This post is by Sue White, successful freelance writer and Australian Writers’ Centre presenter.
This last fortnight at least half a dozen friends – mostly of the journo and/or blogger variety – have complained to me about their absolute lack of ability to work effectively from home. One friend started with phone calls, around lunchtime (around the time someone working from home realises things have been going downhill since breakfast). The conversation went like this:
Her: “Whatchya doing? Fancy a coffee?”
Me: “Um, working. Where are you?”
Her: “Oh, now? Um, Surry Hills, just walking around. My house [BTW: not remotely near Surry Hills] is driving me nuts.”
Another friend has taken to trying out different cafes to get the creative juices flowing and stem the loneliness of working solo. Smart, until the day she forgot to recharge the laptop in advance.
A third has taken up a spot in a shared studio, which works well, except on those days when their WiFi is iffy and the occasional office banter cranks up a notch to become continual office chaos.
Sure, working from home can suck. Really, it can. It can be isolating, unproductive and distracting, often in the one day. But working from home can also be amazing. Freeing. Flexible. And yes, productive. Incredibly productive. I’ve done it for about seven years now, and know the swings and roundabouts of the journey. At the moment, I’m in an ‘up’ period, so while I’m there, here are five ways to get started on making working from home work long term.
#1: Have a separate workspace that is not, I repeat, NOT, your lounge or bedroom.
I realise hearing this may be frustrating if you’re trying to work from the kitchen table, dining table, hallway, couch, or any of the myriad other options that seem sensible when you’re getting started. But trust me. Those options don’t work. Well, not long term. You may have a good stint of working from one of these makeshift options, but very soon, you’re going to start feeling that your house is one big, messy, unproductive office. And no matter what time of day or night it is, there is work to be done. I recommend a space with a door. Sunrooms are great. Nooks are fine. Sunlight is of course wonderful, but for writing I’d take a dark room with a door versus a light and sunny kitchen table any day, purely for long term sanity.
#2: Don’t work all over your house. (Because you have a separate area, right?)
I know, what’s the point of having the flexibility of working from home if you can’t just flip open the laptop and start working away anywhere? Trust me, I’ve worked from them all. Couch. Backyard. Dining table. Bed. (Of course, what freelancer hasn’t? Don’t even get me started on my standard working from home attire.)
Short term, you can get away with anything. But do it long term (and we’re trying to set you up with productive, sustainable work habits, right?) and things will hurt. Your back. Your shoulders. Your neck. Really, bodies don’t like the ergonomics of a crappy work set up.
Here’s how to save a lot of money on chiros and physios: Get one space in your house, and set it up as ergonomically as possible. Although I have a Mac Air laptop (and actually, virtually every Mac device on the market), I work from the desktop version. There’s a big screen. A separate keyboard. And it’s too freakin’ heavy to lift so I just work with my back nice and upright and good ergonomics on my side.
#3. Get other people away.
Children. Partners. Parents. We love them all. But not when we’re working. Working from home is so much more productive when nobody else is around. Can the kids be babysat at someone else’s house, or taken to the park for a couple of hours, rather than playing in the next room while you work? Can your (otherwise lovely) partner get the hell out of the way while you’re working, rather than hanging around and asking questions like, “Can you just help me with this one thing?” (“No, because I’m working.”) Can your mid-week visitors be forewarned that even though in the middle of the day you sometimes wander around the house looking like you’re doing nothing, you’re actually working, so while you’d love them to visit, you can only hang out with them after hours?
See how all of this becomes much clearer if you have a separate space to work from? Much harder for the loved ones to respect your boundaries if you’re fuzzy on them yourself. Help them out by making it clear when you’re on duty and when you’re off. As Tom Cruise said in the great 1996 classic (and I use that term loosely), “Help me, help you.”
#4. Set ‘office hours’.
This one works for me, it may not work for you. Usually, my work life balance is best if I set myself ‘office hours’. These could be anything: mornings off and then work 2-9pm. Work weekends and have a couple of days off in the week. Work from 6am and knock off around noon, basking in the glory of a completed to do list. But do the same thing more or less every day.
Of the above options, the 6am till noon option agrees with both my brain and body clock. I think of this schedule as my ‘hyper productive’ weeks. Admittedly, those periods do get a bit smug: I use the afternoon to pat myself on the back for being so disciplined, go to the gym, and knock off a few bits of personal admin, all by 5pm. When I’m in one of these phases, freelance life has never felt better.
Unfortunately, that’s not the period I’m in now. Right now, I’m on my standard ‘office hours’. Boringly, but honestly, after years of trial and error I’ve found that a loose 9-5 Monday to Friday work week is my best bet for both productivity while I’m working, and having a balanced life outside of work. Sometimes, I start at 7am and finish at 3pm, but I rarely work in the evening, or on weekends. I also have learned that without two full work free days a week, my brain turns to mush. Your body may behave differently to mine in terms of hours, but the key to your success will be to find your most consistently productive time for working, and stick to that as often as possible.
#5. Break all these rules occasionally. But only occasionally.
What’s the point in working from home if you treat it like an office all the time? (Aside from wearing what you want, having long lunches without anyone clock watching, and always being home when the courier drops off that awesome new eBay purchase, of course.) Fair enough. Break the rules. I do. But break them consciously, and occasionally. Long term, you’ll be happier for it.
How do you go working from home?
Sue White is a freelance features and travel writer whose stories have featured in The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Vogue Australia, Travel + Leisure (Australia), Sun Herald Travel, Women’s Health, Vogue Entertaining + Travel, CNN Traveller, the South China Morning Health, Good Health, various ABC outlets,Green Living, Green Lifestyle magazine and numerous other publications in both Australia and overseas. She teaches a number of courses with the Australian Writers’ Centre.
This post originally appeared on Sue’s blog.