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How do you work efficiently when you work at home?
May 19, 2010 3:29 PM   Subscribe

How do you work efficiently when you work at home?

I currently have two contract jobs this summer. They are both complex multi-task assignments that are computer-centric and I need to complete them by the end of the summer.

However, for neither project do I have strict deadlines over the course of the summer, so I need to set my own goals. How do you manage projects like these? How do you set goals for yourself? How do you stay on task and efficient while you're working alone? Do you have any tools that you often use?

posted by peetle to Work & Money (16 answers total) 92 users marked this as a favorite
I work at home on self-managed deadlines so I know exactly what you're dealing with. Here are some of my strategies.

Setting a timer helps me a lot. I usually set a timer for 15 minutes and set a goal for what I want to achieve in the next 15 minutes. It's a short time span so it's easy to stay focused. If I feel the urge to check e-mail, I don't allow myself to do it until the 15 minutes is up. This works for achieving goals that you might be otherwise intimidated about approaching, because the pressure of the ticking clock takes away the pressure of worrying about what to do/say/etc. I use this timer, created by a fellow ask.mefi user:

Tracking how you spend your time and what you accomplish helps a lot. Sometimes just knowing you're keeping a record helps you behave better and you can also see where are the spots you tend to lose your time. I have spreadsheets to track daily hours spent on different projects, and daily goals achieved. On one particularly large, drawn-out and tedious project, I created a spreadsheet with visual graphs so I could actually visualize how much I was accomplishing each day and how much money I was earning. This motivated me. When you have a big project with no firm milestones, it's good to be able to track daily progress.

I also use RememberTheMilk which helps me manage projects and not forget things. I used to use Backpack to make daily lists of tasks as well as manage projects.

I think setting some goals each morning is really important. What you want to accomplish and how long you'll spend working on different tasks. Then try to follow it as best you can, but also be flexible enough to go with the flow if you're really in the zone on something and just want to keep working.

Stick to a fairly consistent schedule each day, built around when you do the best work... some people are more focused and creative in the morning, others at night... let your mind and body be your guide for creating a consistent work schedule.

webworkerdaily is a blog I read a lot, and one of the best places to find out about tools and apps that will be useful to you.

zenhabits has good stuff about managing your time and productivity from a more psychological and inspirational perspective.

43folders is of course the productivity classic.

You may find that working at home is just not the best place to retain focus. If you can do your work from a library, coffeeshop, bookstore, park, whatever, you might get a lot more done there. When I have a task I really need to tear into, I usually just set aside a couple hours to go work in a place where I won't be distracted.

Obvious, but needs to be said... turn off alerts and online distractions. Stay away from email, facebook, twitter, and even metafilter, for as long as you can, or you'll never get anything done. That's a habit that can be really hard to build, but it's an essential one.

Best of luck with your projects.
posted by crackingdes at 3:48 PM on May 19, 2010 [5 favorites]

I leave home, for one. I do an exorbitant amount of work in cafes, and I especially favor places that don't have wi-fi, so that I don't fall into the internet six times a day. Also: I set specific goals for myself and I don't go home until I've finished those goals. An extra laptop battery can sometimes help. Snacks also come in handy.
posted by incessant at 3:51 PM on May 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

You are probably in good shape with the advice from crackingdes and incessant.

However, for me, personally, working in public is death because I'm such an introvert that having people look at me and possibly ask me questions like what time is it wrecks me. (There might be some gender issues at work – as a female, I’m more likely to be approached in public and have experience with creepiness being a factor in public approaches.)

It is helpful to set timers to schedule breaks and just not get up until the timer dings. (Or quacks, or makes cricket noises or whatever your timer does.)
posted by Lesser Shrew at 3:59 PM on May 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Most of my work is pretty sort and "atomic," for lack of a better word: there are no milestones, only project start and project end.

When I've got a longer job, I figure out what my daily productivity needs to be and I more or less stick to that. Sometimes it can be hard to figure out whether a certain deadline is realistic until you've waded in a little bit, but once you've got that figured out, daily goals seem to work for me.

You might want to hold your own feet to the fire by scheduling periodic reviews and status reports with the customer.

I also find that figuring out how much money I earned today is a powerful motivator. If Project X is worth $10,000 and you have 60 days to work on it, you can pat yourself on the back at the end of each day for having earned another $166.
posted by adamrice at 3:59 PM on May 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

I agree, it's all about working backward from your delivery date and setting milestones so that you are where you need to be when you need to be there.
posted by Short Attention Sp at 4:48 PM on May 19, 2010

Work in the same way as if you are working in an office on the same projects. If you've got a major piece of work due in 2 months, break it down into smaller tasks and develop a project plan which tells you when the component parts need to be completed by.

The more tasks you can break your project down into, the easier this becomes, and the less likely it is that you will miss deadlines, and equally importantly, the less stressed you'll be. The smaller the task, the easier it is to accurately estimate how long it will take, as well, which gives you a much better indication of how you're progressing overall.

If you need something external to motivate yourself, let your client know your plan - let them know when particular elements will be completed, or when you'll have things ready for them to review. Daily tasks are good as well, but don't lose sight of the big picture.

If you need to motivate yourself to not leave everything to the last minute, try arranging "treats" for yourself. "If I finish X and Y by 3pm I'll go to the movies / call my best friend for a long chat" or "If I get my week's work done by Thursday night, I'll take Friday off and meet a friend for lunch". Things that you can do when you're working from home but can't do in an office job!

And when you're on top of things, don't feel guilty about taking time off! Working from home has distractions, but they're more obvious - hanging the washing out seems so much more removed from work than spending the same time chatting to a colleague in the office, but you don't notice the chatting as "time not spent on actual work" in the same way.

posted by finding.perdita at 5:01 PM on May 19, 2010

I have to take a planning break every hour or two, just to stay on track and off of random tangents.

Here's what it consists of:

1. No computer access. I need an excuse to get away.
2. I give myself permission to check email only at 9 and 4 anyway, so no email via PDA or otherwise.
3. Get out a pad of paper and pens.
4. Write each current project name on paper.
5. Under each project, list the next task that takes less than 5 minutes to accomplish.
6. If you are really stressed out, break step down to 30 seconds. It's hard to find excuses that way.
7. List as many of those steps as possible.
8. You should have much more focus and motivation now.
9. Take the pad with you wherever you go. If you don't, this can turn into a way of avoiding work.
10. Expect to be effective about 30 hours a week, max. You're a knowldge worker; anxiety is your enemy. Try to treat solid work Beyond that as a bonus.
posted by circular at 5:27 PM on May 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

My approach to working on projects at home (something that worked really well for me during the last ~2 years) is something you might call "anti-goal oriented project management". Setting goals just doesn't work for me. I keep track of how much time I spend on the projects as well as on other things that I need to do that's sort of work-like. For example, I practice yoga and meditation, I have to spend time on cleaning, cooking, shopping, etc. I keep track of how long I spend on work projects, personal ones and separately on these things that have to be done. This means that if I had to spend half a day on other stuff, I can look at hours I spent on projects for each day in last few weeks and see that on average, I'm doing well. This means that I never have long periods when I do very little or nothing, but at the same time I never need to push myself hard on any particular day.

Keeping track of how much you make (as mentioned by others) is also a good idea. I had multiple projects going on at the same time at different rates and I wrote a tiny command line program that keeps track of time and earnings for each project and allows me to switch them easily - I find it very helpful. If you know a bit of programming it's very easy to write one and tweak it for your needs.
posted by rainy at 5:28 PM on May 19, 2010

I have a big, 2-month erasable (dry marker) planner board on the wall (removable to write on). I set a deadline for each project. Normally with a week's leeway in case the inevitable happens. Then I work backwards to the pre-deliverable version (i.e. plan 2 weeks for me to sit on it, let it ferment, then be able to edit it dispassionately). Then I break the deliverable down into the constituent parts and work backwards to a deadline for each part. If it doesn't all fit on one board, I run over onto a second. A deadline staring you in the face, with the graphical proof that if you slip this one, you can't deliver, refines the mind wonderfully.
If I am working on two projects at once, I interleave them, so each gets a chance for me to do something else before editing/assessing the work for a specific component.

Regarding concentration and procrastination, I am the Displacement-Activity Queen. So I have a room dedicated to work, where all my books, files, and computer are kept. I keep my work area simple, get everything organized in advance, and have a set time during each day when I am "allowed" to answer emails, run errands, or otherwise displace. I work in 90-minute concentrated sessions; in-between I am allowed 10-20 minutes to play with the dogs, see if it is still raining, or get myself a drink.

If I have got a lot done that day and don't feel up to sustained concentration at the end of the day, I knock off early. If I haven't achieved much, I work until I have. But I always get organized for the next day's work before I leave the room. You can waste so much time each morning, happily "getting organized" ... :-)
posted by Susurration at 5:29 PM on May 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

My biggest problem with setting my own deadlines is being accountable to ONLY ME. Boy, can I be forgiving and understanding of a missed milestone. One strategy I've employed to help avoid this behavior is hiring a "work buddy" -- someone else at work that day on something that has goals to reach and that could also benefit from a little extra accountability. We check in at the beginning of the day, state our goals to each other, and set a time for completion of these goals. Then we check in after a set period of time has passed to report how far we have gotten. It's so simple but it really does work!

If that fails, there's always TaskSquid, which emails you a task list with due dates at the start of each workday, with multiple settings to nag you via IM, Twitter, etc.
posted by missmobtown at 5:29 PM on May 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

When I get really desperate, I use Mac Freedom. It turns off wireless access completely for a length of time you choose, up to eight hours. The only way to get back online is to reboot the machine and I usually feel too sheepish to do that.
posted by sugarfish at 8:55 PM on May 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

break the jobs down into sections, or model them over their lifetimes in stages. if it's samey over the course of the contract(s), you can section them as 100 per week or whatever.
posted by rhizome at 9:29 PM on May 19, 2010

I set mid-project deadlines of when I will be turning over work (either finished, or in-progress) to my clients. Once I have told them to expect stuff on a particular day, I will stick to that deadline, because otherwise I look incompetent, and won't get more work from them. Since I love working from home (you don't need pants!) it's a pretty good motivator. (right now my next deadline is friday morning, and I'm aldeady feeling guilty to be on metafilter)
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 11:50 PM on May 19, 2010

nthing all of the above, but I have never found strategies like turning off the internet to be helpful. I have to be online MORE because I am remote from my colleagues. So I get and send more email, chats, etc than I ever did in an office, and I spend a lot of time on Skype.

This took some time for me to adjust to, I used to avoid phone calls whenever possible!
posted by wingless_angel at 7:05 AM on May 20, 2010

I actually don't work as effectively at home, so what I've done is started going to a local co-working place in Philly. It's amazing how much better work goes when you're surrounded by other people working. A lot of larger cities and towns are starting this up, and if you can afford the membership fees it's worth looking into.

If it's not an option, two things you should get set up are some kind of tasks solution (Bugzilla works fine for this) and a project timer so you can keep track of hours worked. Absolutely break down the projects into small discrete tasks, put each task in Bugzilla, give each one a deadline and estimated time, and then use the timer to see if the time spent matches your expected time. Change predictions accordingly.

If you're worried about wasting time, use Greasemonkey scripts to disable websites that you're liable to waste time on. If you're anywhere near your TV, unplug it during hours you want to get work done. If you find yourself bored, you can try playing podcasts which will keep you entertained but shouldn't interfere too much with your ability to do computer-y things.

Above all, stay off MetaFilter.
posted by Deathalicious at 8:23 AM on May 20, 2010

I like the suggestions here so far. Being a grad student, I face many similar challenges; so trying to remove distractions really helps. My most effective strategy is to use Freedom (I find 1 hour intervals is pretty good).

Also, working in a quiet but communal space, can be good to get motivated; and to see other humans. The additional benefit, is that a communal space frequently has regular hours, so you don't view the day as being this infinite time block, but rather you need to finish by 6, cos that's when the space is closed.
posted by a womble is an active kind of sloth at 7:24 AM on May 23, 2010

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