Before many office workers transitioned to remote arrangements, the thought of working from home sounded like a dream. Who doesn’t love the idea of ditching the commute and staying in your sweats? But those of us who have been working from home for years know the reality, and it isn’t always as stress-free as it sounds.
Loneliness, isolation, distractions, and Zoom fatigue are real, and they are challenges to overcome, says Juliet Funt, CEO of Whitespace at Work, team efficiency consultants and training providers.
“One of the most critical challenges is the sense that work never ends,” she says. “Folks wake up, grab the laptop from the bedside table, and begin a 10-, 12-, 14-hour alternating cycle, flipping from laptop to kids to laptop to food to laptop, until they pass out over the screen and start the pattern again.”
This schedule isn’t sustainable and it can be a major hit to your productivity. But the truth is that many of the work challenges preventing an easy and logical workflow are not location specific, says Funt.
“Efficiency is portable,” she says. “Teams that had honed skills at simple, clear communication and logical workflow have brought those skills and filters home with them.”
Effectively working from home involves these five habits.
1. Set the stage
If you must utilize more than one workspace in your home, establish the same environment, such as a pad of paper, photo, or inspirational quote, in each location every day. Repeating the set up tells your brain that work is “on,” and the visual cue of returning to the same orchestrated workspace over and over will give you a sense of power, says Funt.
Use a “paper anchor,” a piece of paper, or a pad that sits to one side of your computer. “On it are three, five, or seven of the most critical tasks you want to focus on that day,” says Funt. “Using paper, which is intellectually uncomplicated and easy to interact with, will direct you forward more easily than the noisy chorus of tech-based checklists. Having the paper next to you is like having the kindest boss you’ve ever had. It gently and repeatedly directs you to use your time for what’s most important.”
2. Get rid of low-value activities
Address what Funt calls the “garbage work” that fills our day, like emails, meetings, protocols, and paperwork that drain the critical capacity of work-from-home teams. These low-value activities can become a barrier to getting to the important and meaningful aspects of your work, and reducing the burden requires a shift in mindset and language.
“What most companies do is go in through the doorway of the tactical and forget the behavioral,” says Funt. “They do reorgs, thinking that putting people in new seats will change the way that they work, they do technology improvements, and they do classic process improvement/LEAN or Six Sigma work. And we think all of that is great but it’s all big bricks forgetting the mortar. The mortar is human habit, culture, and philosophy.”
Instead, have a reductive mindset, where it becomes second nature to get rid of unnecessary things. “Developing a reductive mindset means you adopt a habit—a reflex, tendency, effortless first inclination—to . . . eliminate, or cut the unnecessary,” says Funt. “We must dismantle the additive instincts most companies and professionals have developed.”
3. Add whitespace
Taking breaks during the day is popular advice, but knowing when and for how long can be confusing. For example, the Energy Project tells you to follow the circadian rhythm of your body and take a break every 90 minutes, while the Pomodoro Technique suggests taking a break every 21 minutes. “Timed breaks don’t always fit well with your work,” says Funt. “A more intuitive model suggests paying attention to your individual internal cues.”
When you feel like you’re drowning in calls, when you tingle from adrenaline, or when your body is craving sugar or email or caffeine or any of the compensatory techniques for rest, take a break. Funt calls this “inserting a wedge of whitespace,” or taking a strategic pause.
4. Keep email to intervals
Your inbox can derail your productivity if you let it. Instead of keeping the gateway to your email open all day long, productive people decide when they indulge and when they abstain from email, says Funt.
“You can check at the top of every hour, for instance, or at the top and bottom of every hour,” she says. “Some people check at mealtimes. Such a purposeful, periodic schedule creates vacuums between email checks into which your truly deep work can flow.”
5. Create a clocking-out ritual
Productivity can hinge on compartmentalization, which is a vital habit of work-from-home professionals. “Anytime you can put something in a box, literally or figuratively, it helps you focus,” says Funt. “Email checking is compartmentalization. The paper anchor is compartmentalization.”
Use this concept to end your day visually by opening a literal compartment, such as a drawer or a cabinet, and placing all of your work-related items inside. Tuck them in and clock out. “It’s not easy to clock out in a virtual world where we can be—and sometimes feel we should be—constantly available,” says Funt.
Another technique for cutting ties with work for the evening is to announce it, which Funt calls “trapping yourself in a verbal promise.”
“When you want work to be over, stand in front of friends or children or loved ones or a roommate and say, ‘I’m finished working for the day,’” she says. “If you live alone, you can call or text a boundary buddy and say the same thing. Or simply say it for your own ears to hear.”
Working from home has good and bad, and people who do it successfully use a constant balance of gratitude and acceptance for the pros and cons, says Funt. “They celebrate autonomy and freedom,” she says. “And they appropriately accept the social limitations.”