5 lessons I’ve learned working from home for 10 years

Working remotely comes with a unique set of challenges across the board – mundanity, loneliness, increasingly blurred lines between working and living – and all of those are okay, as long as you know how to manage them.

As someone who has been working from home for 10 years, I’ve learned the hard way how to create an optimal environment and push past these kinds of barriers.

Ensuring your work-from-home experience is a positive and productive one isn’t necessarily difficult (it’s mostly about small tweaks), but it can be more complicated than you might expect.

Here are five things that have helped me build successful habits and maintain a better state of mind, and I bet they can help you too. (And yes, I’d like to think that I’ve learned more than one thing every two years in my work-from-home career, but these five definitely stand out.)

1. Make your home office a place you like

One of the greatest benefits of working from home is that you can decide what goes in your workspace. You’re going to spend a lot of hours in that area, and many of them are likely to be stressful, so it should at least be a space that allows you a little bit of enjoyment.

Find ways to upgrade or modify what you’re working with for optimal productivity. It might mean a bit of spending too, but it truly is an investment. I’m not necessarily talking about sound systems and mini-fridges (although, why not?), I’m talking about basics.

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A wide desk that has enough space for all your tasks and items is vital, a comfortable chair can keep your health on point when you’re stuck sitting for long hours, and the right lighting for whatever kind of work you do should never be underestimated. A personal productivity game-changer for me was when I upgraded my monitor from a 25” Ultra-Thin to a 29” Ultra-Wide.

This probably seems obvious now that you’re reading it. But I can only assume that there are plenty of people out there like me – people who relegate anything without a deadline to the bottom of their to-do list, only to be sitting in the same uncomfortable chair in the same dimly lit room six months later, and wonder why they’re starting to hate the daily grind.

Don’t be like me. Set yourself up for success from the beginning.

2. Make a schedule that works for you

Of course you’re going to make a schedule that works for you, right? Isn’t that the whole point of working from home? For a lot of people, yes.

Having more control, freedom, and flexibility is definitely on the “pro” side of the pro/con list for remote work. The problem arises for people who assume that the key phrase in this advice is “works for you.”

No, actually – the key phrase is “make a schedule.” The awesome power of making your own hours is just too much for many of us to handle, and without a plan for your day-to-day, we spiral into disorganization and backlog. From my experience, as well as what my many remote colleagues have related, I can tell you that winging it is unlikely to serve you well.

Similarly, not every schedule is created equal. Do you work more efficiently or creatively during certain parts of the day? Need frequent breaks? Have chores to take care of? Share childcare duties? An effective schedule isn’t just about working every day, it’s about taking all those things into account.

For me, the proverbial straw that broke the work camel’s back came in the form of parenthood. For a long time, I skated by (barely) with a “work-when-I-feel-like-it” attitude. It basically worked for me, even if it didn’t always work for people around me. As soon as the baby came home, that all changed, and my lack of a set schedule became a glaring weakness. At the same time, that represented an immediate opportunity for optimization.

3. Social media is not a social life

Isolation and loneliness are under-regarded as workplace problems since traditionally work has been a social activity. As we’ve all learned in the Age of Zoom, video chats just aren’t the same as face-to-face connections. It’s not just the people from the office or work site that you miss when you go remote, though – it’s the people you see on your commute or your lunch break; it’s random customers; it’s the whole experience of being part of civilization.

There can be a temptation to fill that gap with social media. “Oh, I don’t get out as much, but I’m still a very social person. I spend four hours a day on Instagram and Twitter.” No. If anything, that’s worse than no social life, as it’s exposing you in the process to what are largely fabricated or partial realities, toxic interactions, and the illusion of actual connection.

What to do instead? That totally depends on your hobbies, location, personality, budget, and so on. For me, parenting helps a lot by giving me a reason to get out of the house and meet people with similar lifestyles on a regular basis, but even before that, being a pet owner accomplished those same things.

Something as simple as a walk to the dog park can put you in contact with enough people (even if you don’t talk to them) to add some fuel to the social gas tank.

4. Pay attention to your physical health

This is a big one. If you’re not putting on your work pants every day, you might not notice when they start to get a little tight around the middle, and that’s just the start of the problems. Too much time spent sitting or staring at screens is bad for anyone. Too much extra pizza and ice cream (no one’s looking, right?) will crash your whole system.

My problem? All of the above. My solution? A Peloton exercise bike. I stuck it in my office and realized I could pedal and work at the same time (thanks to a laptop stand that is conveniently positioned next to the bike). I zoomed while Zooming instead of slacking while Slacking… forgive me.

And it worked. I felt better, I worked smarter, and gained confidence. There is literally an infinity of other ways to incorporate exercise into your daily routine, and a ton of other aspects of physical health to be respectful of – like adequate sleep, hydration, and nutrition – but start with something small and you’ll see the difference it makes before you know it.

5. Keep room in your life for people

Yes, this is about more than just a social life. This is about the people you truly care for, and who care about you as well. The problem with remote work in this context is that it can all too destabilize your work-life balance. You’re always at home… and you’re always at work.

This really hit home for me when my wife and I found ourselves in disagreement about whether or not we’d been allotting enough time for each other. On the one hand, it was true that we were virtually always together, since she, too, works from home.

On the other hand, we took that for granted, and didn’t set aside much “couple time.” This, luckily, is another issue that can be helped pretty easily by just making that schedule I talked about above – and sticking to it.

Working at home definitely has its challenges. Based on my decade-plus of experience doing it, though, I’ve confidently concluded that it isn’t really any harder (or easier, for that matter) than working a job that requires commuting; it’s just different.

As such, it’s also true that those challenges it does entail can be universally solved by virtually anyone who is willing to give it a go. Is it scary making the transition? Well, sure, but also exciting. Is it worth it? That’s a “yes” from me. 

So you’re interested in the future of work? Then join our online event, TNW2020, to hear how successful companies are adapting to a new way of working.

Published September 10, 2020 — 08:00 UTC

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