When I first started working from home in 2015, it felt like a dream. I could wake up late, stay in my pajamas, and eat ice cream straight from the pint. If I felt like taking a three-hour nap in the middle of the day, I could do that too.
After missing multiple deadlines and generally failing to keep up with my workload, I flipped in the other direction. Suddenly I was working 12 hour days, scared to take breaks, and even more scared to take days off. As you might expect, this led to massive burnout and uncertainty about my future as a freelance writer.
As I eventually found out, the key to working productively from home is finding an equilibrium. Without the structure of an office setting, you need to determine for yourself when to hunker down and when to ease up. You need to be your own boss, and that’s not always easy.
Here’s what I’ve learned in my five years of working from home, and how you can apply it to your own situation.
Create a routine
Whether you think about it or not, you probably have a routine at the office. These routines make it easier to get into the groove, telling your brain when it’s time to work.
Having a routine is even more essential when working from home because there’s no separation between your personal life and work life. You can mitigate this by getting up, starting work, and ending work at the same time every day.
When you have fewer decisions to make, your brain has more energy for critical thinking. Rather than spending your precious brainpower thinking about when to start working or when to take lunch, you can focus on more important tasks and decisions.
Your routine can be different than everyone else’s. I like to enjoy my coffee and walk my dog before starting the workday, but other people like to work as soon as they wake up. Choose what works for you and your schedule.
Don’t forget to create a routine signaling when the workday is over, like cleaning your desk, shutting down your laptop, and turning off email notifications. This will help your brain shift into a more relaxed state, allowing you to mentally recover before the next workday.
Eat the frog
“If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. If it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.”
This Mark Twain quote underlines a fundamental principle of working from home successfully. When you write your daily to-do list, start with the hardest or most unpleasant task. When you start the workday, finish that task before moving on to anything else.
When you eat the frog first thing, you have more mental energy and discipline to complete the task. You’ll begin the day with a feeling of accomplishment, rather than feeling more anxious as the day goes on. As an added bonus, everything you do afterward will seem easy in comparison.
Claim your space
Whether you’re exercising, meditating, or working from home, it helps to have a space devoted to that activity. A dedicated space reinforces when it’s time to focus on a particular task, helping to reduce distraction.
It doesn’t matter if you have a separate home office or just a corner of the dining room table. It just has to be a spot where all you do is work.
This is especially important if your spouse or partner is also working from home. Try to pick a space far away from them or at least out of view. Even having someone else in your peripheral vision can be a distraction.
You should also pick somewhere with a hard surface. Working from the couch or in bed might seem more comfortable, but it’s harder to work in the same spaces you use for relaxation.
Take regular breaks
While it’s important to maximize your focus and mental discipline while working, it’s equally important to give yourself breaks. Staying glued to your computer 100% of the time will just result in burnout, ultimately reducing your productivity.
Use your break to do something simple and mindful. Play with your dog, throw in a load of laundry, or read a magazine. I like to make a list of easy tasks to do during my breaks, like watering the plants, cleaning up clutter, or checking the mail.
Make your own list of simple chores you can get done in less than 10 minutes, preferably not involving a computer. You want this activity to feel different enough from your work so your mind gets a real break, but not so relaxing that it becomes harder to start working again. Save that kind of leisure time for after the workday ends.
Be honest with others
When you’re working at home with other people around you, you need to establish boundaries. Most of us need focused time to hone in on our work. If your spouse, child, or roommate is interrupting you every 15 minutes, it can be hard to find that rhythm.
Talk to your housemates and tell them what you need. If you’re in a separate room, you can leave the door open if you don’t mind being interrupted and close it when you need to be alone. Make sure to reinforce your boundaries if they’re broken and explain that it’s not personal – it’s just business.
Be realistic about your productivity
When you work from home, it’s tempting to expect yourself to be as productive as you were in the office. But if you’re working with a spouse or child nearby, you have to be more realistic.
Putting pressure on yourself to maintain the same workload in less-than-ideal conditions will just lead to frustration and stress. Instead, you have two options: Accept a reduction in productivity or find creative ways to make it up.
The second option may include working during some evening hours while your child is asleep or getting up early before the rest of the family. You may have to resort to letting your child watch more TV than normal or ask them to entertain themselves.
Working from home can be a whole new world, so it’s critical to set realistic expectations, both for yourself and those who share your space. And keep in mind that not everything is going to go smoothly or according to plan, especially in the early going. Cut yourself a little slack as you make the transition. Before long, you’ll have figured out your perfect balance of eating frogs and ice cream right from the carton.
–By Zina Zumok