Seven Strategies for Working from Home from an Experienced Telecommuter

Since early 2008, I have worked entirely from home, submitting my projects and writings via the Internet. At this point, I have more than seven years of experience doing this. Along the way, I’ve fulfilled the terms of several professional contracts without any sort of serious conflict.

I know from others who work from home┬áthat this isn’t always the case. Sometimes, people who work from home find great difficulty in getting and keeping focus on their work. Others wind up in financial difficulty, while still others struggle with understanding the needs of their employers.

Here are seven strategies I’ve developed over the years to make working from home work for me. Without these strategies, I would find working from home to be an incredible challenge.

Create a Dedicated Workspace

For me, part of what makes telecommuting work is that I am able to mentally flip a “work switch” in my head. There are times where I let go of the idea that I’m at home and instead I view myself as being wholly at work. The things I need to do at home no longer really matter. I am at work, not at home.

The first step in really making that happen for you is to create a place in your home where you work. Here’s how to do that.

Choose a workspace that can easily be separated from the rest of the house. For me, that space is the smallest bedroom in our home, which I converted into a home office. It’s actually a pretty small room – substantially smaller than any other bedroom in the house and smaller than the bedrooms in the home I lived in growing up.

In this home office, I know I’m supposed to be working. It’s the place where work happens. I can go in there and shut the door to eliminate outside distractions. My family knows that if I’m in there, I shouldn’t be interrupted and that I will come out of the office when I’m not working.

You need to find a place like this for yourself. Even if it’s something as simple as a desk in a corner, there needs to be a place where you work and that’s all that you do there. It’s vital for you to be able to flip that mental switch and have a certain place you mentally define as a “workplace.”

When you work, use that workspace as often as possible. This needs to be your “workplace.” When you go there, you’re working, and thus you’re in that professional mindset.

What you really want to do is build a line of sorts – both mental and physical (if possible) – between the place where you do your work and the place where you enjoy your personal life. It is incredibly easy for that line to blur in your life and if it blurs too much, it can be very hard to focus anywhere in your home.

This was a problem for me in the apartment we previously lived in. Once I started getting serious about launching a new career in 2005 and 2006, I spent most of my spare time working on those career. The problem was that I didn’t have any sort of “line” that separated where I worked from where I did not. Eventually, I came to view my whole home as a workspace. I didn’t feel as though I could relax there at all. My entire home became my workspace – and that was horrible.

When you’re not working, avoid that workspace. This is the flip side of the idea of having a dedicated workspace. Don’t ever let it spill over into your living space.

Right now, I have a line that I cross. It’s the threshold of my office. Inside of there, I work. Outside of there, I’m a family man and all of the other roles I have in my life.

They’re both incredibly important for making telecommuting work, but they need to be separate and clear at all times. When they start to blur, it becomes easy to let one side down in favor of the other side (and it can go either way). A clear boundary helps enormously in keeping balance.

Make a Work Schedule and Stick to It

There are mornings when it is really tempting to just go back to bed after the kids leave for school. There are afternoons when I am really tempted to go curl up in a chair and read a book instead of working, or maybe I decide that I really need to get some household chores done instead.

The way I avoid this is by having a work schedule that is uninterruptible except for extreme emergencies. Here’s how to do that.

Figure out when you’re most likely to be working. During a given day, what hours are you most likely to be in your workspace getting things done?

For example, I work when my children are at school. I also work for one hour after the children are in bed each weekday. This works best with all of the other demands in my life – when my children and wife are gone, the house is quiet and has minimal distractions which makes it easy to work.

Thus, for me, it’s easy to see when I’m most likely to be working. For others, it might not be as clear cut. That means you need to spend some time really looking at your day, when your energy and focus are highest, and when there are minimal distractions or other responsibilities.

Establish a strict schedule that incorporates those hours. When you figure out those hours when you’re likely to work, make those your formal “work hours.” Let others in your life know when those hours are and strongly discourage them from interrupting those hours unless there’s something important.

Most importantly, stick to these hours yourself. These are the hours during which you work, period. During those hours, you spend the vast majority of the time in your workspace getting things done.

Why is this so important? It contributes to the sense that you’re still going to work and establishes a separation between your professional and personal life, one that can blur easily if you allow it to happen.

Make yourself unavailable during those hours. When you’re working, avoid dealing with interruptions if at all possible. Turn off your cell phone. Close the door. Close the web browser. Focus entirely on the work you need to do.

One strategy I use is what is commonly known as the “pomodoro technique.” Basically, I work for 25 minutes, then take a five minute break, then repeat. If I get into a great focused mindset during that 25 minute period, I just let it ride until my focus breaks and then I take a break. During those five minute breaks, I might check personal messages or emails, but I strive to avoid doing so outside of those breaks.

Doing this helps a ton with work focus. Without this kind of unavailability, I would have a lot of time getting things done during my work day.

Have Some Work Done in Advance

Eventually, you’re going to face a situation that interrupts your work day. You get sick. A family member gets sick. A family emergency of some other kind occurs. You have to take care of something. Your focus is really lacking today.

When that happens, you’re going to be walking away from work at an unexpected moment. In the workplace, you can usually make such emergencies clear, but that’s not quite as easy when you’re working from home as you can’t pass along nonverbal cues. You also might be working under a contract that specifies certain deliverables regardless of what’s going on in your life.

The best solution I’ve found is to always have some work done in advance. I usually have several articles sitting in a folder that I could post in an emergency and I have the articles that appear on The Simple Dollar usually ready to go at least a day in advance. This way, if something goes wrong, I don’t have to rely on the mercy of the editor or the forgiveness of the audience. Here are three steps for making this happen.

Identify tasks that you can complete in advance and turn in at a later time. The first thing you can do is identify what aspects of your work you can complete early. Are there elements that, if you finished them today, would be able to be turned in down the road?

If that doesn’t work for you, consider simply being ahead on your work and timelines. No matter what projects you’re working on, consider working ahead on the timeline of your project and not necessarily turning in milestones exactly when you finish them.

Remember, the point of this is to protect you above all else. You will inevitably find yourself not being able to work at some point and by being ahead on your work, you can handle that emergency without affecting your professional situation.

Spend spare time when things are slow to build up some completed tasks. Most jobs have times where things are more intense and other times when things are less intense. It can be very tempting to slack off during those less intense times, especially when working from home.

Don’t fall into that trap. You should focus very hard on maintaining a steady pace of work production that matches how you produce when things are relatively intense. When things are less intense, produce work that you can use later on.

For example, if I’m at the end of a week and have all of my writing completed and some articles in the bank, I’ll go to the library and do some research and brainstorming for future article ideas. When I was a programmer, I used to write code to automate some of my regular tasks when things were slow so that I could handle things better the next time things were intense.

Turn in those tasks when time needs are tight or your ability to focus is low. The reason I have articles in the bank is that, if something were to happen, I could simply turn them in in just a few minutes and move on with whatever emergency I was facing.

Remember, it’s a lot easier to have someone on the other end be understanding during an emergency if you have your tasks completed. It also goes a long way toward reducing that element of stress on your shoulders during a moment in your life when you really don’t need it.

Have a Good “Start of the Day” Routine

Stepping across the threshold into my workspace represents a big mental switch, where I’m going from father/friend/husband to writer/programmer. That switch doesn’t just happen instantaneously. It’s usually the culmination of a more gradual switch, one that I used to do during my commute.

I’ve found that having a pre-work routine is usually the best way for me to move from a “personal” mental state to a “professional” mental state, a transition that is merely capped off by entering the workspace. Here are three key elements of that transition.

Establish a series of clear steps that you use to get ready for work, not for sitting around the house. For me, that usually means taking a few minutes to simply think about what I want to achieve professionally today while I’m doing a number of little preparatory things – going to the bathroom, making a beverage to drink, turning off the phone, and so on.

These little steps all serve to get me ready to spend some significant time working without interruption. I won’t be interrupted by bathroom needs. I won’t be interrupted by beverage needs. I won’t be interrupted by the phone. You get the idea.

It also serves as a time to mentally switch my focus from day-to-day life into a professional work mindset.

Stick to those steps every single day in which you plan to work. Obviously, the steps of my routine serve to get me ready for work, but after doing the same routine for a while, the routine itself reinforces the idea that I’m starting my workday. It becomes its own trigger, making the whole routine much stronger.

So, not only am I getting ready for my day by getting my beverage, using the bathroom, turning off my phone, and so on while thinking about my workday, the routine itself is preparing me for it. It’s actually really powerful. At the end of my routine, I feel ready to tackle my work demands.

You may want to do different things: take a shower, put on professional clothes, walk the dog, and so on. Just consider the things you need to have done to give you an uninterrupted block of time.

If your work schedule dictates working later in the day, develop a “pre-work” routine, too. I usually have an evening work period as well and I have a separate routine for that period.

Usually, I do that work after the kids are in bed. I’ll usually go talk to Sarah for a minute or two, get a beverage, use the bathroom, and say a final “good night” to my children. As I do that, my mind is thinking about work.

Just like my other routine, this routine itself is a trigger for getting me into the mindset of working. It’s surprisingly powerful.

Have Three Top Priorities Each Day – and Do Them First

Each day, when I sit down, I have three major tasks that I want to achieve. They’re usually things like “outline an article,” “make up my list of articles for the week,” “write a draft of an outlined article,” and so on. I try to choose tasks that will take a minimum of 20-25 minutes and a maximum of two hours to complete.

I do those things first, before I do anything else like checking my email or taking a longer break. Those tasks are my priority for the day.

At the end of each day, make a list of three top goals to achieve the next day. I usually set my list of “three priorities” the evening before, for a few reasons.

First, the things I need to do next are most fresh in my mind at the end of the workday, not at the start of the next workday. At the end of the day, I have a strong sense of what the next step is on everything I’m working on, so I can make a good plan for the next day.

Second, having three things to do ready to go for the next day makes it easy to pick them up and work them around in my mind as I’m preparing to start work. I usually save these three things in Evernote and, at the start of the day, I’ll glance at that note and I’ll immediately know what tasks are to be done, so I start thinking about them as I’m preparing for the day.

Third, it feels like a good “ending” task that starts the transition away from my professional life and back into my personal life. As I mentioned many times here, barriers are important, and this serves as part of that barrier.

At the start of each day, focus on those goals before doing anything else. As I mentioned, during my pre-work routine, I walk around the house taking care of a few little things before I start working. My mental focus, however, is on the three tasks ahead of me that day.

That way, when I actually walk into my workspace and start work, I am mentally geared to knock those three tasks out of the ballpark immediately.

Engage in other work activities – email and such – only after those three tasks are done. Email and other communications are rarely important enough that they should come first and distract you from your three core tasks. On the other hand, completing those tasks allow you to deal with those emails with the knowledge that the work is already done.

Beyond that, email almost always takes the edge off of my initiative to start the day. When I sit down and am mentally ready to go on those tasks, I can usually blow right through them. On the other hand, if I do email first, I end up having to mentally switch back to my main tasks – and that rarely goes smoothly.

Just save the email and the other less important things for later, and start with your real tasks.

Communicate Clearly Regarding Expectations

One of the most challenging parts of telecommuting is that you’re outside of the loop when it comes to the things going on with your employer. You lose the face-to-face interactions that can give you a strong sense of what’s expected and appropriate.

That can be very hard, mostly because you often don’t realize what you’re missing out on until things have gone far off the rails.

If you’re telecommuting, it’s well worth your effort to take the extra steps to stay in touch with the pulse of your employer. Here are three effective ways to do that.

If you don’t know exactly what you should be working on, ask. On many projects, you’ll know what the next step is. However, there are some projects where the next step isn’t fully clear, and there are definitely times between projects where uncertainty can fill the air.

If you are not absolutely certain what you should be doing, it’s time to shoot an email to your supervisor. Explain what you’re currently working on (or what you think you should be working on) and fit that into the overall project at hand. Then, ask if that’s exactly what needs to be done.

You’re far better off doing this on occasion than going down the wrong track for a few weeks and finding yourself doing redundant or useless work. That’s a very bad sign for a telecommuter, as it indicates to the employer that you should either be in the office more often or that someone else should be doing the tasks.

Don’t invest time and effort into something unless you’re absolutely sure of the task. It can often be tempting to dive into a task if there’s a clear one sitting in front of you, but that may not be the right move.

Again, don’t commit work effort to a task unless you’re sure of it, and if you’re not sure if it, ask.

If you feel like you must be working, that’s the perfect time to work ahead or take care of other tasks that may have been left uncompleted.

If an unexpected situation comes up, communicate immediately and clearly and provide updates. Yes, life happens, even emergencies. Your employer does understand this. What causes most problems when a telecommuter faces an emergency is a lack of communication.

When something comes up, be clear about it. Tell your employer exactly why you’re unable to work right now and when he/she should expect results. Don’t “hide” it to maintain the appearance of the perfect employee.

Remember, it is far better to be clear when you’re not matching expectations than to not say anything at all and surprise the employer in a negative way. Clarity almost always brings understanding; lack of clarity often brings misunderstanding and anger.

Financially Prepare Yourself for Change

Many telecommuters – such as myself – operate on a contract basis. We might be contracted for a year or two, but then that contract ends and it might not be renewed. Telecommuters – particularly ones that aren’t absolutely essential to the project – are often easy to cut, because they’re out of sight and out of mind.

Don’t let yourself get caught by surprise.

Build a healthy emergency fund. If you’re telecommuting, you should always have at least two months of living expenses in your savings account. If you have children that rely on you, more than that is even better. You don’t want an unexpected situation to impact their lives.

That emergency fund can help you get through until you have another job. It can keep the bills paid, keep the lights on, and keep food on the table even if you’re suddenly not working.

Don’t rely on credit for this. A simple case of identity theft or a stolen credit card number can cause your credit to vanish, leaving you in a real pickle at a moment when you can’t afford it. Cash is king.

Each month, spend significantly less than what you earn in an average month. This is how you build that emergency fund.

Figure up what you’ve earned in an average month over the last year after taxes. Your monthly spending should be 20% (or more) less than that. If you’re not doing that, you’re running some real risks.

If you do spend at that low level, you can take the excess that you’ll have most months and use it to build an emergency fund, pay off debt, and save for retirement or for launching your own business.

Constantly build toward your next career or job. No matter how stable things seem to be, you should always be looking ahead to the future. What will you be doing if this contract goes away?

Use your extra time to do things like improve your education, get certifications, attend professional meetings, and network with people in your field and build a name for yourself. Beyond that, there’s nothing wrong with starting a side gig to earn some money, too.

Remember, you won’t always be doing this. Always ask yourself what’s next, then ask yourself how you’re preparing for that.

Final Thoughts

Telecommuting can be really challenging at first. Being at home offers infinite distractions and a whole new set of challenges.

The key to solving that problem is to treat telecommuting like any other job. You have certain work hours in a specific work environment, and those are more or less sacrosanct. Drifting away from that can get you into a heap of trouble.

Good luck!

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