I've been working from home for more than ten years. Learn from my mistakes.
These days more and more of us—myself included—enjoy the privilege of working from home, either on a full-time or part-time basis. If you're cooped up in a corporate office, frustrated by commuting, annoying by interrupting co-workers, and unsatisfied by the few, predictably boring lunch options in your area, then the allure of working at home may sound like a dream to you.
And at the rate jobs in many fields—particularly in computer-oriented areas—are shifting workforces, this particular dream is likely to come true.
My work-at-home origin story
I've been working from home for more than ten years. I left my last full-time office job in 2002: That job and office, working for Apple in Cupertino, was actually pretty great, but I've grown to appreciate working from home so much that I doubt I could ever return to that lifestyle.
The advantages to working from home are too great, and I've come to count on them too much to imagine ever giving them up. Alongside those blessings, however, there are also many challenges.
I want to share with you some of my advice for getting the most out of working from home, whether you're relocating for a short stint, or it's the start of a life-long change in how you do your work.
Some of the lessons I've learned fly in the face of those dreams we hold on to in the office: All those delicious freedoms turn out to be some of the hardest aspects to the setup. No alarm clock? Good luck figuring out when you start your day. No lunch time? Don't forget to eat. No boss looming over you? Better make sure you actually get something done!
When I first started the work from home gig long ago, I praised an author whose work I admired for bettering my own work habits. He let me in on a little secret: the pieces he wrote that I so admired were not directed at me, but to himself.
He wrote them to persuade himself into achieving the level of performance that he aspired to, all while couching it as advice that might be pertinent to others.
And so, here I am with an article that embraces that kind of writing: I've been imperfect at following many of the guidelines I'm about to lay out, but I aspire every day to comply more with them. Hopefully these rules can help you embrace your own work-at-home ethos—whether or not you follow mine with any whole-hog mentality.
Let's get one thing out of the way: Clean you is always better than grubby you.
Working in an office has a clever way of encouraging most of us to aspire to a daily regimen that keeps us feeling, looking—and perhaps most importantly, smelling—great. Among the dreams of working at home is the classic "working in your underwear" image: The idea that you could conduct professional, paid work while lounging around in pajamas or skivvies does have its appeal.
And I whole-heartedly encourage anybody new to working from home to try it at least once. Blast some music while you're at it, and sing along. Howl at the moon. Shine on, you crazy diamond! It's true, the freedoms of working from home are liberating.
But in the long run, I've found that establishing grooming habits are very helpful in maintaining a sense of normalcy. In a pinch, you can work from home in your underwear, but being bathed and groomed has its own advantages, while neglecting to do so can snowball into problems that I'll touch on later.
Psychologically, being clean, dressed, and ready to take on whatever gets thrown at you is a great plan for starting any work day, whether it be in an office building with judging peers, or at home where only your family or the UPS guy is likely to pass judgement. Show yourself and your work the respect they are due by showering and dressing every morning. You'll feel better—especially on days when the UPS guy needs a signature.
Takeaway: Make it a rule that you can't touch your work tools until you've showered and dressed. For many of us that means not sitting down at a computer, not even to check your email, until the business of getting ready for work is done.
#2: A place of one's own
A great freedom of working from home is that technically you can make valuable progress while lounging on the couch, sunning in the back yard, or even exercising with workout equipment. And by all means, when these fancies strike and you can get good work done, enjoy the privilege of doing so.
But it's also important to have a dedicated place of refuge. Whether it's a room with a door that closes, or a designated corner of the kitchen table, you need a space in your home that is for working at home. This is especially important when the happy-go-lucky work style is not working for you. A space that accommodates work, that can be tuned to encourage it, and that you associate with work, will help put you into the mood of plowing through tasks even when you might rather be lounging in the backyard.
If you share your home with other people, it's also important that they are clear about where your work space is, and that they understand what it means when you're in it. Without a dedicated space, it's unfair to assume that your partner, your kids, or your roommates necessarily understand that you're working and shouldn't be interrupted. If your kids find you in the backyard, sipping a tall glass of lemonade, splashing your feet in a wading pool, it will mean little to them that you've also got a computer on your lap and that you're working on brain-bending spreadsheet equations.
Takeaway: Establish a space in your home that is understood by everybody—yourself included—to be your primary place of work. Discuss with friends and family what your expectations are about being interrupted when you're in this space.
#3: Don't forget to eat
When I worked at Apple, remembering to go to lunch was a shared responsibility between my peers and myself. We all suffered from the same tendency to get caught up in work, space out about time, and ignore our bodies' cues about hunger. Luckily, most days one of us would get uncharacteristically motivated about lunch, and cajole the rest of us into joining in the group effort. Better to go now than to be left dining alone, right?
If we did stay behind, we would inevitably work "a little bit longer" before looking up to see it was 3 or 4 in the afternoon, we were ravenously hungry, and had probably been doing substandard work for at least the past two hours.
When you work from home, it's likely there's no team of co-workers to get you excited about lunch. Worse, when you do realize mid-afternoon that you're dying of hunger, you'll raid the home refrigerator and stuff whatever rich, readily-edible foods you can find into your mouth, rather than taking the time to put together a balanced meal.
Making a commitment to eat is relatable to the plan to shower and dress. It's not strictly necessary to make it through the day, but you'll find that the day goes better and you're more prepared to handle unexpected events when you take care of your basic needs. It doesn't have to be fancy, and most days it probably shouldn't be: Peanut butter and jelly, grilled cheese, even a bowl of cereal if you're one of those mealtime rebels. Knowing ahead of time to expect lunch time, and knowing what it will be, will help you to follow through.
Takeaway: Make a plan for lunch every day. , but make a commitment and establish a timeframe for when lunch happens, and try to stick to it.
#4: Get outta here
Another nice side-effect of lunching with co-workers was that it tended to get us all out of the office for a bit. Putting some distance between yourself and your work is a good way to give yourself a break, and also to revive yourself with the sights and sounds of "the real world."
Most people spend the vast majority of their lives split between work and home. When the two are the very same place, the risk of leading a very insular life is high. Don't underestimate the inspiration that can be found in seeing other people, trying new foods, or getting a glimpse of nature.
I've developed habits that get me out of the house at least once a day, if not more. Satisfying the lunch requirement is an obvious one: When I don't put together a meal at home, I make a point of walking to a local restaurant. Usually I opt for something simple and casual like a sandwich or slices of pizza; it doesn't have to be a full sit-down affair.
I also try to make lunch dates occasionally, where I have the opportunity to sit down with a friend and engage in something approximating those old social lunch hours I used to enjoy with co-workers.
If you're concerned at all about your heath, as you probably should be, let exercise be a factor in helping you here. I run every other day, and because nobody tells me I can't, I usually do it in the middle of my work day. I take routes that lead me through a mix of outdoor nature, and the cultural centers of nearby towns. I get my mind off of work, and have the opportunity to see the effects of the seasons on the local wildlife, as well as the effects of people living and working around me.
Takeaway: Leave your home for at least 30 minutes every day. Get lunch, run an errand, literally run a mile, or just take a stroll and catch up on your favorite podcast.
#5: Engage a social network
While the water cooler of jobs past never panned out as quite the center of workplace culture that it's often portrayed as, it serves as a valuable metaphor for something that is lost when you work from home. Chances are you don't have a water cooler, and if you do, there is no dynamically shifting population of people milling about it all day.
There's no getting around the fact that working from home can be lonely. If you're introverted and thrive when you're left on your own, this may sound like paradise. For those of us who are either extroverted or possess traits that defy classification, we come to miss the casual banter that happens in any workplace's common areas.
Ten years ago, the challenge of filling this void would have been harder than it is today. The internet, with its predominant social networks, not to mention direct instant messaging and texts, keep us theoretically far more connected to one another than we ever were before. It's only a matter of picking up the keyboard and striking up a conversation.
Takeaway: Make friends online, or connect with existing ones. Chatting with people on Twitter, Facebook, Slack, or even a dedicated AOL group chat room is a great way to replace the social banter you used to get in the office.
#6: Actually be your own boss
It's one thing to dream about being one's own boss, but being one's own boss? It's kind of a drag. All the things you've ever resented your actual bosses for doing or saying now fall on you. Worst of all? Your boss didn't know half of all the ways you were slacking off. You're all too familiar with your own shortcomings.
After you settle into the freedoms of working from home, you'll probably start yearning for a bit more structure. But who will impose that structure? Whether you literally work for yourself or are working from home by yourself, you're the one in charge of how the day plays out.
Actually being your own boss is one of the greatest challenges of working from home, and in my experience it's helpful to be, well, bossy with yourself to the extent you are comfortable. Give yourself strict deliverables; I write a checklist in the morning and get very grumpy with myself if the checklist is not completed or rationalized by the end of the day.
Technology can play an important role in being your own boss. Use technologies such as Apple's OS X and iOS reminders to give you cues throughout the day. These can also help with some previously mentioned ambitions. Is it hard to get out of the house for lunch every day? Set an alarm with Siri for 12:30, every day. The vibrations and bell-ranging stand a good chance of driving you out of the house. And if Siri doesn't fit the bill, there are a variety of apps that can help you be a better, more attentive version of you.
Takeaway: Devise a plan to keep yourself in check. If you thrive as a free spirit, be a free spirit. If you thrive when somebody is in charge, be in charge of your own ambitions and establish rules and guidelines for your own performance.
For many of us, the hardest part of working from home is stopping. When you work in a typical office, it's obvious when you should stop working: The end of the day has come, and most (if not all) of your coworkers have left the building.
Working from home, you'll always be the first to arrive and the last to leave. Where do you draw the line? Have you underworked or overworked? The freedoms of working from home may be so thrilling to you that you decide there is no such thing as overworking. Let me assure you: There is such a thing.
If you want a normal life, you need a normal job. And normal jobs end at normal times. Every day, I wake up, enjoy the fact that I don't commute to work, and settle into my home office. Then, I spend the day working, taking breaks, having lunch, exercising, let's be honest, stressing out, overworking to some extent, but also slacking off. It's a work day. But I always stop at 6PM, because that's when my family starts "after work time." At 6PM, I'm no longer working from home, I'm being at home.
This distinction definitely gets blurred: Sometimes I am holding my laptop while I'm being at home, but it's helpful for everybody to know when I am no longer working. At 6PM, the work day is over. I'm no longer an employee, no longer an entrepreneur. I'm a husband, a hobbyist, and a goofball. I'm a dad.
Takeaway: At home, nobody tells you when to stop working. Establish a rule with yourself, or with your family, for when the workday ends and the "lifeday" begins.
The great balancing act
There are many advantages to working from home, but the privileges come with challenges that not everybody is equipped to handle. How will you manage your time, cope with isolation from coworkers, and draw a line between yourself and the hustle and bustle of family life? It's not as easy as any of us imagined when we were daydreaming in our office jobs.
And yet, most days it can well be a dream of sorts. Most days I wake up early, take a shower, get dressed, and conduct my work on a fixed schedule. I have lunch because I know it's good for me. I take a run or take a walk. I immerse myself in society. I meet with friends when I can. I chat with other buddies on Twitter, Facebook, IRC, and Slack.
I do whatever I want do, as well as whatever I have to do, not to mention what I force myself to do. This is the balance of working from home: complete freedom, delicately combined with complete rigor.
After ten years of working from home, I'm only beginning to understand what it takes to thrive while doing so. Hopefully my experiences will give you a sense of the joys and challenges that come with this slightly unusual, but increasingly common lifestyle.
If you work from home for a day, a week, or a lifetime, heed this advice to stay happy and healthy. I want you to enjoy working from home, but more importantly I want you to survive working from home. Show us what you can do.