Many people dream about working from home—or at least that used to be true—but the reality is that working remotely can be a double-edge sword. Yes, you finally get to lose that commute and sleep a little longer, or actually make it to the gym.
But at home alongside the rest of your messy life it can be harder to focus on actually working. Staying productive at home can take some doing, because you’re competing with everything from the kids to Netflix to the laundry—especially when whatever task that’s looming next on your to-do list is unpleasant.
Plus, especially for those who never wanted to work at home at all, socializing at work is important. The isolation can become a problem quickly.
In the office, the greatest threat to keeping your head down and getting a big task completed is usually your coworkers. You love them, but there’s no question they can distract you with the lure of lunch or gossip.
At home, though, the blame and distractions all stem from you. There’s less pressure to deliver; there’s not even enough pressure to make us wear clothing from the waist down.
To stay productive when working at home, turn off that kitten filter, put on pants if you’re ready to go there, and check out our suggestions:
Start Early With a Morning Routine
Although the morning commute is a waste of time, it can prepare you for your day working in an office. By the time you get to your desk, you are awake and ready to work. Rolling out of bed and over to a computer just doesn’t offer that same smooth transition.
Creating and maintaining a morning routine can lead to a more productive workday, as well as a more positive mindset generally. See our post on this for more details.
Many people believe that working from home is all about TV and living in pajamas, but it’s important to set yourself up for a successful day at home, just like in an office setting. Whatever you choose to wear, make part of your morning ritual of getting dressed in something fresh that helps you feel clean and ready to take on the day. Whether you’re creating your work to-do list or making your morning cup of coffee, that morning routine should help get you into the right mindset to be productive and intentional all day.
But Work Around Your Natural Schedule If You Can
Some people excel in the early morning hours and feel sluggish in the afternoon, while others are truly at their creative and problem-solving best in the middle of the night. If you are honestly one of the few who does best at night, see what you can do to set work hours when you’re at your best.
Research indicates that true “night owl” people can suffer from a kind of social jet lag from being on the wrong schedule. If you’re one of these people, improve your productivity by changing the schedule.
Create a Specific Workspace
Designating a specific workspace that is separate from other household business is important to maintaining focus while working from home. An actual home office with a door is ideal, but any space you can carve out will work.
The main point is to clarify—for yourself and others—that it is your working space only. This way, your mindset will change as you enter it so you’re ready to work, and the expectations of those around you will be reasonable.
If possible, avoid working in your bedroom. This is because sleeping and working in the same space can confuse your body and mind, which will be associating the room with both work and sleep.
Close the Door and Set Boundaries
If possible, close the door to your workspace. An “open door policy” is called that because it invites people in to chat, air grievances, and otherwise distract whoever sits behind the door. Practically, it makes it easier for your family or roommates to interrupt you—and for you to stop working if you don’t feel like it by getting distracted.
Set boundaries for those around you as well. Schedule your time for working and make sure everyone around you knows how your time is scheduled, and when you’re available for what.
Keep Your Workspace Tidy
Although many people point to the idea that a messy desk could be a sign of genius, it is important to note that it is most definitely linked to losing things and wasting time looking for them. A messy workspace is also connected to poorer professional and mental outcomes.
Wherever you work, a pile of clutter there is inherently distracting. Make sure your workspace lives in a clutter-free zone to maintain your in-office experience.
Keep a Space For Notes
This may sound like extra work, but it’s a tool to help you stop working after hours and get more out of your working time. Random flashes of creativity and inspiration will fuel some of the best work you’ll ever do—at off times. Also, you need time to be away from work and a quick way to download thoughts without getting sucked back in.
Have a place ready to write down ideas and anything that pops into mind after hours and a cork board to pin them to. This is your place for ideas and escape hatch for times you’re not working—and a great place to check a few times a week, and remind yourself about new projects to take on.
Experiment Away From the Eight Hour Day
Now that you’re not going out to lunch, commuting, in endless meetings, at the water cooler, and otherwise burning time in the office, you can experiment at getting away from an eight-hour day. It’s not just the hours—it’s how much productivity you squeeze into them.
Try working for 5 solid, productive hours, in 1-hour blocks separated by 15 to 20 minute breaks (and lunch in there somewhere). This is a great place to start, and you may find yourself really ready to make those hours count.
Find a Work Buddy
If you’re really missing your work friends, having a co-worker back in your day may make it easier to be productive. Social interactions—even when they mean wasting a little time with coworkers—can reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation. Humans are used to social interactions, which facilitate closeness and cooperation.
To help fill the social interaction gap while you’re working from home, reach out to a colleague or a friend who works elsewhere. You are looking for someone you can chat with on text or Slack who is going through a similar experience, so it’s okay if your jobs aren’t that similar—just the working solo part.
Pay attention to your bottom line and accounts, and crunch the numbers regularly. You may be less likely to blow a day binge watching The Mandalorian if you can put a dollar sign on how much it will cost you.
Track your time using an app or spreadsheet. This allows you to break down where the time went at the end of the day, week, and month.
If you’re a salaried employee and you “get paid anyway,” think of it like this. That time could have been totally yours if you had just finished your work. Now you still have work to do—and no remaining free time. Look it up, it’s in the app or spreadsheet!
Eat Well, Stay Hydrated
Have a healthy breakfast and lunch—don’t skip meals and expect to perform well. Look for meals that are balanced and offer proteins, complex carbohydrates, fiber, and healthy fats. You are fueling your mood and productivity for the entire day.
Always keep a large glass of water by your desk. Drink several glasses a day, and if you also drink caffeinated beverages, work to add more water in.
Structure Your Time
Whether you work from home only occasionally, part of the week, or all the time, you’ll need to schedule your day. In fact, when working from home, you should keep a more structured daily schedule than usual.
Typically the structure of our day and our time are heavily influenced by other people when we work in an office. If you’re just transitioning to WFH, the lack of structure shaped by other people can be a challenge. Time spent alone feels better and tends to be more productive if it’s structured.
Set a start time, and schedule break times during the day for those times when, if you haven’t yet taken a break you’ll need to by then. Decide what time you’ll finish working for the day—and stick to it
A smart schedule includes multiple breaks throughout the day, for snacks, watering plants, walking the dog, outdoor time, or quick chores to break up monotony. Scheduling time this way both keeps you, the worker, on task, and signals to others that your schedule is organized—just as it was in the office.
Take Breaks, Outside if Possible
Speaking of breaks, fresh air and sun are critical for human office workers, not just their potted plants. By exercising regularly—even just taking a walk—you improve your health alongside your productivity. Short, regular breaks help increase overall productivity and mental clarity.
If it’s not easy or possible to go outside for you, try walking in a hallway or having your lunch near a window. Whether indoors or outdoors, don’t be locked in a room all workday long. Take a 15 to 30 minute break for every hour you work to allow your mind to rest. Your work quality will improve.
But Don’t Stop Working Completely
At times, you may feel a bit bored, unmotivated, or just less productive. Learn to work during those times anyway, at least at administrative tasks. Otherwise, it’s easy to get stuck in a cycle of never feeling like working.
Take the Occasional Day Off
If you’re truly having an awful day and simply cannot function, this is the role of the day off. If you’re just unable to be productive despite your best efforts—and that happens to us all at times—then take the time off. You’ll come back in a better mindset.
Customize Your Environment
You can’t change your entire home, but you can customize your home office. In fact, you can personalize your home workspace in beneficial ways that may not be possible in a corporate setting.
Whether it’s a plant, fresh flowers, a scented candle, task lighting, your favorite photos, or that music that just focuses you like a laser, customize your work environment so you feel motivated, inspired, calm, and comfortable all day. Things like scents in particular can really be problematic in an office, but if it’s just you, go for it.
Pay attention to your ergonomic situation now that you’re out of the office. Invest in a good chair and be sure you have a clean, clear surface space. In addition to these issues, aim to reduce strain on your neck by setting your laptop at eye level. Help maintain proper body alignment and keep your posture in check with better seating and pillows.
Sound canceling headphones are another key piece of equipment, especially if your roommates or kids are also now remote.
Customize Your Schedule, Too
You can set specific work days for certain types of work. For example: as a freelancer, I always catch up on the job listings each Monday. You can file everything on Thursdays so your weekend is clear. Return all emails by Wednesday. Whatever works.
Unplug At Times
When you need time to work without distractions, unplug. Turn off email notifications, the ringer, IM, and social media. If you can work offline, do it.
Set online times, especially if you’re still part of an office team. You don’t always need to answer chats or be available.
Keep Regular Hours…
Keep the same hours, calls, meetings, and schedules with your team (if you have one) to retain a more regular work schedule. Aim for consistency and familiarity; if you always took lunch at noon, keep doing that. If you hit the gym before work, keep getting up and exercising.
Habits such as binge watching shows, playing video games in the middle of the day, and sleeping in can quickly erode productivity and ratchet out of control. Prevent bad habits like that from starting by keeping the good habits.
…And Don’t Work Outside Them
Feeling inspired by an idea after hours? Just had a freaked out thought about something you forgot? That’s okay. Just write it down on a note and let it go until tomorrow. Once you’ve finished work for the day, do not go back, even if it’s just a few steps away.
Know when it’s time to be done, and resist the urge to work late. Once you have set that stop time for work, stick to it. Don’t allow work to run your life—because that can easily happen at home. How much time, total, will you be working? Set limits and keep them.
Lists of Three
Many people, especially those running their own show at home, love to use lists. Lists of three are easy to use and quick to make. We like three “must” things to do today, three “reach” goals for things you could get done today, but don’t need to, and three things to get done someday. With those lists, you’re always ready for any day.
Practice Working With Others
It’s easy to feel isolated when you are! If you’ve been alone for awhile, don’t forget what it’s like working and interacting with other people. Remember to say thank you and please. Ask how things are going. It pays off.
Make extra effort communicating. Being remote can add communication challenges to your life. Use digital tools like Zoom and Slack and extra effort to ensure clearer communication. If you are part of a team that’s doing a virtual party, for example, take the time to participate, even if it’s not really your thing—because it is the future of work for us all, and it helps maintain your relationships with your managers, colleagues, and direct reports.
Keep Connecting With Others Outside Work
Working from home doesn’t mean you can’t stay connected to people, especially family and friends. Socializing is just as important for people working from home. In fact, since social interaction is so important to productivity, it may be even more critical for those working alone to seek it out.
Isolation, loneliness, and feeling disconnected can all cause mental health to suffer. And the time you spend with loved ones really does make your work better, believe it or not.
Final Thoughts on How to Stay Productive Working From Home
Although it’s certainly true that there’s a lot of uncertainty in what the future holds for us all as workers, it’s certain that many of us will continue to work from home. It’s also important to focus on controlling what is within our control. Fortunately, this means that there is a lot we can do to feel better and be more productive working from home.
Working from home seems like a snap, until it’s been six months, and the neighbor is part of a tuba band that practices midday, which you never knew before, and your kids are in school which is now also at home, and they are apparently building an entire underground freeway right under your street. But you too can follow these tips for how to stay productive from a home office. Which tricks have we missed?