I have a confession to make: when I quit my job in July 2014 to start working from home, I thought if there was anything – anything at all – that I could depend on in this new venture, it was this: that I knew myself. That I knew my strengths and limitations and that if all else fails at least I knew what I was and was not capable of.
And as you have probably guessed by now, I was wrong.
Cause you see, what I knew was the version of myself from my “old” life. I knew that I would always wake up five minutes before my alarm, that I did best when I had a caramel iced latte by 8AM, that I was most productive in the mornings but that I should avoid sending emails because my grip on the English language didn't completely boot up until about 10AM.
What I didn't know was who I was when no alarm needed to be set, when I might not leave the house for days, when I had full and unrestricted access to our TV and Netflix, when there was no boss looming over my shoulder because, scarily enough, I was the boss now.
It took me almost a year to realize that I “wasn't doing it right.” Productivity means something different for everyone, but when I finally sat myself down and took a closer look at how I was doing things, these were the five areas I focused on.
Perfect your morning routine
When you envision yourself being productive at home, what does it look like? Does it mean waking up whenever you want, possibly skipping a shower, maybe hanging out in your PJ's all day? And, sure, you could do all of those things – but that's also probably also the routine you've always used when you want to do nothing at all day. So you may need to ask yourself: will doing that put you in the right frame of mind to get things done?
Maybe yes. Or maybe no.
For me, I found I needed to keep at least some of my morning routine from my old office days, such as quickly getting out of bed (no lounging!) or taking a shower before I start working. Some days I might even get dressed, shoes and all, just to sit on the couch and work, because there's something about wearing jeans and sneakers that makes me want to be productive.
And another piece to my morning routine that helps me get through the day? My morning caffeine fix.
Now, The Husband is still on a standard work schedule, so just because I'm up and ready (sometimes as early as 5AM) that doesn't mean he'll be joining me anytime soon. It doesn't make sense to brew a whole pot of coffee that'll likely be cold by the time he meanders downstairs. Plus, another thing I've learned about myself is that when I'm ready to work, I'm ready to work – meaning, I don't always have time to wait for the coffee to brew before I'm ready to get in front of my laptop.
So if you feel like you're not getting things done, take a closer look at how you start your day. The subconscious is a powerful tool and it's entirely possible to use your routine to “trick” yourself into a new productivity level.
Create lists, and stick to them
I feel like this point might be self-explanatory (and probably a little obvious) but it's also important to remember that a to-do list doesn't need to be written down on paper.
Creating a list could mean putting everything you need to work on the kitchen table and not stopping until the table is clear.
Or it could mean putting yourself in a room, closing the door, and not leaving until you've addressed everything in that room that you need to do.
No matter how you keep track of what you need to do that day, you should always be aware of what you've already done and how much further you need to go.
Know what makes you productive… and what doesn't
Back when I was in the office world, I also worked as a manager (and by “manager” I mean I oversaw one or two people). I always wanted everyone to have a casual and stress-free work environment, and part of that was allowing my team the freedom to do things that they felt would increase their productivity, such as taking breaks or reading a book in their downtime. Anything that helped us meet our goals at the end of the day was a great thing in my book.
One member of my team was adamant that listening to music helped her focus. And it was true – with her earbuds in, she got her work done in record time, all the while quietly singing and practically dancing in her chair. On the surface, this was the perfect situation – because what's better than a happy, productive employee? – that is, until I saw the quality of the work she was doing. Because while she was indeed getting everything done in record time, it also clear she was paying a deeper attention to the music than anything else.
I think this is the hardest balance to maintain when we're at home and are free to make our own choices: you need to be honest with yourself and draw a line between what you'd like to be doing and what actually, truly helps you complete your tasks. You may think you need “background noise” to work faster, and maybe you do – but did it help you work better?
Everyone is different, but if you're struggling with productivity or you keep making the kind of mistakes you know you can avoid, try changing up your routine. If you usually watch TV while you work, try listening to music instead. If you usually listen to music, try turning the volume down much lower than you usually have it. If you take “mental breaks” to read a book or take a walk, come up with a timed schedule that still allows you a rest but doesn't take you too far out of your train of thought.
But whatever you decide to try, make sure that it helps improve the quality of your work so that you're working smarter, not harder.
Productivity loves company
When you're working at home, sometimes it can be all too easy to fall into what I like to think of as the “tree falling in a deserted forest” syndrome:
You're putting all this work in, but if no one else is there to see you doing it, does it even matter? The short answer is yes, of course it matters, but when you're in the middle of an hours-long project you can start feeling jaded about how your time is being spent and what it really amounts to.
One thing that's really helped me is taking a quick break from my work and just talk it out with someone. This could mean making a call, sending a text, chatting online, or even updating your Facebook status. Include pictures of what you've done so far, write a long description, and go ahead and fish for a few compliments. Your family and true friends won't mind and they'll probably jump at the chance to tell you how awesome you're doing because really, you are doing awesome. We all have moments where we forget that, especially when we're by ourselves. Sometimes you just need a little nudge back to reality so you can see it again, too.
Once you've taken a look at your routine, you may have had to cut out some of the things you love most – like, say, not allowing yourself to binge watch Netflix in the background – but that doesn't mean you have to do without. If you've had a good day and met your goals, reward yourself with one of those activities you had to remove from your routine. Don't forget that you are your own boss at home, and you can set your schedule in a way that gives you the extra motivation to get things done.
As for me, when I've had a really good day, I usually whip up another Instant coffee using Folgers Recipes and settle in for a few hours of my latest favorite television show. Indulging in your favorite pastimes is so much better when you know you were a total rockstar that day.