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Productivity tips for work-at-home designers

Ashley Gainer's Layout avatar

Working from home is awesome. I know, because I’ve been doing it since 2010.

No more stuffy jackets, no more pinchy work shoes, no more interminable meetings with coworkers who love the sound of their own voices.

I love working from home because I can control my workload, work hours, and (to some extent) my work environment. I’ve worked in bed, at the kitchen table, in a corner “nook,” and in a full-blown home office with a door on it and everything. There are pros and cons to each arrangement, and I’ve worked my way through many of them.

Ultimately, working from home is a fantastic setup for many people. That said, it’s not without its challenges. If you’re used to an office job or an on-your-feet job, you might need some time to adjust to working from home. When you’re at home, you have all the comforts of home…but you have all the distractions, too. The laundry won’t fold itself, the DVR won’t direct-download into your brain, and the neighbor’s dog doesn’t have a mute button.

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The key to productivity at home is to have systems and boundaries in place that will let you take charge of your schedule. Doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, but it really works! If you’re transitioning into working from home, or you’ve switched to the home office but aren’t quite getting the traction you need, give these tips a try.

1. Have established working hours (or rhythms)

One of the major perks of working from home is setting your own hours. Many folks like to do their work during the typical workday, but not all of us do. Working from home is a great option when your “primary job” is to be a caregiver; for example, so many moms (like me) work while the kids are asleep – typically some combination of early morning, naptimes, and when the kiddos are in bed.

Some people find that they need a set schedule for themselves if they’re going to be productive. If having a rule that you sit down to the computer at 9 a.m. is what works for you, great! On the flip side, if you’re struggling and you’ve never tried the schedule thing before, commit to it for one week and see how it goes.

Others do better when they aren’t restrained by “working hours” – one of the very things they hoped to escape by working from home. I’m one of those people. I like to think of my work schedule as more of a rhythm than a set number of hours – I sit at the computer after Kiddo 1 leaves for preschool and work until Kiddo 2 starts yelping; again when Kiddo 2 goes down for a nap; and then I do the bulk of my work whenever both kiddos go to bed.

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Throughout the day as I have pockets of time, I might do some of the “softer” tasks that need to be done – these are things like connecting with colleagues online, catching up on emails and blog posts to read, and even responding to client emails if that’ll take less than a minute or two. By knocking out these little things here and there, I’m reserving more of my “quiet time” to get the deeper, more demanding work done.

2. Set aside time for others (or time for you)

Practice saying something like one of these and see how it feels:

  • I only take client calls on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
  • Fridays are for planning and deep work – no calls or appointments.
  • Clients can expect responses from me between 10 and 4 on weekdays, and that’s it.

These are all examples of boundaries you can set around your schedule to carve out specific time slots for important (or loathed) activities.

Hate client calls? Limit the times you’ll be available for them, so you can spend the rest of your week without that stress. Need some guaranteed time to do your planning/learning/building your own business? Reserve one day a week for that, and do no client work that day, every week. Feeling like your inbox is a millstone around your neck? Put that bad boy in a cage and only let it out when YOU want to be fiddling with emails.

There are all kinds of tools – many of which are free – that you can use to help keep your boundaries in place. Scheduling apps like Calendly or Acuity can make only specific days and times available for bookings; Google Voice can be programmed to let calls through to your real phone only at specified times (and you can get email and text transcripts of any voicemails that come through after hours).

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3. Plan your to-dos and track your progress

There are all kinds of planning tools you can use. Many of them have merit. Many of them are also more high-maintenance than I’m willing to go. Ultimately, you’ll need some sort of goal-setting method in addition to a project management tool that works for you if you’re going to stay productive.

Here’s what I do:

  • At the beginning of the month, I pick the two or three things I want to focus on or accomplish that month. I’ll also list out some of the tasks or steps I’ll need to take – broad strokes stuff. These go on the wall where I can see them.
  • Every Monday, I write down the five “very important tasks” (my VITs) I want to tackle that week to move me toward the monthly goal. These go on the wall, too.
  • Every evening when I’m wrapping up work for the day, I write down the top three things I need to accomplish tomorrow (including client work milestones, etc.) that will get me closer to checking off my VITs for the week.
  • Every morning (or afternoon or evening) when I first start working, I do only the three things on that list before turning my attention to anything else. If I have leftover time, I just make more progress on whatever needs (or inspires) the most. Then, I make my top three for tomorrow. (For the longest time, I used this notepad; now I’m giving the Emergent Task Planner a whirl.)

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My system’s not high-tech, it’s not beautiful, and it probably won’t inspire a new planner or time management book anytime soon, but it works for me. The key for you is to find something that works for you…and then actually stick to it.

“No productivity system will work unless you actually do it. ”

Final thoughts on work-at-home productivity

There’s no shortage of productivity advice for the work-at-home workforce. In my own work-at-home life, the absolute best thing I did for my own ability to get everything done was to take charge of my time. By giving myself set times to do specific things, I’m able to make progress that I feel good about every day instead of spinning my wheels and dreading the next email/phone call/work session.

What’s your biggest challenge when it comes to working from home?

Comments ( 1 )

  1. sina

    April 17, 2017

    Indeed this article is one of my favorites!
    Love your approach and attitude Ashley! Keep going to write these wonderful tips.

    Thank u so much

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