When I quit my full-time non-profit job to jump into self-employment, I was jazzed. I could work from home! I could work in my pajamas or wherever I wanted. I was excited for this taste of freedom. Before that, I was managing my full-time job and side hustle so I knew I had it in me to focus and work like a boss.
But it was the first time in my life I didn’t have anyone watching over me. Sure, I had deadlines, but as long as I got them done, my time was my own. In the early days, a “quick” peek into Facebook would turn into an hour. Some days I fell down a news rabbit hole that turned into reading five articles. Let’s just say focusing and being productive were harder than I thought. And it still is, I’m just better at managing it and you can be too.
Here are eight free ways to maximize your productivity when you work from home.
1. Block distracting websites
The key to getting things done is to starve all of your distractions. A big distraction for many of us is social media. For self-employed folk, social media is basically like our water cooler. It’s easy to “hang out” but it’s not really helpful.
Put a limit on how much social media you engage with and when it’s work time, block those sites altogether. I use the SelfControl app, which is for Mac but there is also the StayFocusd Google Chrome extension. You can block the most distracting sites for a certain period of time. Typically, I’ll block all social media for a couple of hours to really hunker down. I’ll close email and have only the tabs I’m working on open.
2. Keep your phone in the other room
Smartphones have been one of the greatest inventions of the 21st century but it’s also one of the most distracting things on the planet. Having all those pings, vibrations, notifications, etc. can disrupt your focus every few minutes! I use to just put my phone face down, but I’d still grab it to check Instagram “for a second.” That didn’t really work, so now I just leave my phone in the other room. I know I can get my notifications on my computer and don’t need my phone all that much. I check it every few hours to see if there’s anything important but it’s not around me when I have to really focus on the work ahead.
3. Time block and batch your tasks
Does the idea of scheduling every minute of your waking day sound awful? Yeah, it does to me too. Except when I tried it, I was the most productive I’d been in a while. I started my day and outlined what I wanted to work on and projected how long it would take me. I kept to my schedule and it did make me more productive. I can’t do this every day but some days it can be really useful.
I also try to batch tasks so I’m doing similar activities. For example, I’m a writer and event planner, and these two activities require different focus, energy and attention. I try to have “writing” days and “event” days. I also try to schedule meetings on one day or make one day an admin day where I catch up on all the fun self-employed things you must do like invoice, email, marketing, etc. Doing similar tasks by batching them in the same timeframe can help you focus and be productive.
4. Put on some classical or jazz music
I’m the type of person where I have to listen to music while I work. I don’t work well in silence and I love music. But I realized that listening to music with words was distracting. I’d start singing along or get into a dance groove. When I switched over to classical and jazz, it fueled my brain and creativity in a different way and I was able to focus more. If you want to know where to start, I love listening to Clair de Lune by Debussy. I now know that when I’m working I need to listen to classical or jazz. I can listen to the fun pop and rap when I’m doing admin work and need a little pep in my step.
5. Use task management tools
Managing all the tasks you need to when you work from home can be daunting. It’s a juggling act for sure but one you can manage, with a little help. Boost your productivity by using task management tools like Trello or Asana. You can use these programs and set your tasks, your deadlines and keep everything in one place. I put all of my work tasks and information in Asana and it helps drive my schedule so I know what I need to work on. You can waste precious moments of time when you’re not sure what you should be doing or where you are with a project. These programs can help and they have free options!
6. Try the pomodoro technique
The reason it’s hard to stay productive is because focus is a finite energy. There’s a limited supply of it. So the key is to take small steps to not wear yourself out. You can try out the pomodoro technique, where you work for 25 minutes and then have a 5-minute break. I use the program Focus Booster, which works with the pomodoro technique. Using this method, you work in short increments, then take a little break.
7. Work when you have energy
If you work from home and are self-employed — and not a remote worker who must subscribe to a 9 to 5 schedule — you should try and work when your energy is the highest. Because here’s a shocker: your energy may not be best suited to a 9 to 5 structure.
For example, I am not a morning person. I think anything before 9 am is too early. My brain isn’t truly awake until about noon. Oh, and I’m also a night owl and go to bed past midnight frequently. My energy is the highest at night so that’s when I do some of my important work. In fact, it’s 10:30 pm when I’m writing this now. My brain is awake, my energy is good and I can focus.
Working when your energy is low limits your productivity and makes everything more difficult. Find when your energy is highest — it could be at 6 am or it could be at 6 pm, but knowing this information can be a game-changer.
8. Take real breaks
When you work from home it can feel like you should stick to your computer to prove to people you really are working. You feel an obligation to be around and work, work, work. If you work from home, it can also be easy to not take any real breaks (no, going to the fridge doesn’t count). To maximize your productivity, take a real break for 20-30 minutes. Don’t eat lunch at your computer! Go for a walk and make sure you get outside at least once a day. I know this sounds like basic stuff but sometimes when you work from home and no one is around it’s easy to lose focus on basic self-care too. Taking care of yourself and rejuvenating with a break can pay dividends in your productivity later.
Working from home can be tough as there are a million and one distractions everywhere. It’s key to create an environment that is conducive to working and that helps you stay focused and not get distracted. Using these eight tips, you can get started on being more productive and have more work-life balance.
Melanie Lockert is a personal finance expert, the blogger behind DearDebt.com and author of the book “Dear Debt: A story about breaking up with debt.” Melanie paid off $81,000 of debt and is now on a mission to help others do the same.
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