How to Be Productive While Working from Home
I've had my fair share of experience working remotely. In fact for the past four years, working from home has been my primary way of working in full-time jobs.
And while I've worked from more than 20 coffee shops in the Seattle area alone, sometimes the task at hand requires me to be in a quiet environment: my home office.
I'm tremendously grateful that today's technology allows people to work from pretty much anywhere. Video conferencing software has made it possible to communicate and connect remotely, and cloud-based tools make it easy to manage and collaborate on documents in real time from afar.
That said, working from home isn't perfect, and it certainly isn't possible for every job. Plus, everyone has their own idea of what working from home actually means.
For example, when I would tell people that I primary worked from home, sometimes people would gush "you're sooooo lucky." Then they'd go on to tell me about the rare occasion when they worked from home, and how they spent the day watching Netflix or taking a several hours long mid-day break to run errands.
That has not been my experience of working from home. No, to me the description above sounds like a day off when you still check your work email. They're different.
If you want to be productive (and sane) while working from home, you need to treat it like a real work day. At least that's what has worked for me.
Along the way, I've found a few practices that help me get a lot done, keep me accountable, and keep my spirits high.
1. Act the part
I know a lot of people joke that the nice thing about working remotely is that you only need to be dressed from the waist up. The implication is that even if you have video calls, people will only see the top half of what you're wearing.
I think that's nuts.
I'm not saying that I wear a suit while working from home, but I make sure to shower and look presentable even if I'm certain that not a single human will see me that day. If I have an important call, I make sure to wear shoes, even if I'm sitting down and no one sees me.
Why does it matter?
When you feel confident in how you present yourself, you're more likely to act confident. If you're wearing pajama bottoms, it's hard to take yourself seriously. And if you don't take yourself seriously, why should anyone else?
2. Have a dedicated heads-down work space
The idea of sitting in exactly the same spot for hours on end makes me antsy.
So, I move around, but I have a dedicated space (my desk) where I do my focused work.
For projects that are more creative and don't require intense focus, I can work from just about anywhere—a couch, a coffee shop, a kitchen table.
In a similar way to how dressing the part makes you feel confident, being in a space where you feel focused and professional can make you more efficient. Your mind is less likely to wander. If you have kids, or a pet, they can't come in and distract you (though they may try)!
So figure out where that physical maximum-productivity space is for you. Then, strategically plan which projects can only be conducted in that space versus which projects are more flexible. Choose your space accordingly.
3. Create a virtual focused zone, too
Want to take this distraction-free zone thing further?
Your focused space doesn't have to just be physical. Consider having certain hours where you won't be distracted by clients or team members with random questions.
It's tempting, especially if you are a people-pleaser, not to immediately help someone when asked.
But unless it's a true emergency, waiting 30 minutes probably won't hurt.
The problem with working from home is that your team can't read your body language and see "Oh, they look super preoccupied with something right now. I'll come back later."
So create a virtual focused space by:
blocking off your calendar for a few hours when you need to work undisturbed
enabling the Do Not Disturb feature on your team chat channel, turning off notifications, or closing it out entirely
putting your phone on silent and out of sight
It's unrealistic for most people to be offline for a whole day, but creating some virtual barriers can take your efficiency to the next level.
4. Keep a schedule
One of the major issues of working from home is the temptation to never shut off. Your work laptop is just a few feet away. If you don't stick to a relatively consistent start and end time, then the work never ends.
Without the physical presence an office provides, it's hard for your team to know when they can and cannot reach you. The problem? They just reach you all the time.
Put some boundaries in place! By having a schedule, you're consistent. Consistency builds trust.
When you have a regular or semi-regular schedule, coworkers or clients will be confident they can reach you at certain hours, and safely assume you're busy or offline at other hours. This reliability puts everyone at ease.
Having a schedule also keeps things in check. It allows you to schedule in breaks so you don't burn out. I almost always take a lunch break and do something other than work during that time.
Keep some consistent hours. Even if there are days that you work a bit longer or allow yourself a late start, do your best to stick to dedicated blocks of time when you are available and when you aren't.
5. Plan out your most important daily tasks
Creating a focused to-do list isn't unique to working from home, but it is especially important.
The reason? Working in the same place where you also relax, cook, and sleep means that there are A TON of distractions.
Here's an example: You get up from your home office to refill your coffee mid-morning. While in the kitchen you notice dirty dishes in the sink. You clean them up and then realize that you need to take out the trash too, so you do that. You also remember that you need to do laundry, so why not put in a load now while you're working?
This is a phenomenon that I like to call "procrasti-cleaning" and it happens to me ALL THE TIME.
You may feel productive since, hey, you needed to clean the house at some point. Each of these cleaning activities only took a few minutes, right?
The problem is that even in the few minutes of cleaning, the switching cost (i.e., the time required to refocus on what you were originally working on) is huge. You've lost the momentum and need a tremendous amount of mental energy to get back to business.
To help combat those distractions and get your work done, I recommend a dual approach:
Notice which things distract you the most (dirty dishes?). Whenever you find yourself being pulled into their aura, resist the temptation! Add the task to your personal to-dos for LATER. Then, get back to (money-making) work.
Write down and decide ahead of time (either first thing in the morning or the night before) which are your MOST important to-do items and keep them in a visible place. Like right next to you.
Every few hours, check on your list (easy, since it's in a very visible place, yeah?). Notice: Have you completed any yet? Are you halfway through three?
Try to limit your daily list to your top five to seven tasks because time is limited. Odds are, you won't get to everything. Don't spread yourself too thin. If everything's important, nothing is.
6. Leave the house
Do not spend an entire 24 hours inside if you can help it.
Fresh air is so important for mental and physical wellness. I make myself get out everyday around lunch time either to pick up a grab-and-go lunch through MealPal or to head to a coffee shop for a few hours.
Taking a break is extra important when you're working from home because you don't have the camaraderie of other people around you to invite you to the water cooler.
That means you're at high risk for sitting in the same place looking at the same screen for hours on end. Yikes.
Don't live in a city? Even walking around the block or to your porch can be beneficial. Seeing some plants and sunshine is so important when a large part of your day involves looking a screen.
If possible, try taking some conference calls outside for a remote walking meeting. These are great for check-ins or meetings where you don't need to take a lot of notes.
7. Close those tabs
Do you ever walk into a room, notice something that distracts you, and then forget why you went in there in the first place?
The virtual version of this is having a ton of tabs open in your web browser. On any given day, I have a tab open for each my email, my calendar, my project management tool, a design tool, analytics, Slack, and numerous other tabs from the thing I was researching 3 hours ago. Having all these tabs open is like asking for distractions.
A huge time trap especially is social media. I usually go on a social media site for a specific reason—maybe to check the spelling of someone's name—and then I see something in the news feed that catches my eye. Suddenly 30 minutes have passed and not only have I not looked up how to spell that person's name, I'm consuming content that has nothing to do with my original project.
I have a few practices that help combat this.
Pretend distracting sites are like a public restroom. Don't make eye contact, or touch anything more than you absolutely have to. Get in, do your business, get out.
Every few hours, close all of your browser tabs that are open. Yes, all of them. Start from scratch. As long as your web-based software has auto-save, you should be fine. (If it doesn't have auto-save, you're playing with fire my friend.)
Get offline. I know this sounds crazy, especially because SO MUCH of remote work is based on cloud-based functionality. But if there is work you can do without an internet connection, try disconnecting, even if it's just for 30 minutes. I challenge you to give this a try and see if you're more focused.
8. Get accountable
Writing down your to-do items is one thing. Scheduling them into your planner is one step further.
But if you really want to be held to your commitments, you need an accountability partner.
Who can hold you accountable?
Well, if you have coworkers, or better yet clients, you have built-in accountability. You need to deliver so that everyone gets what they need from you so that you keep your job.
But if you work independently or if your team just doesn't give you the daily discipline you need, consider finding an accountability partner from the outside.
For example, many users of Supporti who are trying to be more productive will ask someone to hold them accountable to their to-do tasks (or to making the to-do list in the first place)!
Maybe someone sets a goal to finish three things on their to-do list each day for a week. Supporti will match that person up with a buddy, and they'll check-in at the end of each day to report back to their partner on whether or not they did their three things. Each buddy gets notified when their partner achieves their daily action.
Why does outer accountability work?
Well, for so many people (myself included), fear of disappointing others is a huge motivator. If I tell someone I'll do something, I'm much more likely to do it versus when only I know I need to do it.
Additionally, having someone to share in the celebration of the little wins (especially those mundane tasks you've REALLY been putting off) makes it much more exciting!
Finally, when you see that someone else is sticking to their goals, it gently nudges you do the same.
So if you're struggling to stay motivated while working from home, try working with an accountability partner who can help you stick to your daily actions and get a lot done.
What work from home strategies work best for you?
Leave us a comment on social media to let us know!