How to Work from Home: Getting Stuff Done when No One is Looking Over Your Shoulder

Getting your stuff done every day is tough enough. Getting it done while working from home? Definitely “Hard Mode.” But the rewards can be pretty great.

Whether you work from home all the time, or just occasionally, you need a new set of habits and practices to make the most of it. Your time at home can be ultra productive, or a sad pile-up of procrastination and cat videos.

Here’s how to make it work:

In this 26-minute episode, I talk about:

  • The two big challenges of working from home
  • Recommended rituals for structuring your time
  • The productivity systems that are most conducive to self-directed work
  • How to strike the right balance between overscheduling and underscheduling
  • Managing other people who don’t get that you’re working
  • How to take care of yourself and reduce the risk of burnout

The Show Notes

Sonia: Greetings, superfriends! My name is Sonia Simone and these are the Confessions of a Pink-Haired Marketer. For those who don’t know me, I’m a co-founder and the chief content officer for Rainmaker Digital.

I’m also a champion of running your business and your life according to your own rules. As long as you don’t lie and you don’t hurt people, this podcast is your official pink permission slip to run your business or your career exactly the way you think you should.

I’ve already done one podcast on productivity for flaky people, which appears to serve a need since it apparently many more people are naturally flaky than naturally organized.

Today I’m going to talk about Hard Mode — getting yourself productive while you’re working from home. You might be a business owner like I am with a distributed company, or you might have a more traditional office job but work from home sometimes. However you slice it, in some ways it can be extra challenging to be productive from home, so I’ll share what works well for me.

The two challenges

The biggest two challenges of working from home are: making yourself actually work, and not forgetting key tasks.

In an office, there are all those people around, so you naturally (mostly) refrain from spending your entire day playing Minecraft, watching cat videos, consuming adult entertainment, etc. You have social pressure, and that whole “boss” thing, keeping you on target.

You also have built-in rituals that you don’t even really notice.

You need to create those systems of accountability for yourself, as well as systems for Not Forgetting Important Stuff.

Rituals for structure

At the office, you have rituals like getting your first coffee, saying hi to the receptionist, standing meetings, and these give shape to your day and your week.

Constructing new rituals will give the right shape to your home-based workday and work week. That’s why I dedicated last week’s podcast to creative rituals — virtually all self-directed people have them, and most of our brains seem to need them to kick-start our work behaviors.

Some mini rituals might include:

  • Get dressed in clothes you could leave the house in without getting arrested.
  • Your productivity beverage of choice (preferably not vodka) to start work.
  • Start a creative period with a quick check of your productivity system. I’ll discuss mine in a bit. Your tools need to keep track of key tasks that need to happen, as well as scheduling blocks of time.
  • Certain music without words or other audio that you always play while working — this works for some and not others. Lisa Barone recommended this “sounds of rain” audio to me, which I like.
  • Getting yourself into a distraction free environment. Close your email tab. Put your phone on silent.
  • Use a timer (kitchen or phone) and work in focused blocks. For most of us, these should not be more than 60 minutes.
  • Schedule and time breaks — you do need these in order to be creatively productive.

Productivity systems

You may have noticed I slipped that nasty “productivity system” phrase in there.

You will not get anything done unless you schedule the time for it. You just won’t. In an office, you can surprisingly often get away with the excuse that you have too many meetings and other distractions to get real work done. At home, that doesn’t fly.

Whatever system you use, you need to put your work periods on the calendar with a time attached to them. Specify what project you’ll work on during that time, and preferably what actions you’ll be taking.

For example, from 10-11 am I might have, “Outline and subheads for article on email marketing; draft intro if time allows.”

Lately I’ve been using Cal Newport’s system from his book for college students. Every day I get out a piece of paper, write the date at the top and a line down the middle. On the left is the hour-to-hour calendar for that day. On the right is space to scribble all of the little things that pop up during the day that I need to remember to schedule for later.

Anything that isn’t realistic to get done today, I just plonk into my Gmail calendar for a future day.

I also like the Momentum app for Chrome for keeping my focus on whatever the key project of the moment is. It loads in your “new browser” tab, so it’s a little reminder any time you might be tempted to sneak onto Facebook for a minute instead of working on something that’s giving you trouble.

Don’t overschedule; don’t underschedule

Keep this realistic. Don’t try to schedule your entire day to the minute, that only works for insane people. But do get the blocks in for the important projects. Then honor them the same way you would a scheduled call.

Again: If you don’t assign a specific block of time to work on a task, that’s the same thing as saying that it will not happen. You don’t expect to “just remember” a scheduled Skype interview or a client meeting, they go into a calendar. Focused work is the same.

Also schedule some blocks for small annoying little tasks that need to get done. Spend an hour a few times a week on those little micro-commitments.

Block a little more time than you need for each task, to account for switching costs, but not so much that you think “oh I have loads of time for that” when the time comes. If you allocate an hour for a 20-minute task, you won’t start it until 10 minutes before the hour. Maybe that’s just me, but I don’t think so.

Also, schedule your goof-off time. You’re going to have some. We all do, whether we work at home or in an office. Schedule a break during a time you never get anything meaningful done anyway — for a lot of us, it’s some time after lunch. If you have some time set aside for Facebook, or your distraction of choice, you won’t be as likely to spend all day sneaking onto it — you just remind yourself that you’ll be getting there later.

Recognize your individual time sucks. They could be phone calls, or certain social platforms, or a video game. Use scheduling and a timer to put some boundaries on either side.

You may have to go “cold turkey” on some things — I go on very extended Facebook breaks because I have a hard time not getting sucked in.

Master your boundaries

Working at home means no one in your life really thinks you’re working. If there is another human in your house, then “working from home” might mean “working from the coffee shop” if you can’t manage to set the right boundaries with that person.

A note for parents with small children: You will get nearly nothing done while your children are at home. There are people who have; these people are superheroes. If there is any way on this planet to get some childcare so you can focus, do it.

Don’t think you’ll work when they sleep, because a) you’ll be exhausted, and b) the little fiends pick up on this and won’t sleep on the day you really need to get something done.

Take care of yourself

Working from home is an advanced form of self-reliance, and it requires advanced self-care to go with it.

Get exercise. Don’t sit for 7 hours straight at your computer, you will be sick and miserable. Get up and walk, a lot. Short bursts are fine. Jumping jacks are fine. Dance Dance Revolution or Wii tennis is fine. Actually using your exercise equipment would be terrific. But move. If you’re pretty sedentary now, start with just a couple of minutes and then build from that. Space it through your work day rather than all at once, it’s better for your body and your brain.

Eat like an adult. No, I’m not saying no carbs, never any sugar, whatever. I’m saying eat food, normal food like your grandparents ate. Eat at regular meal times. Don’t work through meals. Pay attention when you eat. If you need snacks, schedule them and eat them at the table. Snacks should be made of food.

See human beings regularly. The UPS lady doesn’t count, even though she is nice. If you live alone, schedule time with friends at least once or twice a week. Play games, have a hobby. If you live with people, really be mindful when you’re with them.

Work when you’re working, and rest when you’re resting. Easy to say, can be hard to get in the habit of doing, but you can build that habit.

Burnout is real, and it’s frighteningly easy when you work from home, because there’s no natural “stop” ritual either.

How about you? Do you ever work from home? What’s your favorite tip for getting things done with your mental health roughly intact? Drop a comment on the site!