This post also appears at LinkedIn.
For the third time in my life I am working from home full-time. I first traded a cube for a home office in 2005 after quitting a normal 9-to-5 to find a better use of my skills and talents. The second time was in 2012 when my wife’s job sent her to the Dominican Republic. I had a full-time job at a think tank and was already leading a project with the Dominican government, and was allowed to do continue my work from my home office in Santo Domingo. This time I am doing it as a solopreneur. My wife’s job has taken us overseas again and I have launched my own LLC. Each time I have worked from home I have learned important lessons about effectiveness. After being out of practice for four years, I find myself re-learning some of the more valuable ones.
First, I am re-learning the most essential lesson of working from home: manage distractions. During my first self-employed adventure my then-girlfriend repeatedly interrupted me throughout the day. She too was self-employed and loved to bounce ideas off me. I enjoyed the creative back-and-forth, but it impacted my productivity. It got to the point where I had to make a box on the floor with masking tape. When I was inside the box, I was not to be disturbed. Outside the box however, I was fair game!
Fast forward more than ten years and distractions have grown exponentially. My email, phone, and tablet are a cacophony of chimes and dings. One easy solution has been to silence my phone. Sometimes I intentionally keep all devices (except my computer) in a separate room. But then I risk missing legitimately urgent notifications. What to do?
One option is to disable notifications from each app as they come in. I did this and admit it is terribly time consuming. But you can usually knock it out in one day. I have whittled down automatic news notifications to two apps, even though I have more than ten news apps installed on my phone and tablet. Another practice is to assign particular sounds to truly urgent notifications. For example, my phone makes a Chewbacca noise when my wife texts or IMs me. In my defense, she chose the sound when I told her I was using Star Wars sound effects for various notifications.
There are of course even more stringent measures to ensure focus, especially if TV shows are your downfall. If you do not require internet access for your work, you can try setting your router to block access during certain hours of the day. For those still using the traditional TV, I invite you to give the power cord to your significant other as they head out the door for the day, or something equally drastic. It works!
Another important lesson I am re-learning is to take breaks. These are necessary to remain somewhat fresh throughout the day. It is important to get up and walk around, stretch, have a change of scenery, and maybe get some fresh air in your lungs. Endlessly staring at a screen is its own form of exhaustion. And though it flies in the face of my previous warning regarding notifications, use your calendar to set reminders to rest. This is one of those important notifications you should receive.
A third important lesson is to choose a shut off time at the end of the day and stick to it. Yes, entrepreneurs of all stripes like to say things like, “I’m an entrepreneur, I never turn off.” First, stop saying that. It does not make you sound cool, just obnoxious. Second, often your most important client is waiting for you: your family. For singles, the ones waiting for you are you and your friends. Scratch that itch for social and emotional connection. There will always be one more thing to do and we all tackle a few work items in the evening because technology allows it. Fine. But pick a time and call it a day. Tomorrow needs a rested you in order to get after it effectively.
The final lesson I am re-learning – because it got away from me over the last four years of a typical 9-to-5 – is to live by my calendar instead of a task list. The latter is like being on a hamster wheel: the moment you complete one task, another takes its place. It took years and lots of trial and error to learn the discipline of sitting down every Sunday, writing out the list of tasks, meetings, and other important activities of the upcoming week. But it was not enough to just put them on the list. I had to actively put them in designated time slots for the week. Living by your calendar allows you to control what you handle and when, designate what is urgent, important, or both (that is its own topic), and avoid perpetual “reaction mode.” That planning can – and should – include open spaces to handle the unexpected.
These are just a few of the lessons I am re-learning as I return to self-employment and working from home. Likely there will be more. I look forward to the re-introduction and finding more ways to upgrade my strategies. In the meantime, my daily “turn off” notification just came up. My infant son is down the hall having fun with his toys and I do not want to be late to that meeting.