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How to work from home and stay productive

Follow these tips to avoid distraction and get stuff done.

Woman working from home

Ask anyone who works from home full-time, and they’ll tell you it’s not easy. You need to cultivate some good habits. Working from home is a constant battle against boredom, mental fatigue and your own kitten-like aptitude for distraction. But it can also be a good thing (global pandemic notwithstanding): surveys suggest 77 per cent of us are more productive when working from home, and 82 per cent can feel much happier doing so. You just need to follow a few simple rules.

If you’re new to the whole working-from-home thing, here’s how to stay productive and get stuff done.

1. Get dressed

Your immediate tendency will be to fulfil your lifelong ambition of sleeping in, eating toast in bed, and getting paid in your pyjamas. Try to fight it. Working from home successfully requires iron discipline, and all discipline begins with self. Get up early, shower, change into something resembling work clothes (basically anything except underwear is fine), make yourself a pot of tea and start working. Treat the day as if you were heading into the office, because that’s essentially what you’re doing. 


2. Make a dedicated work space

Not everyone has the luxury of a home office or spare bedroom, but you should try (at the very least) to have a dedicated space for work. You’ll find you’re a lot more productive than sitting in bed, surrounded by bills, cat toys and bits of crumpet. A lot of people, faced with sudden remote work, have gotten creative and turned ironing boards into standing desks – which brings us to posture. Your monitor should sit around eye height, about 16 inches from your face (an arm’s length is fine). Your hands  and forearms should be parallel to the floor, 90 degrees away from your body. Consider a foot rest or lumbar pillow if your back’s getting sore.


3. Break up the day

The first thing you should do is identify when you’re most productive. There’s some solid science to back this up. Most of us work better in the morning, so make a strong cup of coffee, sit down at your screen, and try to power through for about 90 minutes. Then take a break. Regular ‘deep work’ blocks, around two hours each, followed by 30-minute breaks, are the best way to keep your mind active. Think about your own habits too: if your brain turns to mush after 3pm, use that time for emails, spreadsheets or any other ‘mindless’ work. If you concentrate best before midday, schedule important tasks for the morning, and leave Skype meetings till after lunch.


4. Get the right tech

Your office will probably have its own remote work software, but here’s a rough guide if you’re new to the concept. First, get some conference tech like Zoom, Google Hangouts or Skype. A task manager is a good way to stay focussed, too. A lot of freelancers favour Trello, but there are plenty of options out there. You’ll also need solid WIFI. For most people this won’t be a problem, but if your home signal is patchy, consider a ‘WIFI mesh’ system like Google Nest or Amazon Eero. To block out distractions, consider investing in a pair of noise-cancelling headphones (you don’t need to spend hundreds of dollar here either – Sony, for instance, has a pair for AUD$79).


5. Find your ‘work’ music

This one’s pretty subjective, although there have been studies that show classical music, natural ambient sounds and instrumental tracks can help boost productivity. Even meaningless white noise, like the murmur of a crowd or the drone of a washing machine, can do the trick. Anything that helps you slip into a Zen-like ‘flow state’, which is pretty much the working-from-home Holy Grail. Many people find piano music and lo-fi chillhop to be the best for long-term concentration, but again, it’s whatever works for you. Spotify has put together playlists of white noise, if you’d like to spend the day listening to background static. Flick it on and watch the hours zoom by.


6. Block distractions

Your phone is the obvious one here, so leave that in another room (if possible). It’s also going to be tempting to jump online and google ‘Coronavirus’ every 40 seconds. Try not to do this, for obvious mental health and productivity reasons. If you find yourself getting regularly distracted, download some productivity apps and website blockers. FocusMe and Forest are two of the most popular, but there are heaps of programs on the market. Just be careful with hard-core blockers like Cold Turkey: if you lock yourself out of your computer, it’s often impossible to get back in (until the pre-set time has passed, anyway).


7. Set firm office hours

It’s odd that employers have been sceptical of remote work for so long. Studies show employees tend to work longer hours at home than they do in the office. This is obviously great for the company, but it’s not great for you (or your brain). This won’t be possible for everyone, but try to set firm office hours – and stick to them. When the clock strikes 5pm or 6pm, or whatever you’ve agreed with your boss, finish up your work, send one or two last emails, then power down and step away from the monitor. It sounds obvious, but you’ll be amazed how easy it is to just…keep working, all afternoon and into the night. With no physical distance from your workplace, you need to set strict mental boundaries.