Working from home has become a major trend among businesses that value flexibility. Startups have long understood the value of turning their talent loose to be productive in their own environments, and some traditional companies have also jumped on the bandwagon.
But getting things done from a home office isn’t a sure thing. You’ll be faced with a different set of challenges, topped by a never-ending line of distractions that are probably more fun than your job. The good news is that you can stay on top of your tasks with a little know-how and a little practice. These tips will help you get started with a productive home office.
1. Know How You Work Best
As alternative approaches to work become the norm, it’s important to do a little self-reflection and think about how you do your best work. When are you most motivated? What type of environment gets you inspired? Working at home gives you the chance to control more aspects of your job experience, so you can create a situation that will really help you excel.
Equally important is being honest about the kind of work you do. For those of you typing at a computer all day, make sure you have a setup that’s going to be kind to your back, hands, and wrists. If you field a heavy volume of phone calls, you’ll need a space where you can block out other noises. That means a kitchen table surrounded by your kids or a table at a bustling coffee shop are not going to be great fits for you. If you aren’t sure what your ideal work setup is, then try out new arrangements and see which ones resonate with you. Spend an afternoon at a cafe, or test a homemade standing desk before splurging on a fancy one.
With lots of new research and articles from The New York Times and Forbes about productivity, the one easy conclusion to draw is that work environments should be highly individual creations. No two people have the same brains or the same jobs, so it makes sense that we each respond best to different setups.
2. Eliminate Distractions
The big peril to working at home is the easy availability of other things to do. A full fridge, a video game console, and family or roommates can be a huge drain on your concentration.
The best approach to this for many people is to set a defined office. When you’re in your work space, you need to behave just as you would in a brick-and-mortar office with your boss just around the corner. That could mean dedicating a separate room for your work, or it could be as simple as a specific chair at your kitchen table. Again, know what will be most effective for you and your space. For people who can mastermind their powers of concentration, a separate home office may not be necessary.
Whatever you select for an office space, make sure that anything you need for work is within easy reach. It’s easy to fall into the trap of turning on the TV if you have to go into your living room frequently to get your tools. If you can remove the distractions from view, you’ll be less likely to succumb to the temptation to slack off.
3. Set (and Keep!) Your Hours
One of the reasons a classic 9-to-5 job isn’t ideal is that most people aren’t naturally at their sharpest and most productive during that entire time frame. But when you don’t have the pressure of an office environment, procrastination can be your worst enemy, especially if you work as an independent contractor and can set your own hours.
Fortunately, when you work from home you can be more realistic about when you do serious work. Morning people should plan to be on the ball in the a.m., night owls should crank out their projects regularly after dinner. Although many people use working remotely as a chance to break out of routines, habits can be a huge asset in maintaining your sanity at a home office. If you get in the practice of doing specific tasks at certain times, your mind will start to anticipate being productive. That further helps to cut down on the power of distractions.
Another solution is to build short breaks into your day. This is an ideal system for people who work best in brief, intense spurts. Put in a solid three or four hours on the job, then reward yourself with half an hour to make some tea or play FarmVille. The basic idea here started with the Pomodoro Technique, which can help train you to have better concentration over short periods. The perfect length of work time and break time varies by individual and by what type of work you’re trying to accomplish, but the concept of giving your brain and body time to relax is a great way to deal with the distractions of home. Just be sure that you stick to your time limits on working and on breaks.
4. Avoid App Dependence
Apps are great. They really are. But if you test out every new creation, you’ll soon find that your information has gotten spread out in a disorganized web of programs. You won’t be able to find key data or notes when you need them. Or you might miss an important deadline because you thought it was listed in a to-do list app you stopped using.
Especially for somebody who works at home, and thus needs to hawkishly manage time and tasks, it can be tempting to flit from one new app to another. They all promise to make your life better, and many of them do. But there’s no one-size-fits-all list of apps that will serve every person equally well.
So by all means do some experimenting and shopping around, but once you find a system that works well, then remember the old adage: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Apps and other new technology are tools. If they aren’t making your work better and easier, they aren’t worth using.
5. Get Out of the House
This may seem a little counterintuitive, but it’s essential that a home office worker takes some time to leave the house. Think about it: when you are working in an office building, you have some commute time, a lunch break, and maybe a happy hour outing. All that time is spent outside of your actual work space. And even when you are in the office, there might be a meeting in a conference room or a reason to go chat with people on other floors of the building. All those tasks happen in different places and give you a change of scenery or a chance for a break.
Those changes are much harder to come by when you spend your work hours at home. The commute is gone, and lunch and happy hour can happen in your own kitchen. It’s easy when you first start up a home office to never leave your house.
Even if your job and your personality are suited to solitary behavior, it’s important to create those little changes in environment. So fit a walk around the neighborhood or a trip to the gym into your routine. Run some errands or go around the corner for your morning coffee. Without those little events, your work and home life can start to blend into one.
6. Remember Why You Work
The final tip for staying on top of your tasks at a home office is to always come back to why you’re working in the first place. If you’re in a job that’s simply getting your bills paid, then remember that you still need to pay the rent or the mortgage on that home office of yours. Or, if you’re in a position that you’re passionate about, keep in mind the reasons why you love it. Think about what you want out of your job, and the goals you’ve set for yourself. Don’t lose sight of those aspirations, because more than any tip or tool, that’s what will keep you motivated.