How do you stay productive when you are working at home by yourself? Although many people working from home enjoy the freedom and convenience, it is much easier to be lazy outside of a work environment. The flexibility of working at home gives you the potential to be far more productive, but it can be a huge waste of time if you aren’t smart about it.
With running this blog and various other projects I usually end up working at least 20-30 hours per week at home. That means answering hundreds of weekly e-mails, writing at least 3000 words per day, in addition to networking, research and various support tasks. Less than some, but enough to keep me busy in addition to work and school.
Here are some strategies I’ve found effective for ensuring productivity when working at home. These apply whether you are working a paid job, freelancing, running a home business or you simply want to make headway on a personal project.
- Build a Work Ethic – Workplaces enforce discipline. Without a system of rules and supervisors breathing down your neck, you might find it hard to stick to your schedule. Make a mental note of your productivity and work ethic and set goals to improve it. If you only got 4 hours worth of work done yesterday, aim for 4.5 today.
- Don’t Overestimate Your Productivity – This is one of the lies people commit when they start working at home. You have eight hours to work, so you assume you will get eight hours of work done. Becoming really productive is possible, but it requires building a work-ethic. Start small and build up.
- Don’t Count the Low-Value Tasks – Determine what is most important and count that first. I’ve heard from home entrepreneurs that they work 10-12 hour days. But then I manage to see them making forum posts and lengthy e-mails. It makes you wonder what they consider work. Only count time from your extremely important and difficult tasks. Spending one hour writing a blog article or finishing several pages of my book is worth a dozen hours of answering e-mails.
- Cut Out Distractions – Put yourself in a vacuum. Shut down every distraction possible. I always keep my door shut and locked if possible and I don’t use the internet unless I need to research a quote or image. Twitter, chat, e-mail and RSS are also definite no’s. I can understand the appeal, but you can get work done twice as fast without multitasking which will save you a few minutes to use those programs later.
- Start Early – Waking up early and start working right in the morning is a good idea. This doesn’t give you a chance to procrastinate. Plus it feels great to know you’ve finished eight hours of work at 2:00 or 3:00.
- Know Thy Energy – Know when you are feeling drained and tired. My rule is simple. When I notice that my energy is slumped and I’m barely keeping my lids open I go for another ten minutes (sometimes lethargy is just a creativity block). If that doesn’t fix it, I take a short 5-10 minute break. Finally if that doesn’t work a longer breather might be necessary.
- Learn to Say No – When you are working at home and have flexibility, this is the perfect opportunity for friends, family and associates to rip time away from you. Sometimes they will guilt you into doing things because, “they [unlike you] HAVE to work.” Be firm and don’t give them an inch. Don’t let people disrespect your time and learn to say, “No,” without an explanation.
- Set Daily Goals – I don’t schedule tasks that don’t need to be. But I do write down exactly what I want to have accomplished by the end of the day tomorrow. Setting daily goals keeps you from feeling you need to do everything by splitting your workload into a manageable chunk.
- Use Parkinsons Law – Parkinsons Law  basically states that a task will expand to the time you give it. Crunch your workload by giving yourself only a few minutes to finish tasks where completion is more important than perfection.
- Learn to Churn – What happens when you get writers/programmers/designers block? Learn to churn out content. This means that once you run out of ideas, you tell yourself that your goal is volume not quality. Tell yourself that you will redo it later if it is too horrible. The truth is, usually the quality is decent and you get back to normal after a few minutes of churning.
- Create a Professional Space – Your environment should make you feel like working. If it doesn’t, it’s time to redecorate. It doesn’t need to be fancy, but if working at home only makes you feel like playing computer games, you need a change of scenery.
- Set Work Hours – Don’t confuse work with life. Set your working hours to maximize your productivity when working and to keep work where it belongs. I have frequently set vague limits on my work time which only served to make me an unproductive workaholic.
- What’s Your MIT? – Always know what your Most Important Task is. Leo at ZenHabits recommends putting your MIT first  so you won’t procrastinate. Even if the rest of the day is unproductive, your day was still valuable if you get that task done.
- Have a Social Life – Working from home often eliminates a lot of your social life. Join groups and activities like Toastmasters to meet people more easily and reclaim a social network that may have been entirely located in the office. Without people, your energy is shot. I’ve managed to work through some bouts of isolation, but I don’t consider it the ideal.
- Vary Your Tasks – If you went to the gym, could you just do pushups for an hour straight? Probably not. So if you are a writer or programmer, is your ideal method to write or code for ten hours straight? I like to split up different tasks throughout the day so I can use different mental “muscles.” This keeps me fresh and productive without the need for long breaks.
- Boredom before Quitting – When I don’t like any of the ideas I’ve saved up in my notepad to write about I frequently go through a period of doing nothing for five or ten minutes until I get a new idea. If this happens to you, resist the temptation to go online or do something else. Even if you could postpone your work hours, stick it through another ten or fifteen minutes.
- Get Outside Perspectives – When you are isolated, you can often get stuck in one perspective that makes it hard to solve problems. Build up a network (particularly online) of people you can contact when you hit a road-block. I know several people that I can bounce ideas off when my own solutions come short.
- Give Yourself Overtime – If you are really involved in a project, working an extra hour to finish a section before wrapping up for the day is fine. Compensate yourself the next day with a reduced workload so you don’t start letting your workday expand to fill all your waking moments.
- The Extra 15 – When you get stuck or feel a strong urge to quit, just commit to do an extra fifteen minutes of work. Usually this is enough to carry you out of the slump and move forward. If it isn’t then you probably need a break.
- Utilize Your Flexibility – Take advantage of your extra flexibility. This can mean making adjustments in your work schedule to take on new opportunities or fitting work around your life. When good opportunities come up, take them and commit to compensate later. This requires a bit more discipline, but it is one of the best advantages of working from home.
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Image courtesy of flickr