How to work from home
Suddenly, the entire world has been told to ‘work from home’. If you haven’t done it much, it can provoke lots of questions - ‘How do I stay focused?’ ‘What colour pyjamas will boost my productivity?’ ‘Does feeding my cat count as a ‘resource allocation meeting?’.
Early this morning, I had a telephone call with a client who has been told she has to work from home ‘until we know more’. She had lots of questions about it, and asked me particularly what I do to keep myself motivated and focused.
My honest answer was that I find it as difficult as anyone else to stay focused. But as we chatted, I realised that, in fact, I have learnt a few things across more than two decades of working from home. She seemed to find our conversation useful, so I thought I’d write the main ideas here, in case they help you too. It turned out to be a long list (it was, after all, an interesting distraction from my ‘real’ work!), so I’m sure that there’s at least one thing that you’ll benefit from reading
- Get used to the fact that many people think you’re ‘working’ not working. It’s easy for partners, significant others, flatmates, or whichever polyamorous family unit you live with, to assume that you’ll have time to clean, cook and organise the house because you’re ‘not really working’. Don’t respond to their expectation by trying to fulfil it!
- Environment matters. If you’re lucky enough to have a spare room, dedicate that as your ‘working space’. If you haven’t got a room, then dedicate a particular space, such as a kitchen table. Ideally, get a separate desk. Having a ‘working space’ really helps to stay focused and get work done. Ideally, prepare this space the night before, so that you don’t spend a lot of the day ‘getting ready to work’. (A bit like putting your gym kit out the night before, so that you’re forced to go to the gym).
- You’ll have to learn to be strict about stopping work. It’s easier to do this if you can close the door on a room, or leave the table you’ve been working at.
- I don’t know why, but clothing really matters. It’s incredibly tempting to stay in your pyjamas all day (you DO wear pyjamas don’t you? I’m assuming I’m not connected to any slovens!). I find that I’m much more productive if I change into trousers and a shirt early in the day.
- Time works differently when you work from home - the whole rhythm of the day is different to what you might be used to, so don’t feel guilty about this. Your day will be structured less around hours, and more around your natural energy levels, and priorities. You have to learn to focus less on the clock, and more on getting the right tasks done. If you’re not hungry at 1pm, you don’t have to take a lunch break. Equally, if you’re just not ‘feeling it’ at 10.30, it’s perfectly fine to go for a short walk to clear your thoughts and wake yourself up.
- On that note, many people (including me) find it useful to write down the 3 most important things you have to get done in the day and commit - no matter how many distractions there are - to get at least those three things done.
- You’ll focus better if you have visual reminders of what you need to work on - try and get a whiteboard, or a mini-flipchart where you can write down your outstanding tasks so that you can see them easily. If notes are written on your computer, it’s easy to miss them.
- If you find it very hard to stay on track, schedule online meetings and calls at various times to give your day structure and a sense of movement. For example, you could schedule a 9am and 14.00 check-in with a colleague about an existing project. It’s very easy for a day to run away from you if you have no external demands.
- Conversely, however, feel free to say ‘no’ to time-wasting meetings and conference calls. Ask for an agenda whenever anyone requests a call or online meeting, and stick to it. Often, asking for an agenda will either mean the meeting doesn’t happen, or it’s much shorter than it would otherwise have been. It’s very difficult for anyone to work well if their day is full of long, ill-prepared conference calls, so don’t be afraid to be strict about this.
- You’ll get odd distractions, such as parents phoning for a chat, and neighbours assuming you’re happy to become an extension of the local delivery service. Learn (in an appropriate way) to say no to these distractions. Turning your phone off, and taking the batteries out of the front door bell work well!
- The various pings, tings and bings of email, Whatsapp, Slack and so on can be a drain on your energy and reduce your focus. Dedicate time for ‘deep work’ and, at these times, either turn the wifi off completely, or at least turn email off. Enjoy the fact that no one can walk over to your desk for ‘a quick word’.
- Working from home means that what feels like ‘a quick check’ of Facebook and Twitter actually becomes 3 hours wasted. It’s easier to avoid social media platforms completely if you can. If you can’t, set strict time limits in advance, and keep to them.
- Make sure you get plenty of movement and breaks in your day. I go to the gym almost every weekday morning. I find that I work much better if I’ve done even a short workout. I feel more awake and have more energy. If you don’t like the gym, try a short walk. Leaving the house early, and then returning to ‘start work’ can make a big difference. Moving around during the day is crucial. The longer we’re sat at a desk*, the more our productivity drops. *(A working from home ‘desk’ can often be a sofa, or lying in bed with a laptop propped up on your knees, of course!)
- You’ll work better with beautiful, easy things. I’m serious! Get the best quality notebook you can, get the easiest and quickest coffee machine, and have the largest, cleanest working area possible.
- Make sure that your systems are set up to work well from home. It’s energy-draining and time-consuming to have to spend a lot of time logging in, or being unable to access documents on shared servers.
- If you’re doing a lot of online meetings and presentations from home, invest in a good quality microphone (I use the Rode Lav+ which works with any headphone socket, including most smartphones). Audio quality is more important than video quality for most meetings and presentations online.
- If video IS important, then try to find yourself an uncluttered background, and make sure you’ve got some light falling on to your face.
- Try to shop the night before for anything you’ll need in the day. If you have to ‘pop out’ for printer paper, or milk, it’s easy to lose half of the day.
- The ‘Pomodoro’ method can work well for getting tasks done. You deliberately set a timer which is enough time to get some work done, but not long enough to lose focus. After this, you give yourself a short, timed break. When I wrote my (award-winning!) book*, I set my timer for 48 minutes ‘intense’ work, and then 12 minutes relaxing. Allow your mind to rest from the work you’ve been doing. It’s counter-intuitive, but you’ll have much more focus and energy afterwards.
- Sometimes, you just can’t focus. You’ll end up staring at the wall, or browsing Facebook, or suddenly looking at that magazine that’s been lying around for years. It’s ok. Don’t beat yourself up about it. People are doing it in ‘real’ offices too, they’re just disguising it a bit. Just make sure you’ve got an ‘easy’ task lined up to ease you back into real work.
- Nutrition will affect your energy and mood. For me, low-carb, high-protein is the way to go always. Somehow, a ‘quick biscuit’ always turns into a seven-packet feast, resulting in me having a carb-coma, existential crisis, and guilt-session for the rest of the afternoon.
- Having a siesta is not only fine, it will make you more productive! When I’m working from home, I always feel an energy slump between 2-3pm. I don’t fight it anymore - I make myself an espresso, and then lie down and have a light sleep. After about 25 minutes, the espresso kicks in and I wake up, refreshed and ready to go!
Working from home can be a delight, and you’ll find that if you use some of the ideas here, and accept that the rhythm and flow of the day is different to what you’re used to, you’ll get at least as much done as you normally do, and maybe quite a bit more.
*My book is called ‘The Busy Person’s Guide To Great Presenting’ and yes, you can buy it online - thanks for asking! Here’s the link: Click here