How to be more motivated, creative and productive than ever before: a short guide to working from home
In 2014, I quit my office job and moved away from my home country (Australia) so my family and I could chase down some dreams. Since then I’ve settled in to life in one of the most remote (and beautiful) places on the planet. You know, one of those places where I could post those ‘living the life of a digital nomad’ type photos from a laptop full of sand.
In stark contrast to the competitive, fast-paced nature of working in an office, I now spend my days home-schooling my daughter, studying an MBA, squeezing in some remote, freelance consulting, working with my business partner to build our own company back in Australia and writing articles for my blog and monthly newsletter. And, I do it all from my laptop in my home office.
Without the structures and restrictions of the traditional office, I set my own priorities, run my own agenda, start work when I want, finish work when I want, follow my own routine and never have the pressure of a boss or supervisor looking over my shoulder. I never get called into last minute meetings, nor am I ever distracted by co-workers or office politics.
Just like almost a million other Australians and around one in five Americans, I work from home and it is awesome. But, I haven’t always done it well. Just like so many others, when I first considered working from home full-time I pictured hanging-out on my couch in my tracky-dacks (sweats) with a laptop and a cup of tea. Sounds great, right?
Well, I reproduced that exact scene for about the first month of working from home and it was terrible. It turns out, doing your best work at home takes more discipline than you’d realise. After trying the ‘slouch-on-the-couch’ approach, I found that my work and the way I felt about it suffered.
I was constantly distracted, always procrastinating and having to push hard right before deadlines to get things in on time. My stress levels were high and my motivation was low. Not a cool place to be, especially since working from home was supposed to be a dream come true. So, I did something about it. I created some rules, started following some routines and redesigned my environment. Now, I’m more motivated, creative and productive than ever before.
After being interviewed by Paul Minors from The Productivity Podcast about how to be more productive while working from home (click here to listen online — or — click here to download the podcast) I put together this post to explore some of the themes and tips that came out of our discussion and share with you what I did and what you can do to become more productive at home.
If you have any tips of your own for being productive while working from home, or if you have any questions, be sure to pop them in to the comments at the end of the article.
Without further ado, here are my top tips for being productive while working from home.
1. Dress for success
Yes, the idea of wearing whatever you want to work sounds amazing, and it is for a while. But in my experience, if you’re wearing sweats on a daily basis (for example) it will only be a matter of time before your mood and your work starts to reflect your attire. You’ll find yourself being lazy and producing sub-standard work.
“When you look good, you feel good. And, when you feel good, you do good things.”
When you look good, you feel good. And, when you feel good, you do good things. As comfortable as your favorite pajamas or sweats are, they will hold you back from being your best self and doing your best work.
I’m not saying you need to suit-up every morning (that’s for the suckers who work in an office – no offence) but you do need to find a balance between utility (comfort) and professionalism (style). I find that the balance lies in the answers to these two questions:
- Would I be comfortable welcoming my father/mother-in-law (alternatively friends) into my home in what I’m wearing?
- Would I be comfortable popping down to the corner store or the local cafe in what I’m wearing?
If I can’t answer yes to these two questions, I change. To give you an idea of how this looks for me, most days I wear cargo or dress shorts (I live in the tropics) and a clean, pressed, logo-less T-shirt or polo. When I have in-person meetings I step it up to a pair of jeans and a blazer, or just a polo if the meeting’s via Skype or GoToMeeting or something like that.
What you wear is completely up to you but I strongly encourage you to use the two questions above to help you set the tone for your day. You’ll be happier and more productive for it.
2. Create an energising morning routine
Mornings are the toughest part of my day. I’m a night owl, always have been. I do my best, most creative work after 10pm (and love binge-watching any half decent television series which also keeps me up) so I’m awake until around 2am at least a few nights out of the week.
This makes it really tough for me to wakeup early and be productive from the get-go. All the more reason for me (and you, even if you are a morning person) to have a solid morning routine that helps transition to work feeling strong, motivated, creative and ready to hit the ground running.
This is what my morning looks like right now:
- Wake up and get dressed
- Water on my face and drink a big glass of cold water
- Make breakfast while my wife gets ready for work
- Breakfast – usually eggs, a piece of toast and coffee
- Plan out my day (over breakfast)
- Spend a bit if time with my wife (morning time, before our little one wakes up, can sometimes be the only quiet time we get together all day)
- My wife heads off for work
- Tidy up after breakfast
- Set myself up and get to work
This isn’t such a bad morning routine, and for now it serves its purpose. But, I’m always one to try and improve. If you’ve read anything at all about the habits of the worlds most productive people, you’ll know that most of them have a killer morning routine that includes an early start and some attention paid to the following three elements: physical, intellectual, spiritual.
“I persist in trying to make my morning routine better because I know it will make me better.”
This usually translates into doing some kind of exercise, reading something that facilitates learning and practicing meditation or some other way of becoming grounded or expressing gratitude for life’s blessings.
So, being the aspirational type, I’ve mapped out what I’d like my mornings to look like, and I’m working towards making this routine habitual. My ideal morning looks something like this:
- Wake up
- Water on my face and drink a big glass of cold water
- Pilates – 20 minutes
- Quick shower and get dressed (hot/cold)
- Make breakfast while my wife gets ready for work
- Breakfast – something healthy
- Plan out my day (over breakfast)
- Spend a bit of time with my wife
- My wife heads off for work
- Tidy up after breakfast
- Meditation – 10 minutes
- Set my self up and get to work
As you can see, I’m currently far form my ideal morning, but I persist in trying to make my morning routine better because I know it will make me better.
The more I work at the ideal morning routine I’ve designed, the more likely I am to form the habits I need to make my ideal morning the norm. I’ve formulated a process for getting to my ideal morning. To design and stick to your own ideal morning routine, try this:
- Write down what your morning looks like now. Being honest with one’s self is the first step toward self-improvement and what gets measured gets managed. So, by taking stock of what you do now, you’ll see what needs to change and how you can take action.
- Write down what you’d like your morning to look like. Your ideal morning. Be ambitious and do some research. Pick morning activities that make you want to wake up, which help you to become healthier and happier and that help you transition into your workday. There are a plethora of books and online resources out there that can help. Download Paul Minor’s book summary of The Miracle Morning and see where that takes you. I’ve also found MyMorningRoutine.com’s weekly newsletter useful for inspiration and motivation.
- Re-write your current morning routine but with the addition of one new element from the ideal morning routine you’ve just created. The first time I started this process, I added drinking a big glass of cold water. I’d read that doing this every morning would help me wake up and would activate my metabolism, both of which sounded like big impact for little effort. This made it an easy win and put me on track to adding other, more challenging elements to my morning.
- Put your new morning routine up on your bedroom wall or cupboard door so you can see it everyday and make it easy to follow when you wake up. I’m incapable of thinking for around half-an-hour after I wake up, so I use it like a morning checklist so I don’t have to think. I just follow. Repetition builds habits.
- Stick with this new morning routine for one or two weeks, or until the new element becomes a habit and permanent part of your morning. Then introduce one more new element from your ideal morning and repeat.
By focusing on adding just one new element to your morning routine at a time, you’re more likely to actually do it and make it a habit. Don’t be discouraged if you fail on the uptake of your new morning routine in the short term. Forming new habits takes time and your perseverance will be worth it to start your day with more energy, more focus and better productivity.
3. Create a dedicated workspace
While I was at university, I developed this really bad habit of studying on couches and at coffee tables. As a result, when I got my first office job, I really struggled to focus and work comfortably at a desk.
“…when you have relaxed or lazy body language, you naturally become more relaxed about your work and your productivity suffers.”
My co-workers would, on a pretty regular basis find me working with headphones in the staff lounge or the cafe down stairs. I eventually got used to working at a desk (although I still slipped out to more comfortable surrounds every now and then and worked from home whenever I could) but never really felt 100% comfortable in my office.
When I started working from home full-time, I was excited to be back on the couch. Kicking my feet up while reading, laptop on my lap while writing, the TV at a low roar in the background (which I justified by saying it helped my keep up with current affairs). It was wonderful, until deadlines started looming and my focus was nowhere to be found.
So, I did some research. As it turns out, when you have relaxed or lazy body language, you naturally become more relaxed about your work and your productivity suffers. The other thing that bothered me over time about working from my lounge room, was that I had to constantly set-up and then pack-away my stuff before and after working, which was both annoying and time consuming.
Between my lazy posture and spending who knows how long setting up and packing up, my productivity was suffering. So, I built a little nook. I bought some pine from the hardware store and got to work putting together some simple shelves and a little desk.
It was perfect. It didn’t take up a lot of space but it was big enough for me to be comfortable. With that as my primary work option, I was able to move between my nook, the couch and sometimes my backyard or the local cafe (discussed later) as I needed and never had to set-up or pack-up my work stuff again.
I’ve recently moved house and now work at a desk in a room which doubles as our classroom and my office. Knowing that the room is only for work and home-schooling helps me to separate life from work.
When your work is always in sight, it’s always on your mind. Having a dedicated workspace and being able to simply shut the door when I’m not working means I can compartmentalise life and my work and can focus on what’s important at any given time.
4. Keep your workspace clean and organised
This is one of the best ways to boost productivity. People tend to focus too much on what app they can use to boost their productivity, when often it’s their physical environment that’s holding them back.
Studies have shown that the average worker loses about an hour a day to disorganisation. Consider for a moment what that means in productivity terms.
Let’s say for argument’s sake that you work 5 days per week and get paid $30 an hour (even if you’re a freelancer being paid by the contract you should still calculate what you’re making per hour worked to maximize your productivity). Losing that hour a day to disorganisation, costs you 5 working hours every week, (that’s more that half a day’s work) 10 hours a fortnight (getting that back could earn you a long-weekend twice per month) and 260 hours per year.
“If you’re a business owner with 10 employees, they’re costing you $78,000 a year in lost productivity.”
If you work from home for someone else, that’s time you could be spending with your family, working out, tending to your garden, going out with friends or reading your favorite book. If you work from home as a freelancer, that lost hour per day is costing you $150 per week, $300 per fortnight or $7,800 per year. If you’re a business owner with 10 employees, they’re costing you $78,000 a year in lost productivity.
If those figures don’t make you want to get better organised, I don’t know what will. Try these tips for optimising your workspace for maximum productivity.
Change your frame of mind
Think of your workspace as a command centre. There’s a reason institutions like the military, police or fire departments enforce strict organisational practices. It’s because when the shit hits the fan, they need to be ready to go at a moment’s notice.
Imagine being called to put out a fire, only to find that you still haven’t rolled up your hose and don’t know where your helmet is. If you’re an aspiring high performer, you also need to be ready to go at a moment’s notice.
Over time, our offices and desks get so full of useless, non-essential garbage it’s not funny. Cull it all and get rid of everything you don’t need. Be ruthless. Old documents — file them or chuck them. Too many pens — keep a few on your desk and put the rest in your drawer or a cupboard.
Also, take some time to organise your cords and cables. Use velcro cable-ties to bunch cords together and pick a spot on your desk (preferably on your dominant hand side – more on that later) to keep devices on charge and on-hand.
When I was a younger man, I would use the single bucket technique for organising my affairs. You know the one. Ok, I’ll explain. Take income tax for example. Receipts and pay-slips came in, I put them all in a single, unmarked shoe-box along with any and everything else (including non-tax related stuff) I thought might be important enough to hold on to, and when 30 June came around, I would spend hours sorting receipts, throwing half of them away because they were useless and usually finding a bunch of important documents missing. What and waste of time.
A few years ago I came to my senses and started trying different processes and systems that actually helped me organise my affairs in a way that saved time, saved effort and which led to better outcomes. If you haven’t’ read it already, David Allen’s Getting Things Done: the art of stress-free productivity is a great starting point for creating systems that will help you do a better job of managing your affairs (turns out I was on the right track though. He too uses a bucket system, just with more buckets. Download the book summary for free here).
Set up your space
A work space that’s set up in the right way helps to reduce your risk of injury, save you time and energy and make you more productive. Try these tips for setting up your workspace:
- Get your monitor and keyboard into comfortable positions. Offices often have workspace assessors who make recommendations about how to set up your desk to reduce the risk of injury. While that’s reason enough, knowing how to set up a safe workspace will also enhance your productivity. Do some research on workspace setup and consider getting someone in to set you up properly. Your back, eyes and whichever wrist you use to control your mouse will thank you later
- To reduce clutter, only keep on your desk the office supplies that you use on a daily basis. Keep supplies you use weekly in your desk drawer and all others in a cupboard.
- Keep regularly used stationery and your devices on your dominant-hand side of your desk to reduce reaching across your body. Sounds small but it will save you time and energy.
- Keep your desk clear but be sure to include anything you need to facilitate the operation of your systems ie. in-trays and file holders (don’t go too minimalist). Avoid keeping too many personal trinkets on your desk – they’re just a distraction and you’re already at home so there’s no need to be reminded about how cute your cat is.
Use a clear-desk policy
It’s common for employees in government departments and some big companies to have to ensure that all desks are clear and clean before they go home. You should do the same in your home office. With a clear desk, you’ll be able to focus on work when it’s work time and forget about work when it’s not.
It will be a pain in your proverbial at first, but once you’ve been practicing a clear-desk policy for a couple of weeks it should only take you 5 minutes in the morning and evening to pull out and put away what ever it is you’re working on at the time. If it helps you to save an hour a day, it’s a winning investment of your time.
Even after changing your mindset, de-cluttering, putting systems in place and setting up your desk properly, you’re still going to get a build up of unnecessary papers and things laying around. Schedule a workspace clean up in your calendar once a month or so to keep your desk in tip-top shape.
5. Create and follow a routine
Productivity does not come naturally to me. I’ve always been a creature of habit, at times they just haven’t been good ones. That’s changed a lot over the past few years. As the necessity to work either on the road or from home has increased, so has my focus and concentration on being as productive as possible.
“As a person of quite considerable laziness, I can tell you that the easiest way to manage heavy workloads, competing priorities and still make room for the important things in life is to create and follow a routine.”
Bill Gates famously said, and I’m paraphrasing, that he will always hire a lazy person to do a difficult job, because a lazy person will find the easiest way to do it. As a person of quite considerable laziness, I can tell you that the easiest way to manage heavy workloads, competing priorities and still make room for the important things in life is to create and follow a routine.
Just like my morning routine, which I’ve all but automated and continue to work on, I try to schedule as much of my day as possible. This helps me to know what I should be working on, where I’m meant to be and when. Since most of my activities are scheduled in at the same time most days, my schedule has turned into a very simple daily routine that’s easy for me to follow.
There are a bunch of easy-to-use apps out there that can help you schedule your day but in the end, following a routine comes down to your own priorities. Here’s how I’ve developed my daily routine.
- List priorities. We all have priorities, but most of us are terrible at putting the things that are most important to us first. Myself included. So, when I set out to create my routine, I started by listing the top few things that are most important to me, in priority order. For me these are: 1. home-schooling my daughter and supporting my wife’s career; 2. studying and personal development; 3. building my business; and 4. my blog. I keep this list written on a post-it on the wall above my desk to remind me of what’s most important.
- Allocate time according to priorities. Since there is no question in my mind about what is most important to me, the time I allocate to the activities I undertake on a daily basis is easily prioritised. When I designed my routine, my second step was to allocate blocks of time during my day for each activity, starting with my first priority, then second and so on, and so forth. So, not only am I following a daily routine, the routine I have helps me take care of the things that matter most at a time that’s optimal.
- Take a self-assessment of energy flows. One of the great things about working from home is that you can set your own agenda and work when it suits you. My third step in designing my daily routine was to take a good, hard look at myself to figure out when I’m most focused and productive. For me, that’s at night time. So I schedule most of my study and work hours in the evening, typically after 10:30pm, when everything’s quiet and my family has gone to sleep (luckily this also suits my daughter who for obvious reasons likes to home-school during day light hours). For you, this might mean getting up at 5am, getting all your work done by lunchtime and spending your afternoon playing golf. However it looks for you, take advantage of your situation working from home by using your most productive hours for work and the rest for play. Life’s too short to slog it out through energy slumps.
- Set up rules, processes and tools to make your routine happen. I literally schedule every part of my day into my calendar, including sleep. Once something is scheduled into my calendar, no lower priority activity can touch a block of time I’ve put aside for higher priority activities. I set alarms and reminders that go off throughout the day to remind me when certain activities should start and end, and even when to eat.
You can be as detailed (or not) as you like, it’s just a matter of finding what you need to drag yourself into your most productive state.
6. Beware domestic duties
This is not a very sexy tip but it’s one of my most important pieces of advice. When you work in an office, you only have to worry about the cleanliness of your desk. When you work from home the dishes, vacuuming, dusting, cleaning, mopping and laundry will distract you. And that’s not to mention the endless list of errands you need to run and bills that you need to pay.
Here are some strategies I’ve used that might work for you too:
- First, I (you guessed it!) schedule my domestic duties. I make them part of my daily routine so that when it comes time to do work, I can focus on the task at hand and I’m not tempted to do the dishes when I pop into the kitchen to make a cup of tea.
- Second, I’ve outsourced and automated what I can. I have a cleaner who comes in for a few hours a week to take some of the load off. Depending on where you live this may not be an affordable option but then again, how much work could you get done and how much extra income would that generate if you owned the hours you’d normally spend cleaning? Something to think about.
- Third, I’ve set up automatic bill payments so I don’t waste energy and time paying bills.
Your home is full of distraction and personal affairs sit atop the list. Unless you have a plan for taking care of your domestic duties, either your home life or your work will suffer (probably both). Scheduling domestic duties into your routine will ensure you can take care of everything you’re responsible for.
7. Get out of the house
Working from home can be the greatest freedom or the darkest prison. I remember, not long after I first started working from home, spending 3 full days inside my own house without a single breath of fresh, outside air or a natural ray of sunlight because I was working to a deadline. I finished the work but by the end I felt terrible.
When you’re loaded up with work, have deadlines looming and you’re working a lot of hours, the advantages of working from home can work against you. Take commuting for example. When you work form home you avoid having to commute to work, which saves you time, money and an unpleasant train/bus/car/boat ride.
On the other hand, that commute can help you get your head into work mode, force you to get some sun and fresh air and allow you to interact with people without having to make an effort or make the decision to do those things.
Try and get out of the house a few times a day for a break and some fresh air. Having hobbies or interests can make this easier. I keep a vegetable patch that I need to water everyday to keep healthy. I keep chickens and collect their eggs from around the yard everyday. I also happen to love good coffee, so (when I’m back in Australia) I’ll pop out to a local cafe for coffee, and sometimes work from their Wi-Fi for a change of scenery.
8. Stay healthy
You can try all the tips and tricks for productivity in the world, but at the end of the day nothing can overcome an unhealthy lifestyle. What you eat feeds your brain and has a direct impact on your concentration, focus, creativity, thought processes and problem solving ability.
When you exercise, you activate information processing and memory functions in your brain that help you to focus and be productive. A poor diet and no exercise needless to say, has the opposite effects.
“Living a healthy lifestyle is the number one best thing you can do for your productivity, not to mention your general well-being.”
Living a healthy lifestyle doesn’t have to be difficult, but when you work from home, self-discipline is key. A lot of people I know who work in an office complain about the endless cycle of morning and afternoon teas and how they get in the way of eating healthily throughout the day. If you think it will be easier when you work form home, you’re wrong.
Imagine, an entire pantry full of delicious food and no one around to judge you. Before you know it you’ll be throwing down large plates of pasta, eating chips and sweets for snacks and hitting your afternoon beverage an hour or two earlier than usual.
Try these tips for eating better when working from home:
- Keep plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables in your fridge and pantry. Make them easier to access than carbohydrate heavy snacks like corn chips, ramen noodles and frozen dim-sims.
- Use regular breaks from work to graze. Don’t let yourself become hungry and you’ll avoid binge eating.
- Eat a balance of macro-nutrients (macros) at every meal. Macros are your three major nutrient types: protein, carbohydrate and fats. By consuming meals that consist of balanced macros, your body keeps the hormones that influence your metabolism in good balance. Get your protein from lean meat and poultry, your carbohydrates from non-starchy vegetables, fruits and legumes, and healthy fats from the likes of fish, nuts, avocado and olive oil.
- Use an app like Myfitnesspal.com to track your food intake. What gets measured gets managed so keeping a journal of your food should help to keep your eating in-check.
- Consider a daily multi-vitamin and daily consumption of fish oil capsules, which aid brain function.
When it comes to exercise, all you need is around 20 minutes a day to get the juices flowing. If you have time for two 20 minute sessions or 45 minutes in the gym, great but don’t spend more than an hour working out — your efforts are wasted after that.
I’m ending this article with this tip because it’s super important and I didn’t want it to get lost in the middle. Living a healthy lifestyle is the number one best thing you can do for your productivity, not to mention your general well-being.
* * *
Working from home can be a treat if you do it right. You can save time and money on your morning and afternoon commute, avoid the distraction of coworkers and unnecessary meetings and have complete control over how you run your day.
Done the wrong way, the distractions of work will be replaced with even worse distractions at home and you’ll find yourself procrastinating on the couch instead of being productive.
I hope the advice in this post helps you to be more productive while working from home. If you’d like to learn more, I go into more depth on some of these tips in my conversation with Paul on his podcast.
I’m keen to hear about your experiences and advice on how to be productive while working form home, so please comment below or here on Paul’s post that accompanies the podcast. Thanks.
Paul Minors’ The Productivity Podcast will help you to become a Jedi Master of productivity. Paul interviews leading high performers to explore the secrets behind being ultra productive, super motivated, how to manage your time better, how to set and achieve your goals and more!
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