Jump Start Your Engine
After returning from vacation, getting back to work in my home office was harder than usual. The pre-vacation “I have so much to get done!” momentum was gone. I had no coworkers to help jump start my engine. So, for two days I found myself staring at my computer screen, answering emails, but more often trolling time-sucks such as Facebook or, I admit it, throwing in loads of laundry.
I was breaking two of my sacred rules of home-office success: losing focus and merging my home and work lives. Even my to-do list wasn’t giving me a kick in the pants. So I called Elaine Quinn, the Solopreneur Specialist and author of There’s No Place Like Working from Home: Get Organized, Stay Motivated, Get Things Done!
Create a schedule, not a to-do list.
When no one is looking over your shoulder and you’re only accountable to yourself, ignoring your to-do list is ridiculously simple. To counter this, Quinn recommends creating a regimented work schedule. Take each task and, using an electronic calendar like Outlook or Gmail, assign it a time frame. This gets your workday started and helps you maintain momentum.
I gave it a try and it really worked. I devoted the first hour of my day to e-mail, the second to scheduling interviews, the next to an editing project, then a half-hour lunch followed by two hours of writing and another hour of editing. I accomplished so much and yet still had time to work on a blue-sky project. Not only did I accomplish more in one day than I had in the previous three, I had the added benefit of looking at a day’s worth of tasks that were no longer “to do” but instead, “been done.”
Give yourself a time limit.
Breaking your assignments down into tasks also helps avoid another pitfall of working from home: Feeling as if you have all the time in the world to get the job done. There’s no 5 p.m. whistle. No one knows whether you’re working at 2 p.m. or 2 a.m., but I personally hate working after the sun goes down. Still, I often find myself doing just that because I didn’t allot enough time for a project.
“By scheduling, you can tell when your day is full,” says Quinn. “You don’t over-commit. You don’t promise people things that there’s no way you can do. You can also tell when your day is done. If it’s only 3 p.m. but everything you need to do is done, you can go do something and be totally guilt-free.”
Get out of the house.
When the only sound you hear all day is the chirp of your email inbox, the isolation can be torturous. “Isolation feeds into a drop in motivation,” says Quinn. “There’s nobody saying what a great job you did. You need to be able to share with people, ‘I got a new assignment,’ or ‘Let me show you what I’m doing now.’ That’s important.”
There have been many days when I barely let my husband get his coat off before launching into a verbal unload of everything I had no one to tell during the workday. To save yourself the loneliness (and give your spouse and children a break) arrange for work-related reasons to get out of the office. “I create opportunities to get out and network with colleagues and touch base with clients,” says Joni Daniels, 58, principal of Daniels & Associates in Baltimore. “It provides structure to my day and gives me a reason to dress up and be seen.”
Find networking groups in your area, Quinn suggests, that include people in your profession but also those outside of it. You’ll expose yourself to potential clients and pick up tips from your colleagues on how to excel better at your job. Also, arrange a monthly lunch meeting with people who inspire you and with whom you can share your successes.
If you are a company employee who works from home, remaining relevant to the home office can be a challenge. Brooke Rodriguez lives in Florida but works for a company based in Chicago. “One of the key factors is to be in constant communication,” says Rodriguez, 26, of Jacksonville, Fla. “While I could do most of my work via e-mail, I often pick up the phone and call colleagues to check in, discuss projects but also to connect on a personal level. This type of interaction helps you stay top-of-mind and helps your bosses see the proactive effort to remain connected.”
Ignore the laundry.
If you were working in an office would you be folding laundry or washing dishes during client calls? No. So don’t do it at home. Work time is for work; housework is for later. Figure out how to schedule both, but don’t let them overlap. If you do, odds are you’ll end the day realizing that while the house is spic and span, you didn’t do anything to market yourself or generate new income.
“It’s easy to walk by the kitchen and see dishes in the sink and stop and do them or know there is a load of laundry that needs to be folded and go do that,” says Christina Daves, 46, president of CastMedic Designs, in Gainesville, Va., who works from her home. “You have to designate office hours and only work during those times—no housework.”
Because clutter and mess can be so enticing, Quinn highly recommends creating a devoted office space. (Preferably one with a door that blocks the visual reminders of home-based projects.)
Block social media.
You’ve spent all morning on Facebook. So what? There’s no boss to tell you not to. But time wasted on tasks that don’t earn you money means lost revenue in the long run. It’s easy to become distracted by email, social media, and surfing the Internet. “Before you know it you’ve lost an hour or two getting caught up on your family and friends’ personal lives,” says April Rogers, 42, owner of Harvest Point Media in Winter Garden, Fla. who only allows herself to check her social media accounts after the workday is over.
I use social media as a reward for finishing a task ahead of schedule. If I’m done early, I can futz around on Facebook until Outlook reminds me it’s time to start my next project.
Working from home means you give up the support of an office environment. There’s no tech support, no accounting department, no graphic designers. But that doesn’t mean you instantly become an expert in all those areas.
“I wasted a lot of hours trying to file legal papers, learning web design and trying to learn new accounting software until I realized that, in order to work most efficiently, I needed to outsource all of the jobs and responsibilities that didn’t fall within my area of expertise,” says Debra Cohen, 46, president of Homeowner Referral Network in Hewlett, N.Y. “The money I invested in paying someone else to do it allowed me to focus on the most important, and money-making, aspects of my business.”