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10 Hacks to Improve Your Home Office Productivity

10 Hacks to Improve Your Home Office Productivity

    If you work from home, the central part of your work life is the home office. For some, that means the kitchen table, but most of us assign a specific room to be the base of operations and (try to) do our work from there each day.

    Given that we must take into consideration strategy before tactics, it stands to reason that we should make it a room we enjoy being in, and furthermore, a room that gets us in a productive mood, and by considering these things provide a strategic framework to the hacks we can apply in the office.

    What puts you in a productive mood?

    That’s a central question to defining your workspace. Perhaps being reminded of your goals – the reason you do this work each day – is enough to get you going, so find a way to remind yourself of those goals at the start of, and throughout, each day. Perhaps bare minimalism puts you in the right mindset, so chuck all the pens and pads on your desk in a cupboard and take the browser shortcuts off your desktop (or out of the Dock). WriteRoom, anyone?

    If you can’t identify the things that trigger a productive mood for you, then you’ll have a tough time improving your workspace on anything more than a cosmetic level. Spend some time on this, and get it right! Here are some hacks that work for me.

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      1. Get some good tunes going. Get some high-quality speakers attached to your computer and have specific playlists prepared for different kinds of work and concentration levels. It’s been said that listening to music while working and studying gives you a boost in productivity, creativity and memory retention. I know this works for me!

      If you need to chew away at some menial work, like changing the font tags in a 500-page website where the previous designer was kind enough not to use a CSS stylesheet, play something upbeat. If you need to brainstorm and be creative, use relaxing music. Your preferences for different kinds of work will be different to mine, and you may even find that music distracts more than it helps.

      And remember to pay for music, unless the creator is giving it away (in which case just grab it all while you can)!

      2. Keep a distraction around, but out of the way. It’s important to have distractions around. When you take a break, doing something just for fun can help you wipe your mental RAM and begin afresh when you return to work. But remember: keep them out of reach and out of sight while you work, because you may end up spending more time distracted and playing than actually working. If you find you spend a lot of time in the office but not much time working, it may be because your distractions are out in the open where you’re tempted to easily. Hide them, or develop some serious self-discipline.

      It may be a game of Minesweeper or Counter-Strike on your computer or a guitar in the corner – whatever you find enjoyable, and can be enjoyed in a relatively short amount of time. Though if you make your money as a gamer or a musician, you might want to find some other examples!

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      3. Never be without a way to quickly catch an idea. Many times, I’ve had a sudden idea and by the time I could get Google Docs or TextEdit open, the idea was completely gone (until I upgraded my RAM!). Always make sure that if you have an idea, you can get it down immediately. Not within twenty seconds. Straight away. The home office is where you’re most likely to get in the head-space of your work and produce new ideas, so not having an immediately accessible idea receptacle is utter foolishness.

      Same principle applies if you’re on the phone and need to take a note – there’s a reason every PDA has a phone notes template!

        4. Use your workspace to hack your brain into focusing. What’s the first thing you do when you sit down to write? Open Skype and your feed reader? Go browsing or using StumbleUpon? Then you need to hack your brain into focusing.

        I’d normally recommend doing email at the start of the day, but you’re the kind of person who should do email at the end of day and only ever at the end of the day.

        Aside from setting boundaries and a firm daily routine, you can apply hacks to force yourself into focusing. For instance, if you’re a Mac user, you can remove Word from the Dock and replace it with WriteRoom; in order to quickly get into a writing program, you’ll have to open the one program that forces you to do nothing but write.

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        5. Get a plant. Plants are not only aesthetically pleasing, but they convert the nasty gases you create throughout the day (yeah, I’m looking at you) into the much more pleasant oxygen variety. Personally, I don’t keep one in the office because there are plants right outside my office window, which I’m looking at all day (it’s right behind my monitor), so if your office is next to a garden or a few trees keeping the blinds open is a cheap and effective alternative.

        6. Lighting and color. Yeah, that stuff your graphic designer friends like to rabbit on about all day. I’ve read that the color of walls in a room can influence your mood and some even cause more stress and arguments in a relationship (yellow being one). I spent two months living in a room with orange freakin’ walls once and wanted to shoot my head off. Stressful.

        If your office walls have been painted with an aggravating color, re-paint it. If yours does nothing for you either way, find a color that puts you in a relaxed, productive mood and paint it. One room ain’t that expensive. If you rent, ask first!

        A good home office allows plenty of natural light in, without glaring up your computer screen (you’re going to be looking at it all day; no sense in having to spend the day squinting). Consider how you can arrange your office to get the most natural light on your workspace without getting it directly on your screen.

        7. Declutter. Even if you are anti-minimalist, you should declutter. You can still keep plenty of stuff around – we’re defining clutter here as distracting material, including mess. Nothing is worse for your mental state than living and operating in a mess. Expect lethargy and crankiness and a particular level of apathy towards your state of affairs.

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        Anything you don’t use on a daily basis should be put away, and anything you don’t use should be thrown straight in the bin.

        That said, if you’re not averse to minimalism, then you should take decluttering to the extreme and keep only the bare essentials around your workspace.

        8. Get the hell out of there! You can improve your home office by leaving it once in a while! Go to Starbucks or some other ridiculously over-priced but low-quality establishment (McDonalds comes to mind). Do some work there. You’ll either benefit from getting out of the house for the first time this week, or you’ll find the whiny gossiping and crappy Top 40 music so infuriating you’ll come to love and adore the office that much more.

        I don’t give advice I don’t take myself, but point 8 is probably something I should work on doing more often.

        9. Get ergonomic input peripherals. This is seriously one of the best things I’ve done in my home office, and sometimes I don’t realize how fantastic ergonomic peripherals are until I’m without them. Regular readers will probably have noticed the amount of stuff I’ve broken lately and subsequently written about here (such as my recent article on detecting hard drive failure before it occurs), and yes, I’ve done it again. My precious Natural Ergonomic 4000 was attacked by coffee and died quite an unnatural death. So, during this time of loss, I can quite honestly say that the best thing I’ve ever done for my office was drop absurd amounts of cash I didn’t really have on a keyboard and mouse that does not destroy my wrists.

        10. Do whatever the hell makes you happy. These aren’t hard-and-fast rules; they’re just hacks for productivity that worked for me. If they don’t work for you, that’s fine – experiment until you find what works for you. The important thing is that you’re happy, relaxed and motivated in your workspace, and that you never stop trying to make it better, because it’ll never really be a 100% optimal place to work. If you need to tell all the rules to get bent, good for you.

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        Joel Falconer

        Editor, content marketer, product manager and writer with 12+ years of experience in the startup, design and tech digital media industries.

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        Last Updated on August 20, 2019

        Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

        Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

        Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

        This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

        The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard. Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

        Curiosity

        Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

        People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

        Patience

        Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

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        When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

        Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

        A Feeling for Connectedness

        This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

        A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

        The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

        With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

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        1. Research

        Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

        Learning the Basics

        Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

        Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

        What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

        Hitting the Books

        Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

        Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

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        Long-Term Reference

        While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

        My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

        2. Practice

        Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

        A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

        Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

        3. Network

        One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

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        These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

        Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

        4. Schedule

        For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

        Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

        Final Thoughts

        In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

        If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

        At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

        More About Self-Learning

        Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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