In the six years I’ve been working from home, I’ve seen it all.
I’ve had kids who don’t sleep, I’ve typed entire articles one-handed while holding my feeding baby with the other, I’ve had the phone cut my webinars off mid-presentation, I’ve fed babies during skype calls, I’ve worked in my pyjamas, I’ve worked while bouncing a baby with one foot, I’ve worked from under a sleeping toddler, I’ve worked long after everyone has been put to bed.
I’ve had to check emails on my phone at the park, I’ve endured greasy looks from other mums while simultaneously trying to work at the library and stop my kid fighting over a spinning chair with another kid. I’ve worked from my sick bed, the school pickup line, in airports, on planes, in three other countries, and most often, my kitchen table.
If there has been a distraction, I’ve endured it. If there’s been washing piled up, I’ve procrastiwashed it. If there’s been a mistake in my work-from-home mum life, I’ve made it. If it can happen, it’s happened to me.
Yet the flexibility that working remotely affords me while I’m home with my kids in these irreplaceable years is what keeps me motivated to juggle it all. Sometimes even with wine.
The mistakes I’ve made have meant I’ve learned what tips and tools work for me (and my family) more often than not. I didn’t walk into this knowing how to nail it, but rather it has been a process of refinement, of trying new things and rejecting what doesn’t fit.
7 ways to be more productive when working from home
The tips and tools I’m sharing today are the ones that have worked for me time and time again, and form the basis of how I structure my working life.
1. Time it
I know productivity enthusiasts everywhere recommend this but I resisted for the longest time. Surely I could concentrate for 20 minutes on my own without having a clock tell me when to stop and start?
Well now, haven’t I had to I eat my words.
I use the Simple Pomodoro Chrome app, which goes off after 20 minutes. I don’t always take the recommended amount of break time, but it does keep me focused and on task for the full 20 minutes, which means I pay more attention, get deeper into the work, and don’t waste time trying to recalibrate every time I switch tasks.
Single-tasking can be one of the most productive ways of working (and often quite difficult when we’re so used to distractions and being so hyper connected).
Working in blocks of 20 minutes means I’m working on a single task and I know there’s and end in sight, which helps keep me focused.
2. Be organised first
This tip I’ve shared with just about everyone I can think of who ever asks me about working from home.
Often the blocks of time we get to work are not our favoured time, there’s often not enough time, and sometimes we aren’t motivated to work from 1-3pm even if that’s the only time we’ve got that day. Wasting time was my biggest problem for ages, and it made me feel guilty on top of feeling stressed and behind the eight ball. Not my favourite way to get through the day.
So now I have an ongoing to-do list of all the things floating around inside my head. From that I create a daily to-do list, every day, and I keep it simple.
I also find it helpful to note next to each task how long it will probably take – I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve underestimated, and therefore fallen behind.
Calendars for allocating tasks to particular days and dates are invaluable – you’re never staring at a blank laptop screen going “so what should I get started with?” because you know what needs to be done on what day, and you can sit down to do it. Flexibility is key, yes – but having a general guide to refer to cuts way down on wasted time.
3. Work without distractions
If only the washing would do itself and the floor was never dirty and children always played quietly with educational things uncomplainingly! But because I have to live an actual life with actual other people in it, I’ve resigned to the fact that I’m going to be distracted. However, if I can reduce what distractions I can control, then when the inevitable family distractions do come, they’re the only ones.
- Stuff bothers me. Move the stuff. I have to work where I can’t see crap out of the corner of my eye, and even if I put all “out of place” things into a washing basket in the laundry until I’ve got the time to deal with it, then I’m not distracted by an unwiped table or 4800 Shopkins over every available surface for that time. I can deal with it later.
- Noise-cancelling headphones are a gift from god (if you’re worried about kids doing things you can’t hear, use the headphones while the children are in your eyesight). No longer will you be distracted by inane plane conversations, loud kitchen café noises, or your neighbour’s incessant barking dog. Headphones like these are particularly useful for me because I can’t play music or have the TV on when I write. Yay me.
- TURN OFF YOUR NOTIFICATIONS. You’re working, Facebook can wait. (And when Facebook IS your job, that’s a whole other kettle of fish all together, I totally get that). Put your phone on flight mode if necessary, just make sure that your brain isn’t registering every flash and ding your device ever makes.
- Let it be known you’re not to be disturbed. Put a sign on the door, tell everyone it’s your work time, whatever you have to do to let others know that you’re busy and you’ll chat to them later.
- Have snacks and meals pre-planned. No need to go to elaborate meal plan lengths if you don’t want to, but it sure does help if you’ve got dinner in the slow cooker, something pre-made in the freezer, or you’ve packed your stay-at-home kid a lunchbox that you can just grab when the time comes. Many a time I’ve wasted by staring forlornly into the fridge wondering what to feed us all for lunch and then doing the same thing at dinner time. Knowing what’s coming/what needs to be done in advance/having stuff easily to hand has cut way down on wasted time, which makes me (and all my hungry family members) very, very happy.
Some of my favourite fast or make-ahead meals are:
- Spinach, feta, and sundried tomato strudel
- Super-easy Mexican lasagne
- Antipasto pasta
- Spicy crock pot kitchari
- Simple minestrone
- Briami (Greek vegetable stew)
- Soba noodle stirfry
- Cheesy veggie slice
- Crumbed eggplant with chilli tomato jam
4. Work out of home
This was another one I thought just wouldn’t work for me, but was pleasantly surprised. My thinking went along the lines of “cafes are loud and distracting and I have to pay for food I can get for free at home”, and “why work in a co-working space when if I’ve got no kids around, I should make the most of that and not waste time getting to and from the space.”
Sometimes you just need a change of location, a different vibe to absorb, and someone else to make the tea. I’ve learned this now. It’s the little things.
The folk from Officeworks actually challenged me recently to try working in three different locations to see whether it boosted or inhibited my creativity, and how that could impact on my working life. I’d worked in each kind of place before, but I’d never really thought about how productive it was making me, and which one suited me best.
Challenge Location One: a café.
I actually worked from two (mostly because I was restricted to a 1.5hr parking space for the first, and once I got thinking about the fries at Juanita Peaches I couldn’t much think of anything else).
I got so much done. So much! And I got to eat hash browns, the music was awesome (and at just the right volume, which makes all the difference to me), I wasn’t distracted by piles of laundry or unswept floors, and the staff were incredibly helpful (and quick with the tea/fries).
I felt like I was in a whole different mindset from the one I have sitting at my kitchen table. I was among the land of the living, where people were doing things, things I admired. It was inspiring and delicious.
I was surprised at how much the Nifteen laptop tote held – Not only my laptop and notebook, but iPad (cover here/screen protector here), pens, keys, purse, microphone, and headphones. And it’s pretty easy on the eye, which helps in the creativity department! It just goes to show you don’t have to stay in your office all the time because that’s where your stuff is – part of the joy of this job is that we can do it from anywhere and our tools can come too.
I have to admit, I’m a bit of an Officeworks devotee, browsing their stationery aisles is one of life’s greatest pleasures. They also have some bangin’ tech accessories which are good quality and well-priced, and for some reason I really like looking at their giant packages of coffee and Mentos! They really do have everything, especially for someone who works remotely, as I do.
Workspace Challenge Two: my home office.
Which as I mentioned in the Instagram post is also my kid’s playroom (townhouses don’t have a lot of space, y’know?). The kids play in it all the time, and it’s full of LEGO and dolls and puzzle pieces and dollhouse furniture and dress-ups and lord knows what else. It’s hard to get my game on in there until I’ve at least cleared a path to the door.
When I get in the zone, it works – I guess I’ve had to learn how to switch off and concentrate when there’s a full-scale My Little Pony party inches from the back of my head. But after taking the Officeworks workplace persona quiz, one of their personalised productivity tips reminded me I need that space between work and home. Even if home is my work, and vice versa.
I should probably get a neat little standing desk and pop it in the one quiet corner we have, and designate that a kid-free zone. The cat can maybe visit. Maybe.
That way I can work when I’m working and be finished in time to make the most of the non-working hours – instead of finishing off those emails while I’m stirring the risotto.
I really quite like coworking spaces. For ages I put it off because of the price, but honestly – when it means I do have that space between work and home, and I’m productive as hell for the time I’m there, then it’s probably worth the dollars.
The couple of times I’ve tried it, I’ve also loved being among other creative people doing cool things in a shared space. That vibe is often just what I need, as my work can often be super-solo and while I talk to people on my computer all day long, there’s usually just me (and sometimes the BBC) in my kitchen. I love seeing what everyone else does and knowing they’re juggling the same sorts of things I am.
The co-working space I went to for this challenge is a co-working space for parents with childcare onsite. Smalls is happily playing in one room and I am hustling in another. We both really love it, and I find I get tonnes done so I don’t waste my time/money.
Now that the challenge is over, I’ve realised that having a limited amount of time and paying money for a spot elsewhere actually makes me more productive, so ensure I get value for my money. I also am inspired by other people out in the world doing cool things, from cool ideas, and there’s often food I didn’t have to make myself very close by. Win-win-win.
5. Get some space
So tip number five is to get some space – some space that’s going to work for you. I’ve heard of mums turning their closets into mini offices, I’ve seen corners of garages taken over, I’ve heard of people going one morning a week to a café, and that’s where shit gets done.
If you work best emailing while making risotto, then all props to you. If you aren’t fond of your brain being pulled in eight different directions every time you sit down to do something, then space is your friend. Hell, get a pretty screen or a curtain or something. Have a nice chair. That’s where you work, and it’s yours.
6. Designate your days
This one is one of the hardest for me, as I really struggle to stay on task with the varied things I have to do in a day. For example I really can’t just check Facebook on Tuesdays and Thursdays; it really is something I have to do multiple times a day.
When I first took on another full-time blog in addition to my own (while both my kids were still under the age of two), I realised very quickly that doing everything every day was wearing me thin and getting me nowhere.
I started allocating tasks to days and times when it suited me best. Monday was writing, as both kids were in day care for the day. Tuesday was cooking and taking photographs. Wednesdays were photo editing and uploading, etc. Doing something semi-structured rather than in bits here and there was really useful to me, I knew I didn’t have to rush to get a specific task done, because Friday was the day for that.
7. Know thyself
My last tip is to know when and how you work best, which takes trial and error (but doesn’t all good things?!). Are you a night owl? Can you barely spell your own name past 8pm (raises hand)? Are you good at the kitchen table, or do you have to be totally out of the house? Are you better off in the garden, or only when the kids are taken care of elsewhere? Where are you on your A Game, and how can you ensure you are there more?
You can take the test I mentioned earlier on the Officeworks site to narrow down your workplace persona, and get personalised recommendations to help you be at your best, which I found really helpful. You can find it here.
It even recommends podcasts that will be useful to you, books that will be inspiring, and links to Spotify playlists to help get you in the mood. It’s fantastic for finally figuring out what works for you and how you can go about considering different work locations that so you’re more productive and you waste less time.
Do you work from home? Do you find it difficult or is it something you’ve come to find balance in?