Your biggest work-at-home problems, solved

I’ve been working remotely for 12 years now, so to me it seems like the most natural way to work–but I’m realizing that for a lot of people it takes some getting used to.

Based on personal experience and what I’ve heard from clients, friends, media articles, and questions I’ve gotten over the years, here’s my take on some of the challenges folks deal with when working from home.

What if I’m tempted to do housework?

This is one a lot of friends have mentioned over the years. Their concern is being tempted to do a load of laundry or wash the dishes during the workday. Whether this is OK or not depends on the nature of your work and what you have on the agenda that particular day. Can you put laundry in and still meet all your work obligations that day? Is it a simple load of towels that merely needs to be put in the washer and then transferred to the dryer, or is it clothing that will need to be folded promptly as soon as it’s dry?

I don’t see a problem with rinsing your lunch dishes and sticking them in the dish washer–it takes 30 seconds. But if you’re spending half an hour doing dishes during the workday, that’s likely a problem. You could spend half an hour at night to make up for the work you missed, but deviating from your normal schedule could set you up for failure. (More on routine in a bit.)

What if I’m tempted to slack off?

This is a problem even in the office. At the office, we can waste a lot of time chatting and joking around with co-workers about things that have nothing to do with work. Building camaraderie is great, but there comes a point when then socializing can get in the way of getting things done.

At home, the biggest thief of your time is the Internet. Here are some suggestions to make sure you don’t find yourself going down too many rabbit holes online:

  • Don’t read news during the workday, not even “just one article.” (Unless it’s on this blog? 😉) If you need or want to read some headlines in the morning before you start work, that’s fine. Then, don’t look at any news again until you’re done with your work for the day. News websites are designed to be “sticky,” meaning they want to keep you on there for as long as possible, so you can easily waste 10 minutes when all you wanted to do was spend a minute to read about one thing.
  • Stay off social media until you’re done for the day (unless social media is your job). Again, a quick glance in the morning is fine if you simply must, but resist the temptation to go on during the day. There’s too many things that can turn into a 10-minute rabbit hole. If needed, stay logged out of your social media or remove the apps from the home screen of your phone. Making it a little harder to get on it might make you less inclined to go on when you shouldn’t.
  • Disable annoying notifications about new email, whether it’s a sound or something that pops up. These can be very distracting when you’re working on a project or report. Unless there’s a business reason you need to check email 10 times a day, limit your email checking to once in the morning, once mid-day (if needed), and once in the late afternoon.
  • Most productivity experts recommend not looking at email first thing in the morning until you’ve completed your most important task of the day. That way, you’re guaranteed to get that task done and it won’t keep getting pushed back. If this can work for you, great. But this isn’t always realistic for everyone.
  • If you DO want to check email first thing in the morning, remember that you don’t necessarily need to reply to everything right away.
    You can reply to any urgent emails that require an immediate response, or send a quick acknowledgement email indicating that you’ll reply in more detail later. Yes, this increases the total volume of email everyone has to deal with, but in a pandemic-stricken world where many people are getting used to remote working, it doesn’t hurt to do this to reassure your colleagues and customers that yes, even though you’re at home, you’re on top of everything, and you’re alive and well.

How do I have a routine?

Daily routine and time management. I suggest staying as close to your normal routine as possible. Continue to go to bed and wake up around the same time, unless you weren’t getting enough sleep when you worked at the office. Without having to commute, you should have some extra time that can either be used for increasing your sleep if you weren’t getting enough before, or for exercise, relaxation, cooking healthy meals, or anything else that will help your quality of life.

Yes, the extra time you have could theoretically be used for extra work. You’ll have to decide what makes sense for you. If you have a tendency to over-work yourself, be very careful because this can get out of hand when you work from home.

Work hours. If you don’t normally work at all hours of day and night, don’t start unless the circumstances of your job during the pandemic require it. When you’re at the office, you might work hard to finish your tasks for the day by 6pm so you can be home for dinner at 7pm. If you’re working at home, you might say “Oh, if I don’t finish by 6pm, it’s OK, because I can just work straight through until 7pm–and then work some more after dinner!” This is where Parkinson’s Law kicks in: your work expands to fill the time allotted. If you know you have until 9pm to finish, it will take until 9pm instead of 6pm.

Exercise. Unless you have an evening exercise routine you’ve been sticking to for years, I recommend planning your exercise for the morning. If this is when you have the most energy, great. If you’re NOT a morning person, the exercise will help wake you up (along with your coffee!). Exercising in the morning before work is a way to make sure it happens and won’t get put off until you’re too tired to do it.

Loud pets and children

Does your dog bark when you’re on the phone? Cat meows too much? Children get loud? The tactics here really depend on your particular situation. Here are a few quick ideas:

  • Can you dedicate a specific room as your home office and close the door? I realize this wouldn’t be possible if you’re a single mother with young children and nobody else to look after them. But if you just need to keep your cat away when you’re on video conferences and phone calls, this could eliminate a potential distraction.
  • Find toys that can occupy your pets and children without your involvement.
  • For phone calls, you could use some sort of white noise to mask background noises (you might need to talk louder to compensate). Consider a loud fan, a white noise YouTube video, or even a white noise machine.
  • Be strategic about when you feed your pets, especially if they’re more restless when they’re hungry.
  • Play with your pets in the morning so they’ll be less restless.

Workspace woes

We’re all very different when it comes to the type of workspace we need to be productive. For some, plopping on the couch with a laptop is the start of a productive day. However, if you’re like me, you function best at a desk, in a comfortable desk chair, with a large monitor.

Getting a good setup doesn’t need to be expensive. You can look on the OfferUp app to find someone local looking to get rid of a used desk chair or desk for pennies on the dollar. Remember that a simple folding table can make a perfectly good desk. While it doesn’t have drawers or shelves, this isn’t that necessary if you’re like me and operate a paperless office.

You’ll get used to it

For some, working from home comes naturally and for others it doesn’t. For me it was a fairly easy transition. That might be partly because I had only been out of college for 6 years when I began working from home, so I wasn’t as “set” in an office routine as someone with 20 years of experience in the workforce. Also, my first 3 years out of school were spent working as a daily newspaper reporter–a job that let me set my own schedule (with the understanding that you had to hit your deadline every day and meet expectations for volume and quality of articles).

Even if you take some time getting used to remote work, chances are you can adapt. You likely worked from your dorm room when you were in college, so this isn’t too different (unless there are children in the picture, but they’ll eventually go back to school). You might end up deciding you prefer to stay home as you start to enjoy the perks!