Working from home without losing your mind

People ask me, all the time, “How do you work from home without losing your mind?” or “Don’t you just want to stay in your pajamas all day?”

I’ve been working from home for over four years now. First, I worked as a freelance writer during a post-college job search, then I worked from home and traveled for a big communications firm. Then, I left my job to write independently, this time with more focus and experience than my 21-year-old self.

I have experienced it all while working from home – trying to renovate a house, selling our house (and having to pack up my work at a moment’s notice for a showing), training a puppy, having a break in, babysitting my siblings, being sick, moving, cooking, visitors…. You name it. Working from home is one big balancing act, and I’ve mastered it.

//////

Here’s my list of working-from-home essentials to keep you sane, productive, and having a bit of fun:

1) Don’t be afraid to remind friends and family that you are, in fact, working. People often see “working from home” as a sort of permanent vacation, filled with lunches out, day trips, and sleeping in. That means that it’s the perfect time for them to call and chat, or pop in for a quick visit. From my perspective, when I have free time, there’s nothing I love more than to visit with a loved one or chat on the phone – but I have to have free time in order to do so.

When I first started working from home, I’d try to squeeze in too much. Too many visits, too many errands, helping too often, etc., and I’d have to panic and rush home to get to my laptop (or, worse, I’d have to whip my laptop out wherever I was and start working then and there). To the outside world, especially if you say “yes” too often, it may look like you really aren’t working. The onus is 100% on you to establish boundaries and communication practices that work for your schedule (and your stress level).

2) If you want to stay in your pajamas all day, do it. Just don’t make a habit out of it. I have read so many articles and heard so many people say that I should “get dressed” in order to be productive at home, but I’ve found that what I’m wearing has little to do with how productive I am.

If I wake up with a great idea I need to get on paper, I don’t worry about finding the perfect outfit and achieving perfectly-styled hair… I get right to work. I’ll shower, of course, when I am ready to take a break – but I’d rather enjoy three early morning hours of productivity and creativity than worry about my outfit. That’s the beauty of working from home – if I want to start my day at 5 AM because I wake up with a brilliant thought, I can. And if I want to take a walk, shower, and curl my hair, that’s awesome too. The beauty of working from home means that you can do what feels right in that moment, instead of worrying about a dress code or alarm clock.

3) While it’s important to enjoy the flexibility, it’s equally important to have a routine. By routine I don’t mean getting up at the exact same time and working the exact same hours in your post-shower work clothes. I mean ensuring that you protect your workday and maintain a healthy pace.

For me, that means ensuring that I start working before 9 (often 8 or 8:30), answering emails as soon as they come in (during working hours), having space to work when I need total silence, and having a space to work when I need some creative inspiration. I don’t have people to bounce ideas off of, and I don’t have office banter to break my day up, so I tend to change my scenery or take 10 minutes and play with the dog. I’ll check the mail and make lunch around the same time every day, and I try to power down (for good) before dinner.

Knowing what to expect out of my workweek helps me manage my goals and expectations in a way that prevents burnout and undue anxiety. I’ve found that having a routine that works is a huge part of feeling balanced in your own home office environment.

4) Ensure that you get outside and learn to power down. Take a walk, take a ride to TJ Maxx, take your laptop to the patio for a few hours…whatever works for you. I’ve found that I can go days without leaving my house – and that’s like purchasing a one-way ticket to crazyland. You MUST take time to move. Move your legs, move your mind, and leave your work. For me, that means weekly trips to the library, the occasional scoop of ice cream after work with my husband, tossing a tennis ball to my puppy outside, and even mundane errands during an informal lunch break…and it means leaving my laptop closed at night, and shutting the door to my office.

When you work from home, you’ll find that it’s hard to “shut off” and “leave” the office, because your home is now a place of deadlines and conference calls instead of a place of family dinners and movie nights. Leave the phone inside, and take a walk outside. Work will still be there when you get back in, or when you press power the next day. I promise.

5) Work time is work time. You can’t start looking at the laundry pile, or the dirty dishes in the sink. You can’t worry about the lawn that needs to be mowed or the bills that have to be paid. If you have time for a break, go ahead. Otherwise, when you’re working, you’re working. You’re not on the phone, and you’re not watching TV. You’re not doing chores, and you’re not on Instagram.

Don’t fall into the procrastinator’s dream that working from home can become – lean on your routine, set your goals and expectations, and get your work done. Use the dirty dishes as motivation to finish early, or use them as an excuse to stand up and move during your lunch break, but don’t treat your home as an excuse to procrastinate. Identify your home office, and ensure that it is a clean, neat area that isn’t within smelling distance of yesterday’s dishes or this week’s laundry.

/////

When people say, “You must be so disciplined!” I usually shrug and remind them that the alternative is not succeeding in my business. If that’s not motivation enough, then entrepreneurship simply isn’t for you. If you need someone to push you to finish your work, well, stop complaining about your boss because clearly you need him. If you want to find balance in your at-home workspace, create boundaries, establish a flexible, adaptable, and consistent routine, respect your deadlines, and remember to unplug every single day.