How to stay productive while working from home

One of the privileges of the freelancer is to be able to work from home. At least when I’m not on-site with the client. And who’s on-site with the client at the moment? Not me. And neither are many others who are now (having to) work from home for the first time, or more often. Yesterday a dear friend and colleague asked me how I manage to stay productive in my home office. And although pretty much everybody seems to have written about productivity in the home office during the shutdown already, I’m going to answer the question here. Because everyone is productive in a different way. I’m happy if you find some tips with a slightly different twist.

Since many of us are not supposed to go outside at all anymore to slow down the spread of the Corona Virus (which seems to work, yay!), I am of course making some changes as well. But these mainly concern the following questions: Which customers could be usefully switched to online support? How do I find new customers despite the crisis? And how do I use the time freed up by postponing orders? In other words, very concrete questions about the progress of the business, as many are currently asking themselves.

However, working in the home office itself changes very little. It is just a little more now.

A word about the difference between home office for self-employed and employees

When employees go to the home office, the employer remains responsible for ensuring that they comply with all labour laws. This applies, for example, to break times, maximum working hours, or the equipment used in the workplace. These rules do not apply to the self-employed, freelancers and entrepreneurs in their home offices. Nevertheless, I advise my clients to adhere to these rules as far as possible. For two reasons:

  1. These rules are useful. Take regular breaks. Design the workplace in such a way that you do not damage your health. If no one else is responsible for you and your performance, you must take care of yourself.
  2. It is much easier to make sure that your employees follow the rules if you do not completely ignore them for yourself. Those who work themselves to death often have little understanding for the needs of employees. But they never have the same interest in your company as you do. How could they? At the same time, you are a role model. If you stay in the company until 11 p.m., it is difficult to get across to parents in the workforce that they can make a career with you. Anyway, when they want to put their kids to bed at night. In the home office nobody sees you, but the time stamp of your nightly email reveals you.

The following tips are completely subjective. These are the things I do and which help me to work in a concentrated way, or with which my clients have had good experiences. Try out what sounds suitable for you. And ignore what doesn’t sound right for you. Feel free to share your experiences and tips for productive work from office in the comments!

First things first: The workplace
Working from home
Create your designated workspace

No matter how big or small your apartment is, you need a place for your work. My home office is a corner in my living room. I could also turn a whole room into an office. That would have the advantage that I could declare the rent as an operating expense. But I don’t like the amount of work space it would take to do that. So my home office is my private pleasure. Cost-wise. The question you have to answer is: What is more expensive, the rent or the lack of productivity, if you don’t work because you don’t like to be in the office?

If you do not have room for your own workstation, the kitchen table will do. The important thing then is that you somehow symbolize: This is my workplace now. For this purpose, it may be enough to open the notebook. Or put down a pad and pencil. Or you always use the same coffee cup ‘at work’. Something to help you get into work mode. And above all to signal to family members: It’s work time. Get your own milk from the fridge.

Mobile workplace

The clear advantage of having an office or stationary desk is that you can deposit your work material nearby. It makes working easier if you don’t have to run around all the time because you don’t have something with you. I therefore recommend the ‘kitchen table freelancer’ to create a mobile workplace that contains everything you normally need. I use a small suitcase for this, in which I have everything I need for a normal office working day. And for which many a colleague has already laughed at me. But since I don’t only work at home, but also on the road or at the customer’s, it has already proven itself umpteen times. The only device I still have to pack when I use it out of the office is the notebook. And possibly the documents for today’s customer.

In my suitcase are for example: a notepad, ballpoint pens, whiteboard markers, post-its, moderation cards, my idea journal, business cards, handkerchiefs, a charger for my notebook and one for my smartphone, a laser pointer and a beamer adapter.

Such a mobile working case can be stowed away perfectly when you are finished. And you can use it to set up your workplace anywhere you can be creative and productive. Kitchen table, bathtub (not with electric appliances!), balcony or at some point again the viewing platform at the airport. Depending on what you need, you can set up your mobile workstation very tightly or with all the chicaneries. If all you need is your smartphone and a headset: So much the better and easier!

Take your own biorhythm into account

I don’t think I’ve read a tip more often in the last few days than: “Set your alarm clock at the usual time”. On the other hand, the first thing I did was to switch off the alarm clock when it was clear that the schools in Hamburg would stay. Because I hate to be woken up by the ringing of the alarm clock. What usually happens is this: For three days or so I sleep until 10 o’clock or longer. Apparently I then catch up on sleep that I otherwise miss. But then the body acclimatizes and I wake up more or less at the usual time. Or somehow around sunrise. Which is absolutely sufficient!

I also take my performance capacity into account in the long term. I plan my year in advance: Which months are holidays? I decide that, for example: When does experience show that demand is lowest? Do I want to travel, and where to? At what times am I more or less productive due to the weather? For example, I like to work in the summer. I can do three times the work in the same time. I find travelling stupid. I live between the North Sea and the Baltic, I’m at the beach in an hour. But I’m easy to put in mothballs in February. And I take that into account when planning.

We are in the middle of a pandemic. The assumption that we can work as productively as usual in this exceptional situation is optimistic at best. But probably rather illusory. At present, the most productive are likely to be those for whom change is the least likely. It is perfectly normal and okay if you need a few days to change. Take your time.

Regulate working time

That word sounds silly: regulated. I can’t remember a week that went according to plan. This is life as a self-employed person with clients. And that’s the way I want it. But that doesn’t mean I’m not structured. I stick to a weekly schedule that specifies

  • What days I work and what days off I have.
  • The focus of the weekday, e.g. marketing, finance or content creation.
  • The time when I work.
  • All personal obligations & hobbies.
  • Leisure and completely free time slots.

This plan is a model plan for the home office. Of course, when I’m with the client on Thursdays, I don’t do my bookkeeping. Then I have to schedule them so I can do them on another day – if it can’t wait a week. Because when I’m at home on Thursdays, I do my finances in the morning. Period.

Structure working time
Weekly schedule
Create a schedule and set a focus for each day of the week

A weekly and daily structure provides support. But it is not a corset. She’s not the size 36 jeans that you can’t get into anymore. And if you try to squeeze in, you’ll fall on your nose and break something. The structure is inside: the skeleton. And around it I build my week. For example, I have lunch with my mother every two or three weeks. And after that I am NEVER back at my desk on time. The day always ends with us sitting in her kitchen, chatting about everything until my stepfather comes home. Then I get another cappuccino, and then I drive back to the home office at some point.

And I want freedom too. Will I look back at the end of my life and think: Oh, if only I had been more often on time at my desk? No. I’ll think, “Oh, how I’d love to have lunch with my mom again.

As a self-employed person you can “regulate” your working hours yourself. Do it, and don’t forget the really important things when planning.

Take breaks

Besides the yearly planning, weekly structure and the daily focus, breaks are one of the most important factors for your productivity. If you tend to work for hours on end, get used to breaks in a fixed rhythm. I myself take a break when a task is completed. It is often annoying to start again after a break. That is why I do not have fixed break times. But I am also someone who can think well when I am on the move. So when I’m writing, like right now, I often get up in the middle of it all, speak a sentence or a whole paragraph for myself and then sit down and write it down. That’s how I work.

I consider time on the beach as creative time as well as reading a good book. The point is not to be constantly busy. The point is to figure out how to work well.

I eat when I’m hungry, and I never hold back on my toilet. Seriously. I can’t have a job so important that I voluntarily ruin my bladder just so that in 30 years, a nurse will have to do potty training with me. If you ruin your health, your long-term productivity is shot. And for what? So you can have enough money on the table to pay for your care?

Set priorities

Actually, I should have started with that question. Before we start thinking about how we can work productively in the home office, we should be clear about what we mean by that. And whether productivity is even an intelligent goal. But that’s something we have to decide for ourselves.

If we try to disregard the very existential hardships in which many self-employed people find themselves at the moment: What can you meaningfully create in this time? What goals do you set yourself? Do you want to offer your services digitally? Do you need new skills that you can learn online? Which customers can you continue to serve? How can you currently do marketing? Or do you retire and create new works, books, songs, pictures, texts, whatever?

The more you succeed in determining how you can and want to use this crisis, the less you feel at its mercy. As I said, the financial survival issues are a different matter. But what does the Corona crisis buy you time for? How will you use this time?

Good working material

The last item on my list is: good working material. That should actually be a matter of course. But often it is not, especially when you have to watch the costs. Good working material does not have to be the best on the market. Good working material is what you can work with. Throw away promotional pens and notepads and buy pens that make writing fun. If you work more online, treat yourself to the paid pro version of your software. Or a better software!

Of course there are a lot more hacks for concentrated work: Retrieving emails at set times, not continuously. Turn the phone down. Apps like Cold Turkey that restrict access to programs so that you can only use – what do I know – Word at fixed times. Switch off WLAN. Drink plenty of water. Pay attention to your diet in general. My productivity snack is and always has been: Coke and Snickers. Not healthy, but horny. Rewards! Super important. Rewarding for victories, celebrating success, celebrating milestones. To thank the team. Even to yourself. Creating good systems and structures.

The particular challenge in the home office is probably to not be distracted by housework or roommates. On the other hand: Why do we actually have the claim that nobody should distract us at home of all places? In the office, we may be standing in the kitchen to have a snack or leave our current task in order to help a colleague or deal with an acute customer concern. Perhaps the most important productivity hack is anyway:

“Life is not a race, so take it slower, hear the music before your song is over.” D.L. Weatherford

Stay healthy, physically and mentally!



Cover Picture: bongkarn thanyakij

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