Your home office can be many things: a place to work without interruption; a way to get a bit of a break on your taxes, or perhaps your home office is the source of your livelihood. With so many uses and definitions of home offices, it’s impossible to know just how many are out there in the world, but there are some universal truths about working at home.
One major problem is the amount of time we tend to waste in a home office.
There are many reasons why time seems to slip by unnoticed in a home office, and it’s not usually because we’re so focused and working so hard. In fact, even with our annual pledge around this time of year to be more productive and get more done, work efficiency still lags behind its potential. Admit it—you could be doing so much more in your office to be productive on a given day.
It’s a New Year, and you’re likely already making some resolutions for 2013. Why not make the bulk of your promises to yourself something that will help you in the long run? After all, boosted productivity in that home office usually means two things: higher earnings, and more time away from the office. How much time are you wasting getting ready to work? Or “catching up” on other things before you really get busy? Wouldn’t you rather be making a profit or using that extra time to do something fun and rewarding outside of your career? It’s amazing how much is possible when you simply maximize efficiency in your home office.
1. Claim a Space: If you haven’t done so already, your first step to a productive home office is to actually get an office. You need to have a spot in your home that is yours alone and ready for work anytime that you are. This shouldn’t be your family computer room or a laptop that usually lives by the couch. Carve out space for a small desk—you can even convert a closet into a clever office if you have a bit of experience with hand tools.
2. Clean Out Distractions: Once you have your office established, get rid of anything that might be distracting or negative in the space. Keeping your treadmill by the desk, for example, might drive you crazy thinking about working out—and how you should do more of it—instead of working. The same can be said for televisions or other household items that may prove to be distracting.
3. Personalize Your Space: Since this is your desk or work area, it should be personalized so that you feel comfortable in the space. Your home office may need more than just a desk and chair: for instance, if you spend time reading manuscripts or long documents, consider an armchair in the corner with a good lamp. A large table may be necessary as well if you often spread papers out or hold client meetings at home. Once you have your space set up to your liking, you’ll be able to move more quickly though the space and put it all to use.
4. Establish Work Hours: To truly maximize your work hours, you should have set working hours. You might work a “typical” schedule of 8 to 5, or perhaps you’d rather shorten your hours since you’re being so efficient and work only 9 to 3 every day. Unless you have a parent company dictating your availability, you get to set whatever sort of hours you’d like.
5. Maintain Your Hours: It’s not enough to have your hours; you have to maintain them as well. Be sure to be in your chair, working, at 8 in the morning and call it a day around 5 if that is your set time. You may realize you can adjust your hours later to be more efficient for you, but don’t make it a habit of stretching out your hours—it just invites wasted time.
6. Separate Work and Home Computers: Not only is this required if your want to claim a home office deduction on your tax return, but you should keep work and play areas separate anyhow. Buy an inexpensive laptop for your family to use as the household computer, and keep your work computer off-limits. Not only does this protect confidentiality, but it also allows you to work and focus without interruptions.
7. Test Different Time Frames: If you’re working on maximizing efficiency, and you’re not bound to a particular work schedule, consider using different time frames to see when you feel most productive. You may find that the early morning is more productive; starting work at 4 or 5 am, for example, and finishing up by noon. Alternately, you may prefer a night schedule away from the distractions of the day.
8. Check Email Three Times: Email is one of the greatest time-sucks in business. To minimize this distraction, simply close your email program. Don’t even open it (unless your boss has said otherwise, of course.) Work with your email closed and check it only three times a day: about an hour after you’ve started work for the day, just after lunch, and before you close up shop for the day.
9. Install Blocking Software: There are programs that help you stay on track while you’re working. If you have a habit of wandering off to check out the news or you feel compelled to just peek in on a favorite forum during work time, downloading a program that will block those sites that waste the most time can be a huge advantage.
10. Use Online Timers: Another great feature online is the digital timer that’s available for your computer. Set a timer like CookTimer or FocusBooster, and then you can get working without also trying to keep an eye on the clock. Allow yourself an hour on a particular project and break things up with your timer, or set the timer to alert you to other obligations like picking up the kids from school, so that you have minimal distractions.
11. Plan for the Long Term: Rather than getting organized for the day and working just on your list of things for a few hours, plan over the long-term so that you can see how big projects need to be broken up and when other obligations may interfere with your regular work hours. Knowing in advance means you have more time to plan around distractions.
12. Use Online Calendars: Make a special calendar in Outlook or use a specific Google Calendar to keep track of all your regular work in your home office. This may also be synced with your regular office computer and various personal devices to keep you up to date on meetings, phone calls, projects and any number of items. The more you record in your calendar, the more prepared you are every day to simply check things off a list.
13. Work Small, Big, Small: When you sit down to work every day, set yourself up in a particular pattern that is different from your typical routine. Start with a small project—other than checking email—and then after the small task is complete, move into your biggest task of the day. Once that one is finished for the day, cool down again with a few small tasks to wind the day down.
14. Leave Work Ready for Tomorrow: Make it a point to never leave the office without being prepared for the next time you sit down to work. This may be as blatant as opening up the document you’ll need first thing in the morning, or as subtle as making a quick to-do list in Outlook or Notepad and leaving that on the screen. A small paper notebook can serve the same purpose. Having work ready when you sit down means you get started faster and have fewer distractions.
15. Utilize To-Do Lists: As mentioned above, a daily to-do list can be a huge time-saver. While you’re working on Monday, jot down the various things you need to do on Tuesday as they come to mind. Often, your working mind will have these things ready and sorted out, whereas coming in cold on Tuesday would mean warming up and thinking of them in the moment. Using a to-do list from the previous day—or even the previous hour—means jumping into tasks and skipping the mental memory workout.
16. Unplug Your House Phone: If you still have one, unplug your house phone during the day. If you have children or others who may call with an emergency, turn the ringer down and leave caller ID visible. This is true of your cell phone as well; when a call comes in, glance at the caller ID to determine if it’s important. If it’s not crucial, let it go to voicemail—you can deal with it later.
17. Take Breaks: Generally, we are most productive for about an hour at a time. Break your work up into hour long blocks if you can, or at the very least use a timer to let you know when you’ve worked an hour. Once you get to that hour mark, hop up, fix yourself a drink, do some stretches and get the blood moving again. Take just a few minutes to move around, and then sit down and get back to work again. Long breaks tend to cause a loss of focus.
18. Limit Work Hours: If you’re used to working an eight-hour day, you may find that working at home, without the distractions of the office, is much less time-consuming. Try shortening your day first to seven hours, and then six. You may realize that you can get the same amount of work done in four hours once you buckle down and focus.
19. Reward Yourself: Rewards are highly motivating, even when we’re just rewarding ourselves. Set up a system where you get to have a longer break during your day for the sort of things you generally enjoy wasting time with. For example, you might take the fifteen minutes after lunch to surf the net and read the news, or take fifteen minutes after you’ve done four hours of work that morning. Knowing that you’re working up to a fun break will keep your energy up.
20. Keep a Household To-Do List:You’re probably already keeping a work to-do list, or you should be, but it’s also important to start another to-do list on your desk, even if it’s just on a sticky note or in a small notebook. The point of this to-do list is to take all the stuff that jumps in your head out of your mind so that you can focus. For example, if you find yourself thinking about making cupcakes later for your child’s class, simply jot down “make cupcakes” and you don’t have to think about it anymore—more brain power for work!
21. Make a Work Playlist: Music can do a lot to motivate you while you’re working. If you have songs that pep you up and get you motivated, make your own playlist. The trick here is to make a playlist that is upbeat and invigorating, but not distracting. If you don’t have your own music to use, try making different channels on Pandora to find the perfect blend of classic rock, smooth jazz or instrumental tunes.
22. Establish a Routine: Within every day, every week and every month you should have a routine. When you have an established routine, you instinctively know what comes next and you’ll be able to transition from task to task easily. For example, you may do bookkeeping tasks on the first Monday of every month, or you might make it a point to update your blog every Tuesday and Thursday morning before checking email.
23. Publicize Your Work Hours: If you work with others routinely, you can cut down on off-hour interruptions and missed opportunities by posting your work hours online. If you use Skype, or another instant messenger, for example, you can set up an outgoing message stating your work hours for others to see. You can also set up an auto-responder to your emails so that clients know you will respond without twenty-four hours or during your scheduled work time.
24. Hire a Virtual Assistant: When you find yourself bogged down in tasks that simply don’t require that much time or effort, consider hiring a virtual assistant. A virtual assistant is the modern equivalent to the secretary of the “olden days”, but much better because he or she is online with you. Outsource some things to your VA as you build up trust in them, and you’ll cut down on busy work dramatically.
25. Cut Extraneous Projects: There are many things that small-business owners think of that wind up being time-wasters rather than money-makers. It may be that boosting your efficiency is as easy as cutting out non-profitable portions of your business: streamline your profitable business elements from home, and you can focus on those and eliminate the things causing wasted time and resources.
26. Work Unconventional Hours: If you find that conventional daytime hours are too full of family, doorbells, phone calls and the other mess that are all part of what we call life, consider working unconventional hours instead. This is even easier if you normally work less than forty hours per week—simply shift your hours to the early morning or the late evenings to avoid extra hassles.
27. Consider Childcare: If you’ve been trying to work with children at home, the best home office isn’t going to insulate you from most of your distractions. Consider some form of childcare for a quiet home office, or simply dodge around the distractions by working while your child is asleep or at school.
28. Organize Contacts: If you haven’t already, invest in a good smartphone as your business phone, and then use that phone to store every single number that comes through your business. With all of your numbers carefully stored with names, companies and notes in your contacts, you can make calls effortlessly at any time.
29. Organize Your Computer Files: Searching for documents is not a good use of time or effort. Block off an afternoon on your calendar and just clean off your desktop and sort through your files. Once you have everything clean and organized, back them all up, or consider storing files in a password-protected cloud application so that they are safe and available at any time.
30. Keep Paperwork Clean: No matter how much of your business you do online, there will still be physical paperwork to handle. Make a special drawer of files for business paperwork and stay organized. File papers immediately to store them or place action-items in a special tray to be included in your work day. Shuffling through papers can be a huge distractions, so handle paperwork only once or twice during your work day.
31. Include Weekly Clean-Up Efforts: Finally, once you have things down to a system of schedules and minimum distractions, keep up your organization efforts by leaving time in your schedule to organize your home office and files. Every Friday, for example, before you shut down the computer for the weekend, consider taking fifteen minutes to organize your newest files on the computer, to take out the trash and to run the vacuum cleaner so that everything is fresh and ready when you come back on Monday.
Often what works for one home office is useless in another. The best way to find what is most efficient and works best in your home office space is to simply try different patterns and routines until you find what makes you feel like you’re working at your very best. You should leave your home office at the end of your busy day feeling accomplished and ready to relax and enjoy your free time—there is no face time in a home office!
Featured photo credit: Home Office for Architect via Flickr