How to Work From Home: Tips I’ve Learned Over 20 Years

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I first started working from home in 1997.  I definitely didn’t pioneer the concept, but I was perhaps an early adopter.  And I’ve had plenty of time to get things right and wrong.

In the name of showing up for others during this tricky time, the following are seven tips I recommend to someone who’s new to working from home.

1/ Seize the Opportunity

Modern offices are interruption factories.  And you get to endure a commute to get to them, often for the joy of spending half your day in ill-conceived meetings.

Working from home eliminates many of these time-wasters.  For example, according to the US Census Bureau, the average one-way commute time in the US is 26.1 minutes.  That adds up to over 200 hours a year I save with my 17-step commute from the master bedroom to my home office.  I can reinvest this time however I choose.

The trade-off is that working from home requires a high degree of self-discipline.  Your home is filled with potential distractions, and they will win if you let them.  Sure, I’d love to watch Game Show Network all day – and that’s certainly an option – but it won’t get me new clients, and it won’t get you promoted.  As with most things, we reap what we sow.

So make the most of this temporary disruption.  See it as a chance to try new things, to learn new methods, and to do better work in less time.

2/ Design Your Environment

You don’t need to be Marie Kondo.  But a little thought about your environment goes a long way.

In general, try to create a pleasant, positive environment that’s conducive to productivity.  Here are some tactics that work for me:

  • Music matters.  I find lyrics distracting when I’m doing deep work, so I’ve created some epic playlists of ambient music.  (Some great starting points: the “Pop Ambient” compilation series, and the entire catalog of Gas, both on Cologne’s Kompakt Records.)  I love my Sonos speakers for their ability to fill a room with sound.  And noise-cancelling headphones are a must, even when there’s no noise to cancel – there’s just something about snapping on the headphones that says, “Let’s get down to business.”
  • Keep your tools handy.  I have a whiteboard and a pad of those easel-sized Post-Its for spontaneous thought-doodling.  I keep a Moleskine journal and a set of multicolored pens handy too. 
  • Turn towards the light.  Unfortunately, there’s no natural light in my home office, so I’ve placed a small corner desk by the window in our living room, affording me a view of the Chicago skyline.  Most days I go back & forth between the two spots.
  • Get comfortable.  I can’t stress this enough: Get a comfortable chair.  I sprung for a Herman Miller Aeron, but others say the Ayalon chairs available at Staples are just as good.  At times, I’ll stretch out on the sofa, and as I type this, I’m sitting on my bed with two pillows supporting my back.
  • Make your inspirations visible.  On my desk are framed pictures of my wife on our wedding day and my parents, two huge reminders of why I do what I do.  My office walls are mostly covered with concert poster art, which bring me joy.  Your tastes may run to inspirational quotes or impressionist art – you do you, boo.
  • Drink up.  Keep a water bottle handy.  Drinking lots of water curbs your appetite, is good for your skin, and has like a thousand other benefits.
My desk is rarely this spiffy, but it’s a good goal to strive for. Photo: Canva.

Environment design also means shutting out distractions.  As needed: Turn off all alerts.  Close your browser.  Put your phone in a different room.  Use software to block certain apps.  Alert family members that you are in “monk mode” for the next two hours.  Do what needs doing, bearing in mind that sustained focus is one of the potential advantages of working from home.

Finally, some people like to dress the part.  (I’m decidedly not one of these guys.  If you see me wearing a button-down on a video call, there’s a 90% chance I’ve paired it with pajama pants.)  But I know people who get dressed as if they’re actually going to an office, including one guy who actually dons a suit every day.  Who am I to judge?  These rituals have psychological value, and as with many suggestions on this list, the right answer is the one that works best for you.

3/ Plan Your Work, Block Your Time

Working from home offers the freedom to largely set your schedule.  But it can also create a time-void in which nothing gets done.

The solution is to plan your work.  The simple act of putting tasks on your calendar is a step toward getting them done.

Every night, before I shut down, I plan my tomorrow in Google Calendar.  Top priorities go on the calendar first.  Generally speaking, I protect my mornings for outputs and client work.  Afternoons are more flexible and can be used for inputs, connecting or additional outputs.  (Pro-tip: Add about 25% to your estimated time for any task.  Trust me on this.)

A sample day plan from my Google Calendar.

Time management research suggests that productivity declines beyond 60-90 minutes on a given task.  Your mileage may vary, and there have been times when I’ve done good work for four hours at a clip.  But those times are rare, so keep the “60-minute rule” in mind when scheduling tasks.  You’ll want to break some of them into smaller chunks.  Once your top priorities are on the calendar, intersperse your less critical and less strenuous tasks.  A little housework is a fine way to recharge between more intense tasks. 

I also break up my day with exercise.  Others prefer to work out first thing in the morning or at the end of the day.  Whatever works for you, put exercise on the calendar too, or it won’t happen.

Many couples are now working from home, and, somehow, also looking after children.  In this case, planning is a team effort and communication becomes exponentially more important.  Check in often, and be patient with each other as you find your rhythm.

4/ Track Your Time

As the saying goes, “No plan survives first contact with reality.”  Planning your day is critical, but be warned: Your day will never go exactly to plan.

I treat my Google Calendar as a living thing, tracking actual start & end times for any given task to the minute.  This way, my calendar also serves as a diary, letting me know how I invested my time.  Through the magic of color-coding, I can see at a glance how much time I spent on client work, writing, exercise, inputs, administrative tasks, “life stuff” and so on.

You’ll quickly learn, among other things, that 8 hours of deep, focused work is nearly impossible.  So go easy on yourself there.  You’ll also be able to see the gaps between your plan and your reality, and where your time can be better invested.

Your time is your inventory.  Make sure it’s working for you.

5/ Connect

I may harp on the flaws of the modern office, but it also facilitates human interaction.  You have the opportunity to bounce an idea off someone you respect, or to simply to catch up on a Monday morning. 

This sudden isolation will take a psychological toll on many of us.  So get ahead of that by initiating human interaction.

One way I’ve done this, under the normal run of things, is to create a spreadsheet of all the people I wish to keep in touch with.  About twice a month, I pick a couple of names and set up a call, lunch or happy hour.  These need not be strictly work-related chats; in fact, it’s often better when they’re not.

I’m redoubling those efforts during the quarantine.  Since face-to-face isn’t an option, my new rules are: Video chat is best, a phone call is next best, and an email exchange doesn’t count. 

Try it.  You’ll feel better, and so will the people to whom you reach out.

Sometimes this happens when I’m working from home. Shot from my balcony.

6/ Establish “On Time” & “Off Time”

Another danger of working from home is that there’s nothing to stop you from working all the time.  (My wife will tell you this is a flaw in my character.)

It certainly helps to have a dedicated workspace, but that’s not an option for everyone right now.  At the very least, make it a point to shut down the phone and the laptop (hide them if you must).  Give yourself at least a few hours a night away from work-related stuff.   

7/ Find What Works for You

A consistent theme in this piece has been “what works for me may not work for you.”  We’re all wired a little differently.

Some of what I propose – environment design and time-boxing in particular – have the weight of research behind them.  Other tactics are more personal.  So be mindful and be aware.  Your goal is effectiveness, and your system should be designed to get you there. 

And don’t be afraid to try something new.  I tinker with my systems all the time.  Through the right lens, this temporary disruption may leave you with some new ideas, new tools, and new ways to work.

Here’s hoping you & yours are happy & healthy during this trying time.  Please reach out with any questions about working from home, and I’d love to hear what’s working for you as well.

About Matthew Fenton: Matthew is a former CMO who helps brands to focus, grow and win.  Since founding his consultancy, Three Deuce Branding, in 1997, he’s helped hundreds of brands to achieve “brand clarity.”  His consulting services and speaking engagements help brands to focus on what matters through positioning, strategy and ideation.  Contact Matthew here.  He’s based in Chicago.

Copyright 2020 – Matthew Fenton. All Rights Reserved. You may reprint this article with the original, unedited text intact, including the About Matthew Fenton section.

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