Stay productive and organized while working from home

I’ve been working from my home office exclusively since 2009. In those four years, I’ve learned a lot about managing home and work life, staying productive while cozy at home, avoiding distractions, and more. Based on these experiences, the following are my ten tips that keep my work on track when I’m at home.

Before I delve into my list, I should define “home worker.” It certainly includes telecommuters, freelancers, and those running a business from home, but that is not where the definition ends. Anyone who runs a household definitely works from home. Also, the number of people who spend 9–5 in an office, school, or at an off-site job, but then take additional tasks home to work on, is increasing. When I was young, I knew one family who had an “office” in their home, and I thought it was the oddest thing. Today, it’s pretty much the norm.

Now that we’ve got that sorted, on with the tips.

  1. Define a workspace. You needn’t have a dedicated room to be a productive home worker. A corner of the kitchen, back porch, or garage will do, as long as it accommodates the tools and space you need. I have an IKEA desk in my bedroom that is my office. Occasionally, I want a change of scenery, so I’ll move my laptop to another part of the house. Other times I’m forced out entirely, which brings me to …
  2. Have an emergency backup office. There will be times when the power is out or your internet connection is down. Or, perhaps, a construction crew is working on The World’s Loudest Project right outside your window. When this happens, you’ll need a backup site to go to. My default remote office is the public library. It’s clean, well-lit, quiet, and has free Wi-Fi. The employees don’t care how long I stay and there are electrical outlets everywhere. Good thing I travel light.
  3. Define a lightweight office-to-go. Figure out the bare minimum of tools you can get away with and remain productive. Something you can fling into a bag and go. Will your computer do? An iPad? A camera? Figuring this out ahead of time will save you a lot of aggravation when you need to vacate your home office pronto.
  4. Make your home office efficient but also pleasing. You’re going to spend a lot of time in your office, so make it a pleasant place to be. I have LEGO projects on my desk, Star Wars toys, and a pencil holder that my daughter made for me. Since I am at home, I need not comply to corporate decorating policies, and neither do you. Find things that you love and make you feel good and add a little style to your space.
  5. Adopt a system you trust. Unless you’re in business with your spouse, partner, or housemate, you likely don’t live with a co-worker or superior. That means that you are both the worker and the supervisor. Conquer the latter role by devising a system you trust. I follow David Allen’s Getting Things Done system and, in effect, that system is my supervisor. Trust is the critical factor here, as that’s the only way your brain will stop nagging about all of your undone tasks.
  6. Don’t be too informal. This one applies mostly to those who are earning their living from home. Since you are in the house, it’s easy to adopt a casual attitude about your day. In my experience, adding a bit of formality helps draw a line between work time and leisure time. I always shower, shave and put on nice clothes. I make a cup of tea and begin the day in the same routine one might in a traditional office. When I’m done with work for the day, I turn my computer off, kick off my shoes and join the family downstairs. That routine also helps me feel like I’m truly “off the clock” when the workday ends.
  7. Get your own inbox. This simple tip has vastly improved my marriage. My wife and I shared an “inbox” (an end table by the front door) for years and it made both of us crazy. My stuff mingled with hers, she liked to store things one way and I another. Now, I have an inbox on my desk and she has one on the end table. I process my inbox items on my schedule and according to my system, and my wife does the same her own way. I cannot recommend splitting this up strongly enough if you live with other people.
  8. Take Breaks.I alternate between work time and break time all day. A great Mac app called Breaktime lets me alternate between 25-minute work times and 5-minute breaks all day. This practice helps me maintain a productive streak and is also a luxury I wouldn’t have in an office.
  9. Take advantage of working from home. You work at home and that means you’re at home! Take advantage of this opportunity that many aren’t able to experience. Sit on the porch, eat lunch in your own kitchen, and never miss an event at your kid’s school.
  10. Be flexible. This lesson was the hardest for me to learn. I’d make a plan for my day, only to see it fall apart thanks to a sick kid, malfunctioning computer, flooding basement, and more. Understand this might happen, and don’t get too stressed when it does. Try again tomorrow.

8 Comments for “Stay productive and organized while working from home”

  1. posted by Steve Johnson on

    Excellent tips and follow most to a greater or lesser degree. The backup plan for days that the home is unusable is essential and the advice to have a ready made list of essential equipment and how it will be transported is invaluable.

    number 6 is the one I follow least – If I am working well in shorts tee and day old stubble I tend to just carry on – obviously doesn’t apply if clients are in the picture).

  2. posted by cathleen on

    I work in Silicon Valley and go to the office every day but also work from home before/after hours (global position) but I follow a lot of your tips.

    My biggest tip is that all of my technology is synced (using iCloud) so my iPhone, iPad, laptop, desktop all have the same info on them at the same time. I can run out and do errands with just my phone and still have anything I could possibly need.

    When we had to replace our detached garage we added a detached office to the new garage (about 12′x25′) and I love it. We put in French doors (salvaged) and the office faces my garden. We put in ceiling fans so no need for AC or heat (Bay Area).

    It’s about 25 feet from the back door of the house but just that little walk to the “office” means I don’t have to look at unfinished dishes or listen to DH watching a movie or whatever and I can really focus.

    And I usually get a furry visitor or two who enjoy sitting in the sun or on my laptop :)

  3. posted by Stephen on

    Thanks for this post. I’m struggling to get used to working at home and this gives me a framework to … well, work from … to improve things.

  4. posted by Pam R on

    Good advice. Corresponds pretty much to what I did when I worked from home for a couple of years. My only differences were I dressed casually, and in fact usually didn’t get out of my pjs until my morning coffee break. And I had a senior cat companion who would like at my feet and occasionally meow for belly rubs. You sure can’t do that in an office!

  5. posted by Roberta on

    My fiduciary work/vocation is a bedside nurse in an ICU – I don’t want this work at home! However, your definition of “home work” opened my eyes to the fact I manage/care for a Beagle sanctuary of up to 17 dogs in my home. While at the computer, I usually have a furry Dachshund friend (some Beagles come in weird shapes) on my lap, I’m still doing the serious yet joyful business of saving dog lives in my home office and work, human lives at my hospital work. I’ll be using some of your suggestions. Thank you.

  6. posted by Omer on

    Good tips. One additional tip I’d suggest is having a regular working schedule. I think it’s too easy to blur the lines between work time and personal time, when you work from home. Having a schedule helps me to be more focused and create better work/life balance.

  7. posted by Lisa on

    I’m reading this and thinking that it sounded like something from the HOME WORK podcast. Then I checked to see who was ripping them off… oh, it’s David Caolo that’s ok then…

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