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Work from home? Here’s 14 ways to do it more efficiently

Here’s what I like about working from home.

You can start as early as you like, finish as late as you like, and take a long break in the middle if you fancy it. All while wearing your comfiest clothes. You don’t have the hassle of the daily commute. Nor do you have to deal with workmates, office politics and pointless meetings.

You can put a laundry on during the day, have a soup bubbling on the stove, and eat cheaply and well without having to carry plastic containers of salad around. And because of all the time you’re saving, you should finish earlier, too.

Here’s what I hate about working from home.

There’s the shame of answering the door at 3pm with your hair unbrushed, and your PJs still on. You can go days without going outside, and you are always pleased if you have to travel to meetings, because it means you can listen to podcasts or music in the car, or read on the train.

You often feel isolated, and at the same time are constantly interrupted by friends, family — as well as parcel deliveries for the whole street. It’s easy to do the washing up, put a laundry on, make a soup.. and lose the day. But that’s OK, because you can work well into the night instead, while everyone else has a social life, or sleeps.

So I’ve worked freelance from home, on and off, for years. I was the mum on the laptop in the coffee shop, frantically writing while my baby son — finally! — slept in his buggy beside me. As he got older, I’d often be upstairs at 11pm, working, while the rest of the family watched TV downstairs, or went to bed.

This is fine in an emergency, or when you’re on deadline. But when you are always on deadline, and life feels like a permanent emergency, you’re heading for burn-out. I’ve been there, got the T-shirt. (Shapeless, slightly grey, but very comfortable for knocking round the house in, since you ask.)

Here’s what I’ve learned.

1. Get dressed in the morning.

Really. It matters. You feel better. Which means you work better. And you don’t have to quickly pull on a respectable top to answer the door or take a Skype call.

2. Go outside, every day.

Being out in the fresh air wakes us up. Moving gets our mind working. Even on a cold, rainy day.

If you already start your day with a run, the gym or a swim, bravo. If not, you might want to try going out for a quick walk before you sit down to work. Not a morning person? Then go after lunch. But make sure you get outside and move at some point in your working day. You’ll get more done.

A walk can also be a great way to focus on a specific work problem, or to just clear your mind and let a solution pop up.

3. Keep regular work hours.

Start work at a set time, and finish at a set time whenever possible. Make rules in advance about how far you are willing to go over that. I have a finish time of 5pm, a final cut-off point of 9pm if I’ve had to work on for exceptional reasons. If it still isn’t done by then, I’ll set the alarm and start early.

Often, something I’d been struggling to do the night before comes together in minutes after I’ve slept on it. Martyrs are never attractive, and all-nighters rarely as productive as we believe.

4. Don’t do chores when at work.

If you want to put a laundry on, do it before you start work, or after you’ve finished. It might seem petty to ban little tasks that take minutes. But the minutes add up — and they also take up crucial bandwidth.

5. Set firm boundaries.

If your friends and family wouldn’t call you at the office, then they shouldn’t call you at home during your designated work hours. Or drop in for a visit. And text/email, expecting a speedy reply.

If you share your home with other people, agree on rules for work time. If my study door is shut, I’m working. My family will only open that door if it’s for something so urgent, they would have called me about it if I was out at work elsewhere. I have a client who shares a house with two other people who also work from home. On work days, they wear headphones and ignore each other until their morning coffee break, then lunch. Even then, if the headphones stay on, it means they’re not really there.

As for deliveries, if the neighbours all use you as a drop-off point, put a notice on your door. ‘I work from home. No deliveries between the hours of [your core working time] unless it is for this address, please. Any other time, we’re happy to take in parcels for neighbours.’

6. Choose your own priorities.

This is key. Don’t let your email dictate. Have strict times to check your in-box for anything urgent. And one block of time a day to deal with it all. Don’t let it become a constant distraction, and don’t constantly check it (or reply) when the working day is done. If clients have got used to you being available 24/7, just set an autoresponder, explaining that in the interests of efficiency, you are now responding to emails only at — say — 3pm, so they can expect a reply by 4pm. Give important clients a number to call you on, but make it clear that this is only in case of dire emergency. Then unsubscribe from anything that isn’t essential, to reduce the clutter in your in-box.

Also: It is not compulsory to answer a phone, just because it rings. Screen if you can, and return calls at set times in the day.

At the end of the working day, I choose the three things I really want to get done the following day, and I write them down. I try to ensure that one of these is important, but not urgent. The next morning, I simply start with my chosen tasks rather than being ruled by emails that arrive overnight or what I ‘feel’ like doing. And because I’m always working on at least one thing that furthers my long-term goals, there’s a satisfying sense of moving forward, rather than just running hard to stay still.

7. Beware the siren call of social media.

If I’m working on social media, I set strict limits using a timer. I try not to scroll though my personal feeds. I know lots of people do this while they’re at work, but you have a very strict boss. Yourself.

You may also find you can work in a more focussed way, and end up with a shorter working day as a result. Once work hours are over, you can scroll to your heart’s content. Though it might not feel so urgent after all, if there are more enjoyable things to do.

8. Your timer is your friend.

Well, it’s my friend. It keeps me focussed and on point. I tend to work in blocks of 45 minutes, then take a 5–10 minute break before going again.

9. Get connected.

It is easy to feel isolated, working from home. (You start thinking that your timer is your friend, for instance.)

Try taking your laptop or some reading to a coffee shop sometimes, just to be around people. Form a mastermind group for support, go networking, join a trade organisation, or arrange regular meet-ups with people who do similar work to you so that you can talk shop.

You can even find virtual workmates. I’ve joined a group of writers who meet most days, via Zoom. It’s inspiring seeing writers in different parts of the world, all sitting at their desks and staring pensively at their screens. If someone is stuck and wants feedback, those of us who are able to help turn on our mics and pitch in with suggestions, but this is rare. Mainly, we just type a greeting into the chat box when we arrive, and get on with what we need to do.

I’m also in a business group that has a monthly ‘implementation day’. Same deal: we log in to a virtual meeting room, say what we’re planning to get done, then just get on with it, checking in with updates at set times throughout the day. With a support person also on hand to help with any niggling tech issues, it tends to be one of my most productive days of the month.

10. Design your workspace.

Make it as inviting as possible. Light a candle. Buy fresh flowers. Play music, if that works for you.

And all those images of people working while lying on the sofa or cross-legged on the bed? It hurts your back. Get a decent work chair: second-hand is fine.

11. Take regular breaks.

Have a drink. Move about. Put on a track you love, and dance like no one is looking (because they’re not). Then get right back to the job at hand.

12. Build a support team.

If you’re self-employed, think about delegating tasks you hate doing, or don’t do well. A virtual assistant with tech knowledge can often take just a few hours to do a one-off task that would take you days to learn and implement, for instance.

Once you have money coming in, try saving a percentage of each cheque for building your team. A good cleaner, book-keeper, and a virtual assistant for a few hours a week can free you up to do more, earn more — and still keep your hours under control.

13. Create bridging rituals.

Have a routine of some sort to start/end the day. I mediate for a few minutes in the morning, check my calendar for appointments and go over my to-do list while playing music. Then I jump in and start.

When I’m done, I play a different soundtrack while clearing my desk, update my to-do list for tomorrow, turn my screen off then leave my study for the day. I try to do online shopping or web browsing for fun on my iPad, elsewhere in the house, so it’s clear that when I sit down at my iMac, I’m there to work.

I’m lucky in that I have a dedicated room to work in. If you’re using the kitchen table or in a corner of your bedroom, just clear your work stuff into a drawer or box once you’re done. Seemingly trivial tricks like sitting on a different side of the table when you eat can help to train your brain to know when this is a work space, and when it is a dining/social space.

14. Enjoy your downtime.

Make time before or after work to read, to listen to podcasts, to go out and exercise, or spend time with friends. You save time on commuting. Use it for activities that nourish you!


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