For most of my life as a freelancer, I’ve worked from home. When I tell people that, the usual response is “I couldn’t do that” or “I tried it for a day a week for a bit but it didn’t work”. But working from home full-time is a different beast, and it’s people going all-in I’m sort of thinking about here.
Except for the odd month or two of office-based consulting, I worked entirely from home from 2008 to 2013. And though for now I once again work amid desk partitions and confusing milk politics, I expect when that runs its course I’ll revert to working from home. It’s great.
I’m not really getting at putting yourself, or your career, in a position to work from home. Maybe I’ll write about that another time. This is more about what to do once you’re there.
Really, it’s just about getting into the mental zone of either being at work, or not being at work. I’m sorry if that sounds like wank. But it’s true.
1. Have a good long skive
Look. I know the lure of Countdown, the washing up, or, well, anything else only too well. Working from home now and again is hard because neither you nor your home is geared for it. That’s also true when you’re starting out for the long haul.
My solution, and admittedly, people do look at me oddly when I say it, is when you begin to work from home, do as little work as possible. Sort that cupboard out. Take that boxset out of its cellophane. Take a holiday and don’t tell anyone. Stare at the ceiling. If you’re a freelancer, you’ll very quickly realise that:
- you’re not earning any money
- you’re not enjoying yourself anywhere near as much as you could be
Well done. You had a monumental skive. It was good for you. It’s out of your system now. Time for the real fun to begin.
If you’re working from home as an employed member of staff, you may want to skip this stage lest you get the sack, or worse, hauled back to the office.
2. Have a dedicated workspace
Now this can be tricky if you’re short of space, but believe me I’ve lived in some pokey London flats and made this work. Have a place you use for work and nothing else. If you can manage the luxury of a whole room dedicated to work, do it. A study or office room is the easiest way to delineate where you work and where you don’t. When you’re there, you’re at work; when you’re not, you’re not. Easy.
I managed without a dedicated room by doing the next best thing. Put a desk in the corner of the room that is quietest during the day. Why does the choice of room matter? Because it’s still important that the room is yours for your working day. You may not be able to dedicate the whole space for work so far as furniture goes, but that room is still your Fortess of Solitude.
The last thing you need is other people blundering in and out of it, even if they are the people dearest to you in the whole wild world. And just as in the office, a pair of headphones is a great way to emit I’m-working signals.
The desk itself becomes a more compact version of your work cocoon. When you’re at it you’re fully geared to working (or as geared as you want to be). Have nothing there that isn’t somehow geared to work (obliquely inspirational doodads are fine), but don’t litter it with non-worky distractions like grocery shopping lists or credit card bills. And politely make clear to anyone you live with that if they move stuff on your desk, you’ll burn the house down.
Then, when you get up to move around, the thoughts of the outside world can come flooding in, and you can go to buy that milk, water those gazanias or install a fire blanket.
This is all made a little easier by point 9, which we’ll come to precisely 7 points from now.
3. Dress for work
You may be immune to this effect, and if that’s the case, I salute you. But I found that throwing on the nearest pair of jog bottoms and baggy t-shirt put me in completely the wrong frame of mind to work. I’m not for a moment suggesting that you should don the most formal attire in your wardrobe.
Dress to a level of smartness that works for you. For me, it’s exactly the same as I’d dress in a modern creative office environment. It doesn’t matter what you wear – the thing is to make a bit of an effort and feel a bit smart. It’ll put you in the mode to achieeeeeeve.
4. Walk to work
I think I nicked this one from Paul. You do get the odd askance look when you recommend this to others. After you’ve dressed for work, go out of your house and walk around your neighbourhood for a bit. Mentally walk yourself to work. A 2-minute walk will do, though a 10-minute walk is better. Walk for half an hour if you can make the time.
The idea is that before your walk you’re at home, and after your walk you’re at work, with all the mental compartment-switching that entails done en route. Also recommended, though less essential, is the “walk home”. Needless to say, it’s rather easier to fall out of the work headspace than it is to get into it.
5. Have a work computer
This can be tricky if you’re on a budget, but it’s extremely useful. Similar to the workspace idea, having a computer you use for work and nothing else is a good way to compartmentalise your day, and what goes on in your head over the course of it.
That doesn’t mean you can’t click that tempting Youtube video in your Twitter timeline, but it certainly helps to not work on your monstrously powerful gaming rig. Temptation abounds. Plus, it makes it much easier to manage work and personal email accounts, web browsers and what have you.
The corollary to this is the next time you need to hop onto eBay, or write a quick email to your Mum, you won’t be tempted to “just quickly check” work stuff when you can use your non-work computer instead. That way madness lies. (You could easily lose an hour or two, anyway.)
This might sound like a luxury, but increasingly, modest computers have more than enough power to do the things we need to get done, which often amounts to little more than typing. If you can, borrow a spare from a friend or relative, keep an eye on your local Freecycle community and Cash Converters-type places. Computers don’t have to cost a fortune these days, and if you’re lucky or persistent, they can be had (or borrowed) for nothing.
6. Embrace skiving – again
I assume you don’t need to be told to actually do some work, or indeed how to do it, so let’s move things along.
One thing that alarms me is that people who work from home, or people considering it, seem to count a bit of a skive as the ultimate sin. It’s almost as if skiving at home counts double to skiving in the workplace. Nonsense. Just work as joyfully, chaotically and inconsistently as you always have.
I’m not talking about defrauding your employer (who, if you’re freelance, is you anyway), but simply embracing those earned mental breaks between the graft.
My guilty pleasure wasn’t watching a Frasier repeat over my lunchtime corned beef sandwich; it was hanging around to watch the second episode immediately after. Looking back, I’m not sure why I felt taking a 45-minute lunch-break was such a crime. Of course, you don’t have to watch Frasier on your lunch hour. Bargain Hunt is good too.
I expect in the future I’ll write things about those bastard twins productivity and minimising distraction – those things are useful. But it isn’t a sin to take a break when you feel like it. Let’s be honest. We’re all apes.
7. Find your hours
When you start to work from home, the automatic temptation is to keep office hours? Why? Granted, some work may require you to be on deck at certain times of the day. For a while I worked as an editor that more or less tied me to my desk 9 till 5, five days a week. But otherwise, find the times that work for you.
I gradually found out I prefer a very early start, a mid-day break, then a shortish but intensive session in the afternoon. A longish work day might be 7am to 12pm, then 2pm to 4pm.
I know some people like to work in the evening or even at night. That sounds mad to me, but if that sounds like you, by all means plan your day around that. Just don’t forget to sleep.
The main thing is to work out when work feels least like a chore, and work then.
8. Leave and don’t come back
Talking to other freelancers, this is a biggie. One of the main problems that people who work from home face is work creeping into their personal and leisure time. Whether it’s that unfinished task scratching the back of your brain or the lure of the inbox, it can be all too easy to flip open your laptop to do a little more.
This is the surest way to set the touch paper to all the benefits working from home brings. Don’t do it. You’ll be happier and more productive doing something else. And your family will thank you.
Ultimately, you have to set yourself rules and stick to them.
9. Work less
I don’t mean do less work (though do do that if you possibly can). I mean embrace the fact that getting your work done is going to take less time at home than it will at work. There’ll be fewer distractions. People won’t ask you to do things unless they genuinely need to be done. You’ll be more productive than you’ve ever been simply by working as you always wanted to: on your own.
Maybe that means a 5-hour day or a 4-day week. Maybe more. Maybe less. And if you choose to put the time doing more work, excellent. As a writer, I find there’s only so much writing I can do in a day. If I need to pull in more work, I’ll spend the rest of my day pitching (I should, anyway, but then I am very lazy). If not I’ll go and do something else.
10. Reap the benefits
For me, the best thing about working from home was going outside for a walk whenever I felt like it. A nice long walk with my camera, finding a spot of lunch en route, was my favourite way to spend the time between my morning and afternoon work sessions. How long and far I walked depended on a number of things: how busy I was, how urgent things were, my mood, and the time of year. Sometimes I might pop out for 30 minutes, but I’d be lying if I said there weren’t afternoons when I basically didn’t come back.
That said, much of the time I was working. A walk can be a fantastic way to remove a mental block, or solve a problem. And I do some of my best writing on foot: a headline, an introduction or conclusion. Sometimes those critical lines are enough to make the rest of the writing fall into place.
Whether you work from home by accident or design, it would be insane to not make the most of the main benefit of doing it: having more time for fun stuff. Admittedly, your thing might not be walking. But whatever your thing is, working from home should give you more time to do it. Which is great. But that’s probably why you’re doing it.