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For many people, working from home is the dream. You wake up, roll out of bed, and start your day. There’s no commute, no clock to punch, and no dress code. If we’re being really honest, you can probably even get by without a shower. In theory, the freedom to spend your working hours in an environment of your own choosing is tough to beat.
That’s why 22 percent of Americans are doing at least some of their work from home. From work-at-home parents to internet-based entrepreneurs to part-time retirees, people of all ages and in every stage of life are taking advantage of the inherent flexibility of telecommuting.
But working from home is not all pajama pants and couch-based conference calls. In all seriousness, it takes arguably more planning, motivation, and discipline to be as productive and successful working from home as in a traditional office setting. From creating a space conducive to productivity to achieving the elusive work-life balance, the challenges of telecommuting are many. Of course, if you do it well, so are the rewards.
Design the Perfect Workspace
If you spend the majority of your working hours at home, it’s important to have a dedicated space for work-related equipment and activities. It doesn’t have to be big, but it does have to be separate. For some, that means a spare room with a door that can be closed. For others, it may simply be a desk in the corner of the kitchen or living room. If you don’t have a lot of extra space, you can get creative by adding a room-dividing screen, a filing cabinet, or even a tall plant to differentiate. You can even make your workspace mobile with a rolling cart or desk.
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In addition to promoting efficiency by keeping work-related items readily at hand, the physical separation of “work” and “home” helps compartmentalize the activities in your brain. This should help you be more productive at work and more relaxed at home. When you blur the lines between the two, both your work and home life tend to suffer.
Invest in the Right Technology
In the past, the home office was basically a microcosm of the corporate one, minus all the water cooler gossip. You still needed a landline, a desktop computer hard-wired to the internet, and a good print/copy/fax machine combo. And don’t forget a place to store all the paperwork. Even then, the exchange of information was clunky, reliant upon physical disks and drives.
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Thanks to technology, it’s now possible to do almost everything from your smartphone, tablet, or laptop. Company files are all stored in the cloud, and paper copies are a thing of the past. As a result, your “office” can be just about anywhere, and you no longer have to sacrifice access in exchange for flexibility.
As you’re planning for and setting up your workspace, ask yourself what technology and equipment you really need to accomplish your daily tasks. After all, there’s nothing worse than dropping a call with an important client due to poor cell coverage or trying to save a large graphics file, only to realize you’ve run out of storage on your laptop.
Furnishing and equipping your home office will come out of your own pocket. So, focus on purchasing reliable equipment that meets your needs, rather than the newest, most expensive technology. Often, refurbished items can be purchased online for less than half of the original price. You can also purchase second-hand items like phones and printers from office supply dealers at a significant discount.
Choose Your Hours Wisely
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One of the things people love the most about working from home is the ability to make their own schedule. While the flexibility is nice, this is where discipline really comes into play. As you consider what type of work schedule you need, make sure to keep these three things in mind:
- When will you get the most work done? In other words, when are you most productive, and when will you have the fewest distractions? For work-at-home parents, the choice may be completely logistical: when the kids are at school, while they’re napping, or after they’ve gone to bed. Morning people might choose to get started right after that first cup of coffee, while night owls may be more efficient after the sun sets.
- Which days work best? Would you be better off working on a Saturday or Sunday when your spouse is home to take care of the kids? Or would you prefer to work four 10-hour days and have a three-day weekend? Can you take Tuesday afternoons off to attend a networking event or volunteer at the homeless shelter? One of the benefits of choosing your own hours is the opportunity to prioritize your family, hobbies, and personal development, even when they take place during “business hours.”
- What will you do when you just have to get it done? Sometimes, there will be work to do outside of your preferred schedule. For last-minute deadlines, meetings with colleagues in other time zones, or emergencies, you’ll need a backup plan. That may mean reverting back to the in-office techniques of coming in early, working late, or taking your kids to work with you — in other words, working while they’re not asleep.
Deal with Distractions
It seems like it would be easy enough to make your home office a distraction-free zone since you’re in complete control of the environment. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. While there are no chatty co-workers to ask you about your weekend, there is also no boss looking over your shoulder and keeping you on task. From that pile of laundry you need to fold to your Facebook feed, it’s easier than you think for your attention to wander. Even checking work emails too frequently can negatively impact your productivity.
The good news is, there are plenty of tips and tricks you can employ to train your brain to stay focused:
- Schedule your breaks. Decide on a work-to-break time ratio, and set your timer to stay on task. Some research indicates working for 52 minutes and then taking a 17-minute break is most efficient, but you can modify the ratio to suit how you work best.
- Use bribes. Reward yourself by completing tasks to get work done more quickly. A cup of coffee, a short walk in the sunshine, or a few minutes surfing the internet can help you stay motivated.
- Say “no” to social media. Constantly checking Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter while you work is detrimental to your productivity. Turn off notifications on all your devices, and only allow yourself to check the sites during break times.
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Achieve the Work-Life Balance
Depending on how you structure it, working from home will either be the most rewarding or most stressful job you’ve ever had. If you’re constantly under pressure, rushing to finish projects at the last minute, or trying to squeeze work into every nook and cranny of your day, it will no doubt take a toll on your mental health, strain your relationships, and leave you unfulfilled. However, when you’re constantly connected and your workspace is in the next room, it can be difficult to just “leave it at the office.”
The key to achieving balance when you’re running a business from home is to set realistic goals based on your priorities for both your personal and professional life… and stick to them. Schedule time for hobbies, health and fitness, and family just as you do for meetings and conference calls. And, as tempting as it will be to check emails during your kid’s soccer game or run those couple of errands when you are supposed to be working, don’t. The more intentional you are about how you spend your time, the more likely running a business from home will be your best job ever.