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Your Telecommuter’s Toolbox

Your Telecommuter’s Toolbox
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    Telecommuting has been suggested as a cure-all from everything from the stress of your morning commute to that high carbon footprint you want to reduce. And odds are you have a whole list of what you need to make the switchover: software packages, computer specs, technical equipment for your profession. Every productivity website has lists of the best web apps and other options for making your telecommuting easier.

    But even if you’ve started shifting to working outside your employer’s office — or you’re thinking about striking out on your own — there are other things that you can have in your telecommuter’s toolbox that can make your work a little bit easier. These aren’t necessary the most obvious of tools, but they’ve made my home office run smoothly.

    The Meal Plan:
    One of the great things about working from home is the fact that you don’t have to spend money on eating out. You don’t even need to spend the time to brown bag your lunch: you’ve got a fully functional kitchen just down the hall. But many of us forget to stock that refrigerator with anything we’d want to eat for lunch and wind out going out anyhow. Planning ahead of time what we want to eat, from lunches to snacks makes it easier to shop and can help prevent a telecommuter from getting off track by having to focus on what to eat. I keep my meal planning simple: I have an extra calendar on Google Calendar where I put down what I want to eat for the next week. I make my shopping list directly from that calendar.

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    The Insurance Policy: Even if you aren’t paying for your computer and other equipment, you may want to up your insurance policy. Just having more electronic equipment in your home can make you a bit of a target for theft. Having an insurance policy can make sure that you can get back to work as soon as possible. And even on the off chance that your employer covers your computer under their policy, you’ll need an insurance policy to cover your other stuff at risk for theft (television, etc.). Depending on your living situation, renter’s insurance or home owner’s insurance maybe all the protection you need.

    The Outside Office: The idea of a telecommuter heading off to Starbucks to work has become almost stereotypical. The fact is, though, we’re social critters and we like working with other people around us. Coffee shops serve this purpose, as do libraries, bookshops and co-working locations. As a telecommuter, you need to find some place to work outside of your home. It doesn’t need to be a regular occurrence, but it is necessary. I can go an entire week without going outside except to get my mail — and I know some telecommuters who are much worse.

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    The Alarm Clock: I thought I’d managed to get rid of my alarm clock when I didn’t need to make it in to an office every morning. But if I don’t get up and get my day started, I may never make it out of bed. Telecommuting is about flexibility, but without setting your ‘hours of operation,’ you may be too flexible to get your work done. I’ve also found that my alarm clock is crucial to reminding me of times that I need to leave my office: appointments and such that I can easily forget because no one stops by my cubicle to remind me of a meeting.

    The Exercise Regimen: If you work from home, you have little incentive to get up out of your chair. You can slack at your desk without anyone saying anything and, unless your laundry pile has gotten to the point where it is sentient, your computer is probably your best bet for talking to someone. You still have to make the effort, though. Take a daily walk. Do some pushups. Even exercise in your chair. There are a whole slew of health problems desk workers face, most of which can be mitigated by the occasional lap around the block.

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    The Business Card: I can hear you asking why you need a business card right now. After all, you work from home — who are you going to give your business card to? One of the biggest problems telecommuters face is being able to advance. Many managers think face time is a prerequisite for promotions, not to mention raises. As a telecommuter, it’s up to you to network and build up your options for advancement. And if you’re working for yourself, rather than some employer, you’ll want to market your business to make sure you’ve got work rolling in. Hand out your business cards (and other promotional materials — resumes, brochures, etc. — as needed) at your coffee shop and everywhere else you see people.

    The Snack Cupboard: I fondly remember the vending machines at my last job — sodas, crackers and candy bars all calling my name. Those machines were always good when I needed a quick snack. I’ve heard that some work places even offer up free snacks and drinks, though I haven’t been lucky enough to land a cushy job like that. However, I now have my own cupboard full of snacks that I don’t need to pay a machine to dispense, which is almost as good. Stocking snacks and drinks in your home office can help you from needing distracting breaks from your work. Even better, you can stock healthier snacks and the flavors you like best.

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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.

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    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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