Imagine that you are about to go on stage to perform some amazing thing that you know how to do. You're waiting in the wings for your moment to shine, and you want to bring your very best to the experience.
But then also imagine that you spent the last several hours or even days in isolation. You haven't really talked to anyone or had much human interaction at all. No one has given you encouraging words or expressed excitement about what you're going to perform.
And then you find out that the time of your performance has not really been set or advertised. There will be an audience but they will be coming and going from the auditorium where you're performing, and they may or may not be paying attention to you. When you do the thing you're best at, someone may or may not notice. Oh and the stage is actually going to be a small, dark closet.
Now go out there and be awesome? Umm....
It's a silly scenario, but for some people who work in a distributed environment, especially one where a lot of collaboration happens asynchronously across individual schedules and time zones, this is what the beginning of our work day can feel like: quiet, slow, isolated.
In a traditional office setting where workers tend to arrive, collaborate and leave on roughly the same schedule, the energy and pace of work can come from the environment itself. But for distributed workers, even when there is actually a lot going on in the organization we're working with, it can be a challenge to build momentum at the start of our days. Sometimes the work itself is enough to generate that energy, but sometimes we need help getting into the right mental space for high productivity.
So how can you build that momentum if it's not coming from your physical work environment? Here are a couple of things that I've seen work well:
Have a quick beginning-of-day team standup meeting or informal chat. Take a few minutes at the beginning of your work day to share with each other what you got done yesterday/recently, what you'll be tackling today, and anything that you need help with. If your co-workers are in different time zones and not online, you can still share your own status and know that others will see it soon enough and hopefully hold you accountable to it. Then get started!
And don't underestimate the value of what might seem like idle chit-chat with your distributed coworkers, by text or even audio/video chat. People in traditional office settings have lots of these interactions throughout the day, and so taking a few minutes to say hi, talk about each others` lives and current events can be important for reminding yourself that, "oh yeah, I'm a part of something bigger than just me, and my work here matters to others."
Have coffee or breakfast with someone going in to an office. Sometimes just being around other people who are starting a more traditional work day by heading into an office can rub off on me and help me build momentum for my day. The awareness of schedules, deadlines, locations and routines that other people pay attention to can be really useful. (And I'll admit that sometimes they also help me appreciate the incredible flexibility I have in the distributed model.)
Use a coworking space or other semi-social environment. Coworking spaces can be a great way to build momentum: they give you a place to go every day, people to be around, and many of the comforts of a traditional office environment, but with much of the flexibility and independence of distributed work. If there's not a good coworking space near you, try a coffee shop that's not too quiet and not too noisy.
Have a beginning-of-day routine that pumps you up. It could be a checklist of administrative things to cross off (check messages, straighten up the desk, etc.), some music you play, a professionally relevant blog you read, a stretching routine, or something else. But if you do it every day before starting your work, your brain will hopefully start to associate it with the beginning of a productive, focused day.
Knock out some easy wins. I'm generally a fan of doing harder and more complex things first, but if I'm having trouble getting in to a good mental space for working, I'll tackle some quick, easy things first instead. Closing a Github issue is still closing a GitHub issue, handling a simple email or request from a coworker is still work, and seeing those things done is helpful for building momentum.
Watch the logs go by. Chances are there is a log file or Slack channel or commit history somewhere that you can see the work output of your coworkers (or maybe even your clients/users) being recorded. If I'm ever in danger of the feeling like "nothing else is happening so why should I work hard now?" then watching that activity stream by can be a good kick in the pants to move me toward "I want to contribute something useful, too!"
Don't force it. If you've tried practices like the ones above and still aren't feeling the momentum to work, then maybe right now is not the best time. If I've been staring at my computer for 30 minutes and haven't done anything useful, then I usually know that I need to take a break and do something else for a while first. Sometimes that break is 10 minutes, sometimes it's a few hours. The distributed work model only really succeeds when an organization trusts that its employees will take ownership of finding the best times and methods to be productive. So, if someone isn't "feeling it" at a given part of their day, they should be encouraged to shift things around to get their work done another time.
Those are some of the things that help me and my coworkers. If you work in a distributed environment, how do you build momentum for your work day?