How to work from home effectively

Given how many companies are now asking employees to telecommute, I thought I’d offer some tips on how to work from home effectively. I have been working from home since early 2005. During this time, I have rented office space, but even when I do have an office, such as my nail salon, I always spend a portion of my working day in my pajamas.

Skip the chores

The unfolded pile of laundry, the bookshelf waiting to be rearranged, the trim that should have been painted months ago – all of that can wait. Save it for the evenings or weekends. You’re home, but you’re at home to work and be as productive as possible so that you retain your job in this uncertain economy.
Set a schedule

This is critical. Set your alarm. Enjoy your morning coffee or tea, and then tell yourself what time you’re going to start, when you’re going to break, and when you will be done for the day. Then stick to that, even if one of your kids or your spouse or the farmer who lives next door wants to throw a football around in the backyard. You’re not home. Well, you are home, but not really…

Be flexible with your hours

Years ago I wrote a story about a mathematician for Popular Science magazine, and this relatively young academic was telling me how he worked from nine in the morning until two in the afternoon, and then again from eight at night until just after midnight. That won’t work for everyone, especially if you need to be on calls, etc. But if a portion of your work day does involve solo, productive-type stuff that demands intense concentration, don’t be afraid to break that out and save it for the evening. You have to stick to it, of course. You can’t turn on Netflix at eight and decide to make up the hours tomorrow. But if your house is chaos during the day, consider this an option. 

Close the door

Ideally, you want to find a room in your house that’s far away from the center of things, with a door you can close. Think of this space as an entirely separate dimension, linked to the rest of your house, and the unwashed dishes and laundry to be folded and yard to be raked, via wormhole. You can pass through this wormhole, but every time you do, there’s a risk you will be shredded into your constituent subatomic particles. Don’t wear diapers or anything, but stay put as much as possible.

Once you pass through that doorway, you don’t know what distractions lie in hiding, ready to snatch minutes or even hours from your day.

Don’t wear pajamas

Right. So I do wear pajamas sometimes when I work at home, but it’s really not the best idea. You tend to take yourself and your work a little less seriously when you pass by a mirror and see that you’re wearing a ragged t-shirt and your hair is an untamed art project even Einstein might comb. Plus there’s always the danger that you forget what you’re wearing and venture out into the world. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to the store or to my office in town without realizing I’m still in my pjs. On one occasion, a few years ago, I rushed out of my home office to pick up one of my daughters from her dance class, and the teacher nearly called the police because of the strange man outside wearing Smurf pajama pants.

Dress as if you’re going to a meeting. A famous writer – maybe Cheever? – apparently used to leave his house via the front door, walk around the side, and enter his basement office through the back, just to kickstart that mindshift. Sometimes I’ll even put on a tie, especially if I’m lacking motivation.

At the very least, try to look presentable. Shower in the morning. Apply your favorite products. You’ll take yourself, and your home work, a little more seriously.

Walk your dog even if you don’t have a dog

I’ve never smoked, but I’ve always loved the concept of smoking breaks – getting away from your desk and changing the scenery. Walking your dog before work, or during what you’d normally mark off as your lunch hour, is a great way to clear your mind, think through little work-related problems, maybe even conjure up a few creative solutions. Don’t have a dog? No problem. Just go outside, hold one arm out at a 45-degree angle, and take uncomfortably long, awkward strides. If you live in a suburban neighborhood, stop in front of your neighbor’s house and stare down into their shrubbery, as if your dog were relieving him or herself there. Don’t worry, your neighbors won’t think you’re weird. They’re probably reading this email, too.

Ignore your kids

The kids will be fine. Really? Will they? To be honest I’m not sure. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard of so many kids saying they wish they had school. It’s not summer. It’s not a snow day. Sports have been cancelled. They shouldn’t hang out with friends. Everyone is confused, and justifiably so.

But still…you need to work, so you’re going to have to let them yell at each other and your spouse until your working day is over. If you run out of the room and try to steer them through every emotional rollercoaster or break up every fight, you’ll get nothing done. And if you and your spouse are both working from home, take turns. One of you should referee the morning disputes, the other should take the afternoon bouts. See that point above about working at night. 

Don’t read the news

Really. This is especially hard right now. The news is constant and meaningful. But you have work to do, and you can read about it all later, at the end of your day.

Avoid social media

That’s it. Avoid it during your scheduled working hours, then dive into everyone’s stories and ideas and conspiracy theories later.

Use headphones

Listening to music helps me focus, and headphones in particular are a great way to tune out the world, and what’s happening on the other side of your door. I prefer jazz, without lyrics. Electronica can be effective, too, and classical music as well. Not Rachmaninoff, though. His stuff gets a little too intense. Try Philip Glass. Pleasantly repetitive. You zone out and focus.    

I’d suggest controlling your snacking, too. And keep to three cups of coffee. Once you move into that four-plus range, things get a little weird.

Good luck.

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