There are a lot of people all over the world that are suddenly adjusting to working from home. It can be a major shift from working in an office or even from working at a library or cafe, as some do. It’s a major change, shifting from an environment with lots of coworkers and a frequently-present boss to working in an environment where you’re by yourself most of the time with occasional contact with coworkers and supervisors via phone calls, videoconferences and other forms of digital communication.
I’ve been working from home for twelve years and, along the way, I’ve learned a lot of things about how to do it effectively. What follows is something of a “beginner’s guide” to working from home, collecting together much of what I’ve learned over the years.
Let’s dig in.
Designate a “start time” and a “stop time.”
It’s absolutely vital that you have borders on your work time at home, for a whole bunch of reasons.
The big reason is that having clear start and end times prevents work from bleeding into the rest of your life and just completely taking over your time. Without those borders, it’s easy to gradually become a workaholic. Trust me — I know this from painful experience. Even worse, if you go through a workaholic period, it’s very likely that things will snap the other way and you’ll find yourself completely burnt out and procrastinating everything, which is perhaps even worse.
Beyond that, having clear start and end times provides good cues for the other people in your life. This isn’t as important if you’re at home by yourself, but if you have others in your family living with you, it’s very useful for them to know when you’re going to start working and when you’re going to stop working, so that they know when you can easily be interrupted and when they need to leave you alone.
For example, I can clearly say to my children that I’ll be working from 9 a.m. to noon each day, eat lunch with them, and then be working from 1 to 5 p.m. each day. They can watch the clock and know when their dad will be available to them and when to leave him alone so he can get work done.
Having clear start and stop times also provides a good mental transition for you, something I’m going to get back to in a bit. Knowing that you’re “on the clock” during those hours means that you know, at any given point in the day, where your mind should be focused. You also have a clear idea when you should be wrapping things up.
Here are some good suggestions for choosing start and end times.
Make sure that the times encompass any periods when you will need to communicate with coworkers. If there are regular meetings or phone calls during the day, make sure that your working hours include those meetings.
Be aware of your own energy levels and times of peak focus. Some people are “morning people” — I’m definitely one of them. Others are evening people or even nighttime people. You are going to find working from home most effective if at least some of your working time is in your personal time of best focus. In other words, if you feel like there are mashed potatoes in your head in the mornings, don’t have your work time in the mornings. Do other things in the morning, and get down to work when you’re better able to focus.
Be aware of the sleep schedules and routines of others who live with you. This doesn’t mean that you should work while they’re sleeping or anything like that, but knowing when they’re likely to be loud and to want to interact with you is really useful when figuring out start and end times.
Incorporate breaks. I take a roughly 10-minute break every hour to refill my water, stretch a little, go to the bathroom and look at distracting things for five minutes. I don’t set an alarm for this, but I simply do it at the top of each hour. That way, if I get into a “zone” and am really focused on my work, alarms don’t disrupt me and I can keep working until my focus breaks.
I also usually have a longer break about halfway through the day. For me, that usually means lunchtime, along with some sort of quick break activity, which might be a short game with my kids, some exercise or simply reading a chapter or two of a book.
Create a specific workspace in your home
Much like how it’s useful to have a distinct workday schedule where you’re working during certain hours, it’s also very useful to have a distinct workspace in your home, a place where you sit (or stand) when working that you generally don’t use for any other purpose.
Having that kind of distinct workspace becomes a mental trigger of sorts, so when you’re at this spot, you’re supposed to be working. The reverse is, of course, true — when you’re not at that spot, you’re not working.
I have two workspaces in my home. One is a standing desk in the basement, while the other is a chair on the main floor near some windows. I generally only spend time in those spots if I’m working (I do occasionally sit in the sunny chair, but I’m almost never at my standing desk outside of work time). When I’m in those spots, work is what I’m focused on. I just know, because of where I’m at, that I need to be working.
It’s worth noting that your workspace doesn’t have to be a permanent desk with tons of materials all over the place. I actually keep most of my work materials, aside from my computer, in a backpack that I call my “portable office,” which goes with me wherever I need it. Consider keeping all of your work materials in a bag or other container so that they don’t dominate table space in your home. I’ll mention this again in a bit.
Here’s how to find a good workspace for you.
- Identify a spot with adequate table space where you can sit (or stand) comfortably, but you don’t normally spend time. Don’t choose your favorite comfortable chair or your favorite spot on the couch. It is so easy in those places to fall back on “home” routines like turning on Netflix, picking up a book or messing with your phone.
- Try to choose a spot with at least some natural light. Even just a little natural light can make an area feel a lot more energetic. Working in a spot with no natural light can feel quite draining, especially after several hours of work.
- If you can, find a spot where you can close a door and be at least somewhat isolated from the other goings-on in your home. This isn’t a make-or-break factor, but it is a pretty big positive. Having a place where you can go to work where you simply close a door to be left alone is beneficial for both you and the others in your home.
- Give that spot a “trial run” for a day or two and see how it works. You don’t have to choose the perfect spot right away. Choose a spot that seems good and give it a trial run for a day or two. If it works, stick with it. If it doesn’t, try a different spot.
Create routine that transitions you from working to relaxing
It’s really important to have a mindset that you’re “working” now and you’re not just at home, or else you will find yourself constantly drawn into domestic tasks and distractions. Just like your mindset used to switch when you went to work, your mindset still needs to switch even though you’re not changing locations.
In my previous professional life, my commute was my big step in transitioning from a “home” mindset to a “work” mindset, but when you work from home, you don’t have that commute anymore. You need to find something to replace that mindset switch.
Here are some common elements of “home” to “work” transitions, many of which I use.
- Get dressed in a professional way. Yes, it’s really tempting to just work in your pajamas, but it does not cultivate a mindset of professional work. Often, your best work is done in a purely “work” mindset, and it’s likely that one of the cues you’ve built up in your life is that dressing for work is one of those mental transitions, so stick with it. Dress as you would for a normal day at work.
- Take a beverage (or two) to your workspace. One of the last things I do before I start a work session is to bring a beverage to where I’m going to work. It’s usually a big plastic cup full of water for me, along with a smaller cup of coffee.
- Set up your work environment in the way you want it. For me, this means getting my tablet set up as a side screen, starting up my to-do list app on that side computer, turning lots of things into “do not disturb” mode, and, as a last step, opening up my email. I get everything situated just as I want it to be.
The key is to make sure that you do these little things each day, not only to get ready for the day, but to serve as a mental signal to yourself that it’s time to switch from “home life” to “work life.”
Similarly, it’s good to have a few things you do each day to signify the transition back from a work mindset to a home mindset.
Do a final review of your to-do list. Go through your to-do list and calendar and make sure there isn’t anything else that needs to be done.
Set up things so that you can easily pick up your work tomorrow. Figure out what you’ll work on first tomorrow and take the initial steps so that sliding into that task is really easy. For me, I usually find it’s good to leave an outlined article for tomorrow.
Clean up your work area. Pack up your stuff and get it out of the way so that it’s not taking up table space and is “out of sight, out of mind.”
Again, these steps are useful in their own right, but they’re also valuable in terms of switching your mindset from “work” to “home.”
Plan meaningful leisure time each day.
Plan something truly enjoyable to do each evening, something you look forward to doing throughout the day, as a mental reward for staying on task.
I usually think of it in terms of my to-do list. For example, I’ll decide that if I take care of these four big to-do items today, I’ll spend an hour reading a book purely for fun, play a board game I’m excited to play or I’ll make a loaf of homemade bread. All of those are things that I personally deeply enjoy; you should think of your own things.
These should be distinct, relaxing activities that you enjoy, but something more than just channel surfing or web surfing or browsing social media or playing with your phone. Instead, think of something you’d really enjoy doing this evening and make that your target.
For example, as I’m writing this, my planned leisure for this evening — provided I take care of what needs to be done during my workday — is to spend 60 to 90 minutes playing an online game with a few friends. We’re going to turn on microphones and cameras and chat while playing a multiplayer online game. These are people that I normally hang out with on a weekly basis, but haven’t seen in a while, so I’m really looking forward to it. It’s my reward for getting the work done today, and having that fun when I know that I took care of business today makes it even easier to relax and just enjoy it.
Kill distractions, as many as you can.
Your home is chock full of distractions. (Of course, your workplace may have been full of them before, but the ones at home are different.) Your phone is a distraction. All of the fun things you might want to do at home are distractions. The internet is a distraction. The chores you need to get done around the house are a distraction. Distractions, everywhere.
Distractions are the absolute bane of getting work tasks done at home. The more distractions you have around that pull your attention away from work, the more time everything will take and the fewer things you’ll get done in a given day.
The solution, then, is to kill distractions, or at least as many as you can.
Here are some things that work really well for me in terms of killing and minimizing distractions while working.
- Optimize your phone for productivity, not distraction. The more distracting things you have on your phone, the easier it is for that phone to take you away from the tasks at hand. This recent article outlines the steps you can take to make your phone a lot less distracting.
- Engage “do not disturb” mode on your phone when working, or leave it in another room entirely. The only notifications that should come through on your phone when working are ones related to extremely urgent personal matters or important professional matters. Nothing else should be alerting or notifying you.
- Wear headphones and play audio that aids in focus. I like to listen to “white noise” audio on a pretty quiet setting. Household noises are distracting for me, as is music. I find this to be a really nice one to listen to.
- Add website blockers to your web browser. Depending on your web browser of choice, there are plugins that will completely block certain websites from being accessed during certain times of the day. Simply have your web browser block Twitter, Facebook or whatever distracts you most during your working hours.
- Start some household tasks before you start working. One thing that has always distracted me is household chores left undone. For me, it’s very effective to actually start some household tasks before I get going in the morning. We have a robot vacuum, so I’ll start that in one room. I’ll get a load of dishes going in the dishwasher, and a load of clothes going in the washing machine. I’ll start a meal in the slow cooker, get some dough ready to start rising or put some beans in water to soak them. For me, the sense that things are getting done in the house around me while I work strongly eases that distraction.
- If you can, work in a space where you can close the door and block out the rest of the activity in your home. As I noted earlier when describing a place to work, simply having the ability to somewhat isolate yourself from the goings-on of the rest of your household is really valuable. Not everyone has this, of course, but if you can work in a room that enables you to just close the door sometimes, it’s tremendously helpful. Get used to closing the door, too.
What if you have young children at home?
I’ve often had young children at home with me during various times of my work-at-home experience. Here’s what I learned along the way.
- Prioritize what actually needs to be done and discard the low-priority stuff. We all have tons and tons of things on our plate that we could be doing, but the reality of working with a young child present is that not everything needs to be done. If you can, prioritize the tasks on your plate and handle the top priority ones first. If you aren’t in a situation to prioritize your own tasks, talk to a supervisor and try to establish together what your highest priority tasks are. Try to identify what are the truly key things you need to get done each day and make them your focus, and if time works out so that you can handle the lower priority tasks, too, then take care of them, too.
- Don’t feel bad about supervised distraction of your kids. It’s not ideal to have your young child spend too much time in front of a screen, but these aren’t ideal times. If your child is content for 30 minutes playing an alphabet learning game on a tablet or watching a television show, let your child do so and use every second of that time to get important work done.
- Make sure that true downtime for your child — naps, things where they’re completely engaged — is met with the deepest work engagement you can muster. When your child is engrossed in a learning game or watching a movie or taking a nap, that is the time when you have to bear down as much as you possibly can on your important tasks. Lock out all other distractions (other than keeping an eye on your kid) and get those tasks done.
- Establish a short work block after the child is asleep for less intense tasks. Here’s the thing — if you’re not getting enough sleep yourself, you’re not going to be able to juggle all of this very well. You won’t be able to lock your focus when you need to, you won’t be able to prioritize well and all of this will fall apart. Give yourself a short work block after bedtime, but use it for low-intensity tasks and get yourself to bed. You’re better off skipping a few lower priority tasks than you are trying to do high priority tasks in a sleep-deprived state.
You can do this!
Working at home is hard, especially at first. The environment is new. All of the work routines are upset. You feel constantly distracted, both because of the new environment and because of the life changes that led to this point.
You can do this. I didn’t think I could pull this off at first, either, and my initial trials with working at home were disastrous. As I slowly began to put all of these strategies in place (mostly through gradual discovery of them for myself), it got easier and easier. It will for you, too.