Working from home can be the ultimate personal productivity litmus test. Many people feel they would lack the self-discipline and focus required to be highly productive if they work from home.
They're wrong. Sure, you may feel you need the motivation (and validation) that comes from having an outside office...but when your paycheck is based solely on your output, should motivation be a problem? If it is, owning your own business probably doesn't make sense--and you're unlikely to make much career headway if you work for someone else.
That's why the key to being productive in a home office isn't willpower or determination--it's following a few simple tips that will help you be efficient and effective.
1. Tell people your schedule--and then "enforce" your schedule.
Interruptions are productivity killers--and when you work from home, your family and friends can be the most frequent sources of interruption.
So be proactive. Share your schedule. Explain when you'll be working. Describe how you work best: whether that's "interrupt me at will" (probably not) or "only interrupt me if it's truly an emergency" (more likely).
Then think about visual cues you can provide. A friend shuts his door when he really needs to focus; that lets his family know that he shouldn't be interrupted. When he's doing less important tasks that don't require a ton of focus--we all have them--he opens his door.
Above all, don't assume people will automatically respect the fact that while you're working from home you're still working. They won't. Help them understand.
2. Buy a great chair.
Working from home implicitly means you're a knowledge worker. That means you spend a lot of time sitting in front of a computer.
So no matter what else you do, invest in a good computer, a good phone...and the most comfortable and ergonomically-correct chair you can find. If you aren't comfortable you can't stay focused and you can't stay productive.
Don't try to save money on a chair. Economize on a desk (I often sit at the dining room table to write) or other furnishings or frills...but see your chair as an investment, not an expense.
3. Ruthlessly set limits.
Generally speaking, we can focus on any given task for 90 to 120 minutes. After that, we need a 15 to 20 minute break so we can recharge and get ready to achieve high performance on our next task.
So do this: Split your day into 90-minute windows. Instead of thinking about an 8-, 6-, or 10-hour workday, split your day into four or five 90-minute windows. That way, you will have, say, four tasks you will get done a lot more efficiently.
4. Include breaks in your schedule.
Your calendar will be full of tasks, calls, meetings, deadlines...but it also should include scheduled break periods. Set a time for lunch. Set break times. Otherwise, your day will get away from you--and so will your opportunities to recharge.
And also plan how you will recharge: a meal, a snack, a quick walk, etc. Never forget that the best recovery is active recovery.
5. Turn off your notifications.
Turning off alerts on your computer and phone will greatly improve your ability to focus.
When you need to get things done, turn off any digital elements that might interrupt you. Then, when you're done, pop your head back up and see what you might have missed.
6. Adopt a productivity system.
Maybe one of the things you like best about working from home is the lack of enforced structure. That's great--but unless you create your own structure, you'll fritter away much of your day bouncing from task to task and mistaking things that seem urgent for things that are truly important.
So take advantage of the fact that a structure isn't imposed on you to choose the routine that makes you as productive as you can be. One might be the Getting Things Done methodology. (Here's a primer I wore about David Allen's personal productivity system.)
There are plenty of others--so spend a little time creating a system that will work for you. See that effort as an investment in productivity that will pay off for years to come.
7. De-clutter at least once a week.
All kinds of things will find their way into your office since it's in your home. Purge, purge, and purge some more. Your workspace needs to look productive in order to be productive.
8. Create a nighttime routine.
Every day, the first thing you do is the most important thing you will do: It sets the tone for the rest of the day.
Prepare for it the night before. Make a list. Make a few notes. Review information. Prime yourself to hit the ground at an all-out sprint the next day. A body in super-fast motion tends to stay in super-fast motion.
I pick one important task that I need to get done and plan to do that first. Sometimes that task takes an hour, sometimes just 20 minutes or so...regardless, knocking out an important item sets a great tone for the rest of the day.
9. Create a morning routine.
Then make sure you can get to that task as smoothly as possible. Pretend you're an Olympic sprinter and your morning routine is like the warm-up for a race. Don't dawdle, don't ease your way into your morning, and don't make sure you get some "me" time (hey, sleep time is me time).
Get up, clean up, fuel up--and start rolling.
My elapsed time from bed to desk is less than 15 minutes. (I shower, grab a protein bar, and sit down and start working.) And I don't check email first thing; I work on and finish the one important thing I planned to work on the night before.
10. Create a happy shelf.
I had a shelf full of old Photoshop books. Haven't opened them in years, so I replaced them with family photos.
Makes me happy. When I'm happy, I do better work. You will too.
11. Make your home office your home court advantage.
I have clients around the world, and I often adjust my schedule to their time zones.
With a home office, I don't mind. Walking down two flights of stairs beats driving to an external office every time.
Some people think having a home office will make them feel like they're never away from work. I like what I do, and I'm glad it's easy for me to get work done at odd hours.
See your ability to conveniently do what you need to do when you need to do it as your home court advantage: if you want, you can leverage the efficiency to be more responsive and flexible than anyone else--and that can be a significant competitive advantage.