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« {Guest Post} 2,012 in 2012: February | Main | The Everyday »

Tips for Productively Working From Home

Now that I have a year of working at home under my belt, people often ask me how I manage my days and time since I no longer have a traditionally structured workday. I would love to respond by telling them that it’s a cinch to stay on task and tackle my professional to do list with the aplomb of Mary Poppins. But I’d be lying.

Instead, I’m more like Mary Magpie. My brain a cluttered nest of dishes to be done, counters to be cleaned, laundry to be washed, lunches to be packed, contracts to be written, blog posts to be published, exercise to be fit in, trains to be built, play dates to be made, books to be read, little ones to be loved, and so on. Simply put, working from home often is distracting!

And initially it was paralyzing. Having the world can be your oyster, but it also can be your enemy. At least in my case. When I was no longer bound by external rules, other’s deadlines, and office mores, I surprisingly found it difficult to make progress on any given task. Because I could do everything or anything I wanted when at work, I did do everything and anything. But instead of being a work-at-home ninja who quietly and gracefully finished off all in front of her one by one, I ended up with an inefficient mess.

Laundry washed but soggy and forgotten in the machine.

Mail sorted but not put away (I think that’s my dining table under all that paper?!).

Blog posts started and stopped. Started and stopped. Started and stopped.

Just as I sat down to tackle one thing, some appliance would beep, some e-mail that had to be read would appear, or some food would need to find its way into my stomach. At the end of the day, I had made progress on a lot of things but completed nothing. Beyond frustrating. And eventually this mounting frustration—at the situation I created—turned to paralysis. I didn’t know where to start tackling my mess work, so I couldn’t make headway on my projects and instead wasted energy fighting my urge to collapse in a useless pile on the couch and consume all immoral daytime talk shows known to man.

Get it together lady, said the Type-A angel on my shoulder. Ah, yes, there she was...FINALLY.

When I set out as a work-at-home parent, I didn’t think the change in scenery would make it difficult. But my first fruitless weeks on the job proved me wrong. They were a reminder that I thrive on structure and that it’s better to do one (or a few) things well than a billion poorly. They also taught me that just because I can enjoy freedom, comfort, and the ability to truly handle the professional AND personal when working at home doesn’t mean I shouldn’t set reasonable expectations and limits for myself—no one was expecting me to be superwoman and like working in a traditional office I shouldn’t have overpromised and under-delivered.  Finally, they showed me that there’s always a learning curve with new gigs—I had to learn how to tame my home’s many temptations (Dr. Oz, sorry that we had to call it quits).

So, now that things are under control, how do I really make the most of my flexible situation, ensure productivity, and bring order to my mind’s chaos? Here are a few simple tips for creating a successful work-at-home situation that I’ve learned over the past year and also appease my inner Type-A. 

(1) Define a dedicated work space.

(2) Follow a block schedule.  Create a block schedule, like the sample below, by allotting a certain amount of time per responsibility each day. 

600 AM – 800 AM: Family time

800 AM – 830 AM: Respond to e-mails

830 AM – 1200 PM: Paid work

1200 PM – 1230 PM: Lunch / social media updates

1230 PM – 130 PM: Clean house

130 PM – 300 PM: Write blog post(s)

300 PM – 800 PM: Family time

Get done what you can get done within that time. Then move on. If you didn’t finish the entire task? Don’t worry it will be waiting tomorrow.

(3) Establish an efficient cleaning routine. I’ve found that competing household responsibilities are not only distracting, but can take the most time away from my professional work. To avoid the aforementioned paralysis (and a dirty house), I’ve developed a smart way to keep my space organized while also protecting my dedicated work time. Instead of cleaning one room from top to bottom and then moving on to another, pick one aspect of cleaning and do it throughout the entire house. So instead of dusting, vacuuming, polishing, fluffing, and straightening things in the living room on the same day, grab your dust rag and move through each room in the house. When you do the same chore, you pick up speed and don’t waste time exchanging one cleaning tool for another.

(4) Employ the Pomodoro Technique. If you work from the kitchen table, it can be challenging to ignore the chores staring you in the face. One way to strengthen your ability to focus and tune out stuff that can wait is by setting a kitchen timer for 25 minutes and only working on the chosen task for those 25 minutes without a break in your attention (yes, this means you cannot check Facebook or respond to personal e-mails when conducting online research for an upcoming story). Once the buzzer rings, take a short break. Then repeat. After four Pomodoro cycles, reward yourself with a longer break. Each time you’ll return to your work with a renewed focus. 

(5) Reward yourself. When I worked in an office, getting home to see my family was the carrot at the end of the stick that motivated me to buckle down and complete the necessary work. But when your work and family share the same space, it’s much easier to be lax about professional obligations. Consequently, my ability to be fully present and engaged in one work activity can be diminished. By arranging for an end of day reward, such as an afternoon museum trip with my son, a dinner with girlfriends, or a movie with my husband, helps me stay focused so I can enjoy the time with my family and friends without feeling stressed about looming work.

(6) Turn off the Internet. This requires no explanation.

Tell me, how do you stay focused on your work throughout the day? I’d love to add new tricks to my WAHM arsenal.

~ The Other Sarah

References (2)

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    Tips for Productively Working From Home - The Blog - salt & nectar
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    NFL is really 1 of the biggest sports in America. It has a significant following.

Reader Comments (3)

Great advice! Working from home has a lot of benefits and challenges. I'm going to try your block schedule.

March 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCarpool Goddess

I don't have such a set schedule, but I try to do a lot at night after my kids are in bed. Or, I do social media stuff during the day. But, there's a lot to be done that can be a distraction i.e. laundry, the ringing doorbell and a million other things. Still, I like having flexibility, but the stress is different than being in an office. I like how you have a schedule!

March 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChristina Simon

I agree that I would never trade the flexibility of working from home with an office job and while I don't rigidly follow a schedule, I need some semblance of one to make sure I'm treating my work like the job it is (otherwise, I'd spend way too much time on the void known as the Internet).

March 5, 2012 | Registered CommenterSalt & Nectar

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