I’ve been working from home on at least a regular basis for more than a decade, and on a full-time basis for nearly a decade. Over the years, I’ve come to learn quite a lot about what it takes to effectively telecommute for your work.
The number one thing? It absolutely requires the ability to focus.
Our homes are gigantic pits of distraction. There are always chores to be done. There are always sources of entertainment to distract you. Even worse, you don’t have any sort of threat of your boss looking over your shoulder to see if you’re still working. Either your boss is remote or you don’t have a boss at all.
Generally, the expectation of a person working from home is that they are delivering certain products on a certain schedule and that they’re available for some meetings. Outside of that, your boss and/or your clients generally don’t care when you do the work, just that it gets done and that it arrives on their desk when expected.
That encourages procrastination. That encourages a lack of focus. That encourages you to say, “Well, I need to get the laundry done and the dishes done and there’s nothing too urgent right now, so I’ll do those chores… and look, there’s an interesting segment on SportsCenter… and gee, this book sitting here looks pretty interesting…” and four hours pass.
If you do that too much, you’re going to be caught in a deadline crunch. If you get caught in too many deadline crunches, you’re going to start missing deadlines. If you do that very often at all, you’re probably going to lose clients, lose the perk of telecommuting, or even lose your job.
The key to solving that problem is focus. Being able to sit down at home and bear down on your work and get things done is absolutely vital to success when you’re working from home. It’s the ingredient that matters.
Over the years, I’ve managed to figure out a ton of effective strategies for focusing while working at home. Here are some of the best strategies I’ve learned.
Strategy #1: Set and keep a daily schedule.
A daily schedule that you stick to day-in and day-out is absolutely vital for keeping a steady forward progress on all of the tasks you have on the table (or digging for more tasks if you happen to have an empty slate at the moment). Walling off certain hours exclusively for work purposes is absolutely vital if you’re working from home or else you’ll find that distractions and other things keep interfering.
Personally, most days, I get up quite early – around 5:30 AM or so – and start writing, researching, and brainstorming almost immediately (I use the restroom, drink a big glass of water, and dig in). Other than a break from around 7:00 to 7:30 to see my kids off to school and do one or two minor tasks around the house (which I’ll mention again in a bit) and a break to stretch in the mid-morning, I generally work right on until noon. I do a bit more in the early afternoon sometimes, but that’s usually the end of my workday. I do this about six days a week, so if you do the math, that’s about a 40-hour workweek, give or take a bit (6.5 hours a day, six days a week).
I make that schedule almost sacrosanct. Nothing interferes with it if I can possibly help it. Before noon, Monday through Saturday, I’m working.
Because of that, I have a strong mindset that the morning hours are when I am working. I work before lunch, and anything else I’m doing then is something I shouldn’t be doing. That ensures that I always have a block of time within which to get my work done and that things won’t dig into that block of time unless it’s an absolute crisis.
That mindset – that you still have “working hours” and that time is devoted to work – is incredibly valuable. It can create something of a “mental switch” in your head, just like a normal workday at a different place of employment can do. At certain times of the day, you’re working, and it’s as simple as that.
Strategy #2: End each workday with a period of reflection on successes and failures.
The reality is that as you begin to adjust to working at home, you’re going to find some aspects of it very different and likely very difficult. It’s not easy to maintain focus and be productive when you suddenly don’t have a supervisor over your shoulder. It’s a real change to be at home alone working when you’re used to coworkers. It’s a different environment, too.
Those changes can really cloud your judgment and make for all kinds of challenges. As you adjust, you’re going to try things, some of them will work, and some of them will not.
That’s where a period of daily reflection comes in. It’s simply a period of time that you set aside for intentionally reflecting on what’s working and what isn’t in terms of working at home, and why those things are succeeding or failing. The purpose is to figure out ways to minimize or eliminate the problems and maximize the successes.
I personally use journaling as a tool for this. At some point each day, often during the early afternoon, I stop for a few minutes and think about the things that are going well and the things that aren’t going well in my professional life (and other aspects of my life). I then try to tease through those issues by figuring out why something is succeeding and, more often, why something is failing. What’s really happening here? How can I fix it? Can I even fix it?
By making this kind of thinking a regular part of your day, you’ll remain vigilant against many of the traps that working from home can lead you into, such as wasting more time than you think.
Strategy #3: Have a specific place in your home where you work.
For some people, a home office – a small room that’s intended for working – might be the right place to work. For others, particularly in a smaller home or apartment, an office might not be realistic, so a “working nook” or even a “working chair” might be more appropriate.
Whatever it is, identify a place that you primarily use only for work. The reason for this is twofold. One, it gives you a clear place to keep all of your work-related items, like your computers or your chargers or your “everyday carry bag.” Two, it provides a place where you can execute a mental switch into “work mode.”
This mental switch is surprisingly important. The simple move of having a specific place that means “work” in your head gives you a ton of little visual and environmental cues that it’s time to get down to business and stop doing personal things.
I’m lucky enough to have a home office – it’s a tiny little bedroom that’s also used as a library and game storage room. There’s a desk and some shelves in one corner that’s my work space. When I’m there and it’s morning – which I visually signify with light coming in the east window – I know that it’s time for me to be working. It’s a shockingly effective mental cue.
Strategy #4: Find an ‘alternative workplace’ or two outside of your home, and maintain a ‘portable office’ bag.
Sometimes, however, you can’t work from home. Perhaps there’s construction going on nearby or maybe your spouse is home and is distracting you. It might even be something where you just need a change in environment.
For those situations, having an “alternate workplace” is a good idea. It’s a place you can go that also signifies “work” in your head, but you are in a somewhat different environment. That change in environment can often spur on creative thought.
I personally use a study room at the local library as my “alternate workplace.” I tend to use it when I need to brainstorm, so I’ll go through the shelves at the library, grab a bunch of personal finance books and magazines, head into a study room, close the door, and get down to work. I take tons of notes and come up with article ideas and article outlines. The change in environment is really conducive to changing my thinking.
To make this easy, it’s well worth spending the time to have a “portable office” bag or an “everyday carry” bag if at all possible. The contents of that bag are simply all of the things you need to work effectively somewhere else.
My “everyday carry” bag is a North Face backpack that holds my laptop, a bunch of chargers and charging cables and backup batteries, a bunch of pens and notebooks, and a few reference materials, along with a few basic toiletry items. I know that whenever I need to change environments, I can just grab that bag and I have everything I need for work.
Strategy #5: At the beginning of your day, start loads of dishes and laundry.
This seems like a bizarre suggestion, but it is incredibly helpful for me personally in terms of keeping household distractions at bay. During my first break in the morning, when I’m getting the children ready for school, I also spend some of that time unloading and loading the dishwasher, putting clothes from the washing machine into the dryer, and putting a new load in the washing machine.
If things go well, I can start a load of clothes washing, a load of clothes drying, and a load of dishes washing all at the same time right after the kids leave for school and just before I get back to work.
When I do that, and I return to my workspace, I feel really productive that morning. It’s because in the back of my mind, I know that dishes are being cleaned and clothes are being cleaned and dried as I type. It provides a strong sense of multitasking without any need to break my focus.
Try it. If you have tasks around your house that are more passive in nature, like washing clothes or washing dishes or cooking a meal in the slow cooker, start those things before you settle in for work. You’ll find that the simple passive sense that personal tasks are being completed in the background makes you feel a lot more productive about your day and a lot less drawn to pull yourself away for personal tasks.
Strategy #6: Figure out which times of the day are most conducive to your focus, and work during those periods.
Some of us are morning people – I’m raising my own hand here. Other people work better in the afternoon. My sister-in-law is a complete night owl and seems to do her best work at three in the morning when her house is absolutely quiet. We’re all different. The key is to figure out what makes you really tick and take advantage of it.
What time of the day do you work most effectively? Are you like a zombie in the morning but start clicking in the afternoon? If that’s true, don’t be afraid to sleep in more and spend the morning doing mindless tasks and then settle in for a full afternoon of work. Are you someone who hits peak thinking right after arising from bed? Then start your workday as soon as possible, even when you’re still in your pajamas.
Pay attention to your own body and your own mind and figure out when the best time for you to work really is, then use that freedom that telecommuting gives you to work during those times. Save the more mindless personal tasks for periods outside of those times.
Strategy #7: Turn off digital distractions during those key focus periods.
So, you’ve identified your peak period for focus and you have a distinct place to work that’s got all of your stuff in place that you need. What else is important? The next step is simply eliminating as many digital distractions as you can.
Turn off your cell phone. Close your web browser. Disconnect from Wi-Fi. Turn off as many digital distractions as you possibly can in order to help you focus in on the task at hand.
The more distractions you have, the more you’re going to find that it’s easy to step away from your task and get sucked into something else, and every time you do that, you’ll find that there’s a loss in focus and concentration when you return to your old task.
Some of the worst digital distractions include notifications from your cell phone that emit some kind of audio or vibration, a web browser or other live updating window in the background of your screen, or an app on your computer that provides social media updates constantly. Turn off all of those that you possibly can. It’s fine to have them running at other times, but when you need to bear down on a task, they’re not helpful at all.
Strategy #8: Use ‘focusing audio’ by playing it in the background.
Unexpected noise can be a pretty significant distraction. I know I get distracted all the time by little noises of people going about normal activities in my neighborhood. I’ll hear a little clatter or the revving of an engine in the distance and I’m distracted.
What works for me in terms of solving that problem is to have some kind of background noise or simple music going at all times. An audio stream that’s conducive to focus can be incredibly helpful in terms of eliminating those audio distractions and helping you keep your attention where it should be.
For this purpose, I like to use the audio from the YouTube channel Relax Sleep ASMR. Almost any of their 10-hour videos will do the trick. Find one that seems to click with you. I particularly like their Arctic Ocean and icebreaker video and often have it playing in the background quietly as I work.
Such audio seems to effectively cancel out minor sounds in the area. It also seems to help some people – myself included – to focus better on the task in front of them.
Strategy #9: Try to get in the ‘flow’ as much as you can.
The book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes a mindset where people are so fully engaged with the task in front of them that they seemingly lose all track of the world around them. Every spare bit of their brainpower is sucked into successfully completing or progressing on the task at hand.
Wikipedia describes it like this:
In positive psychology, flow, also known as the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.
Every time you can achieve a “flow state,” you’ll find yourself getting a large amount of very good work done very quickly. There isn’t a recipe for everyone getting into that flow state because everyone works differently, but there’s often a combination of factors – many of which are strategies in this article – that increase the chances of a person dropping into a flow state.
I have several personal tricks that work well for me – dropping distractions, listening to focusing audio, drinking black coffee and green tea on an alternating basis – but there’s no perfect recipe for everyone. However, I will say that flow states are the source of the vast majority of my work and I strive to get into those states as often as I can.
Experiment. See what things you do help you to drift into a state where you’re sucked into your work and lose track of time and space. Try to find the common factors that trigger such a mental state for you, and repeat them so that it becomes a common thing. The more time you spend in that state, the more you can get done, and thus the less time you have to spend in front of your desk and the more time you can spend doing other things at home.
Strategy #10: ‘Bank’ as much work as possible and use every droplet of focused time.
Telecommuting – and especially self-employed work from home – often puts you in a situation where you don’t really have blocked-off vacation times or sick leave. If you get sick, then you’re probably missing deadlines unless you’ve prepared for that illness.
Your best strategy, if possible, is to simply “bank” as much work as you can in preparation for that downtime. If you’re a writer, have a few “timeless” pieces ready to go in case you’re sick or have a personal emergency. If you make videos, do the same.
Another useful strategy is to establish timelines for projects that bring you to completion well in advance of the actual due date. For example, if you have a month to complete a project, shoot to have it finished in three weeks and plan accordingly. That way, if an illness or an emergency interferes, it doesn’t derail your work and it doesn’t reflect poorly on your organizational skills.
Strategy #11: Block off times for professional development.
When you work from home, it is incredibly easy to blow off professional development. It can often feel like the “unimportant” part of your day and when you’re at home, there are infinite things to distract you that seem important and enticing.
Don’t let that happen. Make professional development a regular part of your work schedule. You should set aside time at least once a week to sharpen your skills and learn new parallel skills.
For example, I intentionally set aside time to learn new things about personal finance, about topics parallel to the field like self-improvement, and about writing practices as well. I intentionally write things in completely different voices (think snarky, for example) just to practice and flesh out my writing chops. This keeps my writing skills sharp; they’re currently honed to be fast and solid rather than slow and great.
Strategy #12: Find small rituals that signify the ‘start’ of a block of work and the ‘end’ of a block of work.
This is another way to mentally signal yourself that your work day is starting. You simply do a certain number of things at the start of your workday and collectively they indicate that work is about to begin.
For me, that usually involves drinking a bunch of water, pouring a cup of black coffee, stretching a little, walking up the stairs, going into my office, turning on all the lights, and closing the door. Those steps, in order, signify a mental shift into work mode.
Your steps might be different – and, in fact, probably should be different. Just look for things to do that properly set the mood for working in your head and then make those steps into a “ritual” of sorts.
You can do the same thing at the end of your day, but I find the transition away from a work mindset to be much easier. Mine is usually just a block of journaling about my day, as mentioned above.
Working from home offers a ton of freedom and opportunity, but it also leaves the door wide open to a lot of mistakes and mis-steps. Most of these mistakes and mis-steps can be avoided by simply having some smart strategies in place to encourage focus on one’s professional work.
These 12 steps are a key part of how I’m able to work effectively from home and maintain focus no matter what’s going on around me. Hopefully, they can work effectively for you, too.