I’ve been working from home for the past 14 years, and it’s been interesting to watch the shift between in-office and at-home workplaces in 2020. A survey conducted by PwC found that 55% of employers expect that working from home will be a long-term arrangement.
Thanks to my own long-term work-at-home arrangement, complete with three kids and a busy household, I’ve had ample time to perfect a productivity strategy that works for me. I’ve learned that 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.
Tips for Working From Home to Increase Productivity
Staying on task in a workspace that includes kids, instant access to social networks, and an infinite number of other distractions can be tough. Here’s how to keep the distractions at bay and boost your productivity when 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.
Whatever your approach, what’s important is keeping your work life and personal life separate. Unless you have nowhere else to work, keep your bedroom and your workspace separate so you aren’t tempted by your bed during the day or tempted by your laptop at night.
Even if you’re home alone, having a dedicated home 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 — for example, a 200 square-foot office in a 2,000 square-foot home would be 10%. You can then deduct that percentage of the 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 questions, consult a tax professional from somewhere like H&R Block who specializes in small-business taxes.
2. Invest in Your Office Inventory
It’s important that your home workspace has all the accouterments 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 landline business phone or a business-only cellphone (look into Xfinity Mobile)
- 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.
Take daily inventory and make sure that you have everything you need before you get started. That way, you’re not interrupting your workflow to hunt down a laptop charger or scrambling to find printer paper.
3. Prioritize Your Day
Setting priorities is important at 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 use 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, try Remember the Milk, which also works with Alexa, Google Assistant, and Siri to allow 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 work at home with kids, you need everyone’s cooperation. Call a family meeting and explain to your children that you need to focus during work hours. Talk to your partner about your schedule and trade off kid duty if you’re both working from home so you each have dedicated time to focus.
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 the kids in a visual and easy-to-understand way.
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 to them, 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 networks only at designated times throughout the day. Even if you check every 30 minutes, you’ll 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 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.
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.
By contrast, 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 the 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. 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 also helps you stay on top of things. By organizing and filing loose papers, you’ll spend less time searching for them when 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. Set Office 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 foster work-life balance is to create a work schedule. Although 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, for example, 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 timesheets to your supervisors. And 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 you’re planning your work schedule, you should also plan for 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 the Web 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. That way, you get a well-deserved break, but when you’re back at your desk, you’re ready to get to work. Don’t forget to quickly tidy up after eating so you aren’t sidetracked by a sink full of dishes.
10. Invest in Headphones
If you’re easily distracted, a good pair of noise-canceling headphones might be one of the best purchases you make. 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 become frustrated. And, since it’s not feasible (or fair) to expect all noise to simply stop when you’re working, noise-canceling headphones are the next best thing.
Noise-canceling headphones emit a frequency that helps muffle regular household noises, and they’re especially effective when paired with music. Similarly, the White Noise Lite app for iOS or Android 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 your family — if they’re on, it means you’re 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 or clients’ offices. Although it’s possible to email back and forth, file 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 at home all day can mean tons of multitasking, such as driving kids to appointments or spending your lunch hour on the phone. A well-maintained calendar helps you avoid overscheduling and double-booking. Use whatever works for you, whether that’s a paper planner, your phone’s calendar, or an app to help you stay on top of your days.
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, which are automatically added to the calendar as needed.
13. Ask for Help
You don’t have to do it all alone. Hire a babysitter through Care.com for your kids or consider hiring a virtual assistant or housekeeper or even trading duties with a neighbor or friend to help reduce the scope of your responsibilities and allow you to focus. If it’s in the budget, asking for some support reduces the pressure of balancing it all. When you know that your other responsibilities are being taken care of, you’ll have an easier time being productive.
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 or older kids 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.
Pro tip: If you’re looking to hire cleaners for your home, Handy.com is a great option. You’ll be able to handle everything online and you can schedule them to come as frequently as needed.
14. Get Out and Socialize
It’s all too 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. Even something as simple as a weekly Zoom call with your coworkers can make you feel more connected.
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 park for some fresh air and a wave to your neighbors, 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.
15. Tap Into Your Ultradian Cycle
You’ve probably heard of your circadian cycle — a pattern that governs your sleep and wake cycles. But the lesser-known ultradian cycle could be the key to unlocking productivity by governing your rest and activity cycles. Basically, most people’s brains can handle peak productivity for about 90 minutes, after which they need a 20-minute break for a less-intense task. This pattern is your ultradian cycle.
Pushing yourself to be hyper-productive without giving your brain some downtime results in burnout because humans simply aren’t programmed to focus for long stretches at a time. It’s the same idea as the Pomodoro Technique, which uses 25-minute work blocks with five-minute breaks.
Obviously, everyone is different, so try testing your focus by setting a timer and seeing how long you’re able to focus on a task before starting to feel burned out. Then, you can use those blocks of time to the fullest by adding “brain breaks” throughout the day. Walk your dog, scroll through social media, make a snack, or catch up on news knowing that you’ll be more focused and productive when you’re done.
Although an at-home job has a great many advantages, it certainly can 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 worlds.
Do you work from home? What are your best productivity tips?