Work Smarter—Not Harder—at Home

Work Smarter—Not Harder—at Home

This post originally appeared on MainStreet. 

When I made the decision to start working from home I was certain that, of all the challenges ahead, actually getting work done would be the easy part. After all, I had just left practice as a "BigLaw" attorney with an absolutely punishing schedule. I'd spent years building my career on 14 hour days and 24/7 availability. If anybody had the discipline to sit down at his kitchen table and just get the job done, I thought, I did.

I had visions of sleeping until noon, working until midnight and taking breaks any time I pleased. I would finally build my work schedule around my personal life instead of the other way around. The flexibility would allow me to be so much more productive, because I would finally be working on my time instead of everybody else's. It was going to be great.

As it turns out, this couldn't have been more wrong. In fact, according to the experts, the more flexibility in home work habits, the worse off you are. So after a few educational, and humbling, conversations with time management professionals Peter Turla and Elaine Quinn, here are ten tips for effectively working from home.

1. Set Normal Office Hours

As my editor could tell you from countless e-mails after three a.m., I'm already off to a pretty bad start on this list. A lot of self employed people enjoy being able to work any time they want and take advantage of their freedom to do just that. In my case, that generally involves waking up at noon, drinking coffee after midnight and going to bed sometime shortly before sun up.

According to Peter Turla, a former NASA engineer turned time management expert, this is the first step toward ruining your productivity.

"Get a schedule of discipline for yourself," Turla said. "You pretend you're going to work, even if it's just going into another room in the house."

Turla advises his clients to treat each day like a workday, whether or not they're going anywhere. When you have an office, he explained, you have a time and place you have to stick to. It gives the day structure. Without that framework, it's very easy to let the rest of your work slip and treat the entire afternoon like a semi-productive Saturday instead of the workday that it really is.

2. Plan Out Your Schedule

Another apparent benefit to self employment is the ability to work when it's convenient. Unfortunately, it's a short step from "when it's convenient" to "when I get around to it," and that's how deadlines surprise you. According to Elaine Quinn, author of There's No Place Like Working From Home(Calloran Publishing, 2011), this is a very fixable problem.

"[Structure] your day," she said. "When you're in a normal office environment, work comes to you, and you do it and then you just move on... At home you have to structure it yourself."

In an office, schedules are the natural part of life. They're a byproduct of working and coordinating with other people, and in a company of any size, the calendar quickly fills up. Although at the time that list of deadlines and meetings seems like a pain in the neck, after the office you might end up missing it. Having a schedule not only imposes discipline, but it breaks the day up into a series of more manageable tasks.

In an office you'll never start the day with "Item One: Create and sell an ingenious product," and you shouldn't try it at home either. Even if you don't have any external deadlines, draw something up based on reasonable goals for the bigger picture and stick to it. You'll find that a lot more gets done.

3. Avoid Distractions

This entry falls into that category of obvious things we somehow manage to forget. As Turla said, "allowing [yourself] to get distracted too easily is a bad habit. At home [you] actually need a higher level of focus because there are so many distractions, whether it be a trip to the refrigerator or turning the TV on."

The latter comes up often for Quinn.

"Some people try to sit and do their work on a laptop in front of the television, and multitasking really doesn't work," she said. "Your brain isn't set up to work like that."

As both experts explained to me the number of clients they coach not to split their attention, this writer had to hold his tongue about having just finished an article while watching three episodes ofThe West Wing. At home, we simply have more to split our focus than in the office. Most workplaces are built to minimize distractions, and as grim as featureless gray felt and coffee stained break rooms feel, they're there for a reason.

We pay attention to shiny objects, and when that new novel, snack or season ofArrested Development calls your name, it can be tough to resist. If you want to get work done, listen to the experts: pay attention to one thing at a time.

4. Get Out of the House

As counter-intuitive as it may seem, sometimes the best way to work from home is to leave it.

"You need a change of scenery," Turla said. "If you can't work out of the house, at least look out a window or go for a walk."

The fact is, sitting at your kitchen table day-in and day-out can get monotonous. With nothing more to look forward to than the same chair in the same place in front of the same screen, it's easy to lose focus. Change your location a little bit. There's a reason that coffee shops are crowded at 2 p.m. on a Tuesday. They're not full of people who are out of work; they're packed with people who are actually at work.

If soft rock and lattes don't do it for you, try a local bar. Most of them are slow enough in the afternoon that the bartender will be happy to let you have a table just to make the place seem busy. Grab a beer, sip it slowly and enjoy being out of the house. Just remember to leave a decent tip.

For 6 more great tips, continue reading at MainStreet.

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