February 2007 was when I first started working from home. At the time I had three children aged seven, four and two. Later that year my fourth child was born, and another was born in September 2010.
Since then, I have continued to work from home as my wife and I have raised our five children and I have successfully operated my business. I’ve learned what works, and what doesn’t work and below are 15 lessons for successfully working from home.
A mindset shift is required
Successfully working from home requires a significant mindset shift.
Before working from home, I believed I was productive. I believed that I used my time effectively and produced great results. My career has been a journey of constant progression, so I have every right to believe that I was, in fact, highly productive.
Working from home taught me that my capacity for productivity was at least three times higher than I had previously thought it was.
However, having a young family meant that I had to completely re-think my mindset about what I thought constituted a “work-day”.
I also had to re-think how I thought about the interaction between ‘personal time’ and ‘professional time’. The change in my thinking is reflected in the 15 lessons below.
As you read each of these tips, expect to be challenged, curious and possibly uncomfortable as they challenge your thinking. Ultimately, focus on practical outcomes that match your current circumstances.
As much as is practical, create a private space in which to work. If you can shut a door to your workspace, then shut it. Teach young children and adults to knock before they enter. Put effort into this training as it pays off over time. Believe me, with five children; this practice has paid off many times over.
Tip#2: Remove distraction from your workspace
One of the advantages of working from home is that you can control the distractions that reduce your brains ‘bandwidth’, which in turn, reduce your productivity. Even if you think that you work better with background noises, turn off your television and don’t play music. If you have very young children, this allows you to have an “ear out” for them, so you can hear them when they call for you. If you have a baby or toddler, then a baby monitor is an allowable caveat to this practice.
Tip#3: Messy or clean desk?
Einstein is rumoured to have said, “If a messy desk indicates a messy mind, what then, of an empty desk?”
Pictures of Einstein indicate that he was a messy desk person. Personally, that’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it!
While being a messy-desk person is more how I tend to operate, the fact is, one principle from clean-desk people that works, is only to have the file (or priority) that you are currently working on, open on your desk. This behaviour helps maintain focus and helps you to avoid being distracted from the ‘shiny objects’ that continually appear while you are working.
Tip#4: Dress appropriately
You don’t have to wear a suit (unless it is appropriate), but you probably shouldn’t be wearing your pyjamas either. In our modern age, there is every possibility that you will be on a video call of some description. Your appearance matters. Also, when you are new to working from home, how you dress helps you to adopt the mindset that you are working.
Tip#5: Re-think 9 to 5
Working from home is not a 9 am to 5 pm proposition, especially if you have others at home with you. A ‘normal’ day will be between 7 am to 9 pm. You will ‘chunk’ your time between ‘professional time’ and ‘personal time’. Your focus will be on achieving your three priorities, which is Tip #6. Getting the job done is more important than time spent on a task.
When working with others who are also working from home, understand that they will not be available every minute of 9 am to 5 pm. It is okay to have specific times when everyone may need to be available. Agree on these times and monitor them. A 9 am meeting for someone with young children who are now being home-schooled may be impractical because they may need to help their children commence their online school day. Be flexible.
Consider a 10-minute to 30-minute nap during the afternoon. A workday that spans 7 am to 9 pm, even though it will be interspersed with personal time breaks, is like driving interstate. It is tiresome. A “power nap” can do wonders for your energy. It isn’t “sleeping on the job” to re-energise.
Tip#6: Focus on three priorities
Focus on three priorities for the day. These represent the most important work that you need to do. Three priorities may not seem like much, but they add up over time. Think of working from home as being more like running a marathon, than a sprint. Book time into your calendar to work on your priorities. Protect this time. Continue to avoid 60-minute “chunks” of time, so you can continue to have “white-space” in your calendar for a number of the tips that follow.
Tip#7: Alternate between thinking/process work
“Thinking” work is the sort of work that requires some creativity and thought. For me, designing workshops, online content and preparing for my coaching sessions, are part of “thinking” work.
“Process” work is when I do work that is either repetitive or follows a known process. This work requires concentration, but it uses a different part of the brain compared to my “thinking” work. An example for me is completing my accounts.
When you are “chunking” your work time for the day, aim to alternate between “thinking” and “process” work. For me, based on the nature of my work, I prefer to have two out of my three priorities for the day to be “thinking” work. Pending the sort of work you do, you may need to do schedule more “process” work.
Tip#8: Re-think meeting lengths
Hour-long meetings are a thing of the past. Especially now. If you book hour-long meetings, your calendar will be filled with back to back to back meetings, which isn’t sustainable at any level. Set meeting times in 15-minute, 30-minute, 45-minute, 75-minute or 90-minute blocks. Online meetings beyond 90-minutes are rarely productive during the last 30-minutes. Creating meeting times that are not 60-minutes will create “white-space” in your calendar, which will be needed for doing work associated with your three priorities.
Tip#9: Check emails in small chunks of time
If your mindset is that because you are working from home, then you need to be “seen” to be working, then you will be at risk of feeling like you need to respond immediately to each email that arrives in your inbox. This behaviour will drive down your productivity. It does not work.
Providing you are following the advice not to book 60-minute meetings or “time-chunks” for your priorities, you can use the “white-space” outside these to check emails. Another strategy is to check your emails at the start of the day, middle of the day and end of the day, each for a defined period. Accept that emails will be coming and going at “strange hours” of the day, but resist the temptation to expect an immediate response when they are outside 9 am to 5 pm, and equally, resist the urge to respond to them when you receive them outside 9 am to 5 pm, unless you have agreed with your colleagues that you will be sending and receiving them early in the morning and late at night.
Aim to move an average of 10-minutes per hour. Consider investing in a ‘stand-up’ desk that has an adjustable height so that you can vary between sitting and standing. A significant risk of working at home is that you stop moving. Go for a walk. There really should be no excuse for achieving at least 10,000 steps per day when you are working from home. Move.
Tip#11: Single-task, NOT Multi-task
Multi-tasking is a myth. Unless you are a computer. More than one complex task for humans cannot be completed at a satisfactory level of competence when they are attempted at the same time. Walking and reading your phone is an example of two complex tasks that cannot be competently performed at a high quality. Focus on one priority for your set time-chunk. This practice works. Do it.
Tip#12: Do not plan a full day
Leave “white-space” in your calendar, especially if you are working from home with other people also studying or also working from home. Things will pop up that will require your immediate attention. If you plan a full day and don’t have some “wriggle room” so that you can adjust because of them, you will be setting yourself up to fail.
Tip#13: Go outside
Humans require vitamin D. Unless we ingest it, we need to get it from being outside during daylight hours. As much as possible, aim to eat outside. Or drink your coffee outside. Consider meditating for 10-minutes outside while you face the sun if you are lucky enough for it to be out. You’ll be amazed how 10-minutes outside can invigorate you.
Tip#14: Eat properly
When you work from home it is very easy to fall into the trap of non-stop snacking, quite often on sugar-filled foods. Resist this temptation. Avoid eating at your desk. Get up and move away from your desk when eating. On the contrary, always have water available. This, too, will help you move as you’ll need to get up and go to the bathroom from time to time!
Tip#15: Create a public schedule
If you are working from home, and other people are in the house with you, who are also working or studying from home, create a public schedule of who is working where, and what will they be doing. This will help you to be aware of the noise you are generating when others may be in a meeting or require some time for thinking.
If this schedule is public, also use it to make adjustments to your plans. Prepare to be flexible. I can’t begin to share with you how important this tip is if you want to survive working from home with other people in the house. Schedules work!
If you have worked from home for an extended period, what other tips would you recommend?
Gary Ryan helps talented professionals, their teams and organisations, move Beyond Being Good®