Working From Home

How do you manage to be productive working from home when there are so many things to distract you? How do you motivate yourself to work hard when the tv is a room away or the phone is ringing? How do you stay on schedule with projects when the kitchen needs cleaning and there seems to be an endless amount of things to pull your focus away from your work?


Note: This post includes an audio version. If you don’t see the audio player above, Click here to listen. You can also subscribe in iTunes

Note 2: My apologies for the small bit of static in the audio. I re-recorded the worst of it, but there’s still about 15 seconds worth of static between 10:45 and 11:00 into the recording.

Today I’d like to talk a little about how you can stay focused when working from home about. If you work at home, how to you manage to be productive with all the distractions of home life and the need to motivate yourself.

The idea for this post comes from an article Matt Gemmel published about working at home a couple months ago. To give you an idea what Matt’s article is about here are the main headings.

  • Discipline
  • Eliminating distractions
  • Be a professional
  • Separating work from home life
  • Preserving sanity
  • Enjoy the flexibility
  • It’s what you make it

I’ll touch on some of the above, though not all. Matt and I are different people with different things to distract us and different needs for working successfully at home. I will start in the same place though, and talk a little about discipline.

Maintain Discipline by Doing More of What Interests You

Discipline has never really been a problem for me under one condition. I don’t find it hard to focus on the things I’m interested in. Of course, the reverse is also true.

For example many writing apps promote distraction free writing as a feature. They help you block out other things to the point where everything, but the sentence your writing is hidden from you. I’ve never understood why that’s useful.

I realize for many people it is, but it’s never been for me. My writing app is currently open to about 55–60% of the screen and I can see a browser behind it. Still it’s not a problem to focus solely on the writing app and get work done. I enjoy writing and the enjoyment is enough to maintain my focus.

That doesn’t mean I’m perfectly disciplined at every moment of every day. I’m not. Many days I wake up wishing I could do anything besides work.

I can generally stay focused though, and I think a large part of the reason is I’ve chosen a career I enjoy which involves things I feel passionate about. It’s one reason I always recommend people follow their passion in business. It makes it much easier to remain focused and disciplined because you want to do the work. It doesn’t even feel like work most of the time.

Discipline is something you have complete control over. The more you work at it, the better you get. If you’re having trouble staying focused on the work remind yourself of the importance of staying disciplined. If you are working from home think about how losing focus could easily have you back working in an office again. That’s enough to keep me focused.

Ideally you’ve followed your passion, but if not you can move your career from wherever it is now to someplace that inspires you more. You don’t have to suddenly quit and start over, but you could make small changes that bring you a step or two closer to something you feel more passionate about.

Stay on Schedule

Ultimately it’s on you to be disciplined and you have to find a way to remain disciplined. One thing that helps me is maintaining a routine or schedule. Having a flexible schedule is great. It’s one of my favorite aspects of working for myself, but you can’t let it lead to a loss of discipline. You have to get your work done.

When I first started working from home I knew I was responsive for getting work done if I wanted to get paid, but I thought I could be very flexible about when I got it done. The dream was I could wake up when I wanted and work when I felt like it. As long as I put in my 40–50 hours a week I’d be fine.

Unfortunately it’s easy to lose focus that way. For example I can’t recall ever waking up on a Monday and wanting to work. I usually wake up Monday morning wishing it was still Sunday or even Saturday. As much as I would have liked to take every Monday off, that wasn’t going to work well for business.

I found it was best to get into a routine and work a schedule that was roughly 9–5 Monday through Friday.

It’s when my clients are typically working. They’re mainly in the U.S. and Canada. There’s a 3 hour window from first to last so 9–5 for them is anywhere from 7:00 AM to 6:00 PM local time for me. 7:00 AM is a bit too early for me to be working, but by 8:00 I can be available if need be.

I tend not to schedule phone calls and meetings at that time, but I can make myself available when necessary. I typically end up working until sometime between 6:00 and 7:00 and so have a schedule that aligns well enough with my client’s hours.

I also find friends have the usual 9–5 Monday through Friday and if I want to spend time with them, it makes sense to work similar hours.

My schedule isn’t rigid. I’m aware I won’t feel up to working my best every day. I account for this by varying my daily schedule. 8–6 is a 10 hour day, but I don’t usually work all 10 hours. More likely I’ll work 8 hours over those 10.

Sometimes I will work those extra hours which buys me time later in the week or the following one to take some time off. It also means I can take time away from working at a moment’s notice most of the time. That’s flexible enough for me.

My schedule is more a routine that can be broken most any time and with little notice. Sometimes I have to get some particular work done on a specific day. More often I don’t. More likely any deadline is some time off in the future and so I can switch tasks to keep me more interested.

Even Better, Get Ahead of Your Schedule

Even better than maintaining a schedule is to get ahead of it. It’s rare for me to have a project with an absolute deadline that comes in a few days. Usually there will be more time in advance to prepare for deadline day.

It’s possible I start a project on Monday that needs to be finished on Thursday, but more’s the case where the deadline is weeks or months done the road. My work is less about getting something done today and more about getting it down within a week or month.

Many days I do work all 10 hours in my 10 hour day. I might even put in a few hours over the weekend at times. If you can get more done each week than you need to, you build in more flexibility for time off later.

I do my best to stay a few weeks ahead on this blog. As I’m writing this I’m 2 weeks ahead. I’ve been about 3 weeks ahead for most of the last 6 months and I’ve been 4 weeks ahead at times. I could take a week or two off and you wouldn’t notice, because I already have posts scheduled to cover the time away.

Where clients are concerned, I try to be conservative with time estimates. It’s still a challenge for me as I tend to be a little too optimistic about how quickly I can get something done.

I maintain two estimates. An internal one for me and an external one for clients. I work to my internal time projections and try to stay ahead of them. At the very least I try to stay ahead of the estimate I give to clients. This way I can take a day or two away for another project or because something unexpected comes up, or even because it’s a low energy day.

Eliminate Distractions

I grew up just outside of New York City. If you’ve been to New York and its immediate surroundings, you know it’s not a quiet place. Most cities aren’t. You can find pockets of quiet at times, but more often there are sounds and other things to distract you.

My childhood serves me well working from home as I’m used to ignoring distractions. It doesn’t mean I don’t get distracted, but I am used to it.

I don’t like working in silence so I create some background noise to work to. Usually it’s music played at a moderate to higher volume and I have go to songs and albums that I find easy to work to. Sometimes it’s the tv, at a moderate volume. In fact the tv is usually on when I’ve chosen music for the day. It serves as visual background noise.

The tv was my babysitter at points in my childhood and while I’ve grown to be able to live without one, I typically turn it on for the background noise. I do find music less distracting so it’s typically what’s on when I’m working.

Both help drown out other noises that are more likely to distract. The idea is I’m setting up my own distractions that aren’t as distracting to me and more likely to fade into the background. The music might cover up a lawn mower outside or my neighbor who enjoys working with a chainsaw.

You have to know yourself and understand what in particular distracts you. For me social media and instant messenger are distracting. I don’t work with a Twitter client open. I don’t check Facebook or LinkedIn or Pinterest or whatever all day. They distract me so I ignore them most of the time.

I find it hard to ignore a conversation on IM so I don’t have that open either. I don’t check email constantly. Once in the morning, once around lunch time, and once at the end of the work day. I might pay more attention if I’m waiting for some specific information to help me work, but otherwise email is closed until I’m between major tasks.

I don’t have family to distract me, but I do have friends that possibly could. I usually don’t answer my phone (though oddly I forget to turn the ringer off). When I have a moment, I’ll listen to messages and decide when to return calls.

Closing Thoughts

Staying disciplined and removing distractions is about knowing yourself and understanding when you do and don’t need absolute focus. It’s about knowing what does and doesn’t distract you and finding ways to reduce those distractions.

I wouldn’t expect you to do exactly what I do. The trick is to understand yourself and work with yourself instead of against yourself.

These are all questions you have to answer for yourself. Once you’ve answered, set up a work environment that minimizes what distracts you and maximizes what doesn’t. Set things up to keep you focused on what you need to do. If distractions are ever present then set up your own distractions that don’t prevent you from working and help block out those that do.

If you can work at things you truly enjoy and find interesting this should all be easier, but if that’s not realistic, it’s your responsibility to set up a working environment that keeps you working.

Know that at some point it’s on you to remain disciplined. No one else is going to do the work for you or keep you focused. Working from home can be a great thing. Remind yourself that if you don’t get the work done, you probably won’t have the option to continue working at home.

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7 comments

  1. Man this article is right on time. I struggle so badly with getting work done at home (my website, school work, etc.). I recently came across an article saying if you multi-task, don’t because it will keep you from being productive.

    When I am at my job, I just focus on one task at a time (usually with background music if I am not on the floor).

    My distractions range from e-mail, instant messaging, web surfing, HD videos, etc.

    What’s your passion? Mathematics/English/Web Design/Web Development

    What distracts you? E-Mail/Instant Messaging/Web Surfing/HD Videos

    What helps motivate you? Thinking about the end goal and result of getting my work done, good music, getting paid or learning, etc.

    What keeps you disciplined? In my opinion, setting up blocks of time where I channel out distractions. Ultimate this is where I have failed. Now I only want to blog/design/development part-time now, but fact is, I haven’t done much of anything.

    I think about doing way more than just doing.

    • Thanks Daquan, Glad I have good timing. :)

      I don’t believe in multi-tasking. That’s just dividing your attention between multiple things instead of focusing on one. I prefer something I call multipurposing, where you do one thing, but in a way that it serves more than one purpose.

      Admittedly some of this stuff is on us. It’s on us to stay focused despite the distractions. If you want to get something done, you have to put other things aside and get the one thing done.

      Setting up blocks of time works for me too. It’s how I schedule my day. I’d also say the work itself keeps me disciplined. I enjoy what I do and so usually want to do it. Not every day, but most of the time.

      One thing I would suggest is just do. Don’t think about doing. Just do.

      • Thanks! Your comment is very true, I just need to get stuff down (like I do at my job). I must channel out the noise in my brain, control what tabs I open, and keep myself focused on the task at hand. Once I get back into my groove, I know I’ll have it.

  2. I had a little more time to think about this post and I really understand my issue now.

    I try to mix entertainment with work. But I think if I’m enjoying entertainment, I should just relax and do that.

    If that’s true, then the reverse is also important. If I am working, I should do just that and not mix in entertainment.

    With this, I won’t even try to work if I am watching YouTube videos. And when I am working, I’ll have to just shut down all major (especially visual) distractions. I’ll let you know how it works out (well….once my site is up, you know it is working, lol).

    Just pouring out my thoughts. xD

    • Yeah if you’re trying to enjoy the entertainment it’s hard to work at the same time. I have music and tv going, but I specifically choose music or tv that I don’t actively listen to. By choosing and keeping the volume at a moderate level it becomes background noise for me. My focus is on the work.

      For me the more distracting thing is social things like instant messenger and twitter. Those are harder for me to leave in the background so I don’t work with them open. I wait for a break in work to check email and twitter and similar.

      Glad this really made you think. Hopefully the end result is you’ll create an environment that helps you get more done.

  3. Working from home is the best and the worst at the same time. Nice and comfortable surroundings, great view, but hard to leave work in other room and relax sometimes. Plus I have kids, grandkids and an insane wife (I’m sure she was normal when we met…) to spice things up a bit, but most people understand and I think there is a trend for larger corporations to endorse home working.
    There are so many other distractions… TV, food, bed!
    As you say in your excellent post, discipline is key!

    • Thanks Jeff.

      I hear you. I’m pretty good when it comes to focus. I grew up with distractions all around me and it’s not to hard for me to drown them out now. I also don’t kids kids or grandkids running around the place either.

      However, I do find it hard to leave work in the other room. There’s almost always a computer right in front of me and it’s easy to be tempted to get one small thing done. One small thing that inevitably turns into a much bugger thing and keeps me up most of the night.

      You have to be disciplined to get the work done, but you also have to be disciplined to leave it behind to recharge yourself and more important to enjoy life.

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