Having left a secure executive position with IBM for the insecurity of starting my own business, I sometimes struggled in a home office before expanding into ‘real’ commercial office space to accommodate staff.
Now, like many others, I find myself back working from home and offer some tips, gleaned over many years, to those experiencing this for the first time; thankfully with benefits of technology that weren’t available 25 years ago.
Initially written to help a friend starting his own business, 95% is applicable during this time of working remotely…but admittedly, I don’t have school age children to simultaneously home school!
As a caveat, my decision was my own choice and not forced upon me by any crisis. And, of course we all have unique circumstances as we adjust to this ‘new normal’ and some of the following tips may not be relevant to you but you’ll find at least a few that will work for you as you work from home-or try to find work from home:
Discipline: Self-discipline is vital, especially when you’re accountable to no one but yourself and your clients; or less accountable to a remote boss. Ironically, you go into your own business for the flexibility of working independently but without the healthy discipline to show up and put the time in, you won’t last long. Time is your main finite currency and can’t be wasted on TV, social media or endlessly tidying cupboards.
Routine: Flexibility is indeed a bonus of working from home but for maximum productivity, you need some routine in place—not the one imposed by others but the self-imposed schedule that you stick to most work days. It may not be 9-5…but set that alarm for a regular start.
For example, my day starts at 7 with a hot lemon drink and listening to the news as I skim emails from overseas that arrive overnight. Urgent ones are answered and the rest prioritised before putting on laundry and going for swim; followed by quick, healthy breakfast and ‘real’ work may not start til 10 when I sit down at PC to fully focus.
Boundaries: Tell friends and family you’re there for them in an emergency but that you need to limit social chit chat to certain times of the day, before or after your working hours (whatever they may be). When I started working from home, I had to remind friends that I was self-employed-not unemployed! And even if you are unemployed these, it may be part of your daily ‘job’ to actively seek a job. Devote the discipline, focus and time to do so; as endless hours on the phone complaining about things won’t help.
Focus/Prioritise: If you need to concentrate on a big project, put the phone on silent in another room with a recorded message of when you’ll return calls. Obviously that won’t work for all occupations but most of us don’t really need to be in response mode 24/7.
Visible Goals, Purpose, Outcomes: To avoid being easily distracted, have your important goals, outcomes and purpose clearly visible; a constant reminder that all tasks should contribute to those ends; and that it’s not necessary to reply to every email or read every article that comes across your virtual desk.
Daily to do list: As well as the big picture plan, have a daily to do list. Commit a certain number of hours per day to your key big goal and other tasks that require completion. Maybe 3 key things that must be done that day and 5 more you’d like to do. Rather than chance it to memory, you’ll not only achieve more but have a sense of satisfaction as you tick things off; rather than say: ‘I wonder where the day went?’ (and until this Covid-19 crisis, cleaning or cooking certainly were never on my ‘to do’ list, as most was outsourced)
Outsource: As far as possible, focus on your big goals and outsource more mundane tasks, those you don’t like doing or ones that others can do better than you…cleaning, data base, bookkeeper accountant, IT Specialist, Virtual PA etc. Play to your strengths and get help with your weaknesses. I wish there was a good online virtual cleaner at the moment!
Batch tedious tasks and calls: For greater productivity, ask: ‘What will be my best use of time today? Tomorrow? This week? This month?’ For example, I have a ‘Finance Friday’ to handle all things financial, rather than deal with bills and invoices as they arrive.
Deadlines: At business school, I vividly remember reading ‘The Peter Principle’ which amongst other things, author Laurence J. Peters postulates that most tasks expand to fill the available time.
Nothing happens without a deadline; or very little. As a writer and professional speaker, nothing focuses my mind and my work activity more sharply than a deadline from a publisher or approaching conference, when the luxury of creative thinking vanishes to give way to completion; however imperfect. So, it’s necessary to set self-imposed deadlines for important tasks
And by the way, there is never enough time for entrepreneurial thinking people to do all the things they’d like to do.
Clear the clutter: It’s an old habit from my IBM career, when the most respected company in the world at the time insisted on a clean desk policy before employees left the office. It’s served me well even when I’m the only person who might ever see that messy desk. Messy desk equals messy mind so my home workspace is clear at the end of each day (whenever the end of that day may be) with my ‘to do’ list ready for the next day to start afresh with a clean slate.
Maintain High Standards: Don’t let standards slip. OK, there were times the laptop balanced on my Qantas pyjamas when working on my next book about travel but rationalised that got me in the mood since I won’t be on a plane for some time to come! But it’s easy to slip into the groove of hanging around the house like a total slob.
I know one person who walks around the block and back into his home office at 8:30 every morning; and another who still dons lipstick while home alone, even if no zoom calls that day…whatever works to help you work in this new environment.
Personally, I’m looking for time delay lock on the fridge but the best I can do is to physically shut the door to the home office and set a timer that I won’t even think of leaving the chair even a second before. Yes, more discipline.
Practice a Healthy Lifestyle: ‘How do you find time to exercise?’ some people ask. It has always been an essential activity for me. It is not a waste of time and an integral part of daily routine regardless of what work pressures may loom; as we can’t take care of our clients or family if we don’t take care of ourselves! This may sound somewhat obsessive but I actually have it at the top of my daily ‘to do’ list and the mere fact of checking it off gives me a strange sense of achieving at least one of my goals for the day.
I also have ‘Stretch’ on daily list as a reminder to occasionally give those shoulders and neck a break.
‘But I’m juggling things like a one armed paper hanger, flat out like a lizard drinking and other clichés’ protests a friend wrapped up in his own busi-ness of being busy. (and that was before Covid-19)
‘My only escape is a glass of wine at dinner,’ he moans. That one glass becomes two which turns into a bottle to help him sleep, leaving troubles temporarily corked until he awakes with a foggy head to see them piled higher than ever. With alcohol sales more than 30% higher than normal during this health crisis, take care not to create another medical issue for yourself.
Performance review: No longer the annual or quarterly appraisal by the boss? At the end of each day, have a 60 second review as you brush your teeth and honestly assess those last 24 hours. We’re all prone to beat ourselves up for what we haven’t achieved because of some frustration (often a result of technology and/or bureaucracy glitches beyond our control). Take the time to reflect, and possibly journal, all the things you have achieved and everything that you’re grateful for, even if it hasn’t been a perfect day.
Time out: ‘How do you ever get any work done when your office has such a gorgeous view?’ asks a client. Dare I admit that sometimes the ferries arriving at the wharf or the surf rolling in are barely noticeable –unless I stand up to stretch those shoulders and neck.
‘My boss is a bitch.’ I joke but in spite of my focus on discipline, sometimes we do indeed need to be a little gentler with ourselves.
When enough is enough? Admittedly, that’s a lesson I’m still working on but most self-employed/self-starters always have a steady stream of new ideas which means that ‘to do’ list is completely done. Even if I live to be 200, there are still books waiting to be written.
So do take some time to smell the roses or appreciate that view.
Rewards: Apart from the obvious financial rewards of working productively from home, set your own rewards when you reach certain goals. It may be an annual dream vacation (when travel resumes) a monthly manicure (when that resumes) a weekly TV binge or a daily treat.
Speaking of which…I’m off for a sunset walk (at least two meters apart) with a friend who always makes me laugh. And as she juggles her professional career with housework, homework for two kids and an unemployed husband at present, she needs all the laughter she can get; so I’m sure she’ll likely chortle at some of these tips, offered by one with the luxury of solitude.