Many more of us are working from home in today’s world, whether it’s because of unforeseen events or just the general business trend. As a blogger I have spent nearly two years working from home, and so I’m no stranger to the perks and the challenges of it. When you work from home for the first time, it can be tough; these are my top productivity tips to help you find creative ways to get the most out of it.
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1. Go outside before you start work
It may seem that the biggest perk of working from home is that there’s nothing to stop you from staying in your PJs all day. Heck, you don’t even need to get out of bed if you don’t want to.
Not so fast. As I soon found out, staying indoors for too long is a recipe for getting stuck in a rut. If you launch straight into work in the morning without taking time to get refreshed and ready for the day, your brain doesn’t really get going properly.
This scientifically-sourced article on Business Insider explains the many health benefits of going outside, and among these are improved concentration and sharper thinking.
I’ve found that by getting outdoors before I start any work, even if it’s a quick walk around the block, it gives me a much better focus when I turn my laptop on. If the weather is horrible, then I will at the very least get showered, changed and do something that’s not work, like preparing some food for lunch.
You could also go a step further and build yourself a productive morning routine combining mindfulness, exercise and planning. However you approach it, structuring your mornings well help you avoid slipping into toxic habits.
2. Embrace the 90-minute rule
This is, without doubt, the one single change I have made that has had the largest impact on my productivity and happiness since I have been working from home.
I came across the 90-minute rule a few months ago when Lisa and I had some friends over for the weekend, who are running a startup business. As enthusiasts for the science of productivity and work–life balance, our friends had encountered a concept that 90 minutes is the optimal amount of time for an uninterrupted session of work. Following this principle, they trialled organising their work into 90-minute sessions, and saw big improvements in productivity.
After reading more about this phenomenon, I discovered that there is some science behind it. Something called the ultradian rhythm dictates that you can expect about 90 minutes of high-frequency brain activity before your concentration starts to wane. At this point, you should take a break.
Since this epiphany, I have broken down my working days into four sessions of 90 minutes, strictly adhered to using a timer, with at least a half-hour break between each. And the results have been incredible. While cutting my working hours down by about 40%, I have been getting a lot more done at the same time. It really works. And the extra time liberated by this approach allows me to devote energy to other passions in life.
3. Take time out from the screen
When you do take breaks from work at home, try to get away from your computer screen as much as you can. If you work for 90 minutes but then faff around on social media for half an hour, it still saps your brain energy and you won’t see the benefit of recharging.
I try to take regular walks throughout the day. It helps me to stay active and restores my mental energy. It doesn’t always need to be a walk, though. Read a book, paint, do some yoga, learn to play a musical instrument – whatever works for you. Just get away from that screen for a while.
4. Match the music to the task
One undeniable benefit of working from home is the freedom to create your own working soundtrack. There isn’t anybody around to frown or raise an eyebrow if you stick some tunes on.
I have found that when working from home, different tasks call for different backing music. While I like listening to current affairs talk shows on the radio, they can become very distracting if I need to concentrate intensely on research or writing. However, they’re great if I’m doing menial admin tasks like expenses.
For the tasks that require the greatest concentration, relaxing classical music gets me in the right headspace. If you have an Echo Dot, ask Alexa to find something suitable and you’ll probably get the playlist “classical for a relaxing bath”. It’s a great one for writing.
You could even put together some playlists for particular work situations. Make a motivational one, a chill-out one, a Friday-afternoon-ready-for-the-weekend one – you can have a lot of fun with it.
5. Get an Echo Dot
Yeah, on that last subject – if you don’t have an Amazon Echo Dot already, get one. It’s a good investment to make things easier at home when you will be spending a lot of time there.
Alexa has many features that can help with organising your working life. You can add appointments to your calendar, set timers, create to-do lists, play music or podcasts, order supplies from Amazon, and much more.
If nothing else, Alexa at least provides some virtual company. (Yes, I am sad enough to have conversations with Alexa during the day at home.)
6. Don’t sleep and work in the same space
Seriously, it’s toxic.
This is a trap I fell into when I first started working from home full-time, and the result was that I was never able to truly switch off. Avoid working in your bedroom at all costs.
Individual circumstances can make this difficult. In the earliest days of this blog, Lisa and I lived in a flatshare in London. When working in the flat rather than the local library, my choices were either a desk in our bedroom or our communal living room.
To begin with, for comfort’s sake, I chose the bedroom. But this gradually descended into a cycle of being permanently in work mode. I could never completely relax, and found myself twitching my fingers when we watched films in bed, and waking up at night thinking about work. And when my alarm went off in the morning, I was instantly in my workplace. Not good.
After the problems began to exacerbate, I decided to stop working in the bedroom. It was a small change, but it helped me to put boundaries between work and leisure, and my quality of sleep improved noticeably.
The ideal scenario is to create a dedicated workspace at home, separate from where you relax and where you sleep. But if your only choices are the bedroom and living room, always go for the living room.
7. Set an evening curfew
Another surefire way to harm your sleep quality is to make a habit of working late into the evening. Before I started organising my working days into four 90-minute sessions, I would frequently burn the midnight oil tapping away on my laptop.
I curbed this by setting a rule to never work after 8pm, no matter how urgent. These days I usually finish my working day much earlier than this, but I still keep this as a rule of thumb. It means I get to spend more quality time with Lisa in the evenings, I sleep better and I have a fresher focus in the mornings.
Try setting an evening curfew to suit your own routine. As a general rule, I would suggest not working within at least two hours of when you plan to go to bed.
8. Arrange online hangouts with a work buddy
For me, the most challenging aspect of working from home has been the lack of human contact. I loved working in an office. As an extrovert I get a buzz from being around other people, and I thrive on being part of a social community.
I struggled with letting this go, especially at the beginning. There’s no escaping the fact that working from home gets lonely. Anybody who loves being around people will find it a shock to the system to suddenly find themselves isolated.
But just like every challenge, there are steps you can take to combat the loneliness of home working.
Firstly, try buddying up with someone from work, or a mentor, and set up regular calls or online hangouts. You can use the time to share experiences, discuss strategies and keep each other in check. The interaction and reflection space can only be good for your mental health.
I have two skill-swap arrangements with friends and business buddies, which includes having monthly catch-up Skypes. These conversations often generate ideas for new resources to try or connections to make. And I always feel better afterwards.
If you aren’t already, set up WhatsApp groups or make use of other digital tools to stay connected with your colleagues.
Engaging with your communities online won’t replace the camaraderie of an office, but it will help break through the loneliness, and can have many positive impacts on your work.
9. Don’t punish yourself for low productivity
Good days and bad days happen, regardless of whether you are working in the office or remotely.
When I worked in an office I took this as par for the course, and didn’t feel too guilty if I had an unproductive afternoon. But, for some reason, when I started working at home I was much harder on myself for not getting enough done.
This may be down to the ingrained societal attitude that working from home is an exceptional perk, rather than an intrinsic part of our working culture. As such, we feel a greater pressure to perform when we work from home, which translates to a heightened feeling of guilt when we underperform.
This. Is. Nonsense.
It’s ok to have bad days when you are working from home. In fact, it’s to be expected. If you don’t give yourself any congratulation when you’re over-performing, then why be hard on yourself for tougher times?
These days, if I’m having one of those afternoons when I’m just getting nothing done, I’ll just stop working. Because what’s the point? I can make it up later when I am in the productive zone.
Put on the kettle, make a cuppa, go for a walk, and return to the task with fresh eyes when you’re feeling refreshed. And don’t feel guilty for it.
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