For over 20 years I have largely worked from home.
During that time I have oscillated from uber-focused and motivated to positively stressed-out. At times it felt like a battle and at others, it has been my saviour, but no matter what, I wouldn’t change it for the world.
Here are the top tips which helped me turn working from home into the best life choice I ever made.
1. Your Environment (or Why Your Brain Is Confused)
Home is where you relax, kick back, enjoy yourself and switch off. That behaviour has been programmed into your brain since childhood. And I do mean programmed. Your brain recognises the home environment and ‘switches’ to different neural pathways that are aligned to what it expects from the environment, i.e. relaxation. (If you suddenly found a tiger in your living room your brain would switch into fight or flight mode because the environment had changed – also it would probably be a bit weird for you and the tiger.) And the more you program your brain with the information that home = relaxation the more difficult it is to switch to any other mode. It’s why it's so hard to get started with work because you’re fighting pathologically learned responses – your willpower is saying work but your brain is firmly in ‘relaxation’ mode.
The only way to break the pattern is to create a work area in your home. Now your circumstances will determine how far you can go with this. (I’m lucky enough to have a separate office but if you’ve just started your home working journey you may be working from the kitchen table.)
Take your time constructing your workspace because the more effort you put into creating the space the easier it will be to convince your brain that you’re in work mode. So, take your laptop and find a place with a table, an office-like chair, decent light, Wi-Fi, and some space around it. The idea is for you to get to something which looks as ‘office-like’ as possible. Whatever you can find around your home which makes the space more work-like will help – paper files, a work-pad, your briefcase, etc.
Take your time constructing your workspace
Don’t be tempted to work from the sofa or somewhere you relax as it will revert your brain back into chilling mode.
If you can leave everything in place from one day to the next then all the better but if you have to pack it away each day do it slowly and concentrate on moving your mind from work mode back to home mode. Reverse this when you ‘set up’ your office in the morning. Make it a ritual and give your brain time to adjust.
If you’re lucky enough to have a separate study to work from using the door as a physical threshold that, once you cross, changes your mental state. Having done this for years I can tell you that there is nothing more satisfying than closing the door of the office after a good day’s work and leaving it behind me. Once I’m ‘home’ I can properly dedicate myself to my family (you know the kind of thing... bedlam, chaos, and expense :)).
One other advanced point: Get dressed for work especially when you are at home. Studies have shown that people feel more work-like when they dress for their job. Putting on the work armour changes your psychology in the same way as described above because your brain picks up on the signal that you’re in work mode and changes your behaviour to suit (no pun intended).
2. Interruptions (or Will Everyone Shut the Hell Up!)
Anyone who has spent more than five minutes trying to work from home knows full well that it’s not the serene monastic retreat we would like to project on our Zoom meetings. The reality is that distractions and interruptions abound. And the more tedious work gets the more interesting the ironing becomes.
What can you do to stay focused? Fortunately, lots! Let’s start with the obvious, don’t work with the TV on. You may have noticed that when your friends are over and the TV’s on everyone will eventually start looking at it. It’s impossible not to because your eyes and brain are programmed to follow movement (it’s how we evaded being eaten by tigers). You cannot help yourself so anything that’s moving around you will eventually command your attention. Leave the TV off so you can just concentrate on work.
The more tedious work gets the more interesting the ironing becomes
When it comes to noise, I’m a bit rubbish – I just can’t think if people are talking (TV, radio, actual people). I end up writing what they're saying – I know, mad! So, I have to work in silence and in fact, so should you – at least sometimes. People believe that they work better with the radio on, but it depends on what you’re doing. If you need to concentrate, then listening to songs with lyrics or the news will distract you. (Your brain is trying to process two conversations; the inner monologue in your head which is work and the words pouring in your ears from the outside.) This slows down your processing power because you’re trying to assimilate two things at the same time. However, if you’re doing something mundane or repetitive songs, music and talk can help you stay focused.
Then there’s family – bless them. When you’re at work, tell them you’re at work. I forgot this rule recently my son stumbled into my office during a Zoom call exclaiming “Dad, I can do it, I can juggle!” (I then made him juggle on camera). Let them know you’re out of bounds but also let them know when you’re available for them. Having a clear and communicated work schedule helps you minimise interruptions.
3. Record Your Timesheet (or Look at Me, I’m Awesome)
Every customer of mine starts their consultancy with me with a simple but utterly horrifying exercise – that of recording how they spend their time. The results are almost always shocking because how we think we’re spending our time isn’t how we really spend our time. Let’s be honest we’re all rubbish at guessing how long something will take or how long it took for that matter so ask anyone how much work they’ve done on a particular task and their answer will be wildly inaccurate.
So, why is it important to track your time when working from home? Because there’s only you to answer to. When we’re working at an office, we have meetings, we have natural lunch breaks, and we have others defining our schedule but that can quickly change when working from home. No one knows when you started or finished work but you. No one will know if you decided to make dinner at 2 PM or cut the lawn or nip out to the shops. You’re not answerable to the clock in the same way you are when you’re at a physical office. That’s why a timesheet shows you exactly where your time has gone and allows you to control it.
Here’s my example, I try to get about 10 hours of work done a day. But life is full of, well, life and sometimes it’s impossible to ignore the demands of the home so I use a brilliant (and free) tool called Clockify. It tracks my time all day every day and reports back to me how much work I’ve done and on what project. It produces reports a bit like this:
4. Staying Focused (Or My Butterfly Brain Is Killing My Productivity)
Never mind family interruptions I can actually interrupt myself more often than they do. So, I’m 15 minutes into my work and … a cup of tea sounds nice or I wonder what’s on telly tonight or how many children does Boris Johnson really have? And when you’re at home (and no one’s watching) it’s easy to give yourself permission to ‘quickly’ just get diverted. Yes, I’m just as guilty as everyone else (he has “at least 6”, according to Wikipedia, btw).
Here’s my easy solution. Give in to it – but only once an hour.
Our brains can focus for approximately 52 minutes – maximum. After that our minds start to wander and worse still our productivity starts to drop sharply to the point whereby by the end of the day it’s taking you more than twice as long to do a task as it did in the morning. (This is partly down to decision fatigue as we can also only handle about 30,000 decisions per day so by the end of it our decision speed and judgement have disappeared – it’s why you might find yourself making questionable buying decisions at 2 AM.)
Our brains can focus for approximately 52 minutes – maximum
You can stay sharp throughout the day by breaking for 10-20 minutes after every 50. For simplicity, I break for 15 minutes after every 45 of focus. Now, theoretically, you should go and do something none work-related but, frankly, I’ve got too much to do so I substitute a full-on break for doing something else which is work-related that I enjoy. (Occasionally, I squeeze in 10 minutes of jazz piano or even worse tidy the house.) Once I get over the guilt, I feel so much better for the break and I’m able to work faster and longer.
A quick note about lunch: Don’t have it in your work zone. It’s tempting, I know, but don’t – actually have lunch reading, catching up on the news, talking to your family, whatever, just not over the sink and not at your desk. 1) It’s bad for your digestion 2) you’ll neither enjoy your food nor be particularly productive. Trust me, I’m a veteran.
5. Max Out Your Productivity (Or I’m A Genius For 3 Hours A Day)
As I got older, I noticed I get up earlier. I now consider 7 AM a lie-in. And, pathetically, by 9:30 PM I’m yawning but hey 6:15 AM, wow – I’m all go. It’s also when I can think with the greatest clarity and accomplish the most. We all have a ‘golden’ time during the day when we hit our peak, when’s yours?
Match what you’re best at doing to when you do it best
The trick is to make sure you’re doing the activities that are most appropriate to your energy levels and mental state so it would be a waste for me to do admin or accounts in the morning when I’m at my best, instead I focus on client work, marketing and creative activities. I do the ‘low IQ’ activities after lunch when I’m more sluggish. At 7:00 PM I’m back on form and so do training and writing then.
Find your ‘golden time’ and reorganise your activities so you’re accounting for it. Don’t be led by others either – if your best time to sell is in the mornings do it then and push all your other meetings and activities into the afternoon. Simply match what you’re best at doing to when you do it best.
6. Overworking (Or Oh Dear I Seem to Have Misplaced My Perspective)
I love what I do. A little too much sometimes and that sometimes translates into 60-70-hour weeks. It’s easy to do when you’re at home too because you haven’t got to get home – you’re already there. When you leave the office and go home you create a physical barrier between you and work – sure you can take it home but as I discussed in my first point, home isn’t designed to be conducive to work.
Be careful that the office part of “Home Office” doesn’t take over your home
The problem arises when you successfully turn your home into a workplace. Then it’s harder to switch back to home mode and it becomes easier to work than relax. That means you never switch off – not fully. Until I built the office, I could easily be faffing around in the home office at 10 or 11 PM. I wasn’t very productive, but I would usually find some guilty reason why I needed to be there. It was nonsense, building the office taught me that nothing needed my attention at 10 PM that couldn’t wait until the morning.
It means you must be careful that the office part of “Home Office” doesn’t take over your home. Make a definite point of switching off at a certain time, down tools and walking away. Whatever is pressing, it will still be there in the morning and you’ll be in a much better frame of mind to deal with it quickly and efficiently.
7. Motivation (Or Yeah, Baby! – Apologies Austin Powers)
Honestly, sometimes being a homeworker can feel like imprisonment. It has the potential to be the worst of all worlds = your home isn’t your home anymore and bits of your office are still your home. This can mess with your head as you try to reconcile the two opposing mental states.
The results of this can cause motivation depletion and this can happen out of the blue and often. It can also be a function of overwhelm or being on your own too much. The trouble is that when it happens, you’re usually at your least equipped to deal with it. So, I have an “In Case of Mental Emergency, Break Glass” folder. Inside are a few things I have found helpful in getting my mojo back:
A simple written three-step process to handling overwhelm:
Walk away (literally)
Write a list (Check out Trello – the best list software on the planet, IMHO)
Do ONE thing and finish it
A list of things which I’m looking forward to achieving (holidays, sales targets, etc.)
A letter I wrote to myself which reiterates the WHY I’m in business
Focusing on little hour-by-hour and day-by-day rewards once things are ticked off the list.
Here’s the advanced tip: read 1, 2 and 3 every day. That way, you’re always maintaining and renewing your mojo on a daily basis. Since doing this I’ve never had to break the glass!
There you go, 7 steps to homeworking bliss from an old hand. Of course, I live and breathe these every day and am perfect at them, as you can imagine, but with a little practice and perseverance, you too could be as good as me… or I could just admit the truth…
Whilst writing this article for you, I was interrupted as follows:
3 times by my son needing support on Excel (like suddenly I’m a mathematician)
1 emergency call out by my wife who smashed a glass down the stairs along with spilling half a pint of tea.
1 extensive juggling lesson with son (now an expert juggling mathematician)
1 fleeting chance to see my daughter from a distance at my front door (thank you Covid-19, I wish you nothing but extinction)
1 exciting 30-minute episode of putting the groceries away followed by
1 diversionary trip around the house with the hoover.
Well, it was a Saturday so I’m going to forgive the family – for now!