In 2012 I left a full time permanent job to go freelance, and I started working from home. I believed (and still do) that I could make more of a difference working with lots of different individuals, teams and organisations than being on the inside of a big, slow-moving establishment.
I remember how it felt when I first decided to work at home permanently.
Great in theory. Terrible in practice.
Working from home as your main way of operating is very different from having a permanent job and working from home occasionally to get a report, application or strategy paper done without interruption. The days span out ahead of you with so much to do, so many intentions, a million movable deadlines. You’re accountable to you. Who will find out if you don’t get dressed, if you eat all the Hobnobs or catch up on Netflix? I’ve learned that to successfully work at home, be productive and remain sane there’s some things that you need to put in place.
We’re all different and the first lesson is to find your own systems, routines and tactics that work for you. You might be choosing to work from home, or it might be something that is necessity because of the coronavirus situation. Either way, you have a choice. You can choose to make the most of the opportunity and do your best. Whether you’re a seasoned pro at working from home, or if you’re new to it, here’s some tips that I hope will help.
Have a routine
Get up at the same time each day. Get washed and dressed. Wear clothes, that if you had an unplanned video conference or if a client or colleague popped in for coffee would be acceptable. I don’t mean that you have to wear a suit, but you do have to wear something.
Start work at the same time each day. Sit at a desk. Give yourself breaks. The worst thing is to potter about putting off work doing ‘important’ tasks like washing, cleaning up, and sorting out your sock drawer. It’s fine to do these ‘important’ things as long as you start work on time. For me, I always feel like I’ve achieved if I’ve put a load of washing on – and my rule is that it must go on before I go on my fake commute (see below).
I’m a list lover. I write a list at the end of the previous working day of the most important tasks to do the following day. I re-assess the list first thing in the morning and then I force myself to do the priority tasks first. Don’t write a list of everything. It works best for me when I have three clear priority tasks. I mean tasks that are manageable. For example if you have to write a marketing plan, don’t write ‘Do marketing plan’ on your list. Break it down into smaller chunks. For example, you might start by 1. Get email response rates and web analytics 2. Analyse the email response rates 3. What can you learn from the results and how might that influence your email marketing going forward? The days when I don’t do this are not as productive as the days that I do. It’s that simple. However not always that easy.
Work in chunks of time
The Pomodoro Technique suggests breaking your time into 20 minute chunks. I know my concentration span is about 45 minutes. What’s yours? Start to experiment. Start a piece of work that you need to focus on. Set your timer for 20 minutes. Then gradually set the timer for longer. How long can you focus for? Find your optimum and then set a timer and break your work into chunks of your optimum size.
Turn off distractions
When you work from home there are, at any given moment about 17,000 distractions that take you away from the tasks you need to get done. Turn off all distractions. Turn off notifications on the million apps you have on your phone. Put your phone out of arms reach. Turn off your email. Get a task done on your list.. Then, and only then check your email, WhatsApp and your dogs Instagram. (Yes, Gary has his own page – check him out here!)
Work when you’re at your best
We’re all different. I know I do my best work first thing in the morning. I often get more done between 6am and 9am than the whole of the rest of the day. Think about how you work and make sure you schedule the hard work at the time of day you’re most productive. Then in those slump times, when you’re less productive, go for a walk, have a power nap or do some of the admin that you can do on autopilot.
Do a fake commute
I’m a big fan of the fake commute. Whether that’s a walk round the block via the local coffee shop or a stroll round the park or even for some the walk from the front door to the spot where you’re working – fake a commute. I think this is helpful for two reasons. Firstly, it signals the start of serious work, which, if you’re working from home can be tricky (especially if you’re not choosing to work from home, but it’s happened because of a necessity of the current coronavirus situation). Second, if you have a walk it gives you time to get your thoughts in order for the day and it’s a transition from non-work world to work world.
I don’t do a fake commute home. I’ve only just thought of it now as I’m writing this blog. Maybe I’ll give it a go.
Sit at a desk
It’s a lovely thought, loafing about on your sofa getting work done. However, in my experience it’s better to sit at a desk. Better for your posture. And also better for concentration. There’s advice about cordoning off a part of the house for ‘work’. I have an office in the spare bedroom, but I tend to work on the dining room table. Maybe because it’s nearer the kitchen, or maybe the light is better. I honestly don’t know. My tip is to work at a desk and work in the spot in the house that you feel most like working in.
Don’t have food that you can graze on in the cupboards
This is a very tricky one right now with people stockpiling food in preparation for self isolating and panic stories about supermarkets selling out of pasta, tomatoes and toilet rolls. (I’m not suggesting you eat toilet rolls) For me, if I have any food in the cupboard that I can pick at, snack at or in the case of cake ‘neaten up’ then its so distracting that I can’t concentrate until I’ve eaten it. And I can’t just eat one biscuit in the pack. The whole pack has to go. So, if this resonates with you, simply don’t have food that you can graze, pick or neaten in the cupboards.
Connect to other people every day
This is the most important tip. If you do nothing else take note of this one. Humans are social animals. We need connection. I’m an introvert. I like my own company. I’m happy alone. I’ve travelled on my own a lot and had a marvellous time. In fact, some of the worst experiences travelling alone involved being adopted by well meaning families who didn’t want to see me having dinner on my own.
However, extrovert or introvert, we’re fundamentally all social animals and need connection. I remember when I was new to working from home having a chat with a client on the phone. They were the first person I’d spoken to all day. They needed to get on with their work. I was asking them what their plans were for the weekend because I didn’t want to get off the phone! This was a problem!
If you’re working from home ensure that you have connection. Not on email or messenger. Have a conversation with another human being. Schedule at least one phone or video conference call with a colleague, friend or client each day. Talking to the dog/cat/guinea pig doesn’t count here. You need a two-way conversation.
I’m also running a free webinar on being happy and productive when working from home on Thursday 26 March at 12.30. Here’s your link to sign up.
And if you’d like to connect, please drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and we can book a time for a chat.
Take care x