by Imran Malek, 🐤twitter.com/imran_malek
100% realistic depiction of an actual Boston apartment (image source)
Update 2020-03-12-1155: Added a section on Security, moved VPN topic there
With the WHO's recent declaration of a pandemic and the litany of school closures happening due to COVID-19, many law schools are shifting the rest of their classes this year to remote classes conducted through services like Zoom, Google Hangouts, Skype, or WebEx.
As a former engineer who spent a lot of time working remotely, there are a few things that I've picked up from experience and from reading various productivity/business books that I think would be useful to share.
Testing some more content to see if autobuild works.
The first few days of working from home are, admittedly, pretty great. You get to wake up in your pajamas, pop your laptop open wherever you want (including from the warmth of your bed), and just lounge at your own pace. If you're like me, you'll also simultaneously realize that your productivity ends up taking a nosedive because your mindset hasn't switched over to 'work mode'. Here are some ways to flip the switch and get your brain going.
Put your damn pants on
I'm going to start with what is arguably the most controversial opinion - even if you are planning on working from home, you should ditch your PJs. Yes, they are comfortable, yes, no one is going to see you anyway, and yes, you'll end up having another pair of clothes to wash when you do laundry, but when you wear clothes that you typically go to school in, you'll find yourself more amenable to working as opposed to lounging and watching netflix while your textbook is open in front of you.
Set the stage
In our constantly connected "always on" world, I think we generally take the notion of environment for granted. That said, there's a reason why we consciously or subconsciously prefer that table in the student lounge, that coffee shop around the corner, or that group study room - it's because we are likely to gravitate to environments that we can explicitly classify as "work" places. When your at home, you can accomplish the same goal by designating your own "work" space where the only thing that you do in that space is work. So if you have a kitchen table, dedicate one seat on table as your "work" table, or arrange the furniture in a specific way when you want to work. You could even go as far as pulling out your notebooks/book stands and arranging them when you're ready to get started, and then subsequently disassembling them when you're done for the day as a step to clear your mind. Create the environment that gets you into the "flow state" faster.
Commuting often plays role additional to getting you where you need to be - it also helps you get in the right head space to take on the day. Whether you listen to music, read a book, put on a podcast, or exercise, it's important to keep doing those things so that you can (to borrow a term from chemistry) build up enough activation energy to get working.
Keeping things going
Now that you're on your way, here are a few ways to keep on track while the world continues around you.
Many people think of working from home as the equivalent of having a day off, thus giving friends family, and roommates the opportunity to barge in when it's a nice day and say "hey, why don't you get off the computer and enjoy some sunshine with me!" Avoid this temptation entirely by establishing boundaries - it could be something as simple as saying "When I have my headphones on, please don't bother me" or as intricate as sharing a calendar with the people close to you to let them know that these are your work hours.
Routines and habits
You still have a class schedule, and you should thus build your own weekly schedules to accommodate all of the work that you need to do. By setting routines and maintaining a predictable rhythm, you get the dual benefits of knowing what you should be working on next and finding comfort in a semblance of structure so that you know when to shut down, enjoy the rest of your day, and stave off burnout without having a location change as a motivator.
Dealing with the extra time
You'll notice that by not commuting to and from school and shuffling between classes, you'll probably end up with a surplus of extra time. If you can, try to fill this time with stuff that you've had on your wishlist of things to do, whether it be learning how to cook new recipes, planning your post-outbreak vacation, or trying a new hobby - just take advantage of that time to treat yourself for being so focused at home. You could also use the time to just go outside and get some fresh air to restore you for the next round of work.
These types are by the far the most "mechanical", in that there are suggested tools, applications, or ideas to make your remote life a bit easier.
Batch your work
Being in front of your computer all day makes it really easy for you to have multiple windows open all the time. Instead of multitasking(which doesn't work), focus on things one thing at a time, and also batch your like tasks together. For example, if you have a bunch of e-mails to send out, arrange your to do list so that all your e-mails are stacked next to each other. If you're looking for a flexible to-do list application, I like TodoIst:
Mute your microphone
I cannot stress this enough - the default state of your microphone should be "mute" and the default state of your webcam should be "off". The last thing that you want to do is accidentally say something you shouldn't have said, so take advantage of features like Zoom's "Push to Talk" functionality where the mic is set to be muted by default. You also don't want your class an unexpected look into your living space - just hit the "video on" button when you're ready.
Stay in touch
Many remote conference tools offer easy ways to create your own conference rooms for "drop in" meetings, In Zoom, for example, you can see this in personal meeting links, as documented here:
This is a really great way to share a link with friends and have them drop in on a "study with me" session with you. Even if you and your friends are all on mute, having each other on a web cam can motivate you just a little bit longer.
Introduce some noise
Sometimes one of the most frustrating things about being at home is that things get too quiet. If music isn't your thing, you could also try listening to some idle background noise - my favorite place for noise is this website, which allows you to mix and match multiple background noises to create a "noise mix" that works for you. Have you ever wondered what a windy coffee shop next to a waterfall sounds like?
Security, redundancy, reliability
The integrity of your computer system is going to be more important now than it was when you were on campus, particularly since it will be harder for your school's IT teams to reach you.
Enabling multi-factor authentication is a really easy way to add a layer of security on top of your most sensitive online accounts. If you're going to be accessing your school resources in public environments, a good multi-factor authentication solution is a lifesaver. Many schools already have MFA in the form of a solution like Duo, and you can enable your own 2FA across many of your accounts with an authentication management tool like Authy.
This is generally good practice overall, but you should seriously consider using a password manager that can help you generate unique (and more secure) passwords for all of your school logins (e-mail, Blackboard, zoom, etc.) as well as ensure that you'll have your login information secure in the event your computer goes down and you need to move to a new laptop or your parents' machine. I personally use 1Password, but there are many great alternatives out there, including the totally free to use Bitwarden. Also check with your school's IT department, as they might have a license to password manager.
Backup and cloud storage
Most schools give students access to some type of cloud storage solution, whether it be box, Dropbox, Google Drive, iCloud, OneDrive, or others. Take advantage of these solutions and store all of your notes, outlines, and scans in the cloud. If you use any of these solutions' native applications, you'll be able to work offline and sync online the next time you have access to the internet. You also get the extra added benefit of being able to share files with your peers easily or access your own files from any computer with an internet connection.
If you are a law student participating in a clinic, you will likely be handling client sensitive documents so please CHECK WITH YOUR CLINIC SUPERVISOR before storing anything in a cloud folder. Your clinic will have policies governing the use of cloud storage for client documents.
In addition to a cloud storage solution, you might also want to invest in a "full system" backup solution that takes everything on your system and stores it securely. Your school might have a license to a solution like this, or you can leverage something like Backblaze or Carbonite. The big benefit for a solution like this is that you'll have complete access to both previously deleted files and previous versions of existing files - in case you need to revert back to an old draft!
If you are attending a university here in the states, there's a high chance that your school offers a VPN that allows students to connect to university resources while off campus. This is particularly useful if you're trying to do research on a paper topic and need access to a scientific or academic journal. VPNs also have the extra added benefit of securing your traffic so that you can feel safe while you're browsing and working from a coffee shop. Lastly, using a VPN allows you to access the web as if you were still on campus, a feature that is particularly useful in places that restrict access to certain websites.
Hopefully these tips end up helping you along as you deal with being a temporarily remote student. If you have any suggestions, feel free to comment on this page or send me a DM.