Ask anyone who is self-employed or regularly works from a home office, and you’ll get polarised answers; The home office is either the best or the worst thing that’s happened to them. Either a source of peace and focus, or a never ending stream of distractions and frustration.
In my case, I have to say, it’s been bliss. I’m a social being so I’m thrilled that I get the opportunity to work face to face with clients and colleagues fairly regularly, but I relish the few days a week where I can go a whole day without distractions. The productivity I get out of those days is amazing, so I thought I’d share how I took my space from being “the back room with a desk in it” to “My office” from which I can run a business.
1. Keep your goals visual and within sight
I recently wrote about having clear goals for your day, as a way to drive your productivity. Set your 3 most important tasks for the day and stick to them. It doesn’t mean you can’t do anything else, but each unscheduled task that comes in needs to be critically assessed. “Will this stop me from getting my 3 MITs done today? Is it worth sidetracking for right now?”
Stick them on the wall in an obvious place so that you don’t forget to refer to it.
2. Get a timer
Whether it’s a virtual one (I use Alarm Clock 2 for Mac) or a physical one, like a kitchen timer or a radio alarm clock, it’s a great way to motivate yourself when facing tasks you hate.
Set the alarm for a block of time (I tend to go for 20-30mins depending on how distracted I fear I might be) and cram as much as you can during that time. I’ll use it to get the draft of an article complete, then when the timer goes, I’ll take a break and get on with editing the ideas and polishing the article. This can make bad days seem a whole lot better after a few productive blocks!
If you belong to the other extreme, and can find yourself still working in the same position hours after you started, you may want to use it to remind you to take breaks. A friend of mine uses Time Out, which pops up a reminder to look away from the screen every 10 minutes and one to take a break every 50 minutes. Stand up, move around, have a sip of water… Simple but these small steps can help you avoid the discomforts of RSI at a later date.
3. Buy an inbox tray
Everyone says this, but not enough people do it. A pile of paperwork on the corner of your desk is not the way to go; it’ll distract and stress you every time you see a mountain of things you haven’t dealt with yet.
Mine is a silver mesh 3-level inbox tray, with the top one labelled “Inbox”, the second “Accounts” and the third “Scrap Paper”.
The top one takes in all business-related (and personal, let’s admit it) paperwork which gets filed into a filing cabinet behind me or sorted into projects to action twice a week. The second one contains any receipts, bills or accountant-related material that needs more attention than simply going in the Inbox. The bottom basket contains scrap paper, old print outs where the back of the page can be used for notes, etc. It’s easily within reach so that when the phone rings or inspiration catches, I don’t need to spend time looking for a scrap of paper to write on.
4. Get a whiteboard (or two)
If you have any wall space available, I’d recommend a whiteboard. It’s a great way to sketch out an idea or leave yourself big obvious reminders of progress. I tend to put high-level targets/goals for the month on the board and tick them off to get a sense of progress throughout the month.
– Client A: Complete Phase 1 of project
– Client B: Provide 3 days of support for Phase 2
– Write n posts from topics list
– Close £n in new business
– Book attendance to Event
Every time I complete an action that wraps up the project, it feels great to tick it on the board.
For those who get inspired in the shower, I’ve seen great bathtime whiteboards for kids before, so stick one in the shower and scribble that superb idea before it disappears.
5. Shape your energy with scents and sounds
Every so often, treat your senses to revive your energy. You may be surprised of the effect it has on your mood.
Need to focus and energise? Put lemon & orange or satsuma & spice scented oils in your oil burner.
Stress of the day getting to you? Put some lavender in, close your eyes, take 10 deep breaths. Pause for a moment and get back to work.
Want to pretend it’s Christmas? My favourite mix is: 4 drops of satsuma & orange and cranberry oils each and 2 drops of vanilla extract and cinammon each. Yum!
In my personal opinion, I would avoid the use of incense. It can get smoky and the smell of old incense lingers for a long time which can trigger headaches if you’re prone to them.
Music can also have an impact on your energy levels; create playlists to energise, relax and focus. Personally, I opt for classical piano for focus, Soma FM’s Groove Salad for general writing and pop music when I need to motivate myself to get filing and clearing up done!
If you can, get some headphones. Sometimes tuning the world out (whether it’s the kids or the construction outside) is the only way to get full focus onto the task at hand. I live in a quiet neighbourhood and am childfree so open cup wireless headphones are ideal; I can still hear the doorbell ring if I’m expecting a delivery. You may want some radical noise-cancelling headphones if you’re surrounded by more noise.
6. Give yourself breathing space
Your home office should be your haven of productivity, not a messy backroom where you sit on the edge of the bed to write (unless that’s really how you get into creative mode!)
Think wisely when buying new furniture or storage for the office: Will it improve your productivity or just be something cute that sits on a shelf and adds to the clutter? I received a humongous red bean bag from Sumo Lounge a few months ago, and kept it in the office for a while. Don’t get me wrong, I love it, but last week, I relocated it and am much happier to have regained the walking space in the office.
7. Keep creative tools nearby
If your job requires creativity, sometimes a bit of madness can kickstart the process.
Creativity cue cards: I’ve pasted them to index cards and added to the pack with some ideas of my own. I’ll just grab something randomly from the pack and start sketching until I find a thread I can run with.
Whiteboard: Draw a process chart, brainstorm keywords or draw pictures, whatever helps you find an angle to approach the issue
Lego, silly putty and arts & crafts materials: Yup, I’m a grownup (well, that’s debatable…) and I own a big box of Lego bricks. Sometimes letting your subconscious work while you distract yourself can be just the trigger you need.
8. Keep emergency snacks nearby
If you’re focused, don’t let the urge to make a sandwich distract you. Keep dried fruits, nuts and water at hand. However, remember to take midday breaks to feed yourself properly!
Shop smartly so that you have a good balance of healthy snacks and nutritious meals to avoid having to break up your day to go to the supermarket.
Create a folder for each project to make tidying easy at the end of the day. Put each project away and make a list for the following morning instead of leaving every file out as a reminder. It’ll make tomorrow morning feel a lot less daunting when you walk in.
At the end of the week or when you have dead time (eg. when you’re on hold with customer service, waiting for a conference call to start…) pick a single shelf and remove anything that’s accumulated. Put the receipts into your expenses file, put the Christmas cards you received 2 months ago from a client in the recycling bin (they don’t need to know!) and you’ll feel it’s much easier to keep your office clutter-free.
10. Accept that some days won’t work your way
I’m still no good with unexpected derailing of my day, but sometimes, there will be unavoidable distractions; building works, deliveries, errands that must be run or, for parents, kids who are sick and staying home for the day. On those days, accept that you may need to switch your focus to the jobs that can be done quickly and between distractions as opposed to writing your most in-depth research paper.
What are your tips for a more productive and zen-like home office?
- Advice for Setting up a Home Office – Group Interview at Productivity 501
- Pragmatic Thinking & Learning on understanding your brain’s natural architecture
- Be Realistic About Time on Chris Brogan’s blog