You’re finally free to escape the confines of office and work in the freedom of your own home . . . but do you have what it takes to fight the distractions, self-structure your time, and stay productive?
Think back to your high school or college homework assignments. Remember those research or report projects? You received some guidelines and some direction, a topic, and a deadline—sometimes a few weeks down the line, possibly even a few months down the line—and, if you were lucky, you were turned loose from class to begin working.
If you’re anything like me, you didn’t leave class and hit the library—you went straight home and sprawled on the couch with a magazine. You thought, “I have weeks before I need to be finished with this; what’s a few days of freedom?”
And if you’re anything like me, those few days turned into a few weeks of freedom—and suddenly your deadline went from a few weeks out to a few days out. So you spent a few frantic nights parsing data, scribbling notes, and slapping yourself in the forehead and pulling something together, while classmates who had structured their time better were relaxing.
How to Work From Home
Working out of your home, in many respects, is like these longer projects with a few exceptions: (1) you probably have more personal responsibilities now than you did in high school, so you might have stronger, higher-priority temptations to battle than magazines or movies—kids, pets, friends, and so on—and (2) you might not have someone to structure your time for you or give you periodic mini-deadlines—and you might not even have any external deadlines at all, leading you to operate with the attitude that things will get done when they get done.
(Okay, and (3) you probably care a lot more about your new business than I did about my English assignments.)
If you’re of the scramble-before-the-deadline variety, don’t worry—you can trick your brain into an “office” thought process while enjoying all the benefits of working from home. Here’s how.
Maximize your space
You need to separate your workspace from your living space. You don’t need a lot of square footage to dedicate a portion of your home—you don’t even need a separate room. I live in a studio apartment (no doors!), and the first thing I did when I moved in was to map out where my workspace was going to be. I staked out a corner that takes the most advantage of the natural light. I walled off the space with a bookshelf. I bought the biggest desk I could afford to give myself room to spread out.
It isn’t so much recreating a cubicle work environment as it is adapting the cubicle model to your own purposes: you want your space to be big on organization, small on distraction. Make sure everything you’ll need for the day is easily accessible—nothing interrupts the flow of concentration like having to spend 20 minutes digging around for a calculator.
That big desk of yours? Don’t let it become just another place to keep stuff. I de-clutter mine almost daily. (With two humans and one dog, even without my bookshelf-cum-wall, any visitor would be able to tell in a heartbeat where I do my work simply by the border between clean and messy.) Regardless of where you fall on the Feng Shui debate, psychologists agree that it’s simply easier to concentrate if your surroundings aren’t giving you a sensory overload.
And speaking of bookshelves, especially if you’re like me and have days where you can get distracted by anything shiny, make sure that anything present on your bookshelf is something related to actual work—reference materials, resources, and the like—and relegate Tolkein, Clarke, and the rest of the gang somewhere out of your line of sight. I promise they won’t mind, and you won’t be tempted to spend an otherwise productive Thursday afternoon in Middle Earth.
Despite your best efforts to minimize distraction, forces outside your control could conspire against your productive day. Maybe your sidewalk suddenly became a construction workzone. Maybe the neighbors haven’t yet broken it to their kid that a future as a professional oboeist is not in the cards. If your cozy home workspace isn’t affording you the necessary protection against aurals assaults, slap on some headphones to help block out the world.
Your parents always told you that music is a distraction—but maybe your parents just weren’t listening to the right music.
Many people find it easiest to concentrate with music that doesn’t have invasive percussion or attention-grabbing lyrics—anything quiet and simple that fades into the background. If classical is your thing, go for it. I like Brian Eno’s Music For Airports. (If you find that too sleep-inducing, try Sigur Rós—unless you happen to speak Icelandic, the words will wash right over you.) Bring it on, neighborhood.
It’s your home office, not your home cubicle
Just because your workspace shouldn’t be an optical overload doesn’t mean it needs to feel sterile. Put up pictures of your family. Your goldfish. A sunset. The Enterprise. Justin Bieber. (We don’t judge.) Put a plant on your desk. Whatever motivates you and makes you feel empowered to take on your day.
If you can paint your walls, do it. Are you a jittery person? De-stress your workspace walls with a cool blue. Does it take more than a cup or two of coffee to get you going in the morning? Try yellow, or even orange. Not sure if something’s going to work out for you? Give it a shot anyway. There’s always more paint in the world, and you just might surprise yourself with how invigorated and focused you can be in your new home office.
Establish your boundaries
You wouldn’t show up uninvited to a friend’s busy insurance office for an impromptu chat over coffee (would you?), so don’t be afraid to lay down the law when it comes to your own time. The brilliance of working from home is that you’ll be around to sign for that FedEx delivery; the downside is that you’ll need to be firm with your friends and family and make it clear that if it’s not an emergency, it can wait until your hours of availability. “Working out of your home” doesn’t mean you’re home, it means you’re working.
Speaking of hours of availability—isn’t the whole point of working from home to avoid the dreaded nine-to-five? If your job allows, by all means, define your work hours however works best for you. If you find it easiest to focus in the evenings, embrace that. The time of day isn’t important—the boundaries are.
If your time is completely unstructured, you might find yourself gravitating to one extreme or the other—never getting anything done, or never giving yourself any time off. Hitting snooze a few extra times just because you can is one thing; spending the day shopping while casually reassuring yourself that you’ll make up the work is another.
On the other side of the spectrum, try not to fall into the trap of never letting go of your work. Give yourself a firm finish time for the day, and then stop. Make some dinner, pour yourself a glass of wine, congratulate yourself on a hard day’s work, and think about something else for the rest of the evening. There’s always tomorrow.