| January 15, 2015

Money & Career

10 Tips for Successfully Working from Home

vintage man working at home office desk

The rise of the digital age has allowed more and more people to work remotely and to start businesses in the comfort of their own homes. Working out of your house has a lot of advantages — no dress code, no commute, and more autonomy. But it also comes with unique challenges.

Whether you’re an entrepreneur starting an online empire from your bedroom or a contractor telecommuting for a big corporation, here are a few bits of advice on how to effectively work from home based on my own experience:

1. Have a set schedule. The most important thing you can do when working from home is to create a set work schedule for yourself and treat it just like a work schedule you’d have in an office. If you don’t, you’ll never get anything done.

You see, when you work from home the tendency is to be too flexible with your time. For example, you might take a break to get a drink of water from the kitchen. When you get there you notice it’s sort of messy, so you decide to clean up because, well, you’re in charge of your schedule. Forty-five minutes later, you have a clean kitchen, but you haven’t gotten any work done and now you need to pick up the kids from school. Whatever you wanted to get done today will have to be pushed to tomorrow. Had you implemented a set schedule, you would have told yourself, “Yeah, the kitchen is a pit, but I’ll get to it after I knock off tonight.” You wouldn’t go home from an office to clean your kitchen, so don’t do it when you work from home.

Another problem you may run into when you work from home is that people will assume you’re free to drop whatever it is you’re doing and attend to their needs or wants. If you worked at an office, they wouldn’t call for a long chat, or ask for a favor during the day, but they figure that since you’re at home all day, you’re able to ditch work whenever you’d like. If you don’t set boundaries with your work schedule, your productivity will greatly suffer. Politely ask friends and family not to drop by unexpectedly during the workday and to only call if it’s an emergency or just a quick question or reminder.

2. But, be flexible with that schedule. Just because you establish a schedule for yourself, doesn’t mean that schedule needs to run from 9-5. You can make it whatever you want, and tailor it to your own needs and proclivities. For example, because we want to spend our mornings hanging out with the kids, Kate and I work from 12-6, and then for a couple of hours after Gus and Scout go to bed.

3. Do your personal errands before or after work. This is related to the above points. Because you have the leeway to be flexible with your schedule, it’s tempting to do personal errands during the middle of the workday. While it’s nice to be able to go shopping or to the dentist at times when such places are less crowded, these trips can severely disrupt your work mojo. I find that whenever I’ve done personal errands during the middle of my workday, I can never get into a good flow because I’m constantly checking the clock to make sure I have enough time to get ready and be punctual for appointments. When I return from whatever it is I did, it will often take me a good thirty to forty-five minutes to get back into the work mindset. Couple that wasted time and attention with the time spent traveling to buy a new shirt, and you’ve lost some major productivity.

Bottom line: try to schedule your personal errands outside of home office hours.

4. Clock out (or don’t). One of the potential downsides of working from home is that there’s no set “quittin’ time.” Because you decide when to “clock out,” work can start bleeding over into all hours of the day. There’s certainly an argument for establishing a clear line between your work and personal life, especially if you’re not personally invested in your job, the drift causes you stress, and you need work-free time to rejuvenate. But I’m not sure compartmentalizing is essential for everyone.

Because I had always heard that separating work from your personal life was so important, when I became a full-time writer and found my work seeping into nearly every hour of the day, I stressed out that I was “doing it wrong.” Since Kate and I work together on the website, we’re talking about it all the time; there’s always something new popping up in my inbox; and even when I’m doing something unrelated to AoM, it’ll usually inspire an idea for an article! Yet I eventually made peace with this fact; I really enjoy my work, and it’s rather part of who I am, so I don’t stress anymore about not completely cordoning it off from my “real” life.

5. Get dressed (or don’t). One of the most common pieces of advice on working from home is that you need to get dressed as if you were going to an office job. I understand the thinking; research shows that what we wear does affect our frame of mind, so if you get dressed up, you’ll hypothetically shift into a “working” mindset.

As someone who has worked from home for over five years, I’ve been able to experiment with that idea off and on. My normal routine is to be showered and dressed after the gym in the morning. You’ll usually find me in jeans and a t-shirt. Because it’s been butt cold here in Oklahoma this winter, I’m wearing a hoodie sweatshirt right now. I’ve tried getting “dressed up” to work from home — as in put on a shirt and tie or at least a nice button down — but I didn’t notice any increase in my productivity. I now reserve getting gussied up for days when I’m meeting somebody for lunch or have other work-related appointments.

As to the idea that you should never work in your underwear or gym clothes and, at a minimum, put on a pair of pants, even these super casual get-ups don’t significantly affect my state of mind. Every now and then I have days where my schedule gets messed up, I don’t have time to shower, and I stay in my gym clothes all day long. On such days, I feel maybe slightly less focused, but I haven’t observed a noticeable change in my productivity.

All this is to say, don’t sweat the clothes thing when you’re working from home. Just do what works for you. If putting on an oxford and dress pants helps you to work more effectively, do it. If you can stay on task in gym shorts and a tank top, run with that (you can even literally start running, since you’re already dressed to do so!).

6. Establish a home office. While clothes don’t affect my work mindset all that much, my surroundings do. I just work better when I have a regular place where I do my work. I’ve had this habit since my days as a student. When I was an undergrad, I had a specific area in a secluded part of the library basement where I did all my studying. When I was in law school, I rented a desk in the law school library that I used as my set study space. I’d even take naps underneath it.

Today I have a home office that sits just off my bedroom. When I go in there, it puts me in a work mindset. I’ve got it decorated with stuff that inspires my thumos — a bust of Teddy Roosevelt, a memento mori skull, a statue of a Spartan warrior — and I have easy access to all my books in case I need to look something up.

Besides helping you be more productive, setting aside a specific space in your home as a work area comes with tax benefits. The IRS allows you to claim home-office deductions on areas in your house that are used exclusively for work. You can write off furniture, printers, and office supplies; you can also deduct portions of “indirect” expenses like property insurance, your mortgage, and utility bills.

You can claim these home office tax benefits even if you’re a company man whose company doesn’t provide you with an office and you’ve been forced to work at home.

Claiming home office tax deductions can be intimidating — it was for me at least. I highly recommend that you talk to an accountant to walk you through the rules and make sure you’re taking advantage of this deduction if you’re eligible.

7. Set up your computer so you don’t waste time on the internet. When you work from home it’s easy to let your personal computer use bleed over into your work computer use. Instead of working, you’re checking your personal Facebook or Twitter accounts.

This is of course a temptation office workers face as well, but the threat of a supervisor or co-worker walking by their desk keeps the habit in greater check, along with built-in workplace computer filters. At home, no one will know you’ve wasted an entire day surfing reddit except your cat and your anxious conscience.

To help combat the internet’s ever-present distractions, set up your computer so you’re not wasting time with personal web surfing. The easiest way to do this would be to create two user accounts on your computer: one for business use and one for personal use. On your business account, only allow apps and websites that you need to get work done — no Facebook, no games, no YouTube, etc. On your personal account, give yourself access to all the dumb stuff you like to surf and use.

If you still find the temptation to switch over to your personal account too strong, you might consider buying a cheap laptop just for personal use, while having a separate business computer on which you’ve blocked all the time-wasting stuff. Put your personal laptop somewhere inconvenient during the workday. By making it a hassle to access, you’ll be much more likely to stay focused on actual work.

8. Master the cloud. Become friends with Dropbox, Evernote, and other cloud services. It makes working remotely a breeze.

9. Change your venue every now and then. While I prefer to do most of my work from my home office, every now and then I like to go to a coffee shop near my house to do some work, especially if I’m trying to brainstorm new ideas. Research shows that simply changing your scenery spurs creativity (as a bonus, so does the coffee shop background noise!).

10. Get social. Probably the most significant downside of working from home is the greater isolation you’ll experience — it’s just you and your laptop all day long.

Despite the bad rap that office politics gets, many people find their closest friends at work. One study found that 36% of adults have met at least one of their closest friends on the job. Even if you don’t find your bosom buddy at the office, just being able to socialize face-to-face on a regular basis provides a myriad of psychological and physiological benefits. Believe it or not, small talk makes you happier!

Thus, many telecommuters or work-at-home entrepreneurs find that without the built-in social connections of the office, loneliness can become a big problem.

But it can be overcome. You just have to be a bit more proactive about your social life. Get involved in your church, join a recreational sports team, join a men’s group. For every interest you have, there’s probably a group for it in your area. Look them up on the web and start meeting up.

Another option is to set up shop in a “coworking space.” Coworking spaces have been popping up in many cities across the country the last few years. It’s a collaborative office where freelancers and small businesses can rent a space to work, be it a small room, or even just a single desk in a commons area. You’ll have to shell out money for it, but you get the advantages of being able to come and go as you please, wear whatever you’d like, and not have a boss looking over your shoulder, while also having a chance to network with and befriend other entrepreneurial types. Those who try this route also often report greater productivity, since they’re not distracted by their kids, the neighbor’s barking dog, and the temptation to crawl back in bed. Speaking of being distracted by your kids…

The Curveball: Working at Home…With Kids

Working at home when you’re single or childless, the above considerations aside, is a pretty straightforward proposition. Once kids are in residence, things get decidedly more complicated. On the upside, you may be able to arrange your schedule so that you can spend more time with your children than the average office worker. On the downside, kids can really throw a monkey wrench into your productivity.

There are a few different ways working at home with kids can be arranged:

Working at home, with the kids at home. In this scenario, your wife or a nanny watches the kids while you’re laboring away in your home office. In my experience, this set-up makes it difficult to be productive. You can establish whatever schedule you want, and ask not to be bothered, but the diaper-clad set aren’t big on respecting daddy’s boundaries: a baby’s caterwauling can penetrate more walls than you would ever think, and the barbarians will be at the gates!

The biggest issue actually isn’t even keeping them away, but that you’ll want to go to them. A baby’s cries are evolutionarily designed to elicit action; resisting the impulse to help them is quite difficult – at least it was for me. And your wife, no matter how much she respects that it’s your working time, will find it hard not to ask for some assistance during those moments of feeling overwhelmed that every parent inevitably faces. Consequently, you’ll likely find it hard to concentrate on the task at hand, and that you end up working in fits and starts.

The bigger your house, the more separate your working area, and the more sequestered your nanny/wife can keep the little ones, the better success you’ll have with this set-up.

Working at home, with the kids at an off-site location. When we first had Gus, we gave the above set-up a try, but found it really difficult to get things done – especially since both Kate and I work on the website. Thus, we ended up having Kate’s mom watch the kids in the afternoons at her house, while we work by ourselves at ours. It’s worked out tremendously well; Kate’s parents live just down the street, her mom got to quit a job she hated to take this one, and the kids adore their Nana.

If you don’t have a relative to watch the kids, other options are daycare, or having a nanny watch your kids at her place.

Working somewhere else, with the kids at home. Instead of the kids hanging out off-site, they can stay home with your wife/nanny, while you go and work at the library, a coffee shop, or coworking space. You’re no longer technically working “at home,” and will need to change out of your pajamas, but it’s another option if you need a space with less distractions.

Whether you’ve got kids or not, the key to successfully working at home is to be flexible and experiment. What works for other people may not work for you – so try out different schedules and set-ups to figure out your own personal best practices. You’re the king of your castle after all!

Do you work at home? What are your tips for staying productive and making a successful go at it? Share with us in the comments!

Last updated: July 21, 2016


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