NEW YORK (MainStreet)When I made the decision to start working from home I was certain that, of all the challenges ahead, actually getting work done would be the easy part. After all, I had just left practice as a "BigLaw" attorney with an absolutely punishing schedule. I'd spent years building my career on 14 hour days and 24/7 availability. If anybody had the discipline to sit down at his kitchen table and just get the job done, I thought, I did.
I had visions of sleeping until noon, working until midnight and taking breaks any time I pleased. I would finally build my work schedule around my personal life instead of the other way around. The flexibility would allow me to be so much more productive, because I would finally be working on my time instead of everybody else's. It was going to be great.
As it turns out, this couldn't have been more wrong. In fact, according to the experts, the more flexibility in home work habits, the worse off you are. So after a few educational, and humbling, conversations with time management professionals Peter Turla and Elaine Quinn, here are ten tips for effectively working from home.
Set Normal Office Hours
As my editor could tell you from countless e-mails after three a.m., I'm already off to a pretty bad start on this list. A lot of self employed people enjoy being able to work any time they want and take advantage of their freedom to do just that. In my case, that generally involves waking up at noon, drinking coffee after midnight and going to bed sometime shortly before sun up.
According to Peter Turla, a former NASA engineer turned time management expert, this is the first step toward ruining your productivity.
"Get a schedule of discipline for yourself," Turla said. "You pretend you're going to work, even if it's just going into another room in the house."
Turla advises his clients to treat each day like a workday, whether or not they're going anywhere. When you have an office, he explained, you have a time and place you have to stick to. It gives the day structure. Without that framework, it's very easy to let the rest of your work slip and treat the entire afternoon like a semi-productive Saturday instead of the workday that it really is.
Plan Out Your Schedule
Another apparent benefit to self employment is the ability to work when it's convenient. Unfortunately, it's a short step from "when it's convenient" to "when I get around to it," and that's how deadlines surprise you. According to Elaine Quinn, author of There's No Place Like Working From Home (Calloran Publishing, 2011), this is a very fixable problem.
"[Structure] your day," she said. "When you're in a normal office environment, work comes to you, and you do it and then you just move on... At home you have to structure it yourself."
In an office, schedules are the natural part of life. They're a byproduct of working and coordinating with other people, and in a company of any size, the calendar quickly fills up. Although at the time that list of deadlines and meetings seems like a pain in the neck, after the office you might end up missing it. Having a schedule not only imposes discipline, but it breaks the day up into a series of more manageable tasks.
In an office you'll never start the day with "Item One: Create and sell an ingenious product," and you shouldn't try it at home either. Even if you don't have any external deadlines, draw something up based on reasonable goals for the bigger picture and stick to it. You'll find that a lot more gets done.
This entry falls into that category of obvious things we somehow manage to forget. As Turla said, "allowing [yourself] to get distracted too easily is a bad habit. At home [you] actually need a higher level of focus because there are so many distractions, whether it be a trip to the refrigerator or turning the TV on."
The latter comes up often for Quinn.
"Some people try to sit and do their work on a laptop in front of the television, and multitasking really doesn't work," she said. "Your brain isn't set up to work like that."
As both experts explained to me the number of clients they coach not to split their attention, this writer had to hold his tongue about having just finished an article while watching three episodes of The West Wing. At home, we simply have more to split our focus than in the office. Most workplaces are built to minimize distractions, and as grim as featureless gray felt and coffee stained break rooms feel, they're there for a reason.
We pay attention to shiny objects, and when that new novel, snack or season of Arrested Development calls your name, it can be tough to resist. If you want to get work done, listen to the experts: pay attention to one thing at a time.
Get Out of the House
As counter-intuitive as it may seem, sometimes the best way to work from home is to leave it.
"You need a change of scenery," Turla said. "If you can't work out of the house, at least look out a window or go for a walk."
The fact is, sitting at your kitchen table day-in and day-out can get monotonous. With nothing more to look forward to than the same chair in the same place in front of the same screen, it's easy to lose focus. Change your location a little bit. There's a reason that coffee shops are crowded at 2 p.m. on a Tuesday. They're not full of people who are out of work; they're packed with people who are actually at work.
If soft rock and lattes don't do it for you, try a local bar. Most of them are slow enough in the afternoon that the bartender will be happy to let you have a table just to make the place seem busy. Grab a beer, sip it slowly and enjoy being out of the house. Just remember to leave a decent tip.
Often people who leave a company to work from home don't fully realize how lonely it gets. Although you might swap e-mails and calls during the day, that doesn't replace the companionship of having someone in the next office.
"A big thing is the loss of the social network," Quinn said. "People really come to depend on their coworkers for bouncing ideas off of and for social contact. When you work from home that all goes away."
Beyond social interaction, Quinn advises her clients to seek connections outside of their home in the business context. One idea she suggests is for people to collaborate and swap skills to which they otherwise wouldn't have access. A writer working from home might be helpless if his computer breaks, while a technician down the road might have no idea how to write compelling copy for her website.
"Something what takes you all day to figure out, someone else likes to do," Quinn said, "and they're good at it."
The fact is, whether it's a new client or just someone to have a cup of coffee with, we all depend on other people. Offices come with a ready made network. As a home worker it's up to you to replace that.
Remember to Go Off the Clock
This is one that I have a lot of trouble with as well.
"The hardest part for a lot of people who work from home is to stop working," Turla says. "When you're self employed there's always more that you could be doing. Always. If you keep chasing after more, better, different--you'll burn yourself out. So you need to get some high quality goof off time."
Turla emphasized that this is a problem he sees particularly with people who work in a creative field, but almost anyone can suffer from it. You want to put out the very best product, so you never stop taking "one last look." Or maybe you have a list of ideas to grow the business, or a couple new thoughts for a website. There's always something else to do, another reason to go back on the clock, and it's not healthy.
We all need time to relax and unwind, just to stop thinking about work for a while and let our brain unpack. One technique that Turla recommends is physically dividing up the space in your home, creating one specific area where you work and keeping the worlds apart. If you're at the desk you're on the job, otherwise not.
"Every day have a goal for 'when will I be done today?'" Turla said. "Give yourself permission to walk away from that computer."
Working from home means keeping a particularly careful eye on your use of time. In an office this happens behind the scenes; someone reviews assignments and productivity to make sure that each hour of work actually helps the company profit. On your own, you should do the same thing. Turla recommends that you sit down and figure out specific goals. Decide what you want to achieve and how you want to get from here to there.
"Every time you start something ask yourself, 'is what I'm about to do going to make a contribution to what I'm trying to achieve?'" Turla said. "The key is to be mindful of how you're spending your time."
The results can be surprising. Some time-wasters are obvious; most time spent on Facebook is time not spent creating value for example. Others sneak up on you. Sometimes you do things out of habit, or because they once seemed like a good idea. Keeping an audit of how you spend time and where your energy goes can make the workday a more efficient and bring your goals a lot closer to life.
Let's not kid ourselves; we all do it, except for that handful of people who also eat right, exercise regularly, floss and keep no dirty dishes in the sink. It's important to remember, though, that procrastination can be about a lot more than just lack of focus. It's one thing to turn off Game of Thrones, but if you find yourself re-sorting the sock drawer, dusting the countertops and starting a button collection just so you can organize it, there might be something else going on.
"Most people have trouble with procrastination, because they're doing new things," Quinn said. "They're not sure how to do them, so they put off doing them until they have a problem on their hands."
It's easy to get overwhelmed when you work from home, especially if you've started a business. There are so many things that should be done eventually, many of which you've never handled before, that without even realizing it you just start to shut everything out. A good technique is to focus only on what needs to get done today, to create the goals and schedules mentioned above, so that the job doesn't seem so overwhelming. It's a lot easier to take on one small task at a time than to panic in front of three enormous, year long goals.
Take Advantage of Tools
There's an entire cottage industry of tools and software out there to help people stay focused, and you should use it. In fact, Turla has dedicated an entire section of his website to them. Turla particularly recommends two pieces of software called Cool Timer and Stickies that help him stay organized. Cool Timer is simply a timer for your computer.
"Every x minutes, it pops up on your screen to let you know how much time has passed," Turla said. It allows you to keep track of the passage of time, which can be invaluable. It's very easy to look up at the clock and wonder where the afternoon went. Cool Timer reminds you that the day is whizzing by before it's all gone.
Stickies creates post it notes for your computer, ones which can be put up or taken down as needed. You can use them to keep to-do lists, jot down notes or write important reminders. One such note that Turla never takes down reminds him to be grateful for getting to do something that he loves.
"There's more to time management than getting things done," he said. "It's also about having a good attitude."
Take Advantage of Your Past
For many people working from home is a second job, which means you probably have a whole other history and skill set that you spent years developing. Don't throw that away! Even if you hated your last job, there's no need to ignore everything you learned at it, and I write this as a refugee from the single most unhappy career in America. Yet my background as a lawyer has absolutely made me a better reporter, and I call on that training often, even in seemingly unrelated topics.
"Most people find that it's foolish to not take advantage of what their past experience is," Quinn says. "That's what's marketable, that's what distinguishes you, so fall back on that."
Working from home is increasingly becoming a second career for people, and Quinn advises them to use their talents from that previous career. Whether it's a network of contacts, insight into particular industries or a set of applicable skills, you walked out of the office with something. That's what will set you apart, especially in the early stages while you build a new career.
Eric Reed is a freelance journalist who writes frequently on the subjects of career and finance. You can read more of his work at his work at his website www.wanderinglawyer.com.