ll find some of these tools and resources useful too.
First of all, let’s look at some integrations from the tools I have already mentioned and how to put them to work for you to automate certain processes…
Trello + Toggl
The best part of using these two online services is that you can integrate them and have everything in one place. All you have to do is install the Toggl button for your browser and that way when you open a task in your day from the Trello board, you can start the timer to work on that specific task straight from Trello… brilliant.
Calendly + Calendar + Trello
The calendar is obviously a very important tool, but managing it as well as Trello, it could be too much. I simplify things a lot with two automation and for that I use IFTTT (If This Then That) another fantastic free app that allows you to automate a whole bunch of stuff and Calendly to set up meetings and Calendar entries.
Remember I use Trello to keep everything in one place so I use automation to make sure changes in other places are reflected in Trello. let’s start with Calendly:
Calendly is another great service that allows you to set up your calendar and block certain times of the week. I set up mine with my availability from 9:00 am to 5:30 pm and I block out certain hours of the days that I’m not available like when I’m teaching online, streaming, or have other predefined commitments.
The great thing about this app is that once your blocks of availability are set up, all you have to do is send a link to people and they can click on it and book themselves in at whatever time suits them within your predefined time slots. For me, this works great since, as I mentioned before, most of my clients are overseas so they will click the link and see my availability but in their time zones.
Now for the first step of the integration… I use Google calendar as my default calendar. In Calendly you can set it up so that whenever a person/studio books in an online meeting or chat, a new ‘calendar event’ will be created in your google calendar.
The second step of the integration consists of using IFTTT to notify Trello and keep everything in one place automatically… IFTTT is a free service and is genius! It has one of the best user experiences I’ve seen and it looks nice too. It literally does what the name says… IF THIS happens in one service… THEN makes sure THAT something else happens in another service.
I created an Applet called ‘Create trello cards for events’ (that is how integrations are called: Applets). This simply connects my google calendar and my Trello board and whenever IFTTT detects that there is a new calendar event, it will automatically create a new card with all the details and links of the event in a list of my board that I called ‘Hard points’ which basically list all the automation from the calendar so I know that those tasks are time-sensitive and have to organize them in my week accordingly.
By the way, I also use google meet (or hangouts) for my online meetings so Calendly and google calendar will create a unique link to the virtual room with any new entry… that means that when the time of the meeting comes, I just click on the card in Trello and follow the link of the meeting.
Also, Google calendar will send me a notification 15 min before the meeting so I can get ready.
Email + Trello
Alright now that I’ve shown you the setup for the calendar and time management stuff, let’s see what we can do about emails… probably a big part of the working from the home deal.
The way email integration in Trello works is actually pretty simple and very effective. I use Gmail but it works with most providers of email and clients. All you have to do is go to the Trello sidebar on your board and click on ‘More’ and you’ll see the ‘Email-to-board settings’. From there you have a couple of settings where you can choose which list you want to send the new cards coming from your email to and in which order they should appear.
In my workflow, I have this list set up as my NEXT WEEK list from my MASTER board. So that I can organize the jobs that come from emails.
Once you have the unique email-to-board address, you can simply use the email forward tools to forward the email to that address and Trello will create a new card from that email.
As I mentioned, I use the G suit and there is a pretty handy Trello add-on for the Gmail app. So if you also use Gmail, you can enable that addon from the Google Add-ons section and it makes it really easy. Otherwise forwarding the email to the board email address would work just fine.
Extra tip: If you work for a studio or collaborate with more people, you’ve probably heard about Slack which is very similar to Discord or Microsoft Teams. I’ve used them all and I think Slacks is the best for my workflow. If you use Slack to chat with colleagues and interact with other people, you can also integrate it with Trello and create cards straight from the different conversations and channels in Slack.
For instance, I use this integration to set up my Trello tasks for the ZBrushLive sessions from the Slack channel I have with the Pixologic team.
Other IFTTT useful applets and more productivity tips
Trello + Google Sheets: you can set up a trigger so that when you move a card to a specific list like ‘Completed’ then it gets recorded on a google spreadsheet. This is a great and simple way to generate reports of completed tasks or just to keep a record for yourself.
Trello + Google assistant: This might not be for everyone, but I love using my Google home to quickly set up Trello tasks. With IFTTT you can set up a specific phrase to create cards in specific boards and specific lists. So for instance mine is very simple:
IF “ok google”… Add task “milk is running low” THEN add a new Trello card on at the top of the list called ‘next week’ from the MASTER board.
That way I can quickly set up reminders and other things that come to mind jus by speaking to the google assistant and I’ll have those tasks in my Trello board to sort them out in my week.
Phone schedule: Most phones these days have an option to create a sound profile or schedule. I have an android phone and I have it set up so that at 9:00 am when I ‘clock in’ the sound mode is ‘silent’. At 12:30 pm it goes back to ‘sound on’ and back to ‘silent’ at 1:30 pm. Then at 6:00 pm when I ‘clock-out’ the phone goes into Vibrate until 10:00 pm where it goes silent again until 8:00 am.
I know this might sound a bit weird and if you are not used to these automation things… I’m sure you are thinking… ‘This guy is nuts… definitely has OCD or something’. That might be the case, but I’m just sharing a lot of different processes and things that I have acquired and refined over the years working from home so if you are setting all of these tips from scratch… yeah it might sound a bit overwhelming haha
Missed calls when in silent mode: Since I have my phone in silent mode when I’m actually working. Although I can see later if I have any missed calls, I like to create new cards for anyone who called me while I was busy so that I can also organize a time to call back within my day or week schedule in Trello. I use another simple IFTTT applet:
IF there is a missed call THEN create a Trello card at the top of the ‘NEXT WEEK’ list.
Extra monitors: I think having an extra monitor really helps with productivity at work and make things more comfortable. If you can get a cheap monitor as an extra go for it. If not there are a couple of alternatives:
Extra monitors at eye level: try to keep your head straight so even a couple of books or a box can work to raise your extra monitors… every little bit helps with posture.
Canceling noise headphones: Probably the best option to concentrate since it is very likely that you will be sharing your home space with family or maybe a noisy pet. I’m fortunate to have a dedicated room for my study so I don’t really need them. Here is a quick list of some good options (I’ve only actually tried the first two in the stores):
Google assistant device: I mean it doesn’t have to be a google device, you can use Alexa or Siri. I just find the Google home and google mini pretty convenient since I also use a lot of the google services and the integration is pretty straight forward.
Music playlist hack: Again, this might not be for everyone, but you can create a few different playlists to help you manage the time you spend on some tasks. The idea is very simple… For instance, if you use Spotify, you can add a few songs that you like so that the total duration of the playlist is roughly 1 hour (or whatever time you want to allocate to the task). So when you are tackling one of the most boring chores from your Trello board… like ‘Doing the dishes’ and ‘mopping the floors’, you can turn on your playlist ‘Boring chores’ and you can just listen to your tunes while doing your house duties and when the playlist is over, you know the one hour assigned to that task is over and its time to head back to the computer.
Zapier: If you want to dive deeper into the automation world, you can take a look at Zapier. It works like IFTTT but I’d say is more advanced.