“Pandemic” has been voted the word of 2020 – but if we were to choose the phrase that best describes the year we’re about to leave behind, my vote would certainly be cast in favor of “working from home.”
I’ve watched friends, family members, and neighbors struggle with settling into their home offices and coming to terms with this new way of doing things. I’ve been consulted on more than one occasion about the best ways to formulate routines and habits. I’ve even ventured into a couple of homes (while social distancing and wearing full-on protective gear) to set up home computers, webcams, and printers.
As someone who has been working from home for over a decade – always by choice – I find myself at an advantage I never thought I’d have. And while I would certainly never trade my home office for a city office, I’ve never expected to be envied for my experience in the field.
Today I am here to hopefully help you learn some of my work-from-home lessons. And even if the world returns to regular offices in the spring, these lessons should still be valuable for years to come.
Let’s cut to the chase:
Set Up a Dedicated Office Space
Your first step towards working from home success is setting up a functional workspace for yourself.
I can already hear you saying “But I don’t have an office or a spare room I can use to just work from.”
Neither do I.
The aim of the dedicated workspace is to get you into work mode. Its purpose is to trigger a response from your mind and body that says “I’m no longer at home; I’m at work.”
If you can, set up a space for yourself where you will just work. If you’re working at your dining table, sit on a specific chair, and don’t ever sit there for anything other than to work.
Buy yourself a lamp that you only turn on when you are working. Use a laptop only for work, and don’t do anything personal from it (no social media, no reading the news).
Your brain will learn to associate these items and actions with going to work, and you’ll notice you have a much easier time slipping into the zone.
Also do your best to make your office space a place you actually enjoy spending time in. If you hate your desk and the chair is uncomfortable, if you find it’s dark and dingy and you can’t wait to leave – you won’t actually be jumping for joy to come to work, will you?
Since this is also your home, try to tie the decor in – add a photo or a print you like, choose the comfiest possible chair, ensure there is plenty of natural light, get yourself a nice plant (a faux one will do too).
Try to set things up so that you don’t have to assemble and disassemble your work setup every day – even if it just means leaving your laptop at a certain place every evening.
Set a Schedule and Stick to It
Once you have your office and have settled in nicely, you want to take some time to consider the other element of working from home productivity: time management.
My best tip in this regard is very simple: set a schedule and just stick to the schedule.
There will be days when, for one reason or another, you need to not stick to the schedule. I’m not saying “carve the schedule in stone” – I’m just pointing out that you will need some structure.
Parkinson’s Law states that we will adjust the time we need to complete a task to the time we have available. This usually means that if we have set ourselves an hour to get something done, we will fill that entire hour with the task at hand. Even if we could have actually finished in 30 minutes.
At home, we tend to work longer hours than we would at the office. True, we can be more productive at home as well, but we tend to drag things out more than we tend to be super-productive.
I blame it on the fact that there is nowhere else we need to be. We don’t need to go to work; we are there. We don’t need to get home; we’re home.
What you can do to combat this paradox is simple: give yourself less time. If you think you need an hour, give yourself 45 minutes.
This especially goes for things like emails – you don’t need 30 minutes in the morning for that. Ten might be just enough.
I should also point out that reworking your schedule so that it meets your mood is highly advisable. If you are feeling particularly creative, but you’ve allotted yourself time to write in the afternoon, do it now instead of later. Monitor how you are feeling, and be mindful of what you feel like doing.
Also, don’t leave the worst for later. You won’t get to it, and you’ll find it very easy to just leave it for another day – when you’ll find it even harder to get started.
Take Regular Breaks
I know a lot of people working from home use the Pomodoro technique to schedule breaks.
And while it should definitely work really well with your attempt to quell Parkinson’s Law – I find that sometimes I don’t want to take a break at the 25-minute mark.
Sometimes I want to work for 45 minutes and then get up.
As long as you adopt the elements of the Pomodoro that fit into your life – taking regularly scheduled breaks – and allot them so that they fit your work dynamic, you should be golden.
Don’t skip brakes. You can postpone them for a bit, but you need all of them.
When taking a break from work, get up, every time. Don’t stare at a video or the news.
You can do some light stretches, you can take a walk during your longer break, you can even do a bit of the housework – anything that will get your body moving and that will let your mind step away from work for a bit.
Take Care of Your Health
Working from home is a lonely affair. It can be incredibly isolating, especially if you also live alone. And if you don’t make a conscious effort to maintain your mental and physical health, it can also be quite detrimental to both.
Start by sleeping well. No, you will not get more done if you sleep less. On the contrary, the better you sleep, the more you will be able to get done in a day. Trust me, I’ve tried to sleep five or six hours a night – it is not worth it. And you feel awful.
Eat right and exercise every day. I know most journals will tell you 150 minutes of exercise per week, which is roughly five sessions, each lasting 30 minutes. I say, do something every day – you need the movement.
It doesn’t need to be something particularly vigorous. You can do activities like yoga, stretching, and walking 2-3 times a week, while you do something a bit more demanding the rest of the time.
And most importantly – don’t forget to socialize. In person, if you can. If that’s not available, talk with friends and family over the phone, and not over video call. You need to take a break from the pixels.
The closer you are to other human beings, the less likely you will be to burn out. If it helps, consider socializing a part of your daily routine and a part of your job.
People who work from home like to meet other people who work from home, which can be your place to start getting to know new faces. Try to work on connections that focus on more than just work. Although I know that us entrepreneurs love to talk about our jobs, we still need to focus on other things to help our minds rest.
Try looking at working from home as what it truly is – a magnificent chance to live the life you want to live, according to your own rules. Adjust your schedule and habits to fit you and who you want to be.
Be aware of the negatives and find a way to prevent and work with them – there will be slumps for sure, but accepting them is half the battle won. Shrug them off and move on, still in your pajamas if you have to.