Taking Work Home

How to Stay Productive Outside the Office

It’s 2014, and thanks to mobile phones, laptop computers and the Internet, more and more of us are moving outside the traditional workplace. Whether you’re a full-time remote worker or someone who just takes things home from the office now and again, you may find it challenging to stay productive. After all, home is supposed to be a place of rest, not work.

That said, millions of people are working from home every day, and most of them find ways to be productive. Here’s their secret.

It’s work. On any other work day, you need to get up at a reasonable hour and get ready. People who work at home, by and large, don’t roll out of bed in their pajamas, shuffle off to the computer and type up a storm while snacking on nachos. The successful ones bathe, groom themselves, put on their work clothes, eat breakfast and go through all the other motions of their daily routines. There’s no better way to get mentally prepared.

That also means you need to block off time. There’s a reason most bosses don’t let their employees work whatever hours they want, and it’s not (just) that they can’t keep the building open 24/7. When there are no physical walls keeping you in the office, it’s even more important to organize your time with a fixed agenda. Otherwise, you’ll fall prey to distractions and time-wasters, and you’ll look back at your day and wonder why nothing got done.

Once you’ve fixed your working hours, shut the door to your office – and don’t open it for anything short of the house burning down. You wouldn’t take personal calls and entertain visitors at the company office, so don’t do it in your home office, either. Make sure your friends and family know that you’re at work and can’t be disturbed.

Speaking of shutting the door, do your best to separate business from pleasure. When possible, that means having a designated space where you only go for work activities. If you can afford a second computer (or have one provided by your employer), have one machine that you use only for work. If you need to use the same computer for both work and recreation, set up separate accounts. Make sure your “work” account has the websites you need for business bookmarked and the programs you use for work purposes accessible, and keep your games, entertainment sites and social media far away.

This may mean you need to outsource. If you’re a parent, you know it’s impossible to get anything done with a kid tugging on your sleeve. Hire a babysitter. Likewise, you can’t get much done in the way of cleaning and organizing while you’re working, so get a professional cleaning service to help. The extra money you make with your increased productivity will more than offset the cost, and as a bonus, you can write off cleaning your home office as a business expense.

Finally, when you’re done with work, stop working. The upside of working at home is that you’re always at home; the downside is that you’re always at work. If you press on until it’s time for bed (or later), you’ll burn yourself out. Set time aside to spend with your family, play games, go to the gym or just relax. It’s worth it.

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800 Words on Confirmation Bias

Consider these three scenarios:

  • An investor decides to try a brand-new strategy trading contracts in the futures market. After five straight winning trades, he declares he’s found the key to success.
  • A schoolteacher is convinced that a particular student is going to struggle with a new unit. The next day, she asks the student two especially difficult questions; when the student answers them incorrectly, she decides that he really is struggling and makes a note to give him extra help.
  • A scientific researcher forms a hypothesis and designs an experiment to prove it. After a few trials that are consistent with her prediction, she concludes that her theory was indeed correct and tries to publish her findings.

In each case, someone fell prey to confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is simply the human tendency to focus on evidence that corroborates, or confirms, a prior assumption or belief. It’s an understandable mistake. It’s also potentially destructive.

Mental Explanations for Confirmation Bias

Psychologists are confident that confirmation bias exists – after all, it’s been an observed phenomenon for thousands of years – but they’re still divided on its cause. Some believe it’s just wishful thinking, a natural tendency to look on the bright side and favor pleasant rather than unpleasant thoughts. We subconsciously discard information that is somehow unfavorable and focus on the things we’d prefer to be true.

A related explanation focuses on the availability heuristic, a mental shortcut that causes us to only use the information that’s immediately at hand to judge a situation. Since facts that meet our original expectations are easier to recall, we give them much more weight in our thinking.

One more economic explanation focuses on cost-benefit analysis. Some psychologists theorize that instead of seeking truth, the brain is naturally wired to avoid costly errors. Since accepting a false hypothesis is often less damaging than rejecting a true hypothesis, the theory goes, we seek out information that confirms rather than challenges our hypotheses.

Regardless of the cause, confirmation bias is insidious. It affects everyone’s thinking to some extent, and even when we’re aware it exists, it can be tough to shake.

The Dangers of Confirmation Bias

Let’s return to our first example. Under normal circumstances, a rational investor would realize that it’s unwise to make a trading decision based on just five trades – that could just be a lucky streak. Because he was expecting his strategy to work, however, this investor ends up giving undue weight to a small sample size. He might decide to implement his new strategy too aggressively and end up losing money.

Our second example, the schoolteacher, is also guilty of using a small sample size. In this case, however, the teacher is doing something particularly problematic: specifically looking for information that confirms her bias. By asking difficult questions, she consciously or unconsciously sets up the student to fail.

In the third example, our scientist has committed a grave error by failing to seek out falsifying as well as confirming evidence. In addition to trying to show her hypothesis to be correct, she ought to have designed an experiment that would challenge her initial assumption.

Confirmation bias can be even more subtle. Often, people who do seek out alternative explanations or opinions go in with the mindset that they’ll just prove the other side wrong. That leads to selective listening: focusing on the flaws in the opposing argument without considering the strengths.

Dealing with Confirmation Bias

It’s practically impossible to shake off confirmation bias entirely, but there are ways to cope. One method is to seek out objective measurements. Data that can be interpreted subjectively is naturally prone to bias. Numbers are not.

Second, use a larger sample size whenever possible. The less information you have, the more likely you are to rely on your assumptions and biases to fill in the gaps. Bringing more information to light, especially from multiple sources, limits the power of confirmation bias.

Third, explicitly seek out dissenting opinions and approach with a fair mind. Again, there’s no way to keep confirmation bias from creeping in at all, but trying to consider the other side’s views as calmly and rationally as possible will help.

Fourth, avoid making decisions when at emotional extremes. This is a good mantra in general, but it’s relevant particularly to confirmation bias. Assumptions are usually rooted in emotion, not fact, and they have more power when we’re especially happy or especially unhappy.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, don’t make decisions alone. Bringing in multiple people with multiple assumptions tends to negate the power of each individual assumption. As long as every member of the group doesn’t have the same expectation, the members’ respective biases will effectively cancel each other out.

As great as it would be to go into situations perfectly objectively, with no preconceived notions, the human mind just doesn’t work that way. Confirmation bias is always a concern, but by proactively recognizing its influence, it’s possible to limit its impact.

Long-Form Blog Posting

One of the more exciting trends on the Internet of 2014 is a shift from short blog posts to long-form posting. Readers are tired of the same generic, rehashed content that pops up on dozens of blogs at the same time. They want unique information, and often that requires going in-depth.

Obviously, writing a 1,000-word (or longer) post is a rather different beast than coming up with a few 300-500 word articles. Here are five things to keep in mind:

  • Break It Up: If your readers wanted a massive, unbroken block of text, they’d curl up with a Kindle – or even an old-school book. For the most part, readers on the Internet want small, easily digestible chunks of content. If your post is longer than about 300 words, use subheadings, bullet points and images along with the text. If your blog is powered by WordPress, consider using the Pagination feature to break up very long posts into multiple pages. (I do this all the time on my other blog.)
  • Use Your Words Efficiently: Believe it or not, the word concise doesn’t have to mean short. A long-form blog post can still be concise if it uses words efficiently. Don’t waste space by rehashing the same points over and over again, and don’t use needlessly wordy constructions like “in my own personal opinion.” Every word you write needs to be carefully selected to inform and delight your readers.
  • Incorporate Multiple Sources: Likely the worst possible way to write a long-form blog post is to take a single shorter post and just spin it out over more words. A good rule of thumb is to do three times as much research as writing; that is, if you’re writing a 1,000-word post, plan on reading at least 3,000 words’ worth of sources. Bring only the most salient points from each into your post, and don’t forget to add your own spin on the ideas.
  • Do Original Research: This doesn’t apply to every single post, of course, but whenever possible you’ll want to give your readers a fresh perspective. Conduct an interview, cite the results of a little-known study or otherwise bring in information that hasn’t been recycled elsewhere.
  • Keep It Light: Here, I don’t mean light on content, I mean light in tone. The last thing anyone wants to do is trudge through yet another boring, point-by-point, no-nonsense article. Don’t be afraid to be conversational, casual, even witty. Use personal anecdotes and off-the-wall ideas. Believe me, your readers will appreciate it.

Writing a long-form blog post may seem like a monumental task, but if done well, it’s worth the effort. Plan ahead, do your homework and keep these tips in mind to make your content fresh and engaging.

Writing an About Us Page

No matter what industry you’re in, there’s one component of your website that’s absolutely critical: your ‘About Us’ page. Search engines love to see them, and readers love to connect with the people on your team. Here’s what you need to include:

  • A Little History: If your company is fairly new, play up your fresh ideas and cutting-edge techniques. If you’ve been around a while, talk about your experience and legions of satisfied customers. Either way, let us know where your company came from, but don’t overdo it. A paragraph is plenty.
  • Your Services: There’s no need to go into great detail on an About Us page – that’s what a Services page is for – but don’t forget to talk about your business in at least some detail. Your readers will start to think of you as an expert in your field.
  • Motto or Slogan: Your company is more than just a service provider. There’s some unique philosophy that guides your business, and this is a perfect place to share it. Just keep it short: no more than a sentence or two.
  • Area Keywords: For SEO purposes, it’s always good to include your service area as a key phrase. Moreover, you’ll connect more directly with your likely customers and establish yourself as a local expert.
  • First- and Second-Person: It’s called an About Us page, not an About (Company Name) page, and for good reason.  Use “we,” “us” and “our” to describe your company and “you” and “your” when addressing your readers. Inclusive language helps to build relationships with your customers.

Do all that in about 300 words, and you have another tool to help your company bring in and connect with customers.

Top of the Page

If you’re looking to hook visitors to your website, you’ll quickly run into a pretty serious issue: They have short attention spans. Amazingly, a high percentage of Web users don’t even bother scrolling down when they first visit a page. The only way to catch their attention is to make the words ‘above the fold’ count.

Here’s how you do it:

  • Attention-Grabbing Titles: This may be a question, a surprising statement or just a catchy phrase, but do something to set your content apart from the rest of the Internet.
  • Lists: Try sneaking the first item or two of a list above the fold. Once visitors see the beginning of a list, they’ll want to read to the end.
  • No Fluff: Avoid filler phrases such as “for all intents and purposes.” Trim down wordy constructions: “In our opinion” becomes “we believe.”
  • Informative Content: Since you’re not using filler, you’ll need to fill the top of the page with actual information. This isn’t the place for in-depth descriptions, though: Hit each point quickly and move on to the next one.
  • Make it Perfect: It’s cliche, but you really don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. Those first words your customers read need to ooze professionalism, so make sure they’re well-written and error-free.

Filling your website with high-quality content is great, but it’s meaningless if your visitors never actually see that content. Pay extra attention to the top of the page, and you’ll encourage as many as possible to keep reading.

Content Ideas for a Company Blog

There’s no better way to get your website noticed than by filling it with great content, and one of the best ways to add more to your online presence is with a great company blog. Of course, to reap the benefits of that blog, it needs to be updated and updated often. In my experience, the toughest thing about maintaining a blog isn’t the actual writing; it’s coming up with things to write about. Here are five great ways to come up with content for your blog.

Frequently Asked Questions: If you’ve been in your field for a while, odds are good that people already look to you as an resource. Whether they’re clients, professional associates or friends and family, they come to you whenever they have questions about topics related to your business. Look to every question as an opportunity; make a mental (or physical) note and turn the answer into a blog post.

Industry News: Remember, you’re an expert in your field. When there’s a change in regulations, a new product hitting the market or any other major development, it’s your job to explain to your readers how that change will affect their lives. Cut through as much of the industry jargon as possible to make the news understandable to lay readers.

How-To Articles: There’s no better way to build relationships with your customers than to teach them something valuable.  Clear, step-by-step instructions are good; pictures and diagrams to make the content come alive are even better. Don’t forget to remind your readers that they can always contact you for more information.

Employee Spotlights: Your website isn’t just a way to find new customers; it’s a tool to help you build and maintain relationships with your existing customers. People can’t build relationships with text on a screen; they need to meet other people! Highlight one of your employees and his or her contributions to the company; include both a photo and a brief bio. Potential and returning customers alike will feel as though they’re really getting to know your team.

Local Connections: Not everything on your blog has to be directly related to your business. Writing about your community or service area is a great way to connect with your customers; as a bonus, it’s an opportunity to slip in location-specific keywords. Just be sure to include a paragraph or two about your company at the end.

Writing Great Instructions

When you’re hiring a copywriter, one of the things you’ll need to provide is a set of instructions. Those instructions don’t need to be overly formal; just saying “I need a blog post on the health benefits of brushing your teeth” works. A detailed, point-by-point explanation of exactly what you want in the article also works. It all depends on how stringent your requirements are and how you best communicate said requirements.

Whether you prefer short or long instructions, though, there are a few guidelines to keep in mind.

Do tell me what to write.  That’s the obvious one: I can’t give you the content you need if I don’t understand your content needs. Be specific; there’s no such thing as too much information.

Don’t tell me how to write. This isn’t an issue with most clients, but now and again I’ll run into someone who feels the need to, for instance, explain how to write a paragraph. That level of micromanagement really isn’t necessary.

Do give me style information. My default is AP (Associated Press) style, which is the standard for most online content writing. If you want me to deviate from AP (for instance, to add serial commas), let me know. If you’d like me to use a different style guide, let me know. If you have your own style guide, share it with me!

Do give me examples. If you have an established website, blog or publication with plenty of existing content, I can match the style and tone. If you don’t, see if you can find another site with the sort of content you’d like. I can work without examples, but it’s easier to stay on the same page if we start off looking at the same thing.

Don’t be afraid to add more as you go. Instructions aren’t a “fire and forget” measure; they’re the start of ongoing communication between an author and a client. If you think of something that wasn’t in the original instructions, let me know and I’l add it in. If I miss something in the instructions, let me know and I’ll fix the issue. It’s really okay.