When I started working at home this year, it was a little rocky from the outset. I have always been a rock star at work and a slouch at home – putting in long hours, being crazy productive, and then coming home to lie around in my own filth because I just could not deal with laundry or dishes (or pants). Dialing back my hours, adding a baby to the mix (which forced me to up my housekeeping game to keep her from choking on various floor debris) and blurring the lines between work and home life at first caused me to dissolve into a stressed-out and ineffective puddle of goo.
But now I’ve got some systems down and I’m back to being a work rock star – in fewer hours than it used to take me to do the same amount of work in an office. And now I can do those pesky dishes on my lunch break. Score!
Here are the main strategies that help me be an effective human being while working from home:
- Prepare to work
When working from home, it can be tempting to just plop down on the couch with a laptop and your jammies and get down to business. Let’s be real: you are not at your best when you’re still reeking of night sweat and dripping your Cheerio milk on your keyboard. Your work can wait for 30 minutes while you shower, get dressed, make a coffee, and have a healthy breakfast. Then, sit down focused and ready for business. Business business.
- Make a short to-do list
Start by picking 2-3 important tasks you want to finish today. By outlining your main priorities first thing in the morning, you’ll be more likely to accomplish what’s important rather than just getting carried along by the momentum of your day. This is especially important when you’re working at home and the momentum of your day could just mean taking pictures of your cat all day.
- Break up your day into 30-minute chunks
When I first started working from home, and maybe even more so back when I worked in an office, my time seemed to just kind of evaporate. All the little distractions and reactive tasks (like responding to emails and taking phone calls) would often add up to one big eight hour day of no real progress on larger projects. Now I ensure I make real progress by carving out half-hour chunks of time where I force myself to stay on one task. No email-glancing, no Facebook-checking, no wandering over to the espresso machine. 30 minutes is the sweet spot of my attention span. Close some tabs, set a timer, and buckle down for some task annihilation.
- Make a list of “bonus tasks”
Between my 30-minute task annihilation windows, I like to get up, stretch my legs, and do something else for a change of pace. I jot down a little “bonus task” list at the beginning of each day (in addition to my short to-do list of my real goals for the day) and knock them out only if I feel like it and have time to spare. Bonus tasks for me are usually unrelated to work: recurring ones are putting laundry in, unloading/loading the dishwasher, watering plants, and taking out the garbage. Quick but productive tasks like that make me feel like I’m on top of things and keeps the momentum of my day going if my motivation for my project is starting to flag.
- Go with the flow
Often my 30-minute timer will go off and I’ll still be completely absorbed in the task I’m doing. In that case, I quickly evaluate whether I need a break or can go another 30 minutes of full focus. If it’s the latter, and I’m working on something that is truly important (and not just becoming overly focussed on something trivial), I take advantage of the fact that I’m in the mood to get it done and simply start the timer again.
- Eliminate distractions
This seems obvious, but maybe isn’t. Leave the TV off. Close your extra browser tabs. Even stuff related to work can be problematic; I find it extremely helpful to close my email, skype, etc. except for short designated times to deal with it. Otherwise it’s way too easy to fall into a pattern of interrupting your work every five minutes to respond to a non-urgent email. If your job allows it (mine sadly does not), you may even want to turn off your phone. Or at least turn the ringer on but place it out of reach.
- Schedule Breaks
It’s easy to dismiss the need for breaks when you work from home, but they’re still important to keep your brain functioning. If a trip to the kitchen to grab a frozen burrito isn’t enough to get you refreshed and re-energized, head outside for a quick walk to get the juices flowing again. If it’s the dead of winter and you’d sooner die than step outside of your warm home, then maybe just plop down on the couch with a book and a fresh cup of coffee for 20 minutes.
- Listen to music (but don’t play DJ)
Music is awesome for focus, except when it’s not. Resist the urge to play DJ and hand pick every song you listen to on the fly. Either create a perfect work playlist ahead of time and just let it play, or throw on a playlist or radio station and accept that not every song will be exactly what you want to hear at any given moment. Make a strict rule that when you’re in a 30-minute “focus block” you will not open your Spotify window.
Got more tips? Please do share in the comments; I’m always game for some new strategies to get more done!