When I first started my agency over four years ago, I was thrilled at the prospect of working from home every day. The short commute from bedroom to office (and to the fridge and back), the lack of forcing small talk with coworkers, and the missing requirement to wear proper pants. It seemed like a wonderland of a zero-frills workspace.
However, I quickly found that the constant presence of distractions and lack of boundaries from significant others, roommates, or any others with whom you share a living space can severely hamper your typical productivity.
I soon discovered that working from home is a skill, not a privilege. A skill that requires constant focus and energy to perfect. After many, many, many trial and error sessions formatting and reformatting daily schedules to ensure productivity and life balance, I discovered five key tips to help tailor a work day from home.
1. Don’t Try To Mimic Your Day At The Office
Trying to follow the same routine as your typical day at the office will not translate to working from home. You’re in a new environment, and pretending you’re not will only lead to frustration.
There are different people, different set-up, different distractions around you at home than in the office. A key part to finding productivity from home is acknowledging those distractions and forming your day around embracing those distractions.
See this as an opportunity to uniquely craft your day to fit your individual style of productivity. Sigmund Freud famously went for a walk around the city center of Vienna every day at 11 a.m. – regardless of weather. Bach composed in the mornings, Mozart composed at night.
Find your hours of productivity, and block your heaviest work time around that block of time. For most of us, we’re most productive from 8 a.m. through 11:30 a.m., with a lull after lunch around 1:30 p.m. – 3:00 p.m. However, the hours tend to shift on an individual basis.
Schedule your heaviest work during your most productive block, and reward yourself with distractions (i.e. TV, time with family, video games) during your lull in the day. You’re at home – make sure to enjoy it!
2. Schedule EVERYTHING
While at an office, we can rely on our surroundings to keep us relatively engaged during the day. Coworkers hopping into meetings, phones ringing, a boss over your shoulder all keep us in the mindset of work needs to be completed.
Home, however, is designed to take us away from the work-centric mentality, so it’s no wonder that staying in a productive state of mind is difficult in a home setting.
That’s why it is so important to schedule your entire work day – both work sessions and breaks. Including what you’re going to do during the scheduled break.
For me, the most important scheduling task is decided exactly when I’m going to take a lunch break. I mean, break. Not a snack from the fridge or leftovers to eat at my home desk. I take an hour and step away from my working area, eat lunch, and separate myself to give my mind a small rest from work-mode while still staying at home.
DeskHelp, a computer program that tracks your desktime vs time away from the desk, instituted an analysis of high-level executives and measured the optimal times to be at desk vs. staying away. They found the optimal time working at a desk is 52 minutes followed by a 17 minute break.
Taking the previous tip of creating your own daily schedule, be sure to include breaks, and find your optimal time to be in work-mode and the best way to separate that mental state from being at home.
3. Don’t Ignore Distractions, Reward Yourself With Them
As humans, we’re not very good at blocking out distractions. Multiple studies have proven multitasking inevitably leads to lower quality of work on all projects.
Working from home itself is a combination of two different states of mind. We have a different demeanor and focus at work than when we arrive at home. Suddenly combining the two can lead to a near-constant state of multitasking.
Emails need to be answered, but kids haven’t had lunch. A significant other just started a new show on Netflix, but your project is a week behind. Roommates are playing a drinking game, but your Zoom meeting starts in ten minutes. The list goes on and on.
The first step to counteracting this feeling being pulled two directions is to establish a physical separation of home and work as best you can. If you are lucky enough to have a home office, the separation is easy. If you’re living in a small apartment (like myself), then it gets a bit trickier. However, it’s not impossible to designate the kitchen counter as a desk, and when sitting at the counter, only work talk, only work projects open on computer, and only work-focused internet browsing.
Moreover, if you follow the steps of scheduling out your entire work day, you can utilize these distractions as a reward for a long work session completed.
A recent example from myself was my strong desire to finish, The Tiger King, a new show released on Netflix in one sitting. However, instead going headfirst into binge-mode, I scheduled 20-minute viewing sessions throughout the day after I finished a work session.
As a result, every time I sat down to watch a segment, I felt like I was rewarding myself and the sense of productivity let me relax that much more!
4. Don’t Be Afraid To Step Away Mid-Task
Despite it going against every human instinct to finish what you started, it is definitely okay (sometimes even beneficial) to step away from a task right in the middle.
Almost every time I bring this tip up, I inevitably get the excuse of “flow” for the reason of employees staying past their scheduled break to work in order to finish a task. However, leaving something in the middle can help spark productivity after coming back from a break.
Leaving a task in the middle helps our brains reconnect with our process before we left our desk for a bit. This can be especially helpful when working from home because of the start difference between sitting at your workstation and interacting with your home.
Ernest Hemingway was known for leaving a writing session mid-word, mid-sentence. The most difficult part of working from home, in my opinion, is being able to jump back-and-forth between work-focused mentality and home-relaxing mentality.
Stopping mid-task helps us easily make that jump back into work-mode.
5. Limit Work Communication To One Channel (As Best You Can)
This last tip is probably the most difficult to execute, but it will help your productivity in the short-term immensely.
We are all connected with coworkers a plethora of channels – email, text, calls, video meetings, Slack, Google Hangouts, project management tools, etc. When all these channels are synced up to your home set-up, it can feel like work never leaves.
My best recommendation for this is to open a communication line with your boss, coworkers, or clients that there is a best way to reach you while work at home. Whether that’s only emails, texts, or IMs, restricting communication to one line allows you to dedicate specific time to responding to communication without feeling overwhelmed.
For me, working with email exclusively has helped me block out time to zero my inbox at the start and end of every day. That way, communication is falling behind, and I’m able to disconnect from work interactions once my working time is over.