How to Stay Productive When You Work From Home

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As a freelancer and then full-time remote employee, I’ve spent half my professional life outside of an office building, but not necessarily working from home. As long as I have my laptop and an internet connection, I’m just as effective as anyone working from a cubicle farm, open office space or corporate productivity pod. I’m assuming that’s a thing now, right?

Working within earshot of your family, pets and microwave oven is not always easy. When I began telecommuting, I actively trained my self discipline, concentration and work ethic. I was not always successful, but eventually I learned how to balance my personal and professional lives within the same physical space.

Here are 10 lessons I’ve learned that have made me much more productive working from home:

1. Understand that “Work from home” can mean many things

As a remote employee, I complete the majority of my projects from the comfort of my home, but I also find myself working from some very strange places. In my three years as a ‘WFH’ employee, I’ve conducted business from:

  • My childhood bedroom.

  • My wife’s childhood bedroom.

  • A car, in a Target parking lot.

  • A car, stuck in morning traffic on the way into Los Angeles.

  • Dozens of coffee shops across the country.

  • Airport lounges – not the fancy ones.

As a remote worker or freelancer, no one really knows where you are or what you’re wearing or how fast you’re driving down the freeway. This is an advantage in many ways, but it’s a situation that could be easily abused. It’s your responsibility to know when and where you work best, and to communicate that to your manager, when necessary. On a typical day, that’s at my desk, at home, a few steps away from the refrigerator.

2. Set a schedule that works for you (and your boss)

I like to start my day at 9 a.m. or earlier. If I start work early, I’ll be able to finish up by 5 p.m. - or earlier! I chose a schedule that mimics the typical business day because it works for me. You might work better under the cover of night, when the world is quieter. A lot of the creative people I know have trouble getting motivated during the daylight hours.

The differences between night owls and morning larks have been studied since the 1970s, when researcher’s from Sweden’s Department of Occupational Health identified varying levels of energy and alertness among a group of self-assessed introverts and extroverts. In 2016, research utilizing DNA data collected by 23andMe corroborated these findings, showing distinct genetic differences between owls and larks. So you shouldn’t feel bad if you’re not bursting with energy in the wee hours of the morning - nighttime activity may be in your genes.

If you’re a freelancer, you likely have a greater level of control over your schedule. Client meetings aside, you should be able to find a schedule that fits with your other responsibilities and does not disrupt your circadian rhythm.

As a remote worker, I need to be online at certain times to join meetings with my coworkers spread across the country. When I log on, my east coast coworkers are heading to lunch, but my teammates in Hawaii are likely just getting out of bed. This makes scheduling meetings difficult, but with the right technology, not impossible.

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Once you determine your ideal schedule - and confirm its viability with your manager - you need to stick to it as closely as possible. It should become habitual, or you’ll run into problems like oversleeping. Seasonal changes can make this difficult. Living in the Pacific Northwest, I experience dramatic shifts in available daylight throughout the year. During the summer, the sun doesn’t go down until 10 p.m. In the winter, it’s dark by 5 p.m. During these shifts, my body has trouble getting adjusted. I strategize to make this less burdensome. In the winter, that means opening the windows and drinking coffee as soon as my feet hit the floor. In the summer, it means setting a reminder to start winding down for the day, even when the sky is still brightly lit. Maintaining a regular exercise routine helps, too.

Graphic designer Jordan Devos, writing for the Toptal blog, has some great advice for making productivity not just a habit, but an addiction.

Inevitably, you will disrupt your schedule. It happens to the most well-intentioned remote workers. Do not beat yourself up about it. The best thing to do is to get back on schedule as soon as possible. In most cases, your boss won’t notice or care, as long as you’re getting your work done. After all, he or she wouldn't let you work from home if there were concerns about your ability to manage your time.

3. End the day at quitting time

Set a dedicated, consistent time to end each work day. Keep this hour in mind to avoid getting distracted as you work. Without a pre-determined end time, the amount of time it takes to complete your work with grow, like a noxious gas filling a jar. Time constraints keep the work contained. If it helps, use a timer app to track how long you spend on tasks.

Work isn’t the only thing you have to do in a day. You need to remember this fact, especially when you find your workload increasing in size. Sure, the occasional project may require extra hours, but if you find yourself consistently spending more than eight hours a day on your work, bring this up with your boss. If you believe there’s more work than there are hours in the day, that’s a problem.

When you work late into the night, you won’t be refreshed the next morning. You’re not doing yourself any favors. No one can see the extra effort you’re putting in, and, let’s be honest, few people really care. If you work overtime constantly, you risk coworkers and managers coming to expect that behavior. Respect your time, and others will follow suit. To stay mentally healthy, your brain needs breaks.

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4. Take breaks between completed tasks

Rest is good for your brain. In fact, brain activity barely slows down between the times you’re engaged in an activity and when you’re doing nothing. When you’re fretting about an upcoming meeting or angrily stewing in traffic about the guy who cut you off ten miles ago, certain regions of your brain light up - this is called the Default Mode Network.

Practicing mindfulness - the act of being aware of your thoughts in a non-judgmental manner - can train your DMN to act differently. Researchers from Harvard University found that regular mindfulness practice can actually change your brain on a physical level. Mindfulness practitioners experience reduced gray matter in the regions of their brains associated with stress and anxiety and simultaneously experience a thickening of the gray matter associated with calmness and self-control. Furthermore, researchers from Yale University discovered that people who practice mindfulness have a less active DMN both when they are meditating and when they are not meditating.

To work effectively, you need to build breaks into your schedule. You can’t assume that you’ll remember to take a break, because inevitably the work will take over and you’ll end up missing out on valuable rest time. In my experience, setting exact times for breaks ineffective because my daily schedule isn’t set in stone. Instead, I treat breaks just like any other task. I create a list of the day’s responsibilities, then add break periods where appropriate. For example, if I have to write a long white paper and two short articles, I might tackle the first article with my morning coffee, take a break, complete the second article, then work on the white paper after lunch.

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5. Plan your lunch and household chores strategically

Eating out for lunch should be limited to a few times a month. I prefer to eat at home because it saves money, it’s healthier and it’s more convenient. However, if you don’t plan for your lunches, you’ll end up spending a lot of time cooking - something that is not conducive to a productive work day. Likewise, heavy mid-day meals will sap your energy.

Planning is an effective way to make healthy eating choices that don’t take up much time in the day. I plan for all my meals in a week, which ensures I maximize my food budget. I like to plan out two or three dedicated lunches for the week, then plan to eat leftovers from dinner on the other days.

Household chores are great for breaking up your work schedule. For example, you could put in a load of laundry and use it as a timer for your next task. Telling yourself that you will complete a task before the buzzer sounds will stop your mind from wandering.

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You can run errands during the day - as long as you are getting your work done and not missing meetings. If you bill hourly as a freelancer, remember to accurately track the hours you spend not working. Ultimately, you are in charge of your schedule. I enjoy being able to run to the post office in the middle of the day to avoid the long lines. The same goes for doctor’s appointments. The more you work from home, the better you’ll be able to judge how much you can fit in a day.

I keep my phone on me so I can answer chats and calls, but I don’t check email when I’m not on my computer. In my opinion, emails don’t warrant an immediately reply. Any time I notice that a coworker sends me an email expecting a quick reply, I tell him or her that they will get a much faster response if they message me on Google Hangouts or slack.

6. Prevent distractions before they happen

Your friends and family members will not understand your schedule. They will not understand when and why you need to prioritize work. This may sound cynical, but it has been true of nearly everyone I encounter. This is a common topic of compliant in WFH and freelancer online communities.

My advice: Get used to saying no, a lot.

Friends and family will want you to help them with tasks around the house, with errands, with looking after the neighbor’s cat. They will want you to cut out of work early or take a long lunch with them. If you have a light workload for the day, then by all means take an extra hour for lunch. But you also need to set hard boundaries. You will likely need to reiterate this point until it becomes clear. When someone is distracting you, you need to tell them you are working, when you expect to be free, and if you will be able to help them at that time.

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7. Find personalized distraction busters

I write all day every day, which requires a level of concentration that others have described as “superhuman,” “gross,” or “impossible.” I will admit here that it is actually very difficult to write day in an day out. However, as many have discovered before me, impossible feats of concentration become easier and even routine when they are your sole manner of putting bread on the table.

Unless there’s a child screaming in your ear, or a parade drumming outside your window, your distractions are most likely to be a product of your own brain. My graphic designer coworkers may be able to listen to podcasts all day, and other remote workers keep the TV on in the background to distract the part of their brain that wants to swerve off course. For me, music is about the only thing that works. And not all music, it has to be light on words and heavy on guitars.

It helps to have a dedicated work space. If you have a room or a desk that you can devote to work only, you will train your brain to stay on task when you sit down. Creating a physical boundary develops a corollary in your mind.

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8. Don’t skip your hygiene routine

I would like to write here that I get up each morning, shower and dress in my work clothes. Dozens of other remote professionals have given that advice online, but I do not subscribe to it. If I know I have several large projects to complete in a day, I might never change out of my pajamas. Why not? My wife doesn’t care, and I’m too busy to leave the house. It doesn't affect my work. No editor has ever returned my work with the comment, “Good, but reads like you weren’t wearing pants when you wrote this.”

To be clear, I do shower first thing in the morning most days, but I rarely dress as if I’m going into the office - to me, casual clothes are one of the primary benefits of working from home.

If you do find that you can’t quite wake up when wearing pajamas, then you should build a dressing routine into your schedule. If you find that a buttoned shirt and tie make you more productive, then wear those items proudly. Find what works for you. Obviously, if you need to conduct meetings via webcam, you’ll want to put on a nice shirt and comb your hair - but you can still wear those basketball shorts.

9. Stay away from social media

In my mind, social media is the single biggest risk to your productivity. It has no place on your schedule - it will only suck up your time and make you feel stressed. My advice would be to avoid social media as much as possible, even when you are not working. As observed by researchers at the University of Michigan, Facebook use is associated with lower moment-to-moment happiness as well as lower overall life satisfaction. At the very least, you should try to wait until you have completed your day’s work before logging onto social media sites.

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If you’re a news junkie like me, the same warnings apply. Reading about politics during the work day is sure to throw you off your rhythm. Consider reading up on current events during or immediately after your lunch break. It’s often difficult to concentrate for a half hour after lunch anyway, so it’s an ideal time to do some reading unrelated to your work. Train yourself to stop reading when it’s time to get back on task. This is a habit just like anything else, and you can control it.

I believe social media addiction is a real risk and a meta-analysis of psychological studies conducted by researchers at Nottingham Trent University indicates that people from all walks of life report feeling addicted to their news feeds. It’s a problem that can creep up on you. Pay attention to your habits and consider getting a tracking app to see how much time you’re really spending on these sites. Likewise, a browser extension such as Block Site gives you the power to limit when specific domains and subdomains are available to you.

10. Strive for clarity in all online communication

As a remote worker or freelancer, you need to be aware of how you present yourself in emails, chats and over the phone. You don’t have the luxury of nodding at coworkers as you pass in the hall, or sharing a glance during pointless meetings. You need to make sure your communications are always clear and easy to understand.

Much of my day is spent communicating with team members and clients via email. As with all kinds of writing, you should proofread your messages before hitting the send button. Likewise, I recommend making it a habit to CC your manager on all client communications so there is a transparent record of your conversations.

After a year of working remotely, I turned off my email notifications on my phone and my life improved drastically. It’s been two years since then and it has not caused any problems. I found that I would wake up in the morning, see a dozen emails from my east coast coworkers and immediately go into work mode. This gave me know time to ease into my day. It was detrimental to my mental health and benefited no one. Now, I only check emails during business hours and only when I’m on my computer.

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Use your vacation auto reply. You may have been looking forward to your trip for months, but no one else is. And since you’re never at the office, no one will notice that you’re not there. Make sure everyone understands where you are and how long you’ll be away from work. Likewise - don’t do work on vacation. Your family will resent it. You won’t get any rest, and you won’t get any brownie points with your boss. You’re just doing work for free. If you don’t respect your free time, why should others?

During the work week, do your best to communicate away times. I work fairly autonomously and I don’t talk with my manager every day, because he knows I’m getting my work done. Nevertheless, I make sure to inform him when I may be offline for an extended period. I put all my doctors appointments on a shared calendar and send a quick email before I get on an airplane. It only takes a minute and ensures that my boss knows why I didn’t answer a chat or phone call.

One final note regarding tone of voice: I know that I have a reputation of being reserved, which can come off as cold or aloof, though it’s not what I intend. As a result, I have learned that an emoji here and gif there can make clear the tone I am using. Most offices aren’t so stuffy these days as to look down on someone who uses the occasional smiley face in an internal communication. Due to the professional nature of my work, I wouldn’t use gifs and emojis with clients.

Final thoughts

The work from home life has its ups and downs. On the one hand, it can become difficult to separate your work life from your home life. You’ll run the risk of working constantly and relaxing never. On the other hand, it can give you the freedom to live a more flexible life, with more opportunities to work on a schedule that suits you and your unique goals.

I may go back to an office someday; it’s certainly not out of the question. The self discipline and work ethic I have developed as a remote employee will help me succeed in any type of work environment. If you work to build healthy, productive habits, you will be able to accomplish your professional goals and maintain a healthy work-life balance.