10 Ways to Improve Your Home Office Productivity

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.

beach_officeIn 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.

For example…

January Projects

– 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.

9. Declutter

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?

Other resources:

A Handful of Tips for the Self-Employed

Tips for the self-employed have been done to death by every lifehack geek, GTD addict and smart living blogger, but everyone develops their own little system so I thought I’d share mine.

Over the years, I’ve tried every GTD app under the sun, only to discover that the tool/software I used to get stuff done was irrelevant, so I kept it simple this time around. It turns out that the best organisation tools are a single sheet of paper and a calm brain. Ok, I’m oversimplifying a little but here’s my system nowadays.

The writing on the wall

On the wall by my desk, I have a small index card with reminders. It reads:

EVERYDAY: Today's Three Most Important Tasks, 9-11am: No Distractions, Take a break for lunch before 2pm, End of day review, Evening meditation time

Simple, unh?

1. Today’s Three Most Important Tasks

Self-employed or not, we all have an awful lot of responsibilities and tasks in our daily life, and it’s easy to forget which are most important and go for the most urgent one, the one backed by the pushiest client or the easiest one.

Start the day with a defined list of 3 must-do tasks and focus on them first. If you finish all 3, you can either skip off early or get on with some other bits of work feeling saintly for having done your most important work for the day.

2. Distraction-Free Time

In the same vein as the tip above, setting a few hours in the day which are sacred and during which you can focus on the most mentally demanding tasks. For me, it’ll be writing time where I can dive in without distractions.

Mid-morning 9 to 11am works well for me, because it gives me the 8-9am slot to check emails, have a coffee and schedule anything else for the day/week. However, when 9am rolls around, the phone goes onto silent (or out of the room), email, IM and Twitter get closed down and aren’t (usually) reopened til 11am, or later if I find I’m really zoned in.

Everyone’s got a different time of day where they’re most productive – a friend of mine is a night owl and gets that time after the kids are in bed and up until well after midnight!

3. Take a break for lunch before 2pm

I used to think I’d have no problem stopping around 1pm, trotting down to the kitchen and making something healthy to fuel me for the afternoon. As it turns out, I start sitting on the corner of my chair at 1pm thinking I should eat, but found that at 4pm I was still working and the sounds of my stomach were loud enough to scare the cats!

Having food suitable for lunches in the fridge and cupboard like healthy sandwich fillings, salads and soups makes it easier to break for lunch, because I know I won’t have to fiddle around or go out to find something to eat.

4. End of day review

In order to close up shop at the end of the day without that uneasy feeling that there’s more to do, I end the day by double-checking that the Most Important Tasks are done, have a look in Things and picking the next day’s tasks – which may change in the morning, but at least will be there as priority reminders.

5. Evening meditation time

I’ve not done a great job keeping up with this one, but after a long day running at full steam, I find the only way to really wind down and enjoy my evening is to have 10-15 minutes of complete relaxation. Sitting in silence with one of the cats on my lap purring away for a few minutes does wonders to chill me out.

Whatever your trick may be, it’s worth taking those few moments to get out of work mode and into home/family mode, especially if you don’t have the drive/walk home to serve as a forced downtime.

Great posts elsewhere on keeping your sanity when self-employed: