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9 simple ways to make working from home work for you

Ashley Gainer's Layout avatar

Ah, the glory days of working from home. Whether you’re freelancing or telecommuting, being able to work from home can be a major life improvement…if you know how to do it right.

Without the benefit of a boss keeping tabs on you and a slew of coworkers to keep you motivated and entertained, working from home can sometimes feel a bit uncomfortable.

The difference between thriving and sinking when you work from home is made in the structures you implement for yourself. How, when, and even where you spend your time throughout the day (not just while working) will have a significant impact on your ability to work well from home.

I know all of this because I’ve worked from home since 2010, and I’ve made pretty much every mistake in the book. So if you’re thinking about taking the plunge, or you’re already working from home and need some traction, read on to get my very best advice about working from home.

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Have the right equipment

When you’re working from home, you obviously need to have the right software and equipment to get the job done. Don’t rely on outsourcing things like basic printing and copying if you can avoid it, make sure you’ve got a working phone line, and if at all possible, have a computer that’s just for work stuff. This makes it easier to keep your boundaries in place (more on that in a sec), and it also makes it a little easier at tax time.

Invent a commute

I’m one of those people who gets a little twitchy at the idea of a commute. Anything more than five miles makes me resent that I have to devote so much of my life to driving somewhere and then driving back home. If I lived in an area where commuting by train was an option, maybe this would be different, but probably not.

Nevertheless, I’ve learned that there’s very real value in having a commute, especially when it’s time to get started in the morning. You’re able to transition from home mode to work mode, and getting into work mode is a huge factor in being able to work from home effectively. So what’s the solution? Well… that’s up to you. But you’ll probably need one.

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I’ve benefited from having a solid, clock-based morning routine in the past. I got up around the same time each day, I made breakfast, got dressed, and then when the time turned 9 a.m., it was time to go into the office and start working.

Your commute may be showering, fixing a mug of coffee, and then going upstairs to your office. It may involve taking a walk around the block and coming back in, as though you were arriving at work. It may be an actual commute you take to a coffee shop or other working space. Or maybe you’re the one who drops the kids off at school or daycare, and when you get back, it’s work time. Try a few things out and see what (and how much) you need to start slipping into work mode easily.

Get dressed for work….or don’t

A lot of the common work-from-home advice out there is to dress as though you’re going to the office. To this, I say: yes and no (but mostly no).

Is it possible to work all day in your pajamas? Sure. We’ve all done it. Is it the greatest idea? Probably not, if for no other reason than you stop feeling like a regular human being when you never put on real clothes. At the same time, I don’t see much sense in stuffing yourself into uncomfortable work clothes if you don’t have to.

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So my approach is this: dress in a way you can feel good about. If all you need is yoga pants, an unstained shirt, and a hint of mascara to get your work done and feel like your normal self, go for it. If you’re more productive and alive wearing jeans, an oxford button-down, and your favorite loafers, do it.

There’s nothing effective or helpful about feeling like a slob. “When working from home, it’s less about what you wear and more about how you respond to it. ”

Take care of yourself

You’ll be surprised how much you end up sitting once you make the switch and start working from home. When you’re in an office, you get up pretty frequently to go to the printer, hit the vending machine, or pop in on a colleague. When you’re at home, pretty much everything is within arm’s reach and there’s no one to go visit. It’s just you and your computer, all day long. So take breaks. Work them into your schedule. And no, trips to the fridge don’t count.

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Likewise, plan trips that will get you out of the house. It’s cliché, but for a reason: working remotely at a coffee shop keeps you connected with humanity. Isolation is a real thing, and a big one at that. Get outside, stretch your legs, and go connect with somebody. Lunch dates, business events, associations, and even volunteering are all perfectly valid (and enriching!) reasons to get out of the house.

Give yourself a schedule

When you are autonomous, especially if you’re freelancing, it can be really hard to get things done without someone else to set goals and expectations for you. Being disciplined is part of the story, but if you rely on discipline alone, you will only be disappointing yourself. Instead of leaning on willpower, make yourself a schedule and stick with it.

Every person’s schedule looks different, and might even look different from day to day. The idea is to have a structure that you can implement to your workday and even to your work week.

Think about how your energy flows through the day. If you are sharp in the morning, reserve that time each day to do your most demanding work instead of messing around with emails. If you have a slump in the afternoons, use that time to take online courses or do some menial desk work like invoicing or filing (or go outside and listen to a podcast for a breather!). And if you work for yourself, the very first thing you should do for the first portion of every single workday is marketing your business – even if your client roster is full. You are your most important client.

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Batching can be an effective way to manage your time, too. Maybe Monday is your email catch-up and social media day, and Thursday is the day you’re available for client calls. Reserve one day of the week to be the day you schedule all your nonwork appointments. Try to book lunch or coffee with someone on the same day each week.

And no matter what, try to have a quitting time. (Even if it’s midnight.)

Set boundaries

When you work from home, keeping your work life separate from your home life is nearly impossible unless you make an effort to do so. That’s why I always recommend having a dedicated workspace (a door to close is tremendously helpful) and even a dedicated work computer. Don’t let home life encroach on your work time. Throw in a load of laundry, sure, but save the mowing and major cleaning projects for later.

That said, it can be a big relief to accommodate little chores and errands (especially when you’re making it a habit to get out of your home). But make sure there’s always the understanding that your work time is actually for working and that it gets priority over picking up the dry cleaning. Same goes for friends and family. Some people will “get it,” but some will think that you can do anything you want at any time and you don’t have any real responsibilities.

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Protect your home life, too. At the end of each work day, do whatever it takes to actively step away. Make a priority list for the next day, review your calendar, and close the door. Don’t keep hopping on the computer all evening, don’t try to work on a project while watching a TV show with your girlfriend, and don’t check work email when it’s not working hours.

A big part of setting and enforcing boundaries is finding your distractions and eliminating them. If the temptation to put off working to take care of some non-essential house project is too great, find out why and address that issue. It could mean that you’re directionless and need some more specific goals. Or you don’t have all the information you need to start a project, so there’s a block. There’s also the possibility that you’re burning out, which should be a big sign that something needs to change. Whatever it is, find the reason and fix it so it doesn’t keep getting in the way of your success.

Have human contact

Isolation is no joke, and you’ll succumb to it if you don’t get proactive right away. In a regular job, you’ve got colleagues, customers, and even sometimes vendors to keep you company. Not so when you work from home.

working-from-home-communication Photo credit: #WOCinTech Chat

Fact is, you need the water cooler. So make one for yourself! Find peers who you can email or chat with regularly, and groups where you can connect online. Human interaction is the goal, and many of us can get by on surprisingly little. Incidentally, this is one of the reasons why people like coworking spaces and even working at the library: other people are there.

Get systems to work for you

When you’re employed by someone else and you’re working in the company space, there are a lot of systems you won’t be able to use when you work from home. It could be something as basic as marketing, or having a phone call screener (aka receptionist) or a bookkeeper. Develop (or buy) the systems you’ll need at home that someone or something else would have provided for you at an office. Set a cleaning day each week when you’ll vacuum and water the plants. Use calendar reminders to ping you every Friday when it’s time to send invoices. Find a project management system that you like to help you keep track of all the moving parts of your workday. In short, take charge and automate what you can.

Enjoy it!

Working from home has some huge perks and can make a major difference in your quality-of-life. So enjoy it! Live up the freedom you now have to take a mid-morning class, or hire a personal trainer at an odd hour in the afternoon, or go see a movie at lunchtime on Friday, or put your children down for their afternoon naps. Ultimately, you are in charge of your schedule, which means you can do a lot more with it if that’s what you want.

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