12 MIN READ
Don’t Let Time Pass You By: These Tips Will Make Working From Home Easier
My last day at a high-intensity magazine job was on a Friday. I started my new job as a work-from-home freelancer the following Monday.
I couldn’t wait to begin every work day in my pajamas.
No two-hour meetings!
So why didn’t I have enough time to finish writing that 400-word article?
And why was I longing to talk to someone? Anyone?
As it turns out, I should have prepped before my first day. So says Brie Reynolds, senior career specialist at Flexjobs.
“That first day, first week, first month is critical for setting yourself up to be successful in a remote work environment,” Reynolds says. “If you start with structure in place those first days and weeks, you’re more likely to get a handle on remote work faster and get up to speed and be productive faster.
“Even that very first day, I would recommend setting up a sort-of schedule for yourself.”
Her tips, along with those from other remote workers, can help you make that transition from office chair to living room sofa a successful one.
By setting boundaries within your household before you start working from home, you can eliminate many of the distractions that eat up precious minutes every day, Reynolds advises.
“Involve whoever else is in your house in setting you up for success,” she says. “So whether you have a roommate, spouse, kids or your dog — whoever that might be — making sure that they know how this is going to change the way that they are interacting with you when they are home.”
So that takes care of the distractions inside your house, but what about the rest of the world?
Ashley Hampton, a licensed psychologist and business coach for women entrepreneurs, notes that to avoid the distraction of constant phone calls and text messages, she leaves her phone on airplane mode in the kitchen, scheduling 30 minutes or so at lunchtime and in the afternoon to catch up on her correspondence.
“And if I’m going to leave it on my desk, I turn it face down,” Hampton says, noting that even seeing the screen light up for a new message can be distracting enough to cause you to lose focus.
But what if the sound of silence drives you to distraction? Andrew Schutt, who started working from home a year ago, suggests playing an unfamiliar tune to provide background noise that won’t distract you.
“I listen to upbeat music in a different language to keep my tempo high as I’m working,” says Schutt, the CEO and founder of Elevated Web Marketing. “But since the music is in a foreign language, I don’t get caught singing along and losing my focus.”
Start and End the Day with a Win
Nothing throws off your time management goals like getting sucked into the morning talk shows or sleeping an extra 10 (or 40) minutes, so it's vital to set up and stick to a consistent schedule.
Making the bed as part of her morning ritual serves a dual purpose, according to Hampton.
“I really just started it to keep myself from napping in the afternoon as a way to avoid doing work that was really hard,” says Hampton, who’s worked from home for about nine months. “Then I realized that it made me feel better leaving the room to go to another room.
“I start with a win, and having my bed made deters me from wanting to take a nap mid-day.”
Tara Geraghty, who wrote about her family dealing with childhood cancer in a book called “Making Cancer Fun,” says that she signals the start of her work day by donning a “uniform,” which she takes off at the end of the day to help her whole family delineate between work hours and off hours.
“Maybe you put on your work ‘hat’ or a name badge or business pin,” Geraghty says. “It helps with kids, when they see mom’s ‘work hat’ on, they know not to knock on the door unless there’s blood!”
Geraghty notes that her “uniform” not only help get her in the right mindset to start working but also helps her stop working at the end of the day, which can also be a struggle for remote workers.
“They want to be at home and have that flexibility, and yet once they start working at home, they find it’s really difficult to turn it off,” Geraghty says. “What they wanted is their worst nightmare because now they’re working all the time and there is no separation.”
Denielle Kennett, a mom of two who works as a marketing consultant for multiple clients, agrees that a big part of time management for remote workers is balancing personal life and work life.
“I set actual business hours, so I will not check my phone between the hours of 5 p.m. and 8 p.m., and I’m just focused on my kids and my family,” says Kennett, who’s worked from home for two years. “So I let everyone know that even if it’s an emergency, unless someone is dying, and no one is because it’s marketing… I won’t even look at it until my daughter goes to bed.”
Create Realistic To-Do Lists
Ah, writing those to-do lists. Add it to flossing, rotating your tires and checking the batteries in your smoke detector as tedious but essential parts of your life.
But while daily reminders will help you manage your time effectively when working from home, Reynolds says that an overly comprehensive list could set you up for failure before you even begin.
“It shouldn’t be a laundry list of everything that you would like to accomplish, but really… three to five tasks you really need to focus on that day?” Reynolds says. “So knowing that as soon as you walk into your home office, you have a road map for where to start and what to dive into.”
By keeping lists short and detailed, you can realistically plan for accomplishing each day’s goals without getting overwhelmed by long-term tasks. You can always track those on a separate list.
And after that satisfying check of the final box, don’t just toss your list in the wastebasket. Instead, use it as a learning tool.
Dayne Shuda, who’s worked from home full time since 2012, schedules an annual audit to itemize his daily tasks, which helps him determine where he’s spending — or wasting — time.
“I'll usually find that I've gotten into some bad habits,” says Shuda, who is the founder of Ghost Blog Writers. “It's so easy to get into habits and feel like you're busy, but just because the day is filled with tasks doesn't mean you're getting anything done.”
Time Blocking Assistance
If you work from home, expect to swear by tomatoes.
Actually, it’s called the Pomodoro Technique (“pomodoro” is Italian for tomato), which is based on a time-management system developed in the 1980s.
Kyle Taylor, our CEO at The Penny Hoarder, has talked in interviews about using some Pomodoro tips himself.
The technique requires one of those kitchen timers (the original was a tomato-shaped timer, thus its name). You set it for 25-minute increments of work followed by five-minute breaks until you reach four rounds. Then you take an even longer break.
Stefano Young, who works from home as a writer and musician, notes that he uses the Pomodoro Technique to prioritize tasks for that day, then uses the information to plan for the future.
“At the end of the day, you record your completed pomodoros in a spreadsheet to learn how long different tasks take to complete,” Young says.
There are also more high tech alternatives to using the red fruit.
Smart-home devices, for instance, allow you to schedule timers and alerts without the distractions that come with smartphones and smartwatches, says Brieanna Scolaro, who works from home part time.
“I can say commands out loud to my Google Home without my phone being next to me,” says Scolaro, the lead strategist at consulting firm Scolaro & Associates. “I can strategically use the technology to interrupt me at key points to help get back on track, to help break up my schedule or remind me of a certain mantra.
“It can be sort of like working in an office or having an assistant remind you of things that allow you to be more effective.”
Make Yourself Accountable
Although Brenda in accounting may have driven you crazy, her constant nagging for those spreadsheets meant you never missed a deadline because you were re-watching frisbee dog fail.
It’s tougher to waste time if someone’s looking over your shoulder, Reynolds notes, but instead of a manager, a work-from-home group is an alternative way to keep you on task.
“Connect with somebody else who works remotely — especially in your field, doing the type of work that you do,” Reynolds says. “They can also act as a mentor for things like time management, task management and staying focused.”
For Ruthy Kirwan, content creator at PercolateKitchen.com, those people are other work-from-home pals from across the country. Her group schedules video conference calls, during which everyone stays on the line while working independently on their own projects.
“Just to have a tiny little window in the corner of my laptop of someone else there does amazing things mentally for my focus,” says Kirwan, who’s worked from home since 2013. “It’s amazing how much I can accomplish in those 25 minutes when I know I [am accountable to] others.”
You Are Office Manager, IT and Secretary
Unless your cat has some crazy computer skills, you’re on your own, sweetie.
That means all those tasks that your former co-workers handled are now your responsibility — and require your time, Reynolds says.
“Your internet service might go out, your computer stops working, your printer gets jammed,” she says. “There are so many different things that can come up where you have to be the point person and figuring out those things and troubleshooting those things.
“You really have to prepare yourself mentally ahead of time to be that sort of person.”
Learning the skills you’ll need to work from home before you start will save you invaluable time, according to Zondra Wilson, who works remotely as the CEO and founder of Blu Skin Care.
Plus, it will keep co-workers and customers happier about your new arrangement.
“You need to know things like how to convert a document into a PDF,” Wilson says. “If you’ve never Skyped before, or done an online webinar, now’s the time to learn. Colleagues and clients won’t have much patience while you figure out how to use their content management or task ticketing system.”
Make Your Home Office Work for You
Your old office was designed for work.
To maximize your home-office environment, outfit your workspace with materials that help you be more productive.
Natalie Wise, author of “The Self-Discipline Handbook,” notes that investing in noise-cancelling headphones is essential for re-creating the proper environment.
“It really helps me get in the zone,” Wise says, “It’s almost like walking into an office when I put them on.”
Public relations consultant Michelle Garrett says that she invests in caffeine.
“This may sound silly, but coffee is very important to many of us who work at home,” Garrett says. “It's a really good idea to buy a Keurig or something similar so you can make your own excellent coffee at home — and avoid too many trips to the local Starbucks. Hard on the wallet and the productivity!”
Location, Location, Location
Part of setting yourself up for managing your time successfully is understanding that just because you’re home doesn’t mean you make yourself at home.
But how do you avoid the temptation of that pile of old photos, which seems much easier to organize than your client’s project?
During your work hours, stick to rooms that would normally make up a work environment, like your office, kitchen and bathroom, notes Dana Freeman, who has worked from home for 12 years.
“I treat my office as if I’m going to work for the day,” says Freeman, the editor of Dana Freeman Travels. “It’s easy to get distracted if you venture into the kids’ rooms, laundry room and feel the pressure to clean up or throw a load of laundry in the wash.”
One of the hurdles Robert Garcia says he faced when he first started working from home 10 years ago was the allure of a comfy couch — until he realized he could set the mood for work with lighting.
“When I started my work day, I would either dim or completely turn off the lights in my house, and use bright lights in my office space,” says Garcia, who is president of ipatioumbrella.com. “It was a little psychological trick to keep me in my work space, my office, and not be tempted to venture around the house.”
Reynolds suggests that you should also create a backup list of places where you can work remotely when your home isn’t an option.
“Our electricity went out last week,” Reynolds cites as an example. “And I knew the coffee shops, the library’s hours and a coworking space within a couple miles of my house that I could go to to at least have a makeshift, fairly productive afternoon.”
Work From Home on Your Schedule
Eileen Roth, organizing expert and author of “Organizing For Dummies,” says in an email that you should start your time management by adjusting your work schedule to your personality.
“Know your pace: hare or tortoise,” Roth writes. “If you can focus, you are a tortoise and should focus on one project at a time. If you are a hare and find you tend to jump from one project to another and can’t concentrate for [a] long block, then schedule short blocks.”
She also notes that by recognizing your highest energy levels, you can save that time for your toughest projects and leave the routine work, like returning phone calls or replying to emails, for other parts of the day.
Discovering the best time management methods can require a little trial and error, but sticking to a schedule that works for you early on is the key to work-from-home success, according to Reynolds of FlexJobs.
“If you start with structure in place those first days and weeks, you’re more likely to get a handle on remote work faster and get up to speed and be productive faster,” she says. “By sticking to some kind of schedule it really helps down the line when you are a little more seasoned. “
Time may be on your side after all.
Tiffany Wendeln Connors is a Staff Writer at The Penny Hoarder. She was lured out of the work-from-home life and back to an office by the promise of cheese.