Recently, I transitioned from a traditional office environment to working mostly from home. This new arrangement is phenomenally flexible. I can set my own schedule, plan my workflow in a way that fits my productivity peaks, and step out for a walk or jog whenever I need to clear my head.
But at the same time, no one can deny that the work-from-home setup has its downsides. Without the accountability of a boss and colleagues within earshot, working from home requires a large dose of self-discipline. It’s easy to be seduced by distractions in our homes—children, pets, chores, the snack supply in the pantry—that would not be present in a traditional office. It’s easy to slip into sub-optimal working habits like wearing PJs all day, working from the couch, or getting up every fifteen minutes for more coffee. Furthermore, without break room chatter and colleagues to eat lunch with, working from home can be a lonely and isolating experience.
The past year has been a journey for me in discerning how I work best, which productivity hacks allow me to accomplish my tasks most efficiently, and how to drum up the discipline to keep moving when my motivation dwindles.
It has been a process, but gradually, I’ve learned to cultivate habits that not only enhance my productivity, but also help me thrive in my work-from-home arrangement. Most of the habits and practices I’ve incorporated stem from the advice of respected colleagues and mentors. While I certainly recommend seeking advice from the successful people in your life, it is also important to find a rhythm that works best for you and allows you to be the most successful.
Here are seven small steps I’ve taken to improve my work-from-home experience.
01. Designate a workspace.
The first piece of advice I incorporated was to designate a discrete workspace in my home. It is important to create healthy separation between your working life and your personal life, especially when you lack the natural separation that a commute creates.
If you don’t have a dedicated office or spare room at your disposal, simply carve out a space in your home or apartment. At a minimum, buy a desk and slide it into the corner of your bedroom. Your workspace doesn’t have to be large or fancy: It just has to be clean, clear, and dedicated to work and work alone. Ultimately, what is most important is that you resist the urge to work from the couch, your bed, or in front of the TV.
02. Set a schedule.
When you work from home, it can be easy to become lackadaisical with your schedule. For instance, you may take several hours to ease into your workday, only to spend your entire evening and “off” time checking email. It is important to create boundaries between your work time and your personal time. This means setting a start time (or range of times) and a time after which you will no longer check email or be accessible for phone calls. Whatever that may be, stick to it.
Note that this does not mean everyone will work from 9 to 5. As acclaimed habits researcher and author Gretchen Rubin writes in her book Better than Before, some people work best in the mornings (larks), and others at night (owls). If you are a lark, your work day may start at 5 a.m. and end at 3 p.m. If you are an owl, you may not head to your office until noon, but will work well past a lark’s bedtime. No matter where your natural tendencies lead you, honor that time as work time, and preserve your personal time for community, exercise, self-care, service, and activities you enjoy.
03. Get dressed.
Yes, you read that right: No PJs allowed! Even if you are simply throwing on yoga pants and a sweatshirt, getting dressed signals to your body and mind that it is time to transition from the languid morning hours to getting down to business.
When I was in law school, one of my classmates showed up to our first set of final exams in a full suit and tie. The rest of us—who sported sweats, glasses, and unwashed hair—scoffed at his well-coiffed appearance. It’s EXAM season, we gasped. We’re lucky if we have time to shower, let alone dress up like we’re going to court. Our colleague responded by saying that dressing up made him feel like he was on his A-game: His mind felt clear, and he tricked himself into thinking he was prepared and confident rather than queasy and terrified (like the rest of us).
Research suggests that he was spot-on. A recent study revealed that those who dressed in formal business attire for work reported feeling more “authoritative, trustworthy, and competent.” And a Northwestern University study found that certain types of clothing can affect its wearers’ mental and psychological processing: Participants wearing a white coat described as a medical lab coat were more attentive than those who donned a lab coat defined as a painters’ coat, even if it was an identical article of clothing.
Quite simply, what we wear sets the tone for our work day and prepares us for the tasks at hand.
When your commute involves simply moving to another part of your house, it is critical to ensure you are getting enough exercise. Throughout your day, do a ten-minute workout, go for a run, or walk to an early morning coffee with friends or colleagues. You need mental breaks anyway, so you might as well make them good for your body!
I took a page out of my dad’s book and recently started exercising first thing in the morning. He taught me the importance of prioritizing exercise before the work day starts. In the morning, your time is only yours, but as the day goes on, your well-intentioned plans to get out of the house and do something healthy for your body are often derailed as work and family-related commitments vie for your time.
05. Make every day of the week unique.
Without a boss or team present to tell you what to do and when, it can be overwhelming to figure out how to apportion your tasks and manage your workload. If it helps, assign different tasks to different days.
I first discovered the idea of “making every day unique” from Gretchen Rubin’s podcast, Happier. This involves designating specific days for certain activities. This takes a layer of planning out of your weekly schedule, allowing you to get right down to business. For instance, in my business, I have “marketing Mondays,” where I handle any and all marketing-related tasks. If I become preoccupied with a marketing task on another day, I remind myself that I’ve already designated a time to work on that task, and I can confidently refocus on my priority for that particular day.
06. Beware of “procrasticlearing.”
A term coined by Rubin in a recent podcast episode, “procrasticlearing” is the desire to clear clutter, whether in your office space, home, schedule, email inbox, or to-do list. The result is that you spend too much time on non-essential tasks instead of diving into “deep” work, the meat of what you need to accomplish.
While it’s true that sometimes, taking a moment to “clear the decks”—respond to emails, plan your calendar, return calls—can effectively clear your head so that you can focus on your work, true procrasticlearing stems not from a genuine desire for order but from a primal urge to avoid working on unpleasant tasks.
The first step toward conquering your urge to procrasticlear is simple: Recognize when it is happening. Then, devise a few basic house rules to help you prioritize your most important tasks when you are tempted to procrasticlear. For instance, I have a colleague who saves all of his phone calls and emails for the end of the day, reserving mornings for more substantive work. Consider whether a hard rule, like, “No phone calls until after 4 p.m.,” will work for you. Then, implement it, alert your colleagues to it so they know your boundaries, and stick to it.
07. Learn to distinguish what is essential from what is urgent.
In his book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, author Greg McKeown discusses the dangers of filling our schedules with what he calls the “non-essential” and urges readers to embrace a lifestyle defined by the mantra “less, but better.” While some people are natural essentialists, able to discern what is truly critical and to focus on those things, others struggle to separate the proverbial wheat from the chaff. Fortunately, McKeown explains, we can all adopt the “Way of the Essentialist,” learning to focus on what truly matters through a process of careful discernment and disciplined execution.
One way to begin to walk the Essentialist path is to practice identifying tasks that are urgent, but ultimately frivolous. Some examples may include responding to new emails, returning non-urgent calls, administrative work that can and should be outsourced, constantly checking your phone, and saying yes to every business lunch, meeting, or opportunity that happens to float your way. Once you have identified these non-essential items, write them down, then post them in a prominent place in your home so that you remember not to let them encroach upon your valuable time.
While it presents challenges, working from home can be a fantastic way to create a flexible, intentional, well-rounded lifestyle. By incorporating these seven tips, you can learn to make the most of your work-from-home life. This year, I am on a quest to incorporate all seven of these tips into my life. Who’s with me?