If you do anything for three weeks, it becomes a habit...
February 19, 2009 11:16 PM   Subscribe

Learning to work effectively from home...

So, I've found myself in a fairly short-term consulting job doing web design and extremely miscellaneous coding. This is fun and awesome. I'm able to work from home. This is also fun and awesome. However, I have found that without the structure of a workplace I have semi-terrible work habits, which this month are badly exacerbated by the fact that I have applications to grad school out and expect decisions fairly soon (I'm at the stage where I get nervous shakes every time I get a call from someone I don't recognize). I realize I'm not going to be 100% until this crisis passes, but likewise I can't spend my day staring blankly at the computer screen while hoping the phone rings.

Does anyone who's been in one or the other of these situations have any cognitive / life-structure tips or tricks that I can use to stay sane and get work done through this? I'm open to just about any suggestion that's reasonable -- I figure to a certain extent I'll get a placebo effect off of any method that anyone here can vouch for, if nothing else. Thanks for any help, no matter how small.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick to Work & Money (13 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
I really try to habituate myself to my surroundings, and have them indicate "work." I listen to the same kind of music (and don't listen to this music at other times) so that when it's playing I know it's "work time." I have a specific spot, with a specific chair, and I try to make all these external stimuli tell me that it's time to be productive.

The music is the one that works the best.
posted by visual mechanic at 12:00 AM on February 20, 2009

Right now I just popped over to Metafilter when I should be focusing on my work.

I find I can work well as long as I can hold myself to a certain agreement like: translate one page (I'm a translator) and then take a 5 minute break. Repeat. As long as I can remember this agreement, I get lots of work done. But sometimes my mind wanders so much that I even forget I'm supposed to be on this system until an AskMe question reminds me. Today I'm sick and I'm also fucking ripshit because my project is taking way too much time for way too little money and is going to spill over onto the week-end, so I find it almost impossibe to concentrate. But yeah, in general, break the work down into sub-tasks and schedule breaks -- and simply postpone all distractions to break-time.
posted by creasy boy at 2:23 AM on February 20, 2009

I telecommute every now and then, and I find the best thing is, when you wake up, don't just laze about, shower and dress fully, like you're actually going to work. It helps you get in that mode of working.
posted by Mach5 at 4:30 AM on February 20, 2009

I worked from home for nearly 3 years via remote desktop. I...don't know how much this'll help, but I can chip in a couple of tips?

1) Do a normal morning routine, just like you would as if you were going out to work. Get dressed; don't stay in pajamas, even though that's tempting. Make sure to have a time you NEED to start working, and start at that time. (I picked a very early time, but that's personal preference. Just be consistent.)

Alternatively - if you want to go the completely opposite direction on this and are not a big breakfast person...rolling right out of bed when the alarm clock goes off and going DIRECTLY to the computer and starting work right away (and grabbing a quick breakfast a couple hours later) also works surprisingly well.

2) If you have an operating system that supports multiple user accounts easily (such as Windows XP), set up a "Work" account. Pick a professional-looking desktop image, and put shortcuts to only work-related programs on the desktop. This really got me in the work mindset.

3) Make a to-do list, and go through it and check off each item as you finish it throughout the day. Add to the to-do list as you go.

(You also may want to make a short log of things you have accomplished at the end of the day.)

4) Not sure of your particulars, but it helped a LOT for me to be connected to my work-mates all of the time via Google Talk. That way, not only could they contact me if they needed anything, I felt like I was always "on" and really at work.

5) If you are particularly partial to wasting time on certain websites and you use Firefox, you may want to use something like LeechBlock. It's an extension that allows you to block certain websites during certain times of the day.

For me...personal preference, but I didn't listen to any music. This is just because music is distracting to me when I'm working, though.
posted by anthy at 4:35 AM on February 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

Oh, and another tip, sorry - in the morning before you start working, DON'T check your personal email or surf personal websites. That's the easiest way to get yourself completely knocked out of the work mindset.
posted by anthy at 4:49 AM on February 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

When I was working from home for a while, I used to walk to work. I'd have breakfast, get changed, pack a lunch, put on my boots and coat, leave the house, go for a 15-minute walk, arrive at my workplace, go in, take off my boots and coat, and get to work.

It sounds mildly insane, I guess, but on the days I didn't walk to work, I just never found that focus. If you really get stuck, try it. You might be surprised at how much difference just stepping outside and stepping back inside can make in helping you get your "game face" on.
posted by Shepherd at 5:41 AM on February 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

Rules create structure. I work from home, and these are the rules I stick to:

- Jog most mornings. When I get back, I get ready for work. Getting out signals a transition.
- Dress for work
-Start at the same time every morning
-Work in a dedicated room that is 'the office'. Door shut on the rest of the house.
- No music
- Keep away form the Lure of Teh Internets - I assume I'm in a shared office and my screen faces out.
- Have a monthly, weekly and daily to-do list. Break big tasks into small ones and plan them across time. Have a long enough list to keep busy all day. Stick to it.
- Maximum 1 hour lunch from 12 till 1 - I never eat at my desk. I meet up with others for lunch or eat with family downstairs.
- To concentrate, I use a timer for when I'm lacking focus. 20 mins good work gets a reward of 10 minutes playtime at times like this.
- I'm organised. I assume everything needs put away or filed so someone else can find it.

Basically I just pretend that I'm in a fairly rigidly-managed office and work as if I had someone watching me. This doesn't detract from the many, many advantages (joys, in fact) of working from home. It's the enabler that makes this possible and sustainable.

Your main distractions will be the internet and a lack of social interaction. Stay socially 'plugged in' using whatever method works for you, and it'll be less likely that you're trawling the web out of boredom.

I'll say it again: create structures. Rules, timetables, lists, and organisation. And reward yourself (out of work hours, no cheating) for sticking to them all.
posted by dowcrag at 5:50 AM on February 20, 2009 [4 favorites]

I actually used to do pretty much what Shepherd describes. I would get up in the morning, shower and get dressed, and go out for coffee with my copy of the Economist. I'd read that for a while, go back home, and enter work mode. I haven't been doing that for a while and I kind of miss it—I think it did help me partition the day in my head.

The other thing I find that helps keep me focused is tracking how much money I've made each day. If you don't already have a job-logging app or spreadsheet, set one up, and at the end of each day, you can see the dollars (or $CURRENCY as appropriate) scroll up. Seeing a big amount is a good feeling. Seeing a small amount is a real motivator, especially around the end of the month.
posted by adamrice at 6:24 AM on February 20, 2009

I'm working from home temporarily (about 2 months), and I find that I'm about 500% more effective when I leave the house and go work at a coffee shop or something. This probably isn't a viable long-term solution, but since you say your consulting gig is short-term it might be worth trying.

Along the same lines, see if your city has a Jelly (http://wiki.workatjelly.com/) or some other coworking group/space.
posted by rachelv at 7:34 AM on February 20, 2009

This is the challenge of telecommuting or freelancing. I've been doing it for a decade now, and over the years have tried a lot of different strategies for keeping myself focused... all the suggestions above are good ones: maintain a separate physical and mental space for "work", block *ahem* leisure websites, video games etc during busy periods, keep a routine and a schedule, don't forget to bathe, and keep a clock visible that shows you how much money you're not earning while you goof off answering questions on Ask MetaFilter. Those all help.

The single most useful technique I've found, though, that overshadows all the others by a vast margin, is the deadline. If I have a clear deadline that's not too far off in the future, I get the work done. If it's a get-it-done-whenever-you-get-it-done kind of job, or the timeframe is longer than it needs to be, I procrastinate. That's just how I roll.

If your client is good about keeping track of what you're working on and pushing you to get on with it, this is a self-solving problem -- but even if you're working with somebody who's very lax about project management you can do it on your own. I don't mean just tell yourself "I will get XYZ done by Monday," because that won't work: it's not a deadline if nobody else knows about it. At least it isn't for me. Send the client an email telling him you will get XYZ done by Friday. Then you really have an incentive to get it done. (If the task can be broken up into smaller chunks, each with their own individual deadline, so much the better: if you meet deadlines for tasks X, Y, and Z on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, even though they're deadlines you invented yourself, the client will think you are three times as awesome than if you just finished all of XYZ before the weekend.)
posted by ook at 7:48 AM on February 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

This is horrible advice, but if you're really in trouble pretend like nothing else but work exists...
posted by xammerboy at 8:09 AM on February 20, 2009

I'm not too big on self-help books, but I've been dealing with the same issues and just started reading Neil Fiore's "The Now Habit". He makes some great points/observations, and it's really making sense to me.
posted by backwards guitar at 11:06 AM on February 20, 2009

This is pretty much the biggest challenge of working from home. I live in a studio which makes it worse because there is no seperation of personal / work.

Have a morning routine. I get up, walk the dog, make coffee, and check email / personal websites. When the first cup of coffee is done I get another and THAT moment is when I turn off all distractions and open up the todo list. Keeping todo lists is the number one thing for me, otherwise I will just goof off all day. What helps me is using Google Tasks / Remember the Milk and having the todo list open in a sidebar on my browser - that way whenever I feel myself getting sucked into the internet (like right now) what I need to get done is right there on the left hand side and I just look at it, pick something, and get back to work.

Going to a coffee shop also makes my productivity skyrocket, if I have a lot of stuff I need to get done that I know will be hard to focus on at home I just get out of my apartment and go do it there. I sometimes go to a coworking space (google it for ones in your area) if I don't feel like paying the coffee tax for wi-fi and a chair.

This works for me. I feel like some suggestions here (no music? really?) kind of defeat the purpose of working from home. If you need that much structure, rent a permanent desk at a coworking space.
posted by bradbane at 1:01 PM on February 20, 2009

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