The notion of working from home seems so awesome. No need to dress up. Work with the cat on your lap. Never search for a parking spot. No commute and therefore no sitting in traffic. Plus, no annoying colleagues to stop by and interrupt you. Yet, for most people who transition from an office to virtual work – or even harder—being solopreneurs – it is really tough. I remember when I first started working from home about 19 years ago. That was the year my house was spotless and I saw every episode of I Dream of Jeanie on Nickelodeon.
When your home is your workplace, every benefit comes with an inverse challenge. Even if you are content to live in your PJs or running gear (as I am) developing and maintaining work habits that maximize your productivity is tough at home. There are so many temptations that you never face in an office: Pets, children, televisions, the great outdoors and of course, the refrigerator. If you are domesticated you may find yourself doing laundry, cleaning the house or grocery shopping instead of meeting a deadline. Own your own business? Well, making sales calls is easy to delay when there’s a TV nearby or a dog asking to be walked.
Along with everything that undermines productivity, there is also the danger of working all the time. When you work from home there is no natural line of demarcation between your work time and your off time. So it’s a small step from being a good employee to corresponding with clients at 10 PM or forgetting to eat, pee or shower. National holidays come and go, and you are oblivious. While working on a presentation you notice your Facebook friends posting topless photos from the Columbus Day Regatta and suddenly realize it’s a holiday weekend. Darn. The bleeding of work into personal life is insidious and can quickly turn you into a very boring, blinkered workaholic. Also, if you don’t have a family, it’s all too easy to become completely isolated. That’s my biggest personal challenge. In the absence of impromptu lunches, happy hours or water cooler conversation there is no built in social component. Without a concerted effort, hermitude will rapidly take hold.
So how can you accelerate the evolution from office denizen to productive virtual worker or high-charged solopreneur without becoming a workaholic or a pallid ghost who never leaves the house? Working at home can be a crucible for those used to going to the office. “Work hygiene” has to become a conscious, methodical choice instead of something automatic that your employer provides.
Here are some work hygiene habits and practices that are worth embracing!
- Designate an area or room as your office. Most of the successful virtual business people that I know (including me) have a home office. Your home office should have absolutely no other function but work. It shouldn’t be your living room couch, your kitchen table or your bed. Our brains respond to a variety of stimuli and the association of a place with an activity is a powerful tool for both catalyzing your “work brain” and turning it off. Just as it is bad “sleep hygiene” to hangout on your bed (if you are an insomniac, stop doing that immediately), working in your living room confuses your brain. If you live in a studio apartment or don’t have a spare room, you still need a designated work-space. Create one. Use some kind of visual obstacle like a potted plant, decorative screen or a book shelf to demarcate the work area from the rest of your living space. Put a desk in a corner (preferably with a window), or clear out a walk-in closet. And unless you are a very seasoned virtual worker, don’t try to work at the pool or at Starbucks. One thing I do to tether my work to a single room is that I still work on a desktop computer with a 22 inch monitor. Yes, I have a great laptop and an iPad and so forth. But doing the majority of my work on a desktop keeps me from roving around the house contaminating every room with work cooties! You can get the same effect by using an external monitor for your laptop – in your designated “office”.
- Create Office Hours: Have a formal start time and a formal end time. No matter how late I am up at night I am always at my desk by 9 AM unless I am at a work-related appointment or traveling. Yes, 9 is not exactly Elon Musk-rigorous, and I often sit at my computer and work when I wake at 6 AM. But the point is that the world can count on finding me at my desk and ready to work at a fixed time. And that makes me accountable to be “on” by 9. In the same fashion, I am finished taking calls and working at 6 PM. Do I ever work late? All the time. But the work that I schedule and plan to do, and the calls, meetings and expectations end at 6 unless I am on deadline or simply too engrossed in something creative to stop myself. Even my dog, Arlo, knows that, and arrives at my desk promptly at 6 for a walk if I haven’t found him first. He’s a tough taskmaster!
- Surrender to a calendar that you really use: (For more on this see this blog post) I will not belabor the point since I have made it in several other posts. But if you schedule everything you need to do (or think about doing) in your calendar, and surrender to it, productivity is an easier hill to climb. Counting on your brain to think up what to do next will leave you in reactive mode. When you’re at home that can mean reacting to your impulse to clean the house or mow the lawn. And lawn-mowing don’t pay the bills (unless that’s your business, in which case you don’t work “from home” …).
- Dress for company: In the interest of full disclosure, I do NOT do this. But many people tell me it is super helpful. If you plan your mornings to include the grooming and dressing to make you look like a professional, you will feel professional. Dressing for work will trick your brain into working. As an aside, it’s hard to mop in heels and a suit, so it may help with distraction too.
- Take structured breaks: Plan your breaks and create routines like those you might have at an office. I do actually go to the kitchen to get tea – which I bring back to the office. I also break for lunch every day and eat lunch away from my desk. These breaks are on my calendar and they keep me honest about working when I’m “at work”, and not working when I am not. I know many solopreneurs who schedule workout breaks and take business lunches. I do schedule workout breaks when the weather is cool enough, but I am not much for going to lunch. The commuting time to go to restaurants is too much of a time suck for my taste. For you, it may be just the ticket!
- Observe Holidays: Since you don’t have “paid days off” as a self-employed person (disregard if you are a virtual employee) it is so simple to work all the time and never take any time off. Don’t. Put federal and other holidays in your calendar and enjoy three-day weekends. You will benefit by changing the scenery and giving your work brain a break. When you return from a holiday weekend, your thoughts will be clearer, energy greater and outlook more creative.
- Get a social hobby (or 10): To avoid the dreaded cave syndrome, where you never see other humans except for the UPS delivery guy and soliciting Jehovah’s Witnesses, you need to have planned social hobbies. For those of you who live for happy hour, maybe you already have one. But, for everyone else, it needn’t involve bars or two for one pitchers of beer. Join a book group, a bowling league or a Masters swim team. Find a group activity that is outside of your work lane. If you are writing code, go to the gym and play hoops. If you have a medical billing business, join a trivia team. Do something that uses a different part of your brain. That may mean something that uses your body. Being sedentary has tons of health risks. More importantly for this post, it also undermines your creativity and brain power. There are copious quantities of studies showing the intellectual benefits of exercise. So go cycling with a group, or learn how to garden. Whatever you choose, create an obligation that involves leaving the house and interacting with other people.
I hope these tips help you super-charge your work life at home. Do you have more tips for great virtual productivity? Let me know. You can comment here or post to my Facebook page.
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