Working from home has long been the dream of many: pajamas all day, cups of tea without having to use the weird work kettle and not to mention the minimal commute! Right? Or is working from home actually fun for three days and then a real blow to your motivation? We get you—here at Tokyo Cheapo we’ve been remote all along and know it isn’t always as easy as people think.

Working from home Japan laptop desk
Photo by istock.com/delmaine-donson

It takes time to adjust to being in charge of your own work schedule and a global pandemic carrying on in the background is pretty much as distracting as it gets (possibly as much as children). So, we have put our heads together (remotely, of course) to help you with our guide to going digital—from the best apps to some hard-learned lessons in self-discipline and motivation.

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Before we begin

Like many of the remote working guides in existence, there’s a lot in here about creating schedules, weird Pomodoro techniques and managing productivity, which can start to sound pretty stressful. We also know that life is stressful enough right now and that adapting to a new version of your life is hard. Take our suggestions as exactly that—don’t try them all, just see which suit you, because even outside of a pandemic, everyone is different. Get dressed if it helps, stay in pajamas if that does. There have to be perks to working from home, and you can pick yours. You can also skip to the end to see our best tips on looking after yourself while working at home.

1. Your home office: Optimize that kitchen table!

Home Office
This is EXACTLY what our home offices look like… | Photo by istock.com/shironosov

If you’re lucky enough to have an actual home office in your home,cool. If not (and that’s quite likely in the land of tiny Japanese apartments), then you will have to make some adjustments. Having an allocated work space helps you get into “work mode”, even if it’s just a specific chair at your dining table.



We’re not saying you have to stay chained to your desk all day. There have to be some perks to working from home, and the sofa is one of them! However, settling into your new work station first thing in the morning can help set you up for a productive day at work.

  • Get ergonomic: Take the time to make your workspace as good for your neck and back as possible. Whether this means investing in a good chair, choosing a laptop stand (personally recommend Moft) or getting a standing desk set up, it will be worth it.
  • Location, location, location: Try and place your workspace somewhere bright and airy to keep your mood up. Being near a window or balcony door you can open is ideal.
  • Try a change of scenery: If you like to move around or don’t have a desk, try a laptop table—you can use them on the sofa, bed or even outside. They’re better for your back than balancing a laptop on your knees and it helps you stay in work mode.
  • Aim for privacy: If you’re sharing space with other workers (or non-workers), then try to carve out your own areas. “Meeting up” for a mid-morning coffee break can be more refreshing. Working nearby with headphones can work just as well if you don’t have separate rooms to stick to.
  • Changes extend to your screen too: Our social media master Amanda suggests using dark mode for everything: “It’s so much easier on your eyes and it makes you look like a hacker.” Solid advice.

2. Virtual tools: Apps to save the day

Working on laptop Calendar
Photo by istock.com/Rawpixel

Unless you’re an old-school poet, you’re likely to be working on a computer, and that means you have access to the world of work apps. Whether you’re working with a team and need to keep in touch, want a little help managing your time or need to organize your projects and tasks, there are plenty to help you out. We’ve got a few suggestions below, so try out a couple to find the ones that work best for you.

  • Staying connected – Slack: If your team’s email chains are getting ridiculous, try one of the chat apps like Slack. There are a variety of plans depending on your needs and a free version which offers the basic elements. You can have separate channels for your different teams and topics as well as private messaging between members.
  • Task management – Asana, Trello: Keeping track of projects be it in a team or on your own can be a bit daunting, but task managers are here to help. We use Asana—it has boards to plan ideas, allows you to set deadlines and tag people and integrates with different apps.
  • Time management – Clockify, Toggl, Pomodoro apps: Tracking your hours helps both mentally and practically as it provides structure and a visible record of what you’ve done. Clockify and Toggl are two of the simplest options (no mouse tracking or screen spying here). You simply start the clock, set a project and it adds up your daily/weekly/monthly/project-connected hours for you. There are also specific Pomodoro method apps with scheduled breaks if you want to give that a go.

3. Productivity and motivation: Routine is key

The main difference between working in an office and working from home is that your presence doesn’t automatically equate to working (cue outrage from defensive office workers, but we all know how it is). You might find that your productivity is now under a little more scrutiny both from your boss (if you have one) and yourself, which can be quite stressful—especially if it’s something you haven’t had to focus on before. Using your time effectively and staying motivated to do so are the hardest parts of being remote (and especially freelance), but it’s just a matter of finding what works best for you.

  • Design a routine: It’s easy to say, difficult to do, but vitally important to maintain. Routines sound boring, but after three days of your workload crashing into your evening, you might want a little structure back in your life. Design one, include breaks, be reasonable and just stick to it. You’ll get your work done and you’ll be able to relax when your working day is (officially) over.
  • Get app happy: We suggested a few above, but the time management ones are especially great for motivation and keeping on track. Play with the timer settings for your new Pomodoro technique, try a timer for your hours and let the computer watch the clock for you.
  • Avoid the bed-to-desk transition: As tempting as it is to move from one to the other, it doesn’t do you many favors. Our editor-in-chief says, “Don’t wake up and immediately start working. Give yourself at least a 30-minute buffer to wake up/read/get coffee/water your plants/do a crossword.
  • Destroy those distractions: Save your Facebook scrolling for a break or delete the app entirely—it’s down to your inner strength. Personally, I throw my phone out of reach, as my willingness to get up is mildly weaker than my desire to check Instagram, but whatever works for you.
  • Maximize your breaks: The key to good work is having a fresh mind, and for that you need to give it a break. Use your five-minute slots and longer stretches to practice a new language, do a household task for extra accomplishment points, or read a little. Try to move around and get away from the screen. Lastly, we suggest checking out our Lockdown Library series for some reading suggestions to tempt you away from Netlfix!

4. Team work makes the…day bearable?

Managing a team or being part of one when you go remote can present a whole bunch of new challenges. Just when you get your own Pomodoro timings perfect and your mid-morning yoga routine in place, there’s a call from Gary in marketing trying to pick your brain on the new proposal font. On the other hand, you can really start to miss those coffee breaks and chats at lunch. Remote teamwork is a different battle, requiring contact channels, schedules and rules, rules, rules. Ok we’re not tyrants, but rules are important. Accepting that everyone works differently and still needs to be part of the team is a tricky balance, but we have some tips.

  • Decide which contact channels to use and what they will be used for: As an example, consider having a channel for formal tasks (like Asana), a casual one for discussing ideas or asking questions (like Slack) and one for sending information that needs to be retained (like email).
  • Choose working hours: If you work for a regular 9-to-5 company, make sure everyone switches off at 5 pm. Working from home makes it easier to fall into a patchy work routine, which isn’t good for motivation or productivity. Flexible working, however, can work well—it just needs to be agreed upon in advance. Establish set working hours visible to colleagues, set apps to snooze when you’re offline and don’t be tempted to reply!
  • Keep connected: Whether it’s a daily coffee break on Zoom or a weekly stand-up chat to keep up to date wih everyone’s projects, it helps to see and hear people every now and then. Don’t go overboard though—set time limits for meetings and stick to them. This is also the ultimate time to learn which meetings could have been emails.
  • Separate your personal and work chat: Even if you’re best friends with your colleagues. Blurring the lines can make it hard to ignore social media during work hours and vice versa. Since you’re already bringing work to your home, you need to be extra careful with your digital borders.

5. Japan-specific challenges: From tiny homes to teleworking

working in a Japanese Apartment
Photo by istock.com/monzenmachi

Doing all of the above, but in Japan, can come with its own additional issues. Companies here are largely unfamiliar (and often deeply suspicious) of “teleworking” and have minimal systems in place for it. Also, apartments here are small—and we mean small, like one room small. However, they do have the benefit of balconies, so, you know, silver linings and all.

  • Be forgiving but firm: Remember, your company is probably new to this too, which means there will be teething problems and boundaries will be tested. Be strict about issues like contact outside of set work hours. Japanese work culture makes overtime seem normal, but it’s a slippery slope, so set your hours and be clear that you won’t check/respond to messages sent afterwards.
  • Try to shape the system: We know Japanese firms aren’t exactly open to change a lot of the time, but why not give it a shot. Teleworking is still weirdly new here, so you could attempt to help shape the protocol. As remote work is seen as a distinctly foreign habit, expats might be given a little more room to contribute. Take those gains where you can. Plus, if they say no, at least there’s no awkward atmosphere to endure.
  • Working from a 1LDK: So there’s not exactly room for a home office in most apartments here, but all the more reason to make adjustments. If you can invest in a desk and chair, do so. Make the use of your balcony, fold up your futon so you physically cannot get back in it and walk around the block if you need some air.

Have any tips about working from home in Japan? Tweet us @TokyoCheapo.

6. Look after yourself!

Balcony reading working from home japan
Photo by istock.com/in4mal

Like we said, these are pretty unusual times. Whether you’re working from home for the first time or a seasoned veteran, it’s going to be difficult. Your company might be new to this and make some mistakes. There’s the added pressure of navigating through financial uncertainty, losing your social life and trying to think of another pub quiz round. It’s a lot, so you need to be kind to yourself. You may not learn seven new languages or become a yoga instructor, but that’s cool. Do what you can, because in a global pandemic that’s enough.

Team tips:

  • Keep moving: While commuting sucks, it does mean actually leaving the house and using your feet—an activity that needs to be replaced when your new commute is about two feet. Try out some home workout videos, do some morning yoga to stretch out and keep your back happy.
  • Go outside: Depending on the severity of your lockdown/work schedule, try to get outside every day if you can. Even if it’s sitting in the sun on your front step for half an hour over lunch, or finally using that tiny balcony. Fresh air and vitamin D are great for boosting your mood.
  • Consider getting company. If you live alone, you’re about to get (as my a certain mother may have put it) “alone, alone”. Rehoming a cat could be puuuurfect as you have plenty of time to spend with your new pal, but small animals like fish also provide some company (and distraction). Of course, be responsible—pets aren’t just for government-enforced lockdowns, so be sure you can care for them properly and post-lockdown.
  • Get refreshed: “Use sheet masks (the beauty kind, not the surgical kind)—and often. It takes care of your irritated skin from wearing surgical face masks too much and stops you from eating or talking during work—doubly effective” – Maggie, currently leading our HK Cheapo site from her home office in Hong Kong
  • Seek out support: If you’re feeling overwhelmed then don’t hesitate to seek out help from professionals. Social distancing and isolation are extreme experiences and with the loss of support networks they can take a real toll on your mental health. Working, job hunting, managing daily life and dealing with a pandemic is a lot, so cut yourself some slack and reach out when you need to. Have a read of our guide on mental health support available in Japan.
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