20 Essential Tips for Telecommuting Success
By Leo Babauta
Telecommuting is a regular employee’s dream, for many obvious reasons. It’s also a great way to combine a day job with a freelancing career, if you can manage to juggle two jobs at once.
However, telecommuting often turns out to be less of a dream job for many people who are not prepared for the hazards of working at home, and many people will see a drop in productivity if they don’t take steps to ensure that they firewall home from work.
It’s not impossible to be a success as a telecommuter, but it takes a bit of commitment. But think of it this way: it’s worth the effort to make telecommuting work, because your worst day working from home is pretty much better than any day at the office.
What follows are some of the best tips I’ve found that work for me, and have worked for many others. Your mileage may vary, so choose those that will work best for you.
Create a ritual. One of the main problems with working from home is that home and work become so blurred that there’s no distinction. That’s dangerous, and a surefire way to fail. So start your work day with a pre-work ritual. This will be different for each person — you might take a shower, dress for work, eat breakfast, and plan your day, for example. But the main thing is to give yourself a signal that you’re beginning work, and leaving home behind.
Simplify. Work can become complicated if we let it, leaving our days filled with a million tasks and stretching on forever. Don’t let this happen. Simplify your work day by focusing only on those tasks that really matter, that must be done, that you want to accomplish for the day. Try to eliminate as much of the rest, the distractions, the little things that can fill up your day, or at least batch them together and do them all at once. Simplify your day, and you will be much more productive from home.
Set limits for work. Set a starting time and ending time for work, or for several blocks of work if that’s better for you. However you structure it, always have a finish time. Otherwise, you’ll work way longer than you would at the office, because there’s no home to go to. When it’s quitting time, wrap everything up, shut down, and go spend some time with the family or some “me” time.
Make a plan. When you start your work day, don’t just start working. Plan out what you want to do, picking out a few important tasks or projects, and structure your day efficiently, broken down into hour-long blocks. This will allow you to make the most of your work day, and ensure that everything necessary is taken care of.
Schedule chores, family, breaks, meals. In your schedule, don’t just put work tasks — get the other stuff in there too, or you will forget about it. Have time for your family, for eating, for taking breaks, for doing chores, for all the other things you want to accomplish by working from home.
Find quiet. If you work with family in the house, or roommates, you’ll want to find a quiet place to work. You can’t get stuff done with the television blazing or babies screaming. If possible, put your computer and desk in a separate room, away from the living room or family room.
Have a good work space. Your working area should not only be quiet, but also spacious enough for you to have room to work, with a place to put your files, your supplies, etc. Make it a place you enjoy working in, and that puts you in a productive mood.
Find your zone. Most people have a time of day when they’re most productive, when they can really crank out the work. Find your zone, and make the most of it. Don’t schedule trivial tasks during this time, but the most important tasks of your day.
Communicate. Whether you’re a regular employee working from home, or a freelancer working on a contract basis, you need to communicate with those you’re working with. That includes communicating what you’re working on, the progress you’re making, what you’ve achieved, any issues that need to be resolved, and anything that needs to be followed up on. Keep that communication regular, so you can’t be accused of not doing your work.
Groom yourself. Many people make the mistake of working in their pajamas, unwashed and loving it. However, as comfortable as that may seem, I know from experience that you will feel more productive, more energetic, and more on top of your game if you take a shower, get fully (but comfortably) dressed, and otherwise groom yourself as if you were going to work.
Log your time and work. As you have no time clock and no one to watch over you, you need to account for your time, if not for your employer or your client, then for yourself. It’s important that you not have a day go by without knowing what you’ve really accomplished, so log what you do, and how long it takes. It may seem like extra work, but really it just takes a few seconds after every task.
Use a timer to stay focused. Working from home can make it difficult to stay focused. To combat that problem, use a timer to help keep you on task and productive.
Limit calls, keep them short. If possible, schedule short blocks of time (30 minutes, perhaps twice a day) for phone calls, otherwise you may be doing them throughout the day, and never get actual work done. When making calls, keep them short and stay on topic. Calls can be one of the worst time drains if you aren’t careful.
Do only work emails, infrequently. The problem with doing email from home is that people tend to mix work with pleasure, and can spend all day in their email client. Instead, schedule time for email, and while you’re working, only do work emails. And, as with phone calls, keep them short and on topic. Do the personal emails later, when you’re off.
Set limits for a task. If you’re going to work on a task, set a time limit for it. Say, 30 minutes or an hour. And then stick to it, or you’ll end up taking forever on a certain task. If you don’t finish within that time limit, try scheduling more time for it later.
Disconnect. If you have problems staying focused, and tend to surf the web or check email or whatever, try disconnecting when you really need to concentrate on a task. Close your browser, and even disconnect the Internet if necessary. You’ll see a huge productivity boost.
Pace yourself. People tend to work hard and fast, and not realize how much they’re working. But if you telecommute for any length of time, you can burn out. Instead, keep an even pace, take breaks, stretch, walk around.
Minimize interruptions. If you can, turn off the phone and your email notification and IM, and ask anyone else in the home not to interrupt you when you’re doing an important task. Interruptions can kill your productivity.
Don’t watch kids and work. Many people make the mistake of substituting telecommuting for child care. You can’t actually do both at the same time. Telecommuting is great for the flexibility you’ll need if you have kids, but when you need to work, you need to have other people watching your kids.
Don’t go to the couch. It’s tempting to move from your desk to your couch, and take a nap or watch TV. After all, why are you working from home, right? Wrong. The couch is a trap from which many a telecommuter has never returned. It’s hard to go back to work after relaxing on the couch (or the bed), so try to avoid the temptation.