So many folks have been asking how I manage to stay productive when working from home. I’m happy to share my secrets, as well as some of the advice I give to clients when creating their own home work environments.
1. Make and stick to a schedule. It can be whatever timeframes work for you (and not necessarily contiguous or even daylight hours). Start at a fixed time, end at a fixed time. Just block out all the time you need.
2. Follow a routine that prepares you for your workday. Distinguish your workday from just hanging out at home. This might mean setting an alarm, dressing in at least “casual Friday” attire, having a good breakfast, etc.
3. Designate a physical space to work. I’m fortunate to have a true home office—a separate space that I can occupy when working (and for the rest of my team to work in when they are in the office). If you don’t have a separate room, you might utilize the dining table, the breakfast counter, a guest room.... Whatever it is, work in the same, dedicated space every day.
4. Devise a clear, visual transformation of that workspace from non-work hours to work hours and vice versa. I close the door to my office when work is done. When you finish work, you might place your paperwork out of sight, remove an ergonomic cushion from your chair, drape a tablecloth over the dining table, or simply close your work laptop. Whatever you do, it is just as important to make your work disappear after hours as it is to define your workspace when you’re “at work.”
5. Create acoustical space to work effectively. Everyone is different. Some need silence; others need music. I work well with NPR in the background, but if I’m doing “deep work” I need classical music without lyrics. Learn what works best to ensure your productivity.
6. Understand the distinction between “deep work” and “shallow work.” Author Cal Newport coined these phrases, and the upshot is that some work requires a high degree of cognitive focus, and other work does not. Learn how to classify discrete tasks as one or the other, and create the necessary, uninterrupted, focused space for the cognitively demanding “deep work”.
7. Acknowledge the non-work to be done. We all have other things that we need to do during the course of the day (pay bills, check in with family, feed our pet). Proactively create space for these things instead of pretending they don’t exist or feeling guilty when you stop working to do them. I use my calendar app for all of this, distinguishing between personal tasks (in green) and work tasks (in red).
8. Take a break. Know when to set something aside and return to it. You will be more productive if you walk away and return later. Include healthy breaks and a proper lunchtime in your work schedule. And, yes, playing with your pet is a great way to clear your head. (Below: "Daniel, it's time for a break!")
9. Limit time on email. I could spend all day responding to emails if unchecked. So, I actively block out time to design, coordinate with my team, draft project documents, etc. When needed, I allocate a block of time just for email—but then I move on to other tasks. Another trick is to do an hour of work in the morning before responding to any email—especially if you know you need to focus on something specific.
10. Turn off distractions. If you don’t need your phone, silence it; disengage from social media; turn off notifications for non-work apps. I need my phone for work, so I have email and social media notifications turned off, and I ask friends to text after 5pm.
11. Make commitments to an outside entity. Do not just set your own deadlines. For instance, I will schedule a client presentation knowing that the work has to be done by that date. Or, I schedule a staff member for a specific time knowing that I’ll need to prepare work for them. Be realistic, and don’t overpromise, but definitely create external commitments to keep you on track.
12. Make your bed. There’s a whole other blog post about this here, but the upshot here is that you need to introduce more formality in an otherwise unstructured, casual space.
13. Communicate your needs with others. If there is someone else at home, let them know what times you’ll be working and ask them to respect your space and schedule. Tell your friends you will respond to non-urgent messages after work. The biggest challenge is juggling work and other responsibilities like child- or eldercare. So, aim for a delineation, but don’t be too hard on yourself if things don’t go exactly as planned. Often, the first days are the toughest, and a steady routine will hopefully gel.
14. Understand the fallacy of “multitasking.” I remember putting this on my resume in the 1990s when it seemed a popular buzzword. Yes, some people can shift back and forth between discrete tasks more easily than others. However, most work is performed more effectively when we focus on one task at a time. This is not always possible, so it’s critical to at least be self-aware.
15. Check in with your own body. Not everyone can master ergonomics. However, you can consider basic tenets of good posture while seated/working at a computer, and you can monitor yourself for any discomfort before it turns to pain—particularly in your back, shoulders, and neck. Personally, I can’t recline and work on my laptop, but many people can; I’ve had clients who need to stand when working, while I prefer to sit with my feet firmly planted on the floor. Every body is different, but universal advice includes: do not hold the same position without frequent breaks/shifting; be aware of where you hold tension; and don’t ignore signals that something is amiss.
16. Plan your lunch the night before. If you’re going out for lunch, great—plan for it. If you’re staying in, either prepare the food in advance (I often cook more for dinner so there are leftovers), or note what you can make quickly. Just don’t squander half of your allotted break standing in front of the open fridge waiting for inspiration.
17. Leverage procrastination. No one is immune from a desire to put some tasks off. So, use this to your advantage: there’s an email you really don’t want to respond to? Schedule that for later, and in the meantime jot down some notes for a report you have to write. One unappealing task suddenly becomes a lot more palatable when you’re confronted with another task that is even more tedious. In this way, you can at least make progress on one thing when you’re avoiding something else. (Hint: you can also take a "procrastination break" from professional work to get needed housework or other chores done.)
18. Reach out to others. Helping others on your team is a great way to stay productive—particularly if you’re feeling stuck. And sometimes interrupting the monotony of a tedious task or breaking up the inherent isolation in working from home is itself enough to reenergize you.
Update: With everyone focusing so much attention on their home environments, we developed a new service to help make your home as comfortable, functional, and inspiring as it can be: Online Design Consultations.