Here’s How to Actually Get Stuff Done While You’re Working From Home
The right steps will take your WFH life from distracted to downright productive.
Working from home sounds like a huge perk—and it certainly has its benefits—but ushering work into your home can have some unpleasant side effects for your work and home life: Think decreased productivity, longer working hours, and decreased work-life balance. Fortunately, the right working from home tips can help you make the most of bringing the office home without any downsides.
Whether you’re working from home temporarily (thanks, coronavirus), you work for one of those work-from-home companies, or you’ve chosen a career path where you work from home all the time, learning how to be more productive at home will give your career a boost and keep you happier at the same time. It’s not all about the right home office ideas or office colors: A few ground rules and firm boundaries will set you up for WFH success.
Working from home tips
First, you need to figure out if your personality lends itself to remote work. In certain cases—as during the coronavirus pandemic or if you’re temporarily suffering from mobility issues because of an injury—working from home is the only option, but if you have the choice, take a critical look at your work and communication style before you commit to working from home.
Despite the current spotlight on digital nomads and flexible schedules, working from home still isn’t for everyone. If you thrive on the camaraderie of watercooler chitchat or are tempted to waste time online shopping or on social media without a watchful eye to tether you down, you probably aren’t the best candidate.
You might think working from home means you no longer have to pay for pet care or childcare, but that sort of thinking can seriously derail your productivity.
“Don’t kid yourself and think you don’t need a babysitter for young children if you’re working at home,” says Maura Thomas, a productivity expert and the author of Work Without Walls.
With older kids, who can better understand boundaries while you’re working, come up with a signal that lets them know you really can’t be disturbed: a closed door, a sign that says HARD WORK HAPPENING, or one of those business time clocks that say WILL RETURN AT 5 P.M.
It can be difficult for kids to fight the urge to interrupt you. One idea, says Julie Morgenstern, an organizing expert and the author of Organizing from the Inside Out, is to leave a chalkboard outside your door so your kids can write down what they need to talk to you about. “It removes the burden from them to remember later and lets you know what your kids need so you’re not blindsided when you’re done with work,” she says.
With pets, set a schedule for walks—every three hours, say, so you both can stretch your legs—and fight the urge to step away from your computer to play with them. (Of course, if they can sit quietly in your lap while you work, a WFH buddy might be nice.)
With Wi-Fi, you can work anywhere, even the couch (or your bed)—but just because you can doesn’t mean you should, says Morgenstern. “Designate a specific room or area so there’s a mental boundary between working and relaxing,” she suggests.
If you don’t have a home office, figure out a space that has enough surface area for the nature of your work and that won’t lead to laptop neck and back strain. (The dining room table is fine.) Just make sure you clean up your work at the end of the day, with no stacks of papers around. “That way, work won’t bleed into family time,” says Morgenstern.
Work where you feel most energized. Typically, this will be in the room with the most natural light and the nicest view, says Austin, Texas-based career expert Holly Reisem Hanna, who tends to work in her kitchen for these very reasons. Some spots feel stagnant, and “you want to be in a space that gives you positive energy and flow,” she says.
Having an ergonomic—meaning efficient and safe—arrangement of your chair, desk (or table), computer, keyboard, mouse, and telephone can keep you working more productively and prevent repetitive injuries, according to Anne Colby, a senior editor at Houzz.
Once you’ve designated a space, keep it tidy. A cluttered work area can lead to cluttered thoughts, and at home, distractions are everywhere. A pile of unopened mail will subconsciously nag you the whole day, so move it to a separate bin away from your workspace.
“You don’t want your space to drain you—you want it to energize you,” Morgenstern says. “That doesn’t mean you need to be a neat worker. Just file papers away in boxes so you’re not staring at them.” Limit the stuff on your desk or work surface to whatever you’re working on at the moment and a few things that inspire you, like a piece of art or a plant that brings life into your space.
There’s no summoning IT when your computer goes on the fritz, so bookmark troubleshooting pages and post numbers to call for complicated fixes around your workspace. While you’re at it, set up your own supply closet—a shelf for chargers, earphones, etc.—so you’re not running around the house every time you need something.
Your overhead kitchen light may not be enough: Light needs to be diffused and the fixtures well positioned to avoid creating computer screen glare, which can lead to eyestrain, Colby says. Try to incorporate layers of light from multiple sources, not a single light source, to reduce eyestrain.
Create a structured routine, “which will help your mind and body adapt to a new working environment,” says Alan Hedge, PhD, former director of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Laboratory at Cornell University. Concentration can falter in as little as 20 minutes, so Hedge recommends what he calls the 20-20-20 rule: Work for 20 minutes, break for 20 seconds, then while breaking, look 20 feet away to reset your focus and attention span.
If you tend to stay up late or sleep in, you can help synchronize your body clock so you’re alert during working hours by stepping outside for 15 to 20 minutes each day. According to experts, sunlight helps stimulate the pineal gland, which produces melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate the sleep-wake cycle.
One of the pitfalls of working from home: working too much. Create a set schedule of total working hours that match your typical workday. “When you have a structure, you become more efficient,” Morgenstern says. Your start and stop times—and breaks—can be more fluid, but always finish at a designated time.
“When there isn’t a specific cutoff time, it can be hard for people to step away from their work,” says Katharine Zaleski, cofounder and president of PowerToFly, a recruiting platform for remote and tech jobs for women.
A daily stroll gets you out of your bunny slippers and in a better state of mind. Designate a set time to take a walk every day so you’ll be more likely to stick to the routine. If you have pets or kids at home with you, drag them along.
Becoming more disciplined and productive while working from home doesn’t mean you have to be a shut-in. Every four hours or so, put yourself face-to-face with a person, whether it’s a neighbor or a barista.
If you’re housebound, Michelle Goodman, author of My So-Called Freelance Life, recommends “virtual watercooler chitchat”―emailing pals during scheduled breaks or reaching out to also-WFH coworkers over your office messaging tool.
Doing chores, filing away bills, getting dinner ready—taking on household tasks throughout the day can eat up a ton of time and hurt your productivity. “Working from home doesn’t mean that you should be working on your home, and just because you’re home, you shouldn’t feel responsible to do these things throughout the day,” Zaleski says.
If you’re tempted to throw in a load of laundry when you should be filling out TPS reports, work for 25 minutes, then allow for five-minute housework breaks. Schedule it on your calendar as you would any work appointment. This way, you can set a timer to tackle some chores, then get back to work. Along the same lines, treat doctor visits and other appointments as if you were in the office: Go first thing in the morning or at the end of the day.
The one benefit of a commute is that it gives you time to mentally switch gears from work to home life. When you only have a staircase separating you, you need a transition routine. Close out your to-do list, noting what you did and what to accomplish tomorrow. Then change your clothes.
“We behave differently based on what we’re wearing,” Morgenstern says. When you work from home, you should get dressed into work clothes (not a suit but not yoga pants, she says). Then, once work is done, change into lounge clothes. “Your body will relax and know you’re in a different mode,” she says.
Finally, have a plan for what you’re going to do once you’re finished with work. “You can only compete with the lure of sending one more email if you have a compelling alternative, whether it’s going for a walk, cooking dinner, or hanging with your kids," says Morgenstern.