As someone who’s been self-employed for several years now, I wanted to share some tips on working from home. A lot of this you will undoubtedly have seen before. Some of it is common sense. To keep this from becoming just another listicle, I also want to share why I think these tips are important.
Stick to a Schedule
If you don’t listen to any other advice, please do this. Go to bed at the same time every night. Wake up at the same time every morning. Eat meals at set hours. Take breaks at the same time every day. This will not only allow you to stay productive, it will keep you sane.
A traditional workplace has external influences. A supervisor, manager, or inanimate time clock holds you accountable for being on time. There are other people around to see whether you’re working or not. At the end of the day, you get to go home and place physical distance between yourself and your job.
Lacking those factors, it’s easy to say you’re going to stream Netflix in the background while you do other things, and end up just watching Netflix. On the couch. In the living room. Nowhere near your laptop. The lack of accountability feels like a lack of consequences, until you don’t get paid because you haven’t accomplished anything.
There’s also the other pitfall, which is to feel that you ought to always be working. This can be especially true if you’re self-employed, freelancing, or working on a passion project. The ability implies the necessity, so if you can be working, you feel that you should be working.
You need a schedule so that you know when to focus on work, and when you have permission to not be at work.
Use a Calendar
It doesn’t matter what physical or virtual item you use — a wall calendar, a day planner, Google calendar, whatever. You need something that you will touch, cross off, or add notes to every day. This is important because when you’re home alone, free from most outside influence, one day starts to look the same as the next. It’s absurdly easy to lose track of what day it is.
For me, my item of choice here is a bullet journal. I write the day and date every morning to kick off my daily log. I also use a tracker I set up on my monthly log to do the Seinfeld “don’t break the chain” thing. It’s a column that I check off to indicate that I wrote that day.
My suggestion is to use the calendar as some sort of accountability tool. If you’re tracking word count, writing your daily total on it. If you track you start and stop times for the day, write them on the calendar. Even if you have to invent some sort of daily routine to track, do so just to note the passage of time.
Find Other Anchors
It’s a tradition in Finland to eat pea soup and kropser (a kind of baked pancake) for lunch on Thursdays. Katie and I have American pancakes and bacon for breakfast every Sunday morning. We watch cartoons on Saturday mornings, and documentaries on Sunday. Having things that are specific to different days also helps to denote the passage of time. It allows you to make days feel a little different from one another.
This can be broken down into parts of the day as well. Eating lunch at the same time can be an anchor. You know that morning is over, and afternoon has arrived. When we were in the United State I would sometimes leave the television on in the living room. It was background noise in a disturbingly quiet house. I could hear when Judge Judy came on in the afternoon, and know that it was time for my break.
This is the hardest one. You will feel like a jerk. Other people will think you’re a jerk. Get over it. No reasonable person would think they could show up at your place of employment and hang out. They wouldn’t get mad if you couldn’t be on social media at work. If they got upset because you couldn’t take personal phone calls or answer texts on the clock, you’d be right to think they’re being a jackass.
Somehow people think the rules are different when you work from home. You can just move things around to accommodate them. If they want to meet you for a long lunch, you can just make up the extra hours in the evening or something. Well, yeah, but then that means giving up your evening plans. It’s disruptive to the schedule which, as I said at the top, is the most essential and absolutely sacred thing a person working from home needs to protect. They’re asking you to abandon your self-discipline.
You have a schedule and office hours. Let people know what they are. Tell them when you’ll check social media, email, and text message, because you will not be looking at those things all day long and responding immediately. Work time is work time. Friends and family are personal time.
Ask people to consider whether they’d interrupt you if you were in an office with a supervisor standing over your shoulder. Insist that they not disturb you, even if they’re right there in the same house with you, unless it’s the sort of emergency that would lead them to contact your manager to pass you a message.
My hope is that with more people working from home, more people will begin to comprehend the purpose of these boundaries.
Have a Designated Space
Reality check: most of us live inside of our laptops. We all find a place at home to sit comfortably and use those laptops. The natural temptation is to use that same familiar spot as out work-from-home base. Don’t do it unless you absolutely have no other options.
I recommend finding a separate designated space. When working from home, always sit there. Do not do anything else, like checking your personal email or streaming movies, in that spot. This is important for that whole “work/life balance” thing. You will begin to associate that spot with work. When you’re sitting there doing things that are not work, you’ll feel like you’re slacking. By moving to another spot to do non-work stuff, you’re telling yourself you’re not at work and will be less tempted.
Play with music and lighting as well. When I’m working I tend to put on jazz and classical. I don’t listen to those at other times. At the end of the work day I turn off the lamp on my desk, and it doesn’t go back on until I start work again the next morning. Do whatever you can to alter the environment so that the mood and feel is different when you’re working and when you aren’t.
This serves the added purpose of helping to maintain boundaries with others. When my wife Katie sees the lamp on and hears Miles Davis playing, she knows I’m working. She doesn’t have to ask, and knows not to disturb me unless it’s important.
Tips on Working From Home
This is Day 3 of Camp Corona for me, and even though I have all of the above things in place, it still feels weird. There’s a “last day of work before vacation” vibe, a sort of “none of this counts” attitude that makes it difficult to focus on getting things done. Since this has the potential to go on for months, we need to shake that off.
In addition to my advice above, I’d suggest reading as many articles of this type as possible. Take what you need and figure out the work-from-home routine that’s going to work best for you. As unforeseen problems and distractions arise, and they will, adapt your routines. Be willing to change things day to day, even hour to hour, until you settle in. The important thing is to keep trying to make it not feel weird, until it doesn’t.