Working From Home Tips and Tricks

Thanks to the coronavirus outbreak, thousands of us are working from home — whether we’re suited to it or not. I’ve been working from home for the last six years and while it’s not easy, it can certainly be done. Many of you have had a few days to try to figure this working from home thing out on your own. If you still need help, here is is.

If you’re new to working from home, welcome. It’s flexible and environmentally friendly, but it can be hard to jump into. Here are a few of the tricks I’ve learned over the years, supported by the latest discoveries about how our brains work and form habits that I compiled for my Crafting Creative Habits course.

If you’re working from home by choice or by necessity, please share your tips in the comments below. We’re all in this together.

Working from home can require and adjustment.

Maintain your routine

Get ready as usual. Take your morning shower, make coffee, eat breakfast and take the time normally allotted to your morning commute to do something you enjoy. Then plop yourself down at your workspace with enough time to spare that you’re not late for the group text, email or conference call that starts your day.

If you have some flexibility, it’s okay to shift your start time an hour earlier or later than your usual office hours, if that makes you more productive. Just don’t get carried away and start work at 4 p.m., or you’ll find yourself out of step with your colleagues and feel even more isolated, with limited opportunities for virtual conversations and collaboration. We’re likely in this for the long haul, so set up habits you can live with longterm.

Look good, feel good

When I tell people I work from home, they always want to know if I work in my pajamas (no) and if I bother to shower (yes). Working from home isn’t just sitting around all day.

Our brains like routine. Our minds respond to cues. We feel put together when we look put together. So show your mind that it’s business as usual, just in a different location. You don’t have to wear the actual clothing you wear to the office, shave or put on a full face of make-up. Comfy clothing and athletic wear are both fine. Just make a clear delineation between night and day, work and sleep.

Claim your work environment

Clear a spot that’s only for work. This tells your mind it’s work time when you enter the space and minimizes visual distractions. So even if all you have is a corner of a kitchen table, make sure that the corner is free of kids’ projects, unpaid bills, and other items that will pull your attention away from your work.

It can be helpful to have a door you can close or another type of physical barrier, even if it’s just a pair of noise-canceling headphones. Keep all of your work materials in one place, so you don’t waste time running around the house. Have necessary office supplies shipped to your home, if needed.

Working from home set-up

What’s your set-up for working from home?

Anticipate and manage distractions

People tell me this is one of the hardest things to master if you haven’t worked at home before. (I can ignore the television/dirty laundry/pretty much anytime, much to my husband’s chagrin — so I’m the exception to the rule.) Consider your weaknesses and allocate time to indulge them indulge them on your breaks.

If you’re a news junkie, keep the television and radio off. if you’re a social media scroller or web surfer, work offline or only in one window at a time. If the idea of dirty laundry or unwashed dishes distracts you, load the dishwasher or washing machine before your shift begins.

Transition pets to a new routine

I only have fish, so I can’t speak to animals’ needs very effectively. The cat owners in my life report their kitties are either loving this sudden swell of treats, cuddles and attention or they just want their humans to leave them alone, already. A novel new toy, a little catnip, or other treats might be in order to help cats adjust and like the change in routine. (Accepting that you now have a lap kitty or learning to live with feline protests outside a closed door might also be necessary.)

I asked Stevie Mathre of All Smart Pets Training for advice on how to help dogs adjust to a new routine. (She’s offering Zoom meetings and virtual training sessions if the transition isn’t going so well in your house.) Here’s what she had to say.

“If possible, let them into your work area, especially if they are calm and willing to let you work,” says Stevie. “Of course, you may need them in another room if you are on a conference call and they won’t be quiet. A couple extra walks and short play sessions should help satisfy their need for your attention.”

Kids and pets are two of the biggest distractions when working from home.

Schedule the kids

I’m good at working from home. I’m not so good at being a homeschool teacher, a role I (like many of us around the world) found myself suddenly thrust into this week. So I’ll point you toward the resources that are helping me at the moment. They are collections of ideas generated by librarians, teachers, homeschool experts all over the world.

Many of the items I wrote about in this post for my podcast, Travel Tomorrow, are both kid-friendly and incredibly cool — think touring hundreds of museums and National Parks, virtually riding roller coasters, learning languages, and meeting the animals at zoos and aquariums. This list from one of my sources, a librarian in Maryland, is extremely helpful if you need additional educational resources.

Both of these lists are constantly expanding, so feel free to add your own thoughts and recommendations in the comments so we can add them. We’re all looking for a little enrichment and connection during these strange times.

Organize in advance

When I told my friend Liz (who is blessed with an analytical mind) that I was tracking data on Post-It notes, I thought she was going to reach across the dinner table and slap me. I’ve been gainfully employed since I was 14, but I’d never given much thought to organizational systems or how to arrange my workday routine to work best for my learning style. She introduced me to spreadsheets and my life has been much more efficient since.

What worked at the office might not work around the dining room table. Take at least 10 minutes each day to review your goals for the day and the week. Make a list of new tasks. Re-read those confusing email chains. Think about how to schedule the day most effectively. Compile the organizational materials and office supplies you need to work well.

Get up to date on new technology

Maybe your email is forwarding to a personal address now. Maybe you need to learn how to use Dropbox, Google Docs or Google Sheets for the first time. Maybe you need to log into a Zoom meeting at 10:00 a.m. and you don’t even know what that means.

You might need to take a hard look at your current set-up. My personal Facebook page is full of friends who have upgraded to a faster internet package. A rep for my internet provider they’re walking people through how to move their modem closer to their work spaces.

Set aside 10 minutes to look through the week’s plan and mark any words, phrases, systems or technologies that you’re not familiar with. Make a note of questions you have and schedule time to get them answered.

The urgent important matrix

If you’re having trouble deciding which tasks are most pressing (especially if your job description has shifted while working from home or if you’ve taken on new responsibilities), placing them in the appropriate quadrant on an urgent important matrix can help clarify things.

Items that are both urgent and important go in the top left corner and take immediate priority. Items in the bottom right corner are neither urgent nor important and should be delegated or minimized. (Yes, personal commitments, chores, and busywork fall in this category.

Then hold your ground. You’ll get pushback from people who are used to you taking on their busywork. Working from home is about prioritizing your own work.

A planner and sticker keep me on track. What about you?

Adapt to your own tastes

I’m a visual learner, so color coordinating spreadsheets made me like them. I like writing physical lists, and my planner and stickers (yes, I’m a 12-year-old-girl at heart) are strangely vital. Many of my creative consulting clients see better results when they invest in materials they really like using and structure their days to suit their strengths.

So order the gel pens or pretty notebooks, put stickers all over your folders, blast music or brainstorm ideas on your treadmill in the basement if that helps you focus. You don’t have to worry about your boss or coworkers judging you, so now it the time to explore what you like.

Minimize multitasking

Although we think we can focus on two things at once, scientists are very clear; we actually don’t actually focus very well on either task. And we lose much of our productivity when we toggle between tasks. Walking and listening to music are two of the very few exceptions to this rule.

So limit the number of times you check your email. Don’t multitask during the video conference, even if your camera is off. Keep only one browser open at a time.

Many freelancers I know (including myself) find it helpful to organize their day by the type of task so you don’t need to constantly switch gears. Group interviews, paperwork, editing, organizing and data entry in their own categories. Allow quiet and space around creative pursuits, since creativity needs mental and physical room to wander.

Take breaks for nature

One of my favorite things about working from home is that nobody judges you for taking a break. To really maximize the effect on your creativity and focus, take a walk outside. (If you’re not currently being advised to shelter in place and you practice social distancing by allowing six feet of distance between you and anyone you meet, that is.)

The physical, emotional, and cognitive benefits of sunshine and fresh air are enormous. Humans have lived and worked outdoors throughout most of our history. This sitting at a desk thing is barely a blip in our evolution. You need nature, even if you don’t think you do.

If you can’t go out, look out the window or check out images of nature. (Even looking at nature helps our brains relax.) Tend a few plants, start seedlings for this year’s garden, grow herbs on your windowsill, sit on your porch or balcony or just open a window.

Periodically unplug when you’re working form home.

Unplug

Your devices can feel like your only lifeline to the outside world. But they’ll also be your biggest distractions. In these uncertain times, it can be awfully tempting to scroll through Pinterest (self-care!) or obsessively follow the news. (gotta be informed) while we’re working. But this can be a productivity-sucking black hole.

Keep your phone on silent, in desk drawer, in another room or turn it off entirely. If you can’t bring yourself to do it, there are apps that will do it for you. You might be shocked to find that you don’t really miss it. I know I was.

Move

The act of walking frees up our minds and makes our brains work differently. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been struggling with a task, when I gave up and took a walk around the block — only to have the solution pop right up. Scientists, researchers, and my own interviews with creative people from around the world tell me I’m not alone.

Creativity is tricky like that. Our brains are especially fluid and flexible when our bodies are busy and we don’t need to pay strict attention or concentrate. (This is called soft focus and it’s key to entering flow state, that magical realm where we feel like we’re in the zone, on a roll, and lose track of time.)

If you can’t move your body by walking around your neighborhood to or even your kitchen table, move your hands, your arms — whatever works. Whatever brings you pleasure or cultivates soft focus is good for creativity. Try washing dishes, sketching ideas, sweeping floors, cutting out fabric, kneading bread, folding clothes. The trick is to move. It really helps.

What about you?
What tips for working from home can you add?
How are you keeping your kids and pets occupied while you stay at home?
What’s the hardest part of working from home for you?
How about the easiest?
What kinds of supplies help you work from home more effectively?

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Alicia Underlee Nelson

2 Comments

  1. Since we’ve all been moved into the work from home category, this is very timely. Thanks

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