According to the U.S. Census, nearly six million Americans work primarily from home. If you’re looking to become one of them, it’s crucial to watch out for the pitfalls.
I’ve been working from home for the past eight years. And while I definitely am now comfortable doing so, there were a lot of growing pains early on. I once locked myself in the bathroom to have an uninterrupted conference call with a client – not quite the epitome of professionalism. However, if you take the time to prepare to work from home and create an atmosphere conducive to professionalism and productivity, it’s more than possible to build a thriving career.
Productivity Tips for Working at Home
Staying on-task in a workspace that includes kids, instant access to social networking, and an infinite number of distractions can be tough. Here are some tips and tricks I’ve picked up after almost a decade of working from home.
1. Create a Dedicated Office Space
In a busy household, it can be all too easy to let kids pile their homework on your desk or play around on your computer, but it hardly creates a professional atmosphere. If your home is big enough to accommodate an entire room dedicated solely to work, you’re one of the lucky ones. If not, simply establish an area where you can use your computer, talk on the phone, and keep important documents stored.
But even if you’re home alone, having a dedicated office space makes sense – not just to help you stay focused, but to save you money on taxes. To claim the home office tax deduction, measure your dedicated office space and calculate the percentage of your home it represents (a 200 square-foot office in a 2,000 square-foot home would be 10%). You can then deduct that percentage of costs associated with your home, such as utilities and home improvements.
To qualify for the home office deduction, however, you must use your office exclusively and regularly for business. If you only use it casually or you share it with your entire family, it no longer qualifies. If you have further questions, consult a tax professional who specializes in small business taxes.
2. Invest in Your Office
It’s important that your home workspace have all the accoutrements you’d expect in a professional office. Of course, what each person deems necessary varies by taste and profession. Some items you might consider include:
- A reliable, dedicated computer
- A quality Internet connection
- A land-line business phone or a business-only cellphone
- A filing system
- General office supplies (buy them at back-to-school sales for the best deals)
- A good printer
- Comfortable home office furniture, including an office chair
Fiddling with an outdated computer or running to the print store can cost you time and productivity. And if you’re self-employed, you can deduct any items you purchase for your home office on that year’s taxes. Just be sure to keep your receipts.
3. Create a Daily To-Do List
Setting priorities is important in the office, and infinitely more so when working from home. Without a boss peering over your shoulder or colleagues to bounce ideas off of, it’s up to you to put your to-do list in order. It can help you stay on track and avoid feeling overwhelmed.
Quickly jot down what needs to be done during a particular workday, then number each item in order of priority. When the day is done, immediately transfer anything you didn’t accomplish to the next day’s list to ensure that nothing slips through the cracks.
You can also try some apps and tools to keep yourself on track. I like Teuxdeux for creating and prioritizing lists, as well as taking notes online. If you’d rather manage your to-do list with your smartphone, Remember the Milk works with Siri, allowing you to create lists via voice instead of typing them. Or, try Do it Tomorrow, available for iOS and Android. It helps schedule your to-do list a day in advance so nothing goes undone – even if you can’t get to it today.
4. Get Your Family Involved
If you have kids at home, you need everyone’s cooperation when it concerns your career. Call a family meeting and explain to your children that you need to focus during work hours – and ask your spouse for a hand in keeping the kids entertained and occupied. Working from home becomes a team effort when you’re asking everyone to do their part to help you stay productive.
One family I know uses the “stoplight system.” The work-at-home parent puts a red, yellow, or green circle on the office door based on what’s happening that day: Green means to come right in, yellow means to ask first, and red means do not disturb. It makes productivity a kind of game for kids in a very visual and easy-to-understand way.
But even if you don’t have kids, you may have to communicate your need for a quiet working environment to your significant other. If your spouse or partner works in a more traditional setting, the idea of a home office may seem casual, resulting in noise and disruptions when you’re trying to concentrate. Set ground rules for your workspace, such as knocking before coming into your office or respecting quiet time between certain hours.
5. Stay on Task
Checking your email is a necessity when you’re telecommuting, especially if it’s your colleagues’ favorite method of communication. However, constantly clicking on that email tab can impede your own projects and disrupt workflow.
Instead, close your email, turn off all phone notifications, and check your messages and social networking only at designated times throughout the day. Even if you checked every 30 minutes, you’d still score some solid, uninterrupted work time. Another option to keep a clean inbox and stop getting sidetracked by personal messages is to establish a separate email address only for work and make an effort to read, sort, and respond to correspondence accordingly.
If you’re prone to checking your favorite websites when you should be working, try using LeechBlock, an extension that allows you to “ban” time-sucker sites between certain hours – you can even set “allowed” check-in times, such as five minutes of Facebook after 45 minutes of work. Currently LeechBlock only works for Firefox, but other browsers have similar extensions – WasteNoTime for Safari and StayFocusd for Chrome users.
6. Use a Dedicated Browser
I have two different browsers on my computer: one for work and one for casual surfing. The casual surfing browser is packed with distractions, from open tabs to bookmarks, email notifications, and messaging. When I have free time, I use my surfing browser so I can quickly check my favorite sites and connect with others.
On the other hand, my work browser is almost completely bare. I only keep job-related bookmarks and outfit it with apps and extensions that help me stay productive. The result is an ability to access the Internet without being distracted by funny videos or social networking feeds.
7. Get Organized
When you’re working from home, your job can actually become more stressful. Suddenly, you’re battling between home and work life, and a cramped schedule can disrupt your workflow. That means you have to do everything you can to optimize and organize your home office.
Getting organized before you ever sit down at your desk can make you less stressed and more productive all day long. One of my favorite apps for staying organized is Evernote, an app for iOS, Android, and Windows. It allows you to keep ideas, notes, pictures, and reminders all in one place which makes it perfect for that “eureka” moment when you’re away from your desk.
Keeping a clean office is also very conducive to staying on top of things. By organizing and filing loose papers, you’re going to spend less time searching for them when the time comes that you need them. A filing cabinet costs around $50 and it more than pays you back in saved time and increased productivity. It also makes your work environment much more pleasant.
8. Create Set Hours
It’s not always easy to clearly demarcate your home life from your work life when your computer is just a few feet away. The best way to deal with work burnout is to create a schedule. While it may be impossible to completely ignore your job after hours – especially if you work as a freelancer and have strict deadlines – you can always prioritize. Set a rule that your work hours are 9am to 5pm, and you reply only to urgent emails after that.
If your job requires you to track your hours, an app such as Toggl can be a great help. It notes the time you worked and allows you to send updates and time sheets to your supervisors. But even if you don’t need to hand in your hours, it can increase your productivity by letting you know how long you spent on a project and how much time you spent surfing the Web.
Just remember that when planning your work schedule you should also plan around breaks and meals. They’re an integral part of preserving your sanity. A morning break, midday meal, and afternoon break – even if it’s just to kick back and visit your favorite websites – can help you stay focused and avoid getting sidetracked when you should be working.
9. Eat in the Kitchen
Eating at your desk may seem like a no-brainer when you work at home, but I find that if I keep a snack at my computer, I’m soon distracted by the act of eating. Since it’s almost impossible for me to work while one hand is conveying food to my mouth, I usually end up using it as an excuse to stop working and surf around instead.
Your best bet is to make your home office a no-food zone. Keep a water bottle or cup of coffee handy for quick sips, but leave the major eating for the kitchen or dining room. This way you get a well-deserved break, but when you’re back at your desk, you’re ready to get to work.
10. Invest in Headphones
A couple of years ago, my husband got me a pair of noise-cancelling headphones for Christmas. I didn’t realize until I started wearing them for work what a thoughtful and invaluable gift they were.
Think of all the at-home noises that can disrupt your concentration. A ringing phone, a loud TV, kids playing, the doorbell, and even regular conversations can cause you to lose your train of thought or get frustrated. And, since it’s not feasible (nor fair) to expect all noise to simply stop when you’re working, noise-cancelling headphones are the next best thing.
They emit a frequency that helps muffle regular household noises, and are especially effective when paired with music. Similarly, White Noise Lite can also be a lifesaver. Just crank up ocean sounds to better focus on work when you’re in “the zone.” Headphones also work as a great indicator for my family – if they’re on, it means mom is working and shouldn’t be bothered.
11. Use Cloud-Based File Sharing
Telecommuting can mean constantly sharing files between your home and your company’s offices. While it’s possible to email back and forth, attachments can get lost in the shuffle, especially if you’re regularly updating copies.
An excellent solution is a cloud-based file-sharing service, such as Dropbox, Google Drive, or Trello. With the ability to update in real-time, file sharing almost completely eliminates the problem of working with outdated documents. You can even override past files to reduce confusion, allowing your colleagues, boss, or clients access. It also keeps your inbox free of huge files that take up significant space.
12. Keep an Impeccable Calendar
Being present all day can mean tons of multitasking, such as driving kids to appointments or spending your lunch hour on the phone. A solid calendar helps you avoid over-scheduling and double-booking. Use Microsoft Outlook, Worktime for iOS, or My Work Schedule for Android – or simply the calendar on your smartphone.
Additionally, trying to sync up with colleagues and clients can be a pain when you’re not working together in a physical office. Set up meetings with a shared Google calendar and you can check in and choose a time slot that works for everyone. You can also send invitations and confirmations.
13. Ask for Help
You don’t have to do it all alone. Hire a babysitter for your kids, or consider hiring an assistant or housekeeper to help reduce the scope of your responsibilities and keep you focused. I always hire a mother’s helper for a few hours each day in the summer when my kids are on school break. I get some uninterrupted work time, and my children get the extra attention they need.
Whether you have kids or you’re flying solo, working from home means you’re constantly reminded of all the chores you need to do, adding a layer of stress to traditional office work. If you feel like you’re falling behind, ask your partner to pitch in and take over the responsibilities that distract you most. You can be more productive if you focus 100% on work, rather than on the dirty dishes in the sink or the errands you need to run.
14. Get Out and Socialize
It’s really easy to become practically glued to your office chair, especially when it’s conveniently located near your kitchen and bed – after all, what else do you need? However, it’s important if you work at home that you make an effort to get out of the house and socialize regularly.
Whether it’s attending an office lunch, going to a job fair or industry convention, or even meeting up with a group of other work-at-home pros, you can be more productive after spending some time away from work. What’s more, you can pick up tips and ideas from other professionals like yourself.
If you feel like you’re too busy to get out of the house and connect with others, consider it part of the job and pencil in time away from your desk as an appointment. Even if it’s just heading to the gym for a half-hour, you’re likely to feel a lot more human when you’re able to take a break, get outside, and talk to people during the day.
While an at-home job has a great many advantages, it can certainly be difficult if you’re not prepared for its challenges. By testing the waters and seeing what really helps keep you on track and on task, you can turn an at-home gig into a viable career – one that offers the best of both the professional and personal world.
Do you work from home? What are your best tips for productivity?