Portrait of Mark LeMerise
Mark LeMerise
October 08, 2018

Interview with Mark, a programmer building bespoke business applications

For Mark, avoiding distractions and sticking to regular hours are perhaps the hardest parts of being a freelancer - learn his secrets to achieving a good workflow.

How did you get started with remote work?

I had my first remote job while still in college. The office was a hefty drive from campus and I could rarely afford the time to make the commute. Thankfully, my employer already believed in the merits of remote working.

In my time there, I learned a lot about the tools and attitude necessary to successfully carry out remote work. My employer believed in the power of results and trust in his employees.

Ultimately, I think my employer's attitude really seeded a lot of my habits and philosophy about remote work today.

For example, he always insisted on video chats so we could actually see each other, and now that tendency is drilled into me. It became so second nature that one time during a video chat, my girlfriend accidentally walked into view with only a towel on! Needless to say, I am now much more cognizant of my surroundings.

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What are you working on?

I am a full-time software developer for Symphono, a consultancy based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. We build all types of bespoke business applications, ranging from real estate to banking to the energy sector.

My career started heavily in web development. From there, I probably followed a similar trajectory as many others. I became very engrossed in things like UX design and front-end development, honing these skills over the first 5 years of a freelance career.

Nowadays, I simply like solving problems and using programming to do it.

Usually, my projects are long-running - I might be working with the same team and client for upwards of two or three years.

I've learned it's important to establish a rapport as soon as possible. This carries extra weight when your team is distributed geographically (and thus temporally) and it's possible some team members may not be used to having remote co-workers.

Right now, I work on a team that has members in Chicago, Michigan, and Switzerland! Needless to say, our communication tools are invaluable; an hour without Slack could mean a day of lost productivity.

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What's your typical work routine?

It took me a long time to establish my current routine.

The hours of my first remote job were very erratic and rarely included working periods inside the traditional 9-to-5 mold.

My bad habits were further reinforced by a coworker who would work the same erratic, late-night hours. Over the course of three years, I had completely forgotten the concept of a routine.

When I began my current remote job, the prospect of having to wake up consistently at 8 am again terrified me. I quickly realized that I would need to establish a lot of habits to get myself into a decent routine.

The first habit I began was doing some activity immediately after waking like exercising, cooking, or even mowing the lawn.

I found starting my day with a small accomplishment goes a long way in making it a productive day.

Moreover, I am very deliberate about taking time to make and eat lunch - which has the side effect of learning new recipes. A couple times a week, I'll plan social activities with friends or family around 6 pm, thus clearly demarcating the end of a work day.

When working from home, it becomes all too easy for me to blur working hours into evening hours.

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Do you have a dedicated space to work?

I've tried to work from a variety of places - coffee shop, friend's house, hammock. Ultimately, I keep coming back to my home office. It's really just a nook in our living room, but I've taken great pride & joy in carving it into a "distraction free" zone.

This has included altering the decor, sunlight levels, sound levels and even the direction the desk faces.

Through modifying my workspace, I've discovered the driving factor is distraction reduction.

A good pair of headphones helps muffle anything beyond low background noise, while an ergonomic chair - certified by my physical therapist wife - helps keep my body from aching during long periods of sitting.

Of course, working from home has its own special set of distractions: the refrigerator is only a few feet away, as is the living room (so...Netflix). Managing these other impulses is an on-going challenge and one that I've yet to master.

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What tools do you use to stay productive?

  • StayFocusd’: A Chrome extension that plays parent to my child-like tendency to reach my hand into the social media cookie jar. I have 10 minutes per work day to burn on these time-wasters and then my access is cut off.

  • iPhone/Slack: "Do not disturb" setting - for a distributed team, maintaining a communication link is paramount, but so is getting work done. Before I "go dark", I'll ping my team saying I need a few hours heads down.

  • iPhone Calendar/reminders: Anything to reduce the mental load of daily activities and obligations goes in my phone, whether it's picking up groceries, watering the plants or going to dinner with friends. Not only does it help me, but my wife can see what I'll be up to as well.

  • Fitbit: Pings me every hour to get up and walk around, an activity easily forgotten during long work sessions. Though I don't go full quantified-self on every calorie I eat, seeing progress for exercise and sleep patterns can be surprisingly insightful.

  • Pen and paper for everything else: Taking notes, sketching designs and diagrams, and doodling - an undervalued activity during a meeting. Through trial and error, I've learned that I can write my thoughts down faster than I can type them, or transfer a visual aid in my head to paper.

Read 108 answers from other remote workers

How do you stay on task?

I eliminate distractions at all costs using a combination of office configuration, productivity tools and sheer willpower.

Musically, I've experimented with different kinds of genres and subscribe to a lot of the "focus"-type playlists on Spotify. Usually, these are mellow, instrumental tracks that I can enjoy without headphones, given that the background noise is low enough.

At my work, we use Rally (a corporate-y version of Trello) and Agile (including daily standup calls), which essentially forces us to state out loud what we're going to do that day to the rest of the team.

Working without this technology in the past, I was a big believer in simple to-do lists. It always feels good to check something off.

With these powers combined, I can usually achieve 2 - 3 hours of flow on a good day, with at least another 2 hours that I'd call "productive".

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What do you like about remote work?

Having extreme flexibility to schedule day-to-day life interwoven with "traditional" working hours just feels right to me.

Now that my before- and after-work schedule is not dictated by a commute, I've found that I can enrich my social life with more spontaneous events with friends and family.

In terms of the work environment, there is a freedom in not having the "boss over the shoulder" or the "always-talking coworker".

This simple mastery over nearly every detail of your work environment is not only liberating, but thrilling.

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What do you not like about remote work?

I have experienced bouts of loneliness where I can't seem to reach the coworker I need via Slack and have no insight into where they are. While not overwhelming, this feeling can sometimes chill the sunny disposition that the remote work life instills.

Furthermore, when you are on a team that is failing to build rapport due to geographic distribution, the distance feels that much more multiplied. Something as simple as whiteboard collaboration becomes a much bigger chore.

Easily, the biggest trap that's easy to fall into is working past traditional hours. You've never left the office, right?

Too often, I've neglected home errands or exercise to squeeze in "just one more hour". Before you know it, one becomes four. Is this behavior exclusive to remote work? No, but remote work definitely enables it.

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What did we forget to ask Mark LeMerise?

At RemoteHabits we're always trying to improve our interviews, what question should we have asked Mark LeMerise?


Mark LeMerise

Mark is full-stack software developer who works on all types of business applications for Symphono in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Being involved in the local software community is important to him, so in his spare time, he helps organize a meetup for devs in Rochester, Michigan and faithfully attends other meetups in the Southeast Michigan region.

When not in front of the computer, he likes to play tennis, soccer, cook, read, and tend his vegetable garden.

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