In my 20-ish years long career I have worked from home more than I have not worked from home. I have also shared space with another person working from home for a lot of that time. In this post I will let you in on some tips and tricks for staying productive and focused, and not losing your mind.
One of the trickiest things about not going into an office, but using your laptop from the kitchen table, balanced on your knee on the sofa, or in a dedicated home office, is boundary setting.
I have rarely found that home life encroaches on work life, but I have found work seeping into home by way of evenings and weekends spent checking e-mails or “just doing this or that quick task”. Whichever way round you find difficulties, here are some tips.
If you find it hard to stay focused
Change your mindset
To be focused and productive working at home you have to commit to the idea that you are, indeed, working. This isn’t a holiday or a chance to take it easy. Be clear with yourself that you have working hours that you will keep, and specific things that you will do during your day. If you find that you need other people around to keep you accountable, then you are going to have to do some work to flip your thinking. If there is work to be done, do it. If things are quiet, find other, work-related activities to fill your time. If you don’t do this you’ll get into a cycle of procrastination and guilt which will not serve you or your work well.
Set your hours
Even in an office environment you don’t work flat out 100% of the time. You’ll spend time chatting, eating, looking at your social media, popping out to fetch something, staring into space… This is all useful and necessary. Your brain needs downtime, sharing with colleagues can support and inspire you, and taking regular breaks improves the quality of your work.
So, set your hours. E.g. work only between 9.30am until 5.30 pm. But within that time you may build in breaks and activities that keep you going throughout the day. I, for example, went for a 3 mile walk mid-morning today. And after a faffy early morning in which I allowed myself to be side-tracked by everything (doing the washing, cleaning the bathroom – it’s a trying time, ok ;-) ) I was enthused and energised to get back to it with focus.
The TV is your enemy
There isn’t much that’s good about mixing TV with work. So the TV should be a no go zone. If you are finding it difficult to follow this cardinal rule, allow yourself to watch for only a half an hour during your lunch break. That way the lure of the forbidden won’t make you binge-watch boxsets of comforting old series (I’m looking at you The O.C. – obviously I’ve been there!) all day. The telly has the power to eat up work time and to erode all your motivation. Use it very sparingly.
Like many people you may very much miss the social contact that going out to work gives you, so you need to make sure that you replace that in some way. Be sure to schedule catch ups with colleagues, or even have a brief call with a friend. My sister and I both have unusual working patterns, so frequently chat during the working day, which keeps me sane if I don’t have work calls scheduled.
I enjoy working alone, but I do find that I need an outside perspective or just a diverting conversation fairly regularly to keep me energised and enthusiastic.
Be flexible – working at home is different than being in the office
I find that my work (and I found this especially when I was doing my PhD) can be too involved some days. I don’t always have the energy or the concentration for deep thought, or forward-thinking strategy. When that happens I do one of two things. I either give myself a pass straight off the bat, and commit to easier tasks, or work-related activities that are more passive (I’ll listen to a work-related podcast or read a book in the bath); or I’ll commit to trying the task for only ten minutes. If, after that amount of time I still can’t focus, I’ll revert to the previous strategy. But sometimes, I just have a mental block and those ten minutes shift it and I get into the task.
Make yourself a list of things that are strictly verboten: e.g. getting up, switching on the tv and sitting in front of it with your lap top. And make a list of activities that range between ten and thirty minutes that will replenish you: having a shower, emptying the dishwasher, making a social phone call, dancing round the living room, going for a brisk walk, eating something delicious… And make sure that you are really strict about not doing what is forbidden and guaranteed to steer your day way off course. Allow yourself to do your replenishing activities when you need them without guilt. Taking time out is important and will keep you positive.
Make sure that you always have plans to mitigate a dip in concentration that will be a help rather than a hindrance, and make sure that you nourish your mind and body so that you don’t go stir crazy.
Be kind to yourself
Anything that is new, and changes your routine, can be difficult to get the hang of. Be forgiving if you lapse, but have strategies in place like the ones above to help if you get side-tracked. A half a day misspent is nothing in the grand scheme of things (and anyone that claims not to have had this kind of a day at the office is probably deluded). But please don’t contribute to the idea that working at home requires air quotes – many of us do it with commitment and focus. And it is eminently possible to be both focused and productive on your sofa, your study or at the breakfast bar.
If you find it hard to switch off
For me, this is the trickier problem. What it results in is imbalance. This imbalance could be in your personal relationships, your energy and focus, or time spent doing things that enrich your life.
This, of course, isn’t a problem that is exclusive to people that work at home. When the “just 5 more minutes” at the office turns into a couple of hours, and dinner is a rushed affair at 8.30, and bedtime is early to get up to start early in the morning – the problem is just as destructive. Add to that 24 hour connectivity it isn’t hard to get caught up in over-working. Unfortunately this is even easier to do when working from home. Afterall, you may think, you have nothing else to do than work. And if you are enjoying what you are doing, or you are in a state of flow, why stop, where’s the harm?
Ultimately these habits and this attitude can lead to burn out.
Exhaustion and burn out
You may have endless stamina for working, but I find, personally, that lots of things fall by the wayside when I get into this habit that have several detrimental effects. The first thing to go is time to switch off my brain and rest. Imagine, you work until 10.30, go to bed at 10.45, your brain is still a-swirl and you haven’t given yourself sufficient time to unwind to get a revitalising sleep. You toss and turn, you keep think of new ideas or tasks that you have to do… you wake up feeling drained.
The next thing to go are breaks – well, yesterday you managed to work through, no problem, so it’ll be fine, besides you have a lot to do. So you are sitting and staring at your screen all day, and you switch off late, you rushed your meals, you didn’t move around enough and you didn’t have time to relax. If you are focused on work tasks all day you may not have found any space for social interaction and you probably didn’t breathe in any fresh air. This may work for a few days at a time. But when it turns into weeks and months it affects your body, mind and soul. You need balance, it’s good for you and it helps you maintain your working life long-term. Work like this for too long, and things will inevitably go wrong for you physically, mentally, emotionally or in your personal relationships.
Creating boundaries and balance
It’s pretty easy for this pattern of working to creep up on you.
The irony is that many of the steps that you need to take are the same as the ones that you would take if you lack motivation. When you work at home you have to be disciplined about maintaining balance. The key is to plan for balance and to nip bad habits in the bud.
Make sure that you take regular and varied breaks, set reasonable working hours and stick to them, and find ways to be sociable. Change your mindset to one where you think that a healthy person is a whole person, one that is physically, socially, emotionally, and mentally healthy. Doing too much of any one thing will upset the balance elsewhere and you will neglect important parts of yourself, and ultimately your work will suffer. Don’t let rest, recreation, socialising, personal development and enrichment, or your emotional and mental well-being suffer. Be kind to yourself.