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, so here are 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.
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.
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 workdays.
It may not be 9-5, but set that alarm for a regular start.
For example, my day starts at 7am 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. ‘Real’ work may not start until 10am when I sit down at PC to fully focus.
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. Endless hours on the phone complaining about things won’t help.
Focus and prioritise
If you need to concentrate on a big project, put your 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 and outcomes
To avoid being easily distracted, have your important goals, outcomes and purpose clearly visible.
These will serve as 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 three key things that must be done that day and five 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.
As much 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. Think cleaning, database, bookkeeper accountant, IT specialist, virtual PA, et cetera.
Play to your strengths and get help with your weaknesses.
Batch tedious tasks and calls
For greater productivity, ask yourself: ‘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.
At business school, I vividly remember reading The Peter Principle, in which, among other things, author Laurence Peters postulates that most tasks expand to fill the available time.
Nothing happens without a deadline; or very little does. 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.
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, because the company 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, so there were times the laptop balanced on knees while I sat in my Qantas pyjamas. But avoid this. 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 8.30am every morning, and another who still dons lipstick while home alone, even if they have no zoom calls that day. Do 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
People often ask me how I find time to exercise. It has always been an essential activity for me. It is not a waste of time and an integral part of my daily routine regardless of what work pressures may loom.
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 my daily list as a reminder to occasionally give those shoulders and neck a break.
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.
While a focus on discipline is essential, 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 people and self-starters always have a steady stream of new ideas, which means their to-do list is never completely done.
So do take some time to smell the roses or appreciate that view.
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.