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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 September 18, 2019

        How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

        How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

        Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes.

        I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

        One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

        Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

        The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

        And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

        What to Write Down

        Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

        Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

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        Dates of Events

        Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

        For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

        Names of People

        Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

        Theories or Frameworks

        Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

        Definitions

        Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

        Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

        Arguments and Debates

        Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

        This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

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        Images

        Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

        Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

        Other Stuff

        Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

        I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

        Your Own Questions

        Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

        3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

        You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

        1. Outlining

        Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

        Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

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        For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

        2. Mind-Mapping

        For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

        Here’s the idea:

        In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

        The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

        If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

        You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

        3. The Cornell System

        The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

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        About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

        You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

        In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

        You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

        The Bottom Line

        I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

        I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

        More About Note-Taking

        Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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