Amador Valenzuela, director, designer, animator and founder of Black Book Studio, shares his challenges and tips on productivity when working from home.
The last time I worked in a formal office setting was 2014, and I miss that experience a lot. When you work closely with other artists, they become part of your extended family.
I also miss having to commute, even though I complained about it back then. I would take a train and walk 2 miles to get to the office in downtown Chicago. It was annoying on bad weather days, but otherwise, it was a great way to prepare for the day ahead mentally. I don't have that time to myself anymore.
Other than working in your PJ's, the most obvious benefit of working from home is the extra time you gain. You do have to be responsible because it's easy to slack off. The home office is open 24-7, so there's no reason to work consecutive hours (9-5), as long as the work is complete. I tend to spread the work out so I can get other things done at home.
The new studio space
The irony in all of this is I recently signed a lease on studio space. I've been building it out for the past few months. The plan was to move out of the house and expand the business finally. In the short term, I planned on renting out desk space to local freelancers and small companies, which would help with my overhead. Then this virus hit. I guess I can still move in, but I definitely can't invite other people to come and work there with me. For now, I'm staying at home like everyone else.
Challenge #1: Separating work and home life
Since I'm home, all of my tasks blend into one big to-do-list. It makes it hard to separate my work from my home life. One side can get more distracting than the other, depending on what's going on.
Right now, it's more about the changes in the day-to-day routine. I used to drive my son to school early in the morning, then get some coffee and start my day with no one home. Since the quarantine began, I don't have a specific reason to wake up early since my son's school closed. My family is around all day, so I find myself working late into the night once they go to bed because there are fewer distractions. My sleep schedule is a mess, but I'm managing it.
A work/life balance is tough to maintain when you're at home all of the time. Your work is at home, and home is at work. As a freelancer, it's a little easier to disconnect. Once the Studio that hired you goes home, as long as my work was complete, I would shut down too. Now that I operate as a studio, the balance is completely gone. I'm working all of the time. I take "breaks" to spend time with my family, dinner, or run errands. Then it's right back to work. It happens throughout the entire day. The only time I fully disconnect is when I'm on vacation. I make it a point to not look at my email when I'm out of town. That's my reward for the hard work throughout the year.
+ Create a “closed workspace” where you can shut the door on your workstation at the end of the day
+ Set a schedule to work around your new life with shutdown rules - and rigidly stick to it
Challenge #2: Getting things done
Establishing a routine is important. You have to focus on the tasks at hand and try not to worry about things beyond your control. If you become overwhelmed, try and spread out the work (if possible). Be honest with clients about schedules, and never promise something you're not sure you can deliver.
It took me a long time to figure out what worked for me. It's going to be different for everyone, but I would make a list of tasks you do and try and figure out a realistic schedule for how you could accomplish the work each day.
I wake up at the same time every day, make my coffee, create/edit my to-do-list (I use Todoist) and get right to work. When I finish something, I mark it off the list. The key is to make each task achievable within that day and be specific. Don't make goals that are too ambitious because you will be setting yourself up for failure. If you keep the jobs small, you'll be able to clear the list every night. I have a breakfast bar in the morning, work out at noon (basketball), shower, then work until I have to pick up my son and back to work until dinner time. In the evening, I hang out with my family, then when everyone goes to sleep, I usually jump back to work for a couple of hours if I have to. I avoid that last part whenever possible, but if I have a deadline, I have no choice.
+ To-do list / project management tools
+ Pomodoro technique (working in bursts)
Challenge #3: Managing stress
Exercise has been a useful tool for reducing stress and helping me regulate my sleep. I know it seems obvious, but it's a hard lesson learned. You don't move around as much when you work from home. I purchased a standing desk, thinking it would help. It does, but it's still not enough.
A few years ago, I started playing basketball during my lunchtime at a nearby gym. It's been great for my mental and physical health. It's also been good socially since I'm very isolated most of the day. If I'm just working out, I'm still thinking about work. Basketball (or any sport) forces you to think about the game, so it's a nice mental break too.
+ Go for a walk at lunch
+ Play a sport
+ Stream some yoga/workout and follow along
+ Take breaks to stretch, and play some videogames
Challenge #4: My workspace doesn’t work
It's important to make sure the office has one purpose. I used to live in a small condo, and my desk was shoved in the corner of our living room. It was tough to stay focused on work when my wife was watching TV next to me. If you can't help it, a good pair of headphones helps in that situation.
You have to keep your office organized. I keep the tools I need within arm’s reach and surround myself with posters and artwork. Mathew Encina has a great video where he breaks down his home office - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JFqiSr9A-Go
Access to a render farm was a huge issue early on. There are a lot of options for rendering nowadays, but I mostly use my GPU's or online services like PixelPlow.
+ Create a designated workspace
+ Get a good office chair
+ Get a good headset to block out your surroundings
Amador is a director, designer, animator and founder of Black Book Studio. He started his career in the broadcast industry and has worked with many of the top studios around the country, creating commercials for brands like Bose, GE, Target, EA, Reeces, Samsung, Budweiser, Key Bank, and more.
In 2014, after many years of working as an independent freelancer, he launched Black Book Studio, which focuses on design & animation for the entertainment, advertising, and independent entrepreneur communities. Their clients include large advertising agencies, film studios, and city museums to smaller brands and Kickstarter inventors.
Recently Amador has been collaborating with Filmograph in LA to design and animate opening titles on feature films like John Wick, Aquaman, Fast and Furious, Pirates of the Caribbean, Insidious, Sinister, and others. You can see his work at https://blackbook.studio