Between 2005 and 2017, there was a 159% increase in the number of people working from home in the United States.
But this year, something major happened. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of professionals that are fortunate enough to still have reliable employment, have been thrust into working from home full-time. Many weren’t given much of a choice. One day they were working at an office, and the next they’re at home for what seems like an indefinite period of time.
While there’s no denying the changes you’ll go through shifting to a work from home routine, there’s help to be had.
Over time, as you develop the right systems and habits, while also implementing a variety of smart tools into your daily routine, it’s possible to be more effective, happy and productive working from home.
How to Be Productive Working From Home (5 Smart Ways)
- Create a Dedicated Workspace
- Turn Off Personal Distractions
- Rely on Technology and Tools
- Take Regular Breaks
- Follow a Schedule
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Why is it Difficult to Stay Productive While Working from Home?
The answer to this question naturally depends on a variety of factors that’ll differ from person to person, but there are some common challenges, trends and habits that we can learn a lot from.
As I’ve already mentioned above, a lack of having the right systems, habits and tools in place can really leave you struggling and searching for answers. Think about it like this—the routine that you relied on when working in an office is no longer there to guide your day. You’re essentially starting from scratch if you’ve never worked permanently from home before, which is a big adjustment worthy of proper attention and a thoughtful approach.
Along with real changes to your routine as you’re working from home, you also have to contend with things like:
- A partner or roommate who may also be working from home
- School-age children who require your time (and assistance with homework assignments)
- Small children who require more care
- Distractions around the home (like Netflix and a fully stocked refrigerator)
First, it’s important to remember that you’re not alone in the transition to a work from home job this year. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, most of the world has been dealing with the same challenges as we juggle our personal, professional, and financial lives. With all this in mind, it’s time to dive into five of the best ways to remain productive when working from home.
Let’s dive in!
One of the biggest challenges of working from home is isolating yourself from distractions. And that’s just one of the many reasons why having a dedicated workspace (ideally not just your kitchen counter, dining table or couch) is so important to setting up a productive environment for yourself.
As a starting point, it’s naturally the best option if you have a dedicated office in your home or apartment already—but that’s not feasible for everyone. Here are a few of the best places for your home office to take shape:
- Office (the obvious first choice)
- Living room or den (rearranging to create an open corner is highly encouraged)
- Spare bedroom
- Basement or attic
With one of these four options, the goal is to isolate yourself from the rest of your house where distractions can come more easily. Not to mention the fact that you’ll also have a dedicated space for your work stuff, by creating a location that’s used only for “work time” during the week.
Not everyone has access to a dedicated workspace though, right? This is particularly true for those who’ve been forced into working from home without notice this year. But don’t fret. You also have options. Consider making use of spaces like:
- A roomy closet
- A nook in your bedroom
- A table in your dining room or kitchen
In my experience working from home for many years, it’s not ideal to share a space that’s used for other purpose—such as a kitchen or living room, but sometimes you have to work with the options at your disposal.
Setting up Your Work from Home Workspace
When it comes to setting up your workspace, regardless of location, do so with two things in mind: increasing productivity and minimizing distractions.
Let’s take for example someone who has a spare bedroom they can set up as an office. With nothing else in your way (and not many guests coming over to stay for a while), you can set up your desk, computer and anything else you need without encroaching on other areas of your home or the lives of your family.
Also, since you can close the door to your guest room for a little extra seclusion from the rest of the house, it’s much easier to keep distractions at a minimum. Conversely, if you’re using a shared space to work from home, such as a dining room table or kitchen counter, you’ll have to work a bit harder to remain productive and minimize distractions.
Here are some tactics you can try to help carve out quality work from home time:
- If possible, work at times of day when distractions are at a minimum (like when your children are sleeping)
- Set up your workspace to prevent distractions (like placing your desk against a wall so you can’t see what’s happening around you)
- Share your work schedule with your family so they know when you’re busiest, thus reducing the likelihood of intrusions
One last thing to consider is that people who work from home are more likely to overwork, than under-work. In other words, it can be a struggle to set clear boundaries, so many work from home veterans find themselves working night and day.
Here’s a telling excerpt from research conducted by the American Psychological Association:
“Teleworkers operating from a home office lack the physical and psychological separation between these two domains that exists in a traditional office setting. On the one hand, family and social obligations can easily bleed over into work hours. But more often, studies show, teleworkers’ professional obligations tend to extend beyond the traditional workday, interrupting family time and preventing teleworkers from ever truly disconnecting.”
Should you find yourself spending too much time in your dedicated workspace, take a step away to clear your mind and either go for a walk or tend to other responsibilities that can divert your mind away from work mode. You don’t want to burn yourself out, and we’ve been really learning the importance of self-care this year.
According to Udemy’s recent Workplace Distraction Report, a whopping 54% of people admitted that distractions hinder them from performing as well as they should while working.
While working from home, it’s honestly hard not to fall into this category. However, with a dedicated workspace to call your own, you’re doing your part in maintaining an environment designed for productivity and efficiency throughout your day—whether you’ve started a blog and are working for yourself, or holding down a (now) remote job.
However, even if you have a dedicated workspace and strict schedule, there’s no guarantee that you’ll remain on the straight and narrow. In fact, if you don’t have the discipline (and systems in place) to avoid distractions, they’ll continually bog you down.
The best thing you can do is take the same approach to your work as you would in a traditional office setting. This doesn’t mean you’ll never fall prey to distractions, but getting in the right frame of mind and setting up your environment to reinforce staying productive are half the battle.
Some of the most common personal distractions when working from home include:
- Technology (like family and friends texting, calling or emailing you)
- Television and radio
- Your spouse, roommate or children
- Visits from people you know (such as friends and neighbors)
As you settle into your work from home groove, don’t lose sight of the benefits that come along with this flexible working arrangement. If your children need help with their homework, find time in your day to help them out. If your elderly parents need you to drop off groceries a couple of times a week, take the time to try and fit it into your schedule.
It’s more than okay—in fact it’s encouraged by most employers—to find a happy medium between personal and work responsibilities, as long as you and your team are satisfied with your level of output.
Depending upon your age, you may remember the days before email, the Internet and text messages ruled everything around us. Back in the day, technology meant something entirely different—sharing documents via fax and lugging around a cell phone that would make Zack Morris jealous.
Fortunately, those days have come and gone, as we now have access to incredibly useful technology that helps improve productivity and communication when working remotely.
For starters, here are five productivity-enhancing tools you should be using to better communicate with co-workers, clients and prospects in our new work from home universe:
- Zoom: With Zoom, video conferencing, web conferencing and webinars have never been easier. Not only is it simple to set up, but it comes with all the features you need to have clear and productive conversations with anyone, regardless of location.
- Loom: As a screen and video recording software, you can quickly create videos to ensure more efficient communication. Not to mention the fact that it’ll also impress people in your network.
- Slack: With Slack, you never have to worry about staying in touch with your team. You can send messages, share files, make voice calls and more right from your computer.
- Google Drive: You may not consider it a conventional communication tool, but it’s essential to many work at home professionals. With Drive, you gain access to collaborative Google Docs, Sheets and Slides. You can also chat with those who have access to your files.
- Troop Messenger: This one is more than an instant messaging application. You can also conduct video calls, share your screen and start a group chat (plus a lot more), all in a highly-secure environment that’s designed to function particularly well for companies that have increased need for security or client confidentiality.
Now that you know how to communicate, let’s take a look at some of the tools you can use to manage your projects more effectively from home:
- Trello: Trello is a flexible, easy to use project management tool that allows you to keep track of everything, down to every last detail.
- Asana: Asana was built to solve the problem of managing work, tasks, and projects for distributed teams.
- Basecamp: A long time favorite of work from home professionals, Basecamp “puts everything you need to get work done in one place.”
- Monday: When your workflow needs help, Monday can come to the rescue. You can shape your workflow to meet the needs of you and your team, all while taking advantage of one of the most visually appealing organizational tools.
No matter the challenge you’re facing as a new work from home professional, there’s likely to be some type of technology or tool that can ease your pain. Spend a little time searching around on Google for tools that’ll accomplish what you need—or join some remote work communities on Facebook and ask for advice from those who’ve been in the game longer.
While there are hundreds of online tools designed for remote communication, there’s truly no replacement for face-to-face communication. So, even if you do work from home now, I recommend trying your best to meet up outdoors with co-workers or clients in-person (at a distance, with masks on and when it’s safe to do so according to CDC & local guidelines, of course).
It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that the more hours you work in a give day or week… the more productive you are. This general assumption makes sense on the surface, but as you dig deeper, you may realize that it’s actually working against both your own productivity and health.
Regular breaks throughout your day aren’t a waste of time. In fact, when incorporated into your schedule well, a quick step away from the computer (or outside of the house) is a great way to be productive working from home in the grand scheme of things.
In addition to increased productivity levels, here are a few additional benefits of taking regular breaks away from your work:
- Enhanced mental well-being: Stress is a serious concern among all workers, especially those who don’t take enough time away from their jobs. Even a short break, such as 30 minutes for lunch or to take a quick walk in the sunshine can recharge your mind, improve your mental well-being and help you perform at a higher level when you do get back to your desk.
- Easier to practice healthy habits during the workday: It’s unhealthy to stay cooped up in your office for hours on end, doing nothing more than staring at a computer screen. With regular breaks, you have more time for healthy habits, such as eating a balanced diet, exercising, getting some fresh air, connecting with friends (even if virtually) and clearing your mind.
- Creative thinking: There’s nothing wrong with working long and hard when you’re “in the zone,” but this can impact your ability to think creatively over the long-term. When you’re immersed in one project and one way of thinking for an extended period, there’s no time for your creativity to shine through. However, with regular breaks, you give yourself time to develop new ideas.
Here’s a fascinating insight to chew on (courtesy of Lifehack):
Did you know even a 30 second micro-break can increase your productivity up to 13%? Or that a 15 second break from staring at your computer screen every ten minutes can reduce your fatigue by 50%?
In other words, you don’t need to step away from your desk for hours on end. Even if you only have 15 seconds—which shouldn’t be too difficult to carve out—you can take a break that’ll greatly improve your productivity, health and mental alertness.
Even if you understand the benefits of taking regular breaks, it can be a challenge to work them into your day. This is particularly true when your to-do list is overwhelming. The key to making this work is setting a work (and break) schedule on your calendar, then stick to it.
One of the most popular approaches is the Pomodoro Technique. In short, this is a technique that positions you to work in small bursts. Here’s how it operates:
- Set a timer on your computer or smartphone for 25 minutes
- After 25 minutes is up, take a five minute break (grab a healthy snack, stretch your legs, rest your eyes)
- Complete four Pomodoro sessions for a total of 100 minutes of work and 15 minutes of rest
- After your fourth session, take a longer break of 30 to 45 minutes to fully recharge
It may be a drastic change from what you’re used to, but the Pomodoro Technique allows you to schedule breaks with the idea of recharging your mind and body.
It doesn’t matter if you call it a schedule, routine, or something else entirely, but it’s absolutely critical to have a schedule you’re following in order to be productive while working from home.
In a perfect world, you’d be able to keep a similar schedule, day after day, which allows you to settle into a groove. But when working from home, this is often much easier said than done (thanks to the many more distractions that come along with working at home).
When it comes to organizing your schedule for maximum productivity during work hours, start by thinking beyond just the time you spend at the computer. You should consider your routine from the moment you wake up in the morning until the moment your head hits your pillow.
According to Northwestern Medicine, people without a routine often suffer from the following:
- Poor sleep: Without a daily routine, you’ll find yourself waking up and going to sleep at different times every day. It’s okay to do this every now and then, but a sleep routine can transform your life. Check out this article for a better idea of how much sleep you really need.
- Stress: Without a routine, you can’t adequately prepare for your day. And when you don’t prepare, you never know what’s coming next. With a routine, you won’t constantly worry about your schedule and how you’ll get everything done.
- Bad health habits: From eating poorly to neglecting regular exercise in your routine, living life without a routine can result in pretty dismal health habits. The farther you go down this path, the greater impact it’ll have on your life.
As you work on developing a winning schedule, keep the following factors top of mind:
- Your typical workload on a given day
- The time of the day when you’re personally the most productive
- The average routines of your spouse and children (if applicable)
For example, you may be the type of person who likes to rise early and get to work. This is when you’re most productive. In this case, you’ll want to pack as much work as you can into the morning hours of your day, so that your afternoons can be dedicated to less cognitively intense tasks (or more self care-oriented time).
Conversely, if you work better in the evenings, you can leave the lion’s share of your work until after dinner or putting kids to bed.
Here’s an example of a morning routine that might work well for my fellow early risers:
- 6:00am: Wake up, go for a walk or workout and take a shower
- 7:30am: Eat a well-balanced breakfast
- 8:00am: Begin work (following the Pomodoro Technique or another routine that works for you)
- 12:00pm: Break for lunch and a walk outdoors
Obviously, the time intervals should change to suit your schedule and any unique time commitments you have, but this should give a basic understanding of how to approach a productive start to your morning hours while working from home. Check out this video from Marie Forleo for some of her tips on how to create a new work from home schedule for yourself if you’re looking for more inspiration.
Final Takeaways: How to Be Productive Working From Home in 2021
Even people who have a lot of experience working from home often struggle with what it takes to be productive (and sustain it for long periods of time), myself included.
Understand right now that the goal shouldn’t be to achieve perfection—and be truly productive for every hour of every day. That’s not a reasonable objective to work towards (nor is it human), so be sure to set your expectations a little lower, especially given the weight of everything going on in the world (and in your world, too).
Fortunately, when you follow these best practices, you’ll be arming yourself with the foundational tools and systems you need in order to stay productive and efficient while working from home.
And thankfully as vaccines now begin to roll out, there will come a time in the near future when the COVID-19 pandemic is behind us for good. When that happens, many people will head back to their offices, never to work from home again.
Others, however, will come to find that their company is finally on board with the benefits of remote work for all. And if you fall into that group, you may be able to rely upon (and build on) this productivity advice for many years to come.