Working from home can sound fantastic, with all of that freedom and no commute, but it’s not always easy. Sometimes it can feel impossible. But it’s not.
Yes, you get to roll out of bed and be at your desk in a couple of steps without even needing to put a shred of clothing on to make a living, which is glorious, in theory. But getting out of bed to get to your desk across the room can be a challenge.
And there aren’t the usual social motivators and interactions that we get in an office, like other people looking busy in their cubicles, serendipitous meetings, or random water cooler conversations. Working from home can be lonely, especially if you live alone.
If you have kids, you may not have enough aloneness. No, you have constant distractions throughout the day. Not that you don’t love your children. You do. But they do have an amazing ￼knack for yanking your attention away from your work when you’re all at home, say, during a pandemic.
Even before the “shelter in place” order was given, I have been working from home for years and love it, even with our two lovely and very active boys.
But I need little hacks and tricks to make it work well and help me be more productive.
Here they are.
Abuse your calendar
Schedule what you will be doing every day, all day. Seriously.
Use your calendar—hard. When will you be at your desk producing? For how long? When will you have that call with that client, your coworker? When will you eat lunch? Mark it all down.
Doing this is the digital version of having social expectations except you’ve put it on your online calendar. Doing that gives you just a bit of accountability, at least to yourself.
If you need that extra boost of fuel, share the calendar with others. It doesn’t need to be with your boss or coworkers. An outspoken friend will do. You know, the one who will call you out and FaceTime you just to make sure you’re at your desk when you said you would be.
Set better goals
We often set goals like “get work done,” but that’s not specific enough to be helpful, especially when you’re at home where it’s like the Wild West of working and anything goes because there’s no one watching. So setting the right kind of goals is critical to your success.
First, you should note what task you want to accomplish or what project you want to start and how much of it, broken into smaller tasks, you want to complete during a block of time in the day. Doing that will revolutionize the way you think about how you spend your time.
Second, don’t make big goals; make them small and bite-sized, something you can accomplish in an hour or two. Don’t make them aspirational so it’s a challenge to accomplish them. No.
Make them easily accomplishable. That way, you won’t get demoralized and you will feel and be productive.
You’ll be surprised by how much this will increase your productivity.
Get the bed out of you
Some of us have a hard time getting out of bed. It just happens.
If that’s you, you don’t just need to get out of bed, but you need to get the bed out of you. You need create the social pressure that will break that habit and start a new one. So do this.
Schedule early morning phone or video calls.
If there’s a coworker or client or friend that you need to talk to, schedule a video call with them at the beginning of the day.
That will get you out of bed, because no one wants to look like a schlep buried under their duvet with bed head in a professional context. That will force you to at least look presentable from your waist up.
Sometimes, there’s nothing like embarrassment to get our bodies out of bed.
For a less shame-driven method, ask your partner or that outspoken friend, from earlier, to make sure you’re up. And you should consider sharing your calendar with them.
If you’re a person who loves to work, that’s great. But sometimes it can be to our detriment.
There are times when you just need to take a minute and relax. You know, do nothing, stare out the window, listen to music, drool, call a friend. Put it in your calendar: “Drool, 2:30pm to 3:00pm.” It can be for an hour or just half that. But do it.
It replaces the random water cooler conversations and gives our mind’s the reboot that it needs. It’s the breather that provides us the energy to attack our work with a refreshed mind, a new lens, renewed vigor.
Good headphones are a must, especially if you have a family. Really.
I love my children but sometimes they are loud. They like to bang on things and run up and down the halls—and SCREAM. And, with schools canceled for who knows how long, any extra tool that helps me focus and get into a flow state is gold.
These are the headphones I use (affiliate). They are 24 karats of pure goodness. I’ve tested almost all of the other ones and these have the best sound and noise-canceling quality.
If you’re not a listening-to-music-while-you-work type of person, that’s great. Don’t play music on them when you work. These headphones will give you the silence-is-golden-space you seek.
The noise-canceling feature is magical: They shut out all external sounds, making you feel like you’re on some serene mountaintop with Buddha doing downward dog with him next to a blossoming cherry tree. Really.
Set your kids’ expectations
It sounds cruel to tell your kids that you need to do work and can’t be disturbed, but it’s actually good for them.
Our eldest is in kindergarten and he’s insatiably curious and extremely social. We cherish him for it.
But when I need to work, those characteristics we appreciate aren’t very conducive for me working. He wants to ask me questions about what I’m doing. He wants my attention. He wants to hang out, even when I have my golden noise-canceling headphones on (which don’t block out his tapping on my shoulder, by the way).
So I talk to him about work and let him know that when I have my headphones on, Daddy is trying to focus on something. It’s not a one-time conversation, but it happens far less now.
We also gave him his own work, which includes writing and reading and math lessons that he does while mommy and daddy tend to their tasks.
Closing thoughts about working from home
Many of you may be working from home for the first time. And it’s not easy to get into it in the beginning. But after you use some of these tools and figure out others that work well for you, it is one of the best ways to maximize your time and gain unparalleled freedom.
Yes, these are extraordinary times. But they are also an opportunity to learn new skills and expand your ways of working.
Getting smarter isn’t about knowing everything, it’s about admitting what you don’t know.
“I don’t know,” is such a simple phrase, but many of us have difficulty saying it to ourselves let alone to others. It makes us feel weak, vulnerable, stupid.
But you’re not. It’s the furthest thing from the truth. Saying “I don’t know” is one of the smartest things you can say, because it’s the beginning of learning. It’s the trailhead to gaining more understanding.
To learn is the only way to get smarter. And to do that, you must admit that you don’t know everything, you must open yourself up to the fact that you’re not as knowledgeable as you want to be.
So the next time you are tempted to act like you know something when you don’t, remember this.
Creating can feel like fighting nature: Impossible. Making that painting, writing that novel or blog post or, sometimes, even a sentence can make us break into a cold sweat.
And it’s tempting to think, “Oh, I’ll just wait for inspiration to hit,” like a kid holding a kite as he waits for a strong wind to pick up on a deathly still day in the Midwest. You might be there for months, still waiting.
Don’t do that. It won’t serve you at all. Instead, do this.
Make something crappy.
That’s right. Just pick up a shovel and shovel some metaphorical crap all over your canvas, paper, screen, or whatever you’re trying to create on. If it stinks like something ungodly, don’t stop, keep it going.
Because making crap is often exactly what you need to do to create something beautiful. Any great artist or creator whom you admire did just that. Look at how they started or some of their early work. Or, if you only see their good stuff, then they destroyed all of the work they hated and were embarrassed by. But, believe me, it is there. It is terrible. It doesn’t look right: The proportions are off, the pacing is wonky, it’s dark in the places it should be light and light in the areas it should be dark. It’s crap.
So when you feel embarrassed or ashamed, remember that almost every creative person goes through what you do. Not every piece is a masterpiece. Few of them are; many of them are mediocre. Most of them probably smell like a farm on a hot, humid summer day.
Can’t write a sentence? Don’t worry about it. Jot down a fragment. Scribble a word, misspelled. Just get it out of you. Then do it again and again. And before you know it, a sentence will form right before your eyes. It will be ugly, but it will be there. Don’t worry about how bad it is because you can go back later and make it fuller, simpler, better.
Beauty isn’t formed from perfection, no; it’s cultivated in awful, embarrassing, smelly stuff. Creating is like gardening. To create, you have to kneel into the dirt and dump fertilizer down, spreading it around with your hands. It’s not neat and tidy, clean and easy. It’s dirty. You’re in crap. It gets all over you. But that’s what makes your garden grow and flourish.
Crap is what feeds your creativity. It will make your work grow.
So pick up your shovel and start piling it on. Just do it.
“I’ll try.” Practicing that simple phrase will make your life rich.
It will open your mind to new possibilities, friends, adventures, ideas. You will learn skills you never thought you could obtain, meet people you never thought you would know, accomplish feats you thought only possible for others.
“I’ll try” is the enemy of the status quo and the friend to growth. It won’t let you stay the same. It’s a mindset that shortcircuits the temptation for staying comfortable.
It doesn’t just let you dream, no; you’re doing. You’re acting. You’re not merely hoping for something to happen, you are working until something happens: You’re trying.
If you practice this mindset, you won’t just change; you’ll improve. You’ll broaden your experiences and gain a richness that you would have never gained without it.
“I’ll try,” doesn’t mean you have to commit. You’re just giving something a go, taking a small risk, seeing if there’s a fit. And if the trial goes well, you can go further, deeper, longer.
Perfection does not exist in “I’ll try.” It can’t. Those words breathe experimentation, imperfection, process. But you know that the secret to life isn’t about doing things perfectly, but productively. And even what is perfected doesn’t start perfectly.
This phrase helps you discover what you’re good at and what you enjoy. And that leads to what you can be great at. Greatness isn’t instant. It takes time. And it starts with “I’ll try.”
And, in the winter of your life, you will gaze back over the vibrant collage of your memories and be grateful.
The key to accomplishing big goals is making tiny ones.
Big goals are overwhelming, distant, intimidating, scary. They freeze us in panic. Like deer caught on the road by headlights, we get paralyzed. But it doesn’t need to be that way.
You may want to lose fifty pounds, run a marathon, pivot your career, start a business, become a blogger, become a better person. Those are all great aims. But they are also big.
So start with incredibly small goals. Ones that barely even feel like a goal. Seriously.
You want to get fit, great. Start with doing one push up and one crunch per day. That’s it. But do that every day.
Want to run a marathon? Fantastic. But you’ve never really run before, not to worry. Start by running for one minute. And do that regularly, like three times a week.
Changing your career isn’t impossible. Dabble, try new things, read books about what interests you. Talk to friends in various fields. Don’t leap; don’t even take a step. Do that for three months while you work at your current job, and then you can determine what’s next.
Starting a business can look very similar to making a career shift. Explore various ideas without taking a large amount of risk. In fact, you can begin by risking very little, virtually nothing. Start by learning, reading, asking questions.
Interested in blogging? Great. Start by writing ten to twenty words per day. That’s it. But do it.
You get the picture. And after a while, your first tiny goal will seem too easy, so you will naturally take on the next slightly less tiny goal. A crunch and pushup will grow to become two or four or ten. One minute of running will increase similarly. Your career exploration or start-up quest will solidify into an idea, maybe even a decision. Writing twenty words will turn into fifty or hundred.
Tiny goals seem insignificant, but they’re not. They are powerful. They let you start without feeling like starting. You will barely feel anything happening, but something is, something magical.
You are changing. New habits are forming. Your mindset is improving. You’ve overcome one of the most significant obstacles of reaching a big goal–starting.
So don’t let the huge goals scare you away from following your dreams. You can accomplish them one tiny goal at a time.
And over time, you will see your body transform, your work improve, your dreams materialize.
Sometimes to make creative work, the thing we need most is this. Rest.
You’re at your desk, sweating (metaphorically) and pounding away (literally) trying to get a good idea, but the only thing you produce is nothing. “Maybe I just need to work harder,” you might say to yourself. And still, nothing happens. So you do the only thing left to do—despair.
Maybe you’ve been there. I have.
Creating is hard work. And cracking the whip harder on ourselves isn’t effective. Or worse, it’s counterproductive.
That’s just when you need to say no to your inner medieval monk and throw away the whip. Then, roll your chair back, step away from your desk, and go for a walk, get a donut and coffee, or, better yet, go skydiving or horseback riding. If you’ve never meditated, try it. Why not? It’s scientifically known to help your brain operate better, heal even. If that’s not your cup of tea, have a cup of tea. Or visit your local museum. Get moved by others’ creativity. Whatever you do, get away from your work. The farther you go, the better.
And in those moments of being away, your mind will be recovering and working without you even trying. Often it’s when we are resting and having fun that the best ideas hit us. Inspiration strikes when we least expect it—like love. It can’t be forced. It can only be fostered, wooed. So take yourself on a nice date. Play. Laugh. Enjoy.
And when you return to your desk, you won’t be sweating and pounding.
Uninterrupted time is the fodder for creativity. As yeast is to bread, solitude is to the creative process—essential.
Without the quiet moments and lingering stillness, words that move us wouldn’t be as moving, paintings that stir us wouldn’t be as stirring, inventions that help us wouldn’t be as helpful.
Creation best happens in the quiet while you are lost in your thoughts, connecting disparate ideas, forming new ones. That occurs when no one else is stirring, during the twilight mornings before the dawn breaks or long after others are fast asleep. When they rest, you work.
You seek silence because you know that’s when inspiration roars.
It’s in those moments, you get lost in the matter at hand, discovering a deep satisfaction, mesmerized by the task, as you enter a state of flow; and it’s just you and the work, dancing freely.
Being alone can be more than just productive; it has been known to produce tears, weeping even. We can’t be isolated for too long. We are meant to be with others, connected.
Yet, solitude helps us connect with humanity differently. It may not be like grabbing coffee with a friend, looking into their eyes as they speak, hugging them as they go; it’s a different kind of connection. What we create enters into the meta-conversation. It’s making a statement to the world. It’s the act of handing others something useful, compelling, beautiful.