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Do you need some tips for writing from home? If you find it hard to get settled or impossible to accomplish anything, here’s my advice on how to turn yourself into a productivity master…
I’ve always loved working from home. Oops, let me correct that statement. Working from home wasn’t so great when my triplet children were three years old.
My office is in a loft at the top of our house and it has never had a door. When the kids were young, it didn’t even have a staircase. Only a ladder, which — improbably, given the ease with which the kids wiggled out of their cribs from age 9 months — we had convinced them they were incapable of climbing. Still, they congregated at the bottom of the ladder and yelled up to me, even though they had a very fun babysitter with them downstairs.
We rebuilt our house 10 years ago and now I have a set of stairs and a five-second commute to work. And no shrieking toddlers. Through almost a quarter of a century of working mostly from home, I’ve developed some tricks and techniques that make me more productive here. Here are my 15 tips for writing from home:
- Have a dedicated work space: You don’t need a separate room but you do need a dedicated space. And it shouldn’t be in the basement (too dark and depressing) and, ideally, it shouldn’t be in your bedroom, either. Always follow the principle that you shouldn’t sleep where you work. If worse comes to worst, set up a table in a corner of your living-room or take over your kitchen/dining-room table during business hours. Try to use a special table mat or some props (reference books?) to show it’s your working time.
- Get dressed: You don’t need to put on a suit or heels but you do need to have a shower and get dressed. You want to give yourself the message that it’s time for work, not time to schlub around the house. Some experts suggest you should dress as though you’re expecting a video call from an important client. I don’t go quite that far but I do always wear something reasonable, including shoes. Every once in a while, when I have a 6 or 7 am meeting with a client from another continent, I’ll dress like a TV anchor – from the waist up. I’ll wear earrings and a nice blouse paired with my PJ bottoms, which the client can’t see as I’m sitting. This outfit always sends my family into hysterical laughter.
- Use time blocking to structure your day: My productivity took a huge leap as soon as I started using time-blocking. Each morning I take five minutes to plan. First, I decide my three to five priorities for that day. Then, I schedule when I’m going to do them by entering my tasks (not just meetings, but tasks) into a daily calendar, that’s divided into 30-minute chunks. This is one of my best tips for writing from home.
- Try the pomodoro technique: I love the pomodoro — a productivity tool — for speeding up my writing. As I’m writing this post for example, I hear a timer tick-tocking, alerting me that I have x number of minutes to finish. The sound of a ticking clock is gently alarming — sort of like bomb needing to be defused in a TV thriller (your heart races a little but you know the TV writers aren’t going to kill a main character.) My timer keeps me focused and on task, without having to feel sorry for myself. Give the pomodoro a try.
- Pretend you’re not home: When I started working from home, I felt like a sitting duck for neighbours and real estate agents. Quickly, I learned that I needed to refuse to answer the door and the home phone. (Couriers can leave packages by the front door.) My family knows that if they need to reach me quickly they should call my office line or text my cell. Everything else can wait until after-business hours.
- Get yourself some noise-cancelling headphones: I learned this trick early, to avoid the shrieks from downstairs. The best (and most expensive) headphones are made by Bose. I replaced my 15-year-old pair last spring and the new ones are even lighter and more flexible (and rechargeable!). They are perfect for airplane travel. But if you’re low on cash, a less expensive solution is a pair of gun muffs. You can get them from Amazon for as little as $11. (Thanks to my friend Casey for this great suggestion.)
- Maintain your social connections: When you’re working in an office, you usually have plenty of coworkers with whom you can chat and kibbitz. This does not happen at home, so you need to be more assertive and organized about setting up social time for yourself. I try to meet people for coffee or lunch fairly regularly and these social connections allow me to feel well connected and not isolated.
- Be clear about your working hours: I start my day around 6:30 am with at least 30 minutes of exercise. After that, I’ll go straight to writing if I’m working on a book. Otherwise, I take another 30 minutes or so to plan my day. I’m not religious about avoiding things like doctor/dentist appointments during working hours, or grocery shopping, or trips to the library, so allowing for those interruptions, I often don’t quit work until about 6 pm. When I started the work-from-home life, I worked every weekend. Now I emphatically do not, with the exception of Sundays, when I’ll often have one or two video meetings with clients. I never do writing work during weekends or evenings.
- Use video apps: Technology has given us some tremendous ways to connect with colleagues and clients. Use these tools! I like GoToMeeting but it costs me about $30/month. If that’s outside of your budget you can use Skype, Zoom or Facetime, all of which are free.
- Get some exercise: Now that you’re working from home, use what was formerly your commuting time for exercise. Not only will it make you healthier, it’ll also give your creativity a boost. I used to go outside for walks several times a day. Now, however, I have a treadmill desk that allows me to walk while I write. In rainy Vancouver, I appreciate not having to put on Gortex when I want to get my feet moving.
- Avoid social media (unless that’s your job): I’ve never developed a taste for Facebook so I steer clear of that app. My time on Twitter is a bit more interesting to me but I have no difficulty constraining it to 10 minutes at the end of every day. If you’re a person who finds the lure of social media to be irresistible, then download a tool to help you stay focused. Freedom or Cold Turkey are two apps that can provide external self-control, by blocking you from your greatest internet-based temptations for specific windows of time each day.
- Work when you’re most productive: One of the biggest benefits of working from home is the ability to schedule your day around your own productivity. I’m a morning lark so I like writing best in the morning. As a result, I try to do all my writing before 11 am. I tend to “sag” a bit between 1 pm and 3 so I try to do busy work then or I schedule meetings. Both of these tasks are fun enough to keep me energized.
- Do your hardest work first: Even if you’re a night owl, you should always try to do your hardest work first. This is not an energy-related tip; it’s a psychological one. If you accomplish something difficult before noon, you’re going to feel happy and proud of yourself. This elation will help carry you through the day, making you even more productive.
- Tell your family about your expectations: It’s always important to communicate with those you love about what you’re trying to do. Don’t expect them to read your mind! If you want to work from 9 am to 3 pm, without interruption, tell your family that. If you need to work one evening a week, get their buy-in.
- Don’t work ALL the time: Working from home is not an excuse for endless work. Remember: you want your home office lifestyle to be sustainable. If you’re working a 70-hour week (or feeling guilty about not working more), you haven’t developed a viable work habit.
Working from home is a great way to add more time into your schedule. No commute. No interruptions from coworkers. But use these tips for writing from home to address the specific challenges you’re likely to face.
It may be August, but it’s time to think ahead to your Fall writing plans. If you want some help developing a better writing routine, consider applying to my Get It Done program. Aug. 22 is the deadline for this three-month accountability group (which starts Sept. 1). To apply, go here and scroll down to the very end and select the bright green “click here to apply now” button.
My video podcast last week addressed the topic of jargon — when to avoid it and when to use it. Or, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.
Do you write or work from home? What tricks do you use to make it work? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section of my blog. And congratulations to Traci Freed, the winner of a copy of my book, 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better for a July 26/19 comment on my blog. (Traci, please email me with your mailing address.) Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Aug. 31/19 will be put in a draw for a copy of my book. To leave your own comment, please, scroll down to the section, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.
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