Making Working From Home Work

On any given day, you'll likely find me hunched over my laptop at the dining room table or on my laptop at Maxfield's House of Caffeine. Summers tend to be quiet times on college campuses, and the hour commute to an empty office makes going in a tough proposition. So I spend most of my days working at home, which often leads folks to ask, "how do you stay productive?" Short answer: it isn't easy. Staying productive is a lot simpler with an office full of like-minded colleagues buzzing away on similar tasks. At the same time, many of the 6 million Americans who work from home on a given day are writers and artists and coders who don't have that option; they need to stay on top of their creative game without that external help. Doing so turns out to be completely possible, but it takes a bit of strategy and a lot of discipline. Here are some of the things I've found helpful in trying to stay productive (and creative) at home: 

1. Set the Tone: Get Dressed and Go to Work. Environmental cues matter; we tend to associate physical spaces with the activities that occur there, which makes working in bed a sleepy proposition (there's also research that suggests working in bed will disrupt rest patterns, for similar reasons). Dedicate a defined workspace - I've got a desk, but an actual room would be even better - that's reserved as The Place Where Work Is Done. When you get up in the morning, go through your morning ritual, get dressed, and head to work.

2. Set a Schedule for the Day. One of the benefits of a defined workday is that it forces us to be productive with our time. Similarly, when the day starts and ends on our own clock it can be all too easy to let playful cats distract us from what needs to get done. I find that laying out the basic tasks for the day, with a plan for when each needs to be done, goes a long way to making sure that things actually do get done. Plus, burning through checklists is fun.

A schedule also helps tell when the workday's over. Maintaining a work-life balance is no easy task under normal circumstances, but it's even harder when you have the option of never leaving your office. Identifying what needs to be done for you to be satisfied with the day helps provide the focus needed to stay on task, and the ability to set work down and move on to the rest of your life once it's time. When is quittin' time? It turns out there's no one-size-fits-all schedule. I find I've generally got social stuff that keeps me busy in the evenings, which means I need to start by nine in order to get in a full work day. I've got friends running on different clocks, though; a coder who works noon to nine, and an artists who seems determined to work the night shift. The key is simply to find your peak hours and then build a daily routine around that schedule.

3. Set a Schedule for the Week (or Month). When you are your own boss, staying on track over the long term is even harder than staying disciplined for a day. I've got a week-by-week schedule for the next two months on my desk which dictates which project I should be working on at any given time. It's a great way to see how my current task fits into the overall plan, and provides a nicely motivating level of stress as I fall farther and farther behind.

4. One Thing at a Time. Our homes are never ending projects; there is always laundry to be done, gardens to be tended, and dogs to be walked. Add the needs of our insatiable inboxes, and there are a hundred opportunities to be "productive" without actually getting any work done. A big trick to actually staying productive at home is to simply to save those non-work tasks for after work; after all, that's when you'd be doing them if you had gone into the office. There's also a ton of research that suggests that multitasking doesn't mean getting more done; it just means doing more things poorly. When you're building your checklist for the day, don't add "do the laundry." That's cheating.

There's also a lot to be said for adopting a "big rock" mentality. My natural inclination is to knock off as many small tasks as I'm able early in the morning, but that strategy often leaves me looking for lunch without really having made much headway on the important stuff. Instead, set the tone for the day by diving in on whatever's the day's main task. You'll want a break at some point, which is where the little stuff comes in handy. The analogy here is that if you're going to fill a glass with stones, you should start with the big ones and then add the small ones in on the sides. Otherwise, you'll fill the glass with small stones and find yourself without any room by the time you get to the big ones.

5. Experiment. It's easy to hit the books and dive in, day after day, without really taking the time to experiment and improve the process. After all, we all know how to work. But could we be working more effectively? It's worth taking the time to experiment with the routines and rituals above to see what works and what doesn't. Go a day without email. Work from the library. Try going for a run before you sit down for the day. Go coffee-free. Switch up the hours. They may sound like silly ideas, but if we're going to spend about 100,000 hours working over the course of our lives, it's probably worth the time to make sure we're doing it right.

In prepping this post I poked around online to see what other work-from-homers had to say about their own strategies and, lo and behold, we've all got exactly the same advice. That doesn't mean that we're all implementing well - I'm writing this blog post, after all - but it does mean that there are simple things we can do to make working at home a productive endeavor. And for me, productivity and creativity are inextricably linked - nothing kills creative drive like feeling listless and inefficient. At the end of the day, though, staying productive takes discipline, and there's no way around that. I'd love to hear your strategies - what do you do to stay on top of your game?

Thanks to Erica Warren for some pointers of her own!