I worked from home as a freelancer for several years. Then I started a full-time job with The Penny Hoarder, where I work from home one day a week.
Though I love the flexibility and the comfort — PJs all day! — I can attest to the challenges of working from home and managing your own time. Distractions abound, and without regular access to coworkers and bosses, productivity can suffer.
Whether you work for yourself or a company, your challenges are probably the same:
- Staying focused on your work.
- Deciding which tasks to prioritize.
- Keeping track of your time.
- Communicating with co-workers, colleagues, clients or teams.
- Collaborating on projects with people all over the world.
Here are my favorite productivity tools to combat these challenges:
1. Use These 3 Apps to Stay Focused
When you work from home, a lot of factors will determine your level of focus. You’ll want to ensure family or roommates know to let you be and that your home office is distraction-free.
But don’t forget about that giant distraction right in front of you: the internet.
Working from home requires a computer and internet connection nearly 100% of the time. You have to figure out how to focus on your tasks while you’re connected to literally everything in the world at once.
No one should be faced with such a feat. Thankfully, plenty of tools exist to help:
- RescueTime gives you a detailed report of your daily computer activity, showing you which applications and websites get the bulk of your attention.
- SelfControl for Mac lets you blacklist distracting websites — think: social media, email or perhaps a celebrity news blog? — and set a period of time during which you can’t access them. For PCs, try the Self Control Chrome extension.
- Time Out has a similar motivation to the Pomodoro Technique, reminding you to take breaks from your screen throughout the workday. Set this app to remind you to take a break to stretch, eat lunch or just relax your muscles and rest your eyes.
2. Be More Productive in Email
Email can be one of the biggest timesucks in your day — unless you do it right. I recommend using Gmail or its mobile-optimized Inbox app. Both apps offer options that help you stay organized so you can spend less time sorting through email.
3. Streamline Communication With a Messaging App
To keep your email inbox clean, use a messaging app for ongoing conversations with your team.
Here are my favorites:
Through Slack, you can join an existing team by invite — e.g. for a professional organization you’re part of. You can also start a new team for your company or colleagues.
Google Hangouts lets you send instant messages to contacts from within Gmail or in the Hangouts app, or start a video chat with up to 25 users.
If you use an iPhone and a Mac, you can use the Messages desktop app to continue conversations from your phone on your desktop — all conversations will appear in both places.
If constant chatter in these apps becomes distracting, they each have “away” or “do not disturb” options to let you focus but stay connected.
4. Organize and Share Your Projects
For collaboration and organization, Google’s suite of apps is my absolute favorite.
Docs, Sheets and Slides let your team create content, work in the same files simultaneously and track changes and comments. Stop sending attachments via email and losing the most recent version of your projects!
Drive lets you upload, store, share and download files in almost any format, so you don’t have to send files via email or worry about creating a document that’s compatible with your colleague’s software.
5. Manage Your To-Do List With a Free App
Plenty of project- and team-management tools exist to help you streamline work with a large team. If you’re working from home for a company, I recommend you ask your boss to look into Flow or LiquidPlanner to keep track of big projects.
If you working for yourself and need a simpler solution to manage your own time or work on projects with just a few people, consider these free options:
iDoneThis is a super-simple free site you can use to set personal or team daily goals and celebrate wins. Each day, note what you got done and create goals for the next day. You can even set iDoneThis to email you a daily reminder and respond via email to update your list.
When you’re working alone, this service is a helpful daily reminder of your achievements and a simple way to set your priorities for each day.
Starting an iDoneThis team with colleagues or coworkers lets you see what others are achieving and adds accountability for achieving your own goals.
I love Trello almost entirely because of its design, which is more palatable than most project-management apps. It lets you create and share boards dedicated to various departments or projects, then add tasks and other information as cards on those boards.
Drag and drop cards to shift deadlines or priorities, assign cards to various team members, attach documents and images, and chat with other members within tasks.
Trello is free to use with unlimited boards, cards and members. If you need more control and options, it’s $9.99 per user per month.
6. Schedule Meetings Without the Email Back and Forth
Scheduling is another timesuck and inbox-thief you don’t need in your day. Email and even instant messages are annoying and inefficient for the task. Instead, use a simple meeting scheduler to get it done faster and get back to work.
You may have already heard of Doodle, the classic scheduling tool. Its simplicity makes it a mainstay. Create an event — like a remote staff meeting or networking lunch — and invite attendees to pick a time.
If you’re scheduling appointments with coaching or consulting clients, I like Doodle’s app BookMe, which starts at $10 a month.
If you haven’t caught my Google apps mania by this point, let me add another: Calendar helps you plan events and meetings by sharing schedules with others so you can quickly see when everyone is busy or available.
Within your organization, Calendar is a more efficient tool for scheduling than Doodle, as your co-workers will likely share their calendars with you.
7. Avoid Being Distracted by Must-Read Links
Whatever your job, I bet you spend a lot of time on the internet and social media by necessity. You have to do research for articles, learn about a business, reach out to network or just Google a company’s phone number.
Unfortunately the internet is loaded with landmines — headlines you can’t help but click.
61 Puppies That Just Can’t Even at Christmastime
6 Ways You’re Doing Exactly the Wrong Thing Right Now
You Won’t Believe the Inspiring Way this 3-Legged Goose Saved My Life
I know. You have to read this. But don’t let that ruin your productivity.
When you come across an article you need to read but don’t have time for, save it to Pocket and read it later.
Bonus: Try Zoho if You’re Starting From Scratch
Many of these apps might be your best option, because they’re widely used by the people you’ll work with. For example, your company might use Gmail for employee emails, which gives you access to all of Google’s apps.
If you’re working for yourself or building a team from scratch, though, you might want to check out Zoho, cloud software for business that offers tools for all of the above under one account — much of it for free
With a free Zoho account, you can use Zoho mail, docs, calendar and tasks; plus Connect, a private social network for your team; Projects, a project management app; and its Meeting app for video calls.
Zoho isn’t as widespread as many of these other tools, so vet it for yourself. I use docs and mail, and love them. It lets me set up an email address at my own domain for free, and I love that team collaboration can be rolled under one roof.
Your Turn: What are your favorite productivity tools?
Dana Sitar (@danasitar) is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She’s written for Huffington Post, Entrepreneur.com, Writer’s Digest and more, attempting humor wherever it’s allowed (and sometimes where it’s not).