How to Stay Motivated and Productive When Working From Home

When I transitioned from being a career corporate cubicle-dweller to being a freelancer working from home, I wasn’t sure if I could pull it off.  Would I be on Facebook and YouTube all day?  Could I really get any work done?  Well, after doing it for some time now, I can say that I love it, and yes, you can be super productive when working from home if you enjoy your work and are a relatively self-starting person. Here are some things I do to stay motivated and productive when working from home.

1. Kill Interruptions and Distractions

This is probably the most obvious and often-suggested piece of advice for people working at home, for good reason.  Interruptions kill your productivity.  I’ve seen studies that say each interruption can cost you anywhere from 8 minutes to 23 minutes or even more of wasted time.

Of course, you need to take phone calls and read emails for your business. But, you may want to have quiet times when you don’t take calls if you’re in “the zone”, productivity-wise. Definitely turn off all on-screen notifications except for the ones that are absolutely necessary. You probably do not need to be notified every time you get an email, for instance.

Many folks say that you should have a separate workspace or room in your home just to avoid interruptions. I don’t think that’s strictly necessary if you live alone, but it might be if you have kids, pets, noisy roommates, etc.  You might want to move distracting things like televisions, game consoles, etc., to another area of your home/apartment though.

2. Do Your Least-Favorite Tasks First

That way, your day will only get better. For me, my least-favorite tasks are phone calls. If I leave these until later my day drags until I get them done.

3. Work When You Are Productive

I am personally very productive in the morning and at night.  My worst time is after lunch when the food coma sets in.  It’s no wonder that so many cultures have a Siesta at that time (which has been shown in some studies to have health benefits).  One of the benefits of working from home is the ability to work your body and mind are most productive!

This might involve working some strange hours, or in smaller chunks with bigger breaks in between.  In an office, job, I was always in a rush to finish lunch in under 30 minutes, or even an hour.  Then I’d be rush back to the office to be kind of useless for the next hour.  Now, I either rest or do errands during my “inefficient time” after lunch.

On the other hand, when I am productive and “on a roll”, I milk that time for as long as I can, even if that means working till 1 AM and perhaps skipping something else I had planned.

So basically, work when you’re productive and don’t you’re not.  When you’re not in a frame of mind to work, don’t force yourself.  Do other productive tasks.  Do errands.  Take a nap.  Work out.  Then come back to work when you’re mind is ready.  Of course, if you never feel motivated, that is a problem, but usually, my motivation returns after a break and my blood sugar levels are back to normal.  Oh, and don’t watch TV during these breaks.  It’s too tempting to get sucked into watching a whole season of Breaking Bad or whatever.

4. Get Kickass Tools

When I get some new kickass equipment or software, it makes me want to work even if I don’t have any work to do.

If you do a lot of work in front of a computer, then having more monitor space is one of the biggest ways to increase your productivity.  This can be accomplished by having two smaller monitors or one big one (or, hey, two big ones).  I recently bought a huge second monitor for my laptop. Working on it is a joy.

If you’re just starting a new career from home and you don’t have a lot of money to spend on kickass tools, there might be inexpensive ways to improve your existing tools.  For example, you might be able to speed up your existing computer by adding RAM or cleaning out unneeded software from it.  I personally bought myself a new chiclet-style keyboard for $20 which is a joy to type on compared to the old-school one I was using before.  It feels like I have a new computer!

I’m definitely not saying that every piece of equipment or software you touch has to be kickass.  Don’t go overboard. If you don’t do photo editing often, then maybe you can live with GIMP or instead of Adobe Photoshop.  But, if you are a graphic designer or photographer, then maybe it is worth the investment.  You’ll have to make the call.

(Speaking of software, I just evaluated a few web invoicing services.  See my results here).

Oh, and having a really good chair is important.  ‘Nuff said on that.

5. Always Be Learning

When you’re working from home, you don’t have more experienced co-workers to learn from.  Nevertheless, you need to keep learning to stay on top of your job.  It will make you more efficient and your job more enjoyable.

A great way to learn things is to get out of the house and go to groups, seminars, and conventions, and to take classes.  It’s important to learn from other people, as well as get an idea of the latest trends in your industry.  Find out what time-saving tools and methods they’re using.  Don’t stay isolated in your little cocoon.  You could be left behind!

Also, these gatherings can be a lot of fun, and you can make great contacts!

You can also learn by yourself, using books and the Internet.  I often take time to read technical books when I have a break between jobs.

I think both of these methods are important.  Keep on learning.  It will make you more efficient at your job, and help keep you motivated.

6. Keep To-Do Lists

I think “to-do” lists are great for several reasons.  They help you prioritize.  They ensure you don’t forget some important task that you can’t do right away.  And finally, they give you satisfaction when you cross things off!

Some people use fancy apps or Day-Timer planners for their to-do lists.  Some use post-it notes.  Paper has a way of staying “in your face”, which could be a good thing. Use whatever works for you.

I like making my to-do list at the end of the day, while the tasks are fresh in my mind.  Then, in the morning, when my mind might be a bit groggy, I’ll be ready to go.

A lot of people say you should do the most difficult or unpleasant task first.  There is something to that.

7. Schedule Your Fun and Leisure

Taking breaks from work is important.  Put these events in your schedule.  Do this even if it is something that doesn’t really need to be scheduled, like going for a run.

If I know I am going to be doing something fun in the evening, it makes me that much more motivated to get all of my tasks done during the day.  On the other hand, if I have a whole day (and evening) to do something, I sometimes find myself procrastinating and doing that task at 1 AM!

8. Keep a Log

Yeah, just like Captain Kirk did. Keeping a log is a good idea, especially when you’re working alone.

It is true that in the short term, keeping a log reduces your productivity slightly. But so many times, I figure out how to do something only to forget how I did it a month later.  It’s at those times, my log is like gold.

My log is like “a time machine that I use to send important messages to future me“.  (Douglas Crockford was talking about commenting code when he said this in his book, “Javascript: The Good Parts”, but it applies to a log as well.)

When you work alone, you can’t poke your head over the cubicle wall and ask your co-worker “do you remember how to…?”

I used to use a simple text file for my log, but switched to Evernote, then now OneNote. Use whatever medium you like.

9. Haste Makes Waste/Don’t Multitask

I think one of the great pleasures and advantages of working from home is that you decide how long you want to spend on a task, without anyone questioning why a task is taking so long.   So many times when I worked for big companies, I felt like I didn’t have enough time to really “do it right”.  I was forced to just get the damn thing out the door ASAP.  The result was sometimes sloppy and often unsatisfying.

Now, I find that I can take the time I need to do a good job, as long as I tell the customer upfront what the schedule is.  I don’t need to create insane schedules to motivate myself.  I create schedules that give me time to do it right.

Haste in web development can be disastrous.  Forgetting to back up a live site before a big update can result in lost data or unexpected downtime for a site.  Take these types of tasks really slow.

A corollary to this is “don’t multitask while doing important tasks”.  The results when I do this usually cost way more time in the long run.

10. Change It Up

Having a routine is great, but there can also be value in shaking things up a bit.  I think I rearranged my office/bedroom furniture about four times before I came up with the optimal configuration. Every time my workspace improved, it felt great and made working that much more enjoyable.

Change can make you more efficient. Try doing things a different way.  Try using a different text editor, graphic editor, accounting program, or other software.  You may discover something that increases your productivity.

Change can also be a cure for boredom when things get too comfortable.  Sometimes a small thing like changing your desktop wallpaper image or adding a small plant to your desk can make your day.

11.  Meet Clients in Person Whenever Possible

Starbuck's Coffee

Although it’s not my favorite thing, I jump at the chance to meet clients in person, rather than relying on email or the phone (though that is better than email).  There are several reasons.

First, as an external contractor, you are a faceless entity to your client most of the time.  Meeting in person helps them attach a human being to your name, and will help your working relationship immensely.  Don’t just be a faceless voiceless entity in the ether if you can help it.

Second, meeting in person often you more time to discuss the issues at hand.  Almost always when I meet the client in person for a kickoff meeting, for example, the client makes some seemingly offhand remark that is actually really important for the project and saves a bunch of wasted work.

Finally, meeting in person gives your client more time to think about the project.  Clients are super busy, and it’s easy for them to let a project that is conducted solely by email slip through the cracks.  If you have a scheduled meeting with them in person, they are forced to at least take that time to ponder your project.  This has saved me (and my clients) a lot of time too.

12. Outsource Work That You’re Not Good At or Don’t Enjoy

As a freelancer, you often start out having to be a jack of all trades, from accounting, HR, shipping, and I.T. to sales and marketing.  Some of these things you may enjoy.  Some not.  Some you may be good at, some not.  As you gain experience (and hopefully, income), you should think about outsourcing some of these tasks.

For the longest time, I did my taxes by myself (or more accurately, with Turbo Tax).  I outsourced this to an accountant who identified a deduction that I had missed the past three years. He filed amended returns and got me three years’ worth of refunds!

13. Take a Walk When You’re Stuck

If you get stuck on a tough problem, take a walk. There have been more than a few times when I came up with a solution to a hard problem after I went for a walk. Don’t waste time “working” if you’re not making progress.  Do something else – household chores, walk the dog, or whatever, and come back to it.

Everyone is different, so these are things that work for me.  What tips do you have?  What are your top secrets for being productive at home? – Brian


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Randy Lee
Randy Lee
10 years ago

Hey Brian, great article. It affirms some of the things I’ve been doing and gives me some new ideas as well. The methods I use to keep myself productive vary depending on the project. When I’m involved in a technical documentation or QA project I will listen to instrumental music of various sorts, the favorite being the ambient genre. Classical music can be OK if it isn’t too intense (I find that distracting because I keep trying to analyze the patterns). But generally anything without lyrics is OK, or at least without lyrics in my native language (English)!
If I’m working on sound design projects, though, I can’t listen to music (obviously). In that case, when I’m stuck on some issue I’ll take a 5-minute break and get out of the office for some fresh air.
Since I have a family, it seems the biggest problem I have is remembering to ask someone else to start a load of dishes (or whatever) rather than doing it myself! But I have to tell myself “Anyone in the house can do that, but no one else can do that project for me.”