Working from home can be a blessing or a curse—mostly a blessing.
Through almost a quarter-century of working mostly from home, I’ve developed productivity tricks and techniques. Here are my top 15:
1. Have a dedicated workspace. You don’t need a separate room, but you do need a dedicated space. It shouldn’t be in the basement (too dark and depressing), and ideally it shouldn’t be in your bedroom, either. Follow the principle that you shouldn’t sleep where you work. If worse comes to worst, set up a table in a corner of your living room or take over your kitchen or dining room table during business hours. Use a special table mat or some props (reference books?) to show it’s your working time.
2. Get dressed. You don’t need to wear a suit or heels, but you do have to shower and get dressed. You want to give yourself the message that it’s time for work, not time to schlub around the house. Some experts suggest you should dress as though you’re expecting a video call from an important client. I don’t go quite that far but I do always wear something reasonable, including shoes. Every once in a while, when I have a 6 or 7 a.m. meeting with a client from another continent, I’ll dress like a TV anchor—from the waist up. I’ll wear earrings and a nice blouse paired with my PJ bottoms, which the client can’t see as I’m sitting. This outfit always sends my family into hysterical laughter.
3. Use time blocking to structure your day. My productivity took a huge leap as soon as I started using time blocking. Each morning I take five minutes to plan. First, I decide my three to five priorities for that day. Then, I schedule when I’m going to do them by entering my tasks (not just meetings, but tasks) into a daily calendar divided into 30-minute chunks.
4. Try the pomodoro technique. I love the pomodoro—a productivity tool—for speeding up my writing. As I’m writing this post for example, I hear a timer tick-tocking, alerting me that I have x number of minutes to finish. The sound of a ticking clock is gently alarming—sort of like bomb needing to be defused in a TV thriller. My timer keeps me focused and on task, without having to feel sorry for myself.
5. Pretend you’re not home. When I started working from home, I felt like a sitting duck for neighbors and real estate agents. Quickly, I learned that I needed to refuse to answer the door and the home phone. (Couriers can leave packages by the front door.) My family knows that if they need to reach me quickly, they should call my office line or text my cell. Everything else can wait until after-business hours.
6. Get noise-canceling headphones. The best (and most expensive) headphones are made by Bose. I replaced my 15-year-old pair last spring, and the new ones are even lighter and more flexible (and rechargeable). They are perfect for airplane travel. If you’re low on cash, a less expensive solution is a pair of gun muffs. You can get them from Amazon for as little as $11. (Thanks to my friend Casey for this great suggestion.)
7. Maintain your social connections. When you’re working in an office, you usually have plenty of co-workers with whom you can chat. This does not happen at home, so be more assertive and organized about setting up social time for yourself. I try to meet people for coffee or lunch fairly regularly, and these social connections allow me to feel well connected and not isolated.
8. Be clear about your working hours. I start my day around 6:30 a.m. with at least 30 minutes of exercise. After that, I’ll go straight to writing if I’m working on a book. Otherwise, I take another 30 minutes or so to plan my day. Given things like doctor/dentist appointments during working hours, or grocery shopping, or trips to the library, I often don’t quit work until about 6 p.m. When I started the work-from-home life, I worked every weekend. Now I never do writing work during weekends or evenings, though on Sundays, I’ll often have one or two video meetings with clients.
9. Use video apps. Technology has given us some tremendous ways to connect with colleagues and clients. I like GoToMeeting but it costs me about $30 a month. If that’s outside your budget, you can use Skype, Zoom or Facetime, all of which are free.
10. Get some exercise. Now that you’re working from home, use what was formerly your commuting time for exercise. Not only will it make you healthier, it’ll also give your creativity a boost. I used to go outside for walks several times a day. Now, however, I have a treadmill desk that allows me to walk while I write. In rainy Vancouver, I appreciate not having to put on Gortex when I want to get my feet moving.
11. Avoid social media (unless that’s your job). I’ve never developed a taste for Facebook, so I steer clear of that app. My time on Twitter is a bit more interesting to me, but I have no difficulty constraining it to 10 minutes at the end of every day. If you find social media, download a tool to keep you focused. Freedom or Cold Turkey provide external self-control by blocking you from internet-based temptations for specific time windows.
12. Work when you’re most productive. One major benefit of working from home is the ability to schedule your day around your own productivity. I’m a morning lark, so I like writing best in the morning. As a result, I try to do all my writing before 11 a.m. I tend to “sag” a bit between 1 and 3 p.m., so I try to do busy work or schedule meetings then. Both these tasks are fun enough to keep me energized.
13. Do your hardest work first. Even if you’re a night owl, try to do your hardest work first. This is not an energy-related tip; it’s a psychological one. If you accomplish something difficult before noon, you’re going to feel happy and proud of yourself. This elation will help carry you through the day, making you even more productive.
14. Tell your family about your expectations. It’s always important to communicate with those you love about what you’re trying to do. Don’t expect them to read your mind. If you want to work from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. without interruption, tell your family that. If you need to work one evening a week, get their buy-in.
15. Don’t work all the time. Working from home is not an excuse for endless work. You want your home office lifestyle to be sustainable. If you’re working a 70-hour week (or feeling guilty about not working more), you haven’t developed a viable work habit.
This post first appeared on The Publication Coach blog.