How To Work From Home Like You Mean It

Working from home requires a new mindset and a good system, not just a nicer pair of pants (but put those on, too).

Despite all the stories you’ve heard, the hardest part of working from home isn’t putting on pants every day. 

I’ve been working from home, a few different homes, since late 2007. And the biggest thing I've learned during those four years is that working from home doesn’t have to change how you get work done, but it does change nearly everything else about your gig. When there are hard, regular deadlines and a constant flow of work, it is just like being at an office—with the added advantage that nobody else is there to interrupt my train of thought with an impromptu visit. And then there were times when I nearly broke down and told the boss the truth about why that weeklong project was in such sad shape: Because just when I need to focus it becomes clear that there are a lot of interesting links to look at on the Internet. Like this one.

I'm far from the only person to have confronted the joys and challenges of telecommuting. So I asked a few productive work-from-homers what they would do differently, if they could go back in time and reboot their office. Here’s a bit of home-working hindsight that might help you out the next time you’re going to work from home, whether it's for a day or a career.

Look the Part, Be the Part

It’s one of far too many great quotes from Proposition Joe in The Wire, and great advice for getting more done at home.

Dressing for work and "arriving" on time, eating lunch on a rigid schedule, shaving, brushing, and so on seems pointless at first. But not doing these basic preparations is the start of a steep, Teflon-coated slope to all kinds of other transgressions. If you’re not dressed well enough to greet the UPS delivery person, you’re giving yourself license to hide. If you’re hiding, then you imagine nobody can see Netflix open on your second monitor. On and on it goes, until you spend a two-hour lunch watching Portlandia on your couch with your iPad, grabbing your way through a bag of kettle chips. After that you'll try and fake your way through an afternoon of self-loathing busywork.

It’s not clever psychological trickery. It’s having respect for the work you do, wherever you do it. John Herrman, tech writer and assistant editor at Popular Mechanics, suggested in a Twitter chat that it's almost like treating your working self's worst tendencies like a prisoner of war, or maybe someone suffering from grief: Keeping up rituals, routines, and appearances is how you train yourself to do your work when you're supposed to, and set aside the fun stuff for after hours.

Schedule offline social time, batch your online social time

When you're in an office, you'll occasionally wish for fewer distractions, more privacy, and for Todd in acquisitions to find a job somewhere else. When you've been working from home at a frantic clip, you'll start to realize how much you miss talking to somebody other than your dog, having a good excuse to get up from your desk, and sharing in the struggle of other workers with intolerable bosses. And you start to fear you're heading toward the social condition depicted by The Oatmeal.

So schedule some regular out-of-home social times. When those sometimes fall through, you’ll realize the value of "batching" your online social time. It's very tempting to keep a Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ tab open at all times, along with Reddit, Hacker News, and other forums and fast-moving link-based sites. When they're always open, they're the equivalent of distracting coworkers, constantly shifting your attention away to complaints, jokes, gossip, and "Did you see..." discussions—the kind of stuff that makes it hard to get work done at work. You also come to appreciate them less, and they become more of a utility.

As geeky as it sounds, then, put your two or three "social breaks" right on your daily agenda or calendar. Don't open social or addictive news sites until that time. Breaking the habit will be hard at first, so try a tool like RescueTime to literally block yourself from your impulses and enforce your segmented work and play times.

Realize when the problem is motivation, not space

Distractions, temptations, and kids can all legitimately get in the way of doing work at home. But sometimes you have to step back and look at other reasons why you're avoiding the work that needs doing. Is it really because you don’t want to do it?

This is perhaps the hardest part of working from home. At an office, you are very likely to be found out and penalized if you spend all day checking Facebook or replaying Portal 2, so you at least make a stab at moving forward on even the most painful tasks. At home, it's up to you to stay motivated, and the things toward the very bottom of the Awesome Challenging Fun list might never get done.

The only real solution is summed up by designer and iOS developer Neven Mrgan: "Wake up unable to stop thinking about the awesome thing you're working on." If you lack for an awesome project, or a sense of where the work in front of you is going to take you, that’s probably the reason you’ll do anything other than what you have to do. Luckily, you can think that through and plan your next move anywhere, whether at home, in the office, or in line at the grocery store.

Kevin Purdy is one of the "most-read" authors on the web, according to Read It Later. You can read more of his Work Smart posts here.

[Image provided by Shutterstock]

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43 Comments

  • Jorge Orduna

    i work from home, and can't go back to the cubicle or office, it would kill me

  • Ama

    Great article.  I have been working from home for 12 years and have three kids ages 2, 3 and 6.   One thing I would ad is to have a child care plan.  It is essential when you have conference calls scheduled etc. 

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  • Sarah Wall

    For me, I have definitely found that "dressing the part" really does work! If I'm sitting around lounging in my pajamas, I am a lot slower at getting the tasks at hand completed. Staying organized has been difficult sometimes, but I find I am getting better at it. I'm now running three businesses from my home, all of which are online. 

    Sarah W.
    TheGroupMovie.com

  • Judy Heminsley

    You'll read plenty of 'rules' for working from home successfully, but I believe the crucial thing is to have the self-awareness to know your habits and preferences, the times you work best, where, in what kind of environment etc. It just makes life so much easier and more enjoyable than trying to conform to what other people do, and you'll get better results too.

  • christopher Farshay

    When learning how to work from home first you need to find a business that is actually do-able. Personally I use a few income streams which helps to bring in over $60,000 a year but I do know many people like to focus on one. If you need help or tips on how to make some money online i don't mind sharing secrets reach me at CMFARCHER@GMAIL.COM  

  • homegigz

    Yes, a great article and reminder for anyone seeing the greener grass in ways to work from home!

    As community manager, I work to provide the http://homegigz.com readers various work-from-home ideas they may review and consider.  Your article is a great reminder to me that I need to interject the many ideas with some real-life, work-at-home challenge that they will face too. 

    Thanks so much for your article.  This will definitely be one I share with others. 
    Rodney

  • alicia zirjacks

    Great Article. I have been working from home for some time and often times it is more time consuming than an out of the home job would be. It is hard to keep from being distracted

  • Ronald Cagape

    I just started to work from home last year and I'm still looking for my groove. My problem is I didn't develop great work habits while at work and so when I brought it home, I experience more difficulty. Nothing that can't be fixed though. 

    I love the flexibility but I'm finding that creating routines is key to getting things done.

  • Sharyn Sheldon

    Just saw this post as I was catching up on my reading and I had to add a few more tips. I've been working from home since 1995, both as an employee and later as my own boss.

    The key to efficiency for me has been to set a schedule, but to also be flexible. Life happens, especially when you have children, and one of the biggest benefits of working from home is to be able to handle any crises, rearrange your schedule as needed, and still get everything done.

    That said, I do schedule everything in my day, down to the minute if possible. At the beginning of the week I put together my to do list for the week and for each day. At the end of each day I'll reassess and see what I need to change for the next day. It only takes a few minutes.

    I then allot a specific amount of time for each task, whether it's writing an article, networking with colleagues, posting on social media, doing a workout, or even showering and doing my makeup. I could care less what I'm wearing, but there's no way I wouldn't put makeup on!

    If I don't set a time limit it's easy to let the work expand or to get distracted. If I suddenly get a call to pick up a sick child from school or some other emergency, I just rearrange everything. 

    Another trick I've learned is to vary where I work. Sometimes I can focus for hours at my computer in my office. Other times, I start getting distracted and just a change of venue helps to get back on track. That could involve moving into the living room with my netbook or just going to Starbucks (where half the work-at-home world seems to have their second office).

    One of the biggest challenges? Making myself stop working. There's no end to the things you need to do when you have your own business, but you have to make room for downtime and time with family and friends. Another thing to add to the schedule!

  • Jaime Jay

    This is a great article...I work from home as well, just starting out, but this post is a perfect layout for those of us who are working from home now and those of us are thinking about it.  Great job!

  • Dwight Carter

    Excellent post!  I too work from home and have experienced first hand just about everything on your list.  Good to know that I am not alone and others have similar experiences or daily struggles with working from home.  Personally, the biggest struggle I have with working from home is the feeling of complete isolation.  Do not misunderstand, there are a lot of times when this is a great thing so that you can focus and get work done, but on the other hand it can feel a bit lonely at times.  I am always looking for that next great podcast!

  • Whitney J.

    This is an incredibly phenomenal post, Kevin and superbly written. I have printed this for regular reference-- I felt myself laughing along the way though because this resonates with me so truly. Wow, I am a bit in awe and glad to have stumbled across this as it feels like you've been sitting on my couch watching me (minus the Netflix part), I'm already beginning to respect my work more. Thanks for the kick in the butt.

    Also,

    I am laughing at the comment by @ Caryn Gillen, as this happened to me today for the first time. :D

    "Fear when the doorbell actually rings = Still in pajamas. Thanks Kevin..."

    Sincerest,
    Whitney
    www.allthingsgodly.org

  • Kate Robins

    I also recommend professional twitter chats. Being part of a group that meets regularly and shares the same ethical and dress codes has advantages. There just comes a time when you can't know everything there is to know by yourself. #solopr's been mine for a couple of years. Google for a schedule of twitter chats.

  • Kimberleyrachui

     i am interested in starting up a small business, im a fulltime nursing student and i want to fill my dream and start up something small, how do you start and how do you know what to buy and sell?

  • Debbie Reyes-Coloma

    I've been on my own and working from home since 2004. The first thing I made sure of before plunging into the uncertain future was that I had enough savings in the bank to float me for at least six months. I knew it would take time to build the business and get regular clients/projects. 

    Here are a few other lessons I've learned moving from my high-rise corporate office to my guestroom-turned-into-an-office. 1. Know exactly why you want to go solo and exactly what you want to do. Have a plan A, a plan B and a plan C. In all these plans, make sure you have included your target revenues and where your income is projected to come from. 2. Set aside a work space (office), work schedule (know when to switch off your computer) and daily/weekly agenda tabled on your calendar. You are a professional. You have clients to chase, newbiz to pursue, projects to manage and deadlines to meet. Your income and reputation depend not only on the work volume you achieve in a day/week, but also on the work quality you churn out. 3. The hardest part in being a solo practitioner is motivation. You have to be strongly SELF-motivated. You have no boss to kick your ass; no subordinates to delegate not-so-inspiring projects to; no A team to brainstorm with; and definitely no secretary to do your admin chores. You are on your own most of the time. 4. Segmentize your life. Keep your work space (including phone lines) and personal space separate at all times. Time management is key. Yes, you can do laundry in the morning, roast chicken for dinner and clean the house while working from home. And, please, don't succumb to the temptation of checking Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn every 10 minutes--unless your job depends on them!5. Only You can make things happen. Be organized. Be disciplined. Be resolute. Say 'no' to clients/projects if you're overloaded (or at least re-negotiate the deadline), or if it's something you know in your heart you don't want to do. Pursue clients/projects that inspire you. And manage everyone's expectations at all times, including your family members. (Just because you're not in a suit doesn't mean you're not working!)6. Take short breaks during your work week. Take a two-week vacation twice a year. Just because you are your own boss now doesn't mean you have work like a slave. Switch off. Leave an auto-reply message on your email that suggests you'd be unavailable. If something really, really urgent pops up, people will call you. You'd be surprised how resourceful people can be if and when they're desperate to reach you. 7. Take your responsibilities seriously, but don't overdose on duty. It's so easy to give in to every request or whim, but exercise good judgement. 8. Be flexible but stay focused and in control. Things don't always go the way you envision them. Even in a crisis, you can still exercise some control on how to manage things as they unfold. It's both exhilarating and daunting being an independent professional working from home. It's a huge lifestyle change. It's a gargantuan leap of faith. But it's worth leaving a high-paying job if you're ready to face and overcome the challenges on your own. Be happy with the choices you make. At the very least, make sure you can live with your decisions if things don't go as planned. Have faith in yourself.The fun -- and liberating -- part is you don't have to put on make-up and dress up for the job. 

  • Carrie Murray

    Just curious to know what kinds of work you all do that really makes money and not a scam to "sell information" or build pyramids.  I am an RN but would like something that is mobile that can be done at home or anywhere for extra money now that the school loans are coming due.

  • David Kaiser, PhD

    The most important thing is to have a system. It doesn't have to be really rigid, but it has to work for you. Also, you need boundaries, again, it doesn't have to be rigid, but it has to work for you. One of the great things about working from home is the flexibility, and it's also a curse, you can easily blow off the whole day, or get distracted by laundry. Lastly, be sure to get out of the house every so often, or you'll go nuts

    David Kaiser, PhD
    Executive Coach for Productivity
    www.DarkMatterConsulting.com

  • Amy Alexander

    For me, it helps when I am on deadline to ignore the state of the house and dive straight into my work. It is so tempting to fold a few loads of laundry and vacuum and do dishes. Then, suddenly, it's lunchtime and not a bit of work has gotten done.

    Twitter: @amywithapen:twitter