How to Thrive in Your Home Office

Header image: It’s very difficult to avoid distractions when there is no one to hold you accountable. Even worse, it’s almost impossible to ward off the occasional bouts of sleepiness when your coworkers are snoring under your desk.

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As a freelancer, I do a good deal of my work from home. Sometimes I’ll work on-site in a client’s office, occasionally I’ll go to a coffee shop, and if the weather is nice then I’ll set up camp outside (let’s be honest though – in Houston that’s limited to about three days a year). However, most days you’ll find me in my lovely home office.

Over the years, I’ve sought out a lot of advice about how to successfully manage your time and keep yourself on-task when working from home. Some of these suggestions have been incredibly helpful and have been integrated into my daily routine, while others seemed a bit over the mark for my personal taste (I’m not dressing in business formal every day to sit in my home office – nice try).

Below are my top 6 tips for making your home office a more productive space whether you’re a full-timer like myself or just need the occasional moment of focus in your own home.

Make time to do what you love.

Obviously, paying jobs are a huge portion of – well… your job. That doesn’t mean, however, that you need to keep your nose to the grind stone for 8+ hours straight each day. One of the best parts of working from your home office is that you can allot time to do something that you really love doing in addition to your existing work.

For example, I like to get any difficult tasks that I’m not necessarily looking forward to out of the way first thing each day when I’m the most focused. This frees up a lot of my time in the afternoons so that – instead of trying to find excuses to put off that thing I didn’t want to do – I can dive right in to a fun side project as a reward for getting the rough stuff done earlier.

Even if you don’t adhere to a schedule like this, it is absolutely essential to make some time for yourself each day.

Find a schedule that works for you.

I hate mornings so waking up early and getting right to the grind was one of my least favorite things about my office job. Now I choose to work starting at about 9:00 a.m. on a fairly regular basis. This gives me time for a morning walk with my dogs and plenty of opportunity to shake off the last vestiges of sleep before I have to be a responsible business person.

If you love mornings then by all means – wake up at 5:00 a.m. and have at it! If you’re more efficient in the evenings then set up your day so you can work more when the sun goes down. Whatever schedule feels more natural for you, go for it! The goal here is to find a way to be efficient and you certainly can’t do that if your schedule doesn’t match your lifestyle.

Don’t be afraid to take breaks.

Breaks are looked down upon when you work for a big company because it makes you look lazy. However, the fact is that no one can effectively do anything for eight solid hours and they shouldn’t be expected to.

Breaks are one of the best tools for increasing efficiency, in my opinion. I know that may sound a little counter-intuitive but sometimes the mind just gets tired and needs a little break to refocus and re-energize.

For example, I know that my attention lags about every two hours so I make certain to get up, walk around a little, refill my tea, and just take a second to clear my mind. This is another great bonus that my dogs coworkers offer – they get a fun little run outside every few hours and I get a chance to relax for a bit.

When you find your attention wavering, consider taking a small break to give yourself a moment of rest.

Make a plan for the future.

I never call my day finished until I’ve come up with a plan for the next day. Often times, I will plan out my whole week as best I can on Monday just so I don’t have to worry about scrambling around from day to day. I find this is particularly useful when setting goals for looming projects and establishing a social media schedule.

When you create a plan for your day, you avoid a lot of the dread and procrastination that can come with scheduling.

Establish a set work space in your home.

This is the one that I think really trips people up when they’re first starting out. Part of getting in the mindset to work and avoiding distractions (lookin’ at you, my beautiful Netflix-enabled HDTV) is setting up a designated work environment within your house. I personally have my own special office that I use for absolutely nothing but work. That way, when I sit down at my desk, I am already in the zone and ready to do my job.

If you don’t have a room in your house that you can make into an office, try to sit somewhere that you don’t normally hang out when you’re relaxing in the evening. Avoid your TV and your cozy living room couch and perhaps settle for a dining room table. Once you establish a designated work area, you’ll find that it’s a lot easier to focus when your butt hits the “work chair”.

Wear what you can work effectively in.

I had to include this last one because people are always telling me that you need to dress the part – if you’re doing work, dress in work clothes. Of all the advice I have received, this is the one I get most often that I disagree with the most fiercely.

Why? Because “business” clothes are often just downright uncomfortable. I will never choose a stuffy jacket and slacks over some sweet yoga pants and a t-shirt.

Don’t get me wrong here – this tip is just like all the others. You absolutely must find something that works for you personally. If you find that you need that polo to focus on your work then you wear that collar proudly, my friend. If you get the most done when you’re in pajamas then don those PJs and get to it! The point here is that you can’t let others tell you how to dress in your own home because, when it comes right down to it, they don’t have to wear the clothes – you do.

Showering is always a good idea regardless though. Don’t stop showering.

The Power of Reciprocity

Header image: Isn’t it amazing how a simple note can really change your mood? We featured this one on our Instagram because we have have a weakness for print – but there are literally thousands of ways to give back to the people you value.

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rec·i·proc·i·ty

Noun – the practice of exchanging things with others for mutual benefit.

We’ve all had that friend – or perhaps occasionally been that friend – who always takes more from the relationship than they give.

They call you up late at night asking you to solve their problems for them but then can’t seem to make time for you when you need them. They drink all the beer in your fridge but never seem to have anything to offer when you go to their house. They call themselves a friend but you’re left wondering if they even know the first thing about you.

Sooner or later, the friendship suffers because no one wants to feel like they’re constantly being drained by the people around them. Eventually, you just get tired of giving so much and receiving so little.

As with most things, I find that this lesson can also be applied to the business world.

Clients and partners come to you looking for a service and expecting to receive something worth their time, capital, and energy in return. You – of course – deliver an exemplary product and then go about your merry way. For most of us, that’s the end of the interaction.

But, doesn’t this sound very similar to our part-time friendships? The real trouble with many of these false friends is that they are both reactive instead of proactive and they lose themselves in the security of a relationship that they never bother to properly maintain.

And, as with these uneven friendships, when your business is reactive to the needs of its clients and you allow the relationship to suffer, your clients end up feeling rather like you’ve only come by to drink all of their Bud Light.

So how do we ensure that our clients know how much we value them? Well, as with any human interaction, there are thousands of ways to go about it but – because that would be one hell of a blog post – I’ve decided to just bump that number down to my top 5. So here it is, my top 5 ways of reciprocating the faithfulness and attention that my clients give me.

Be proactive

There’s nothing that makes you feel valued like receiving a random text from a friend who is just checking in on you. Knowing that someone is thinking about you even when you’re not staring them in the face is such a nice feeling – so why should the business world be any different?

Ok, maybe don’t text your clients to tell them that you’re thinking about them – a little too much – but occasionally send an email asking how their quarter is going, make sure their new offices are working out for them, or checking on the latest contract they acquired.

You don’t even need to try to sell them anything in these messages – just putting yourself in front of them and humanizing your company is a great way of subtly saying that you value them.

Find excuses to tell others how awesome your clients are

I love talking about my clients. Design is, at its center, a very intimate endeavor because you need to get to know the core of a client’s vision and dreams for their business. Because of this, I develop a very sincere passion for each company I work with – their success becomes my success.

Because of this bond I feel with them, I cannot stop myself from praising their works and proudly shouting about their accomplishments in face-to-face conversations and social media.

Sometimes, word of my enthusiastic rantings will get back to my client who appreciates the hype and my loyalty – but most times, I’m happy to talk about them just because I know that I can only do what I love to do because of their faith in me. If you’re not excited about your friendships, then you’re friends with the wrong people.

Send them something ‘real’ just because

In spite of what all modern media seemingly wants us to believe, print and paper still have a very real impact in our lives each and every day.

Say what you want about the digital age but aren’t you just tired of receiving so many emails? Don’t you secretly (or, in my case, very obviously) love getting something permanent that you can hold and be proud of?

Send your clients something meaningful with a note inside that just reminds them of your gratitude. Thank you notes or Christmas cards are great ways of giving something special, something that took a little bit of extra time on your part, to show your gratitude.

Offer them something special for their loyalty

Everybody loves a discount and your clients are no exception.

I personally offer a referral discount for my clients – you refer someone to me, they get a nice discount on their first project and you get a discount as well. My clients can refer as many folks as they like and continue to accrue discounts because I think this is a system that benefits everyone.

You can offer a discount for every tenth project, send them a free gift after their first purchase, or do a punch-card discount when they accumulate rewards for loyalty. Whatever route you take, it gives people an incentive to keep coming back.

Always reciprocate

Give your clients as much (or more!) as they give you. They trust you with their brand, their company, and their passion. In return, trust them to be an ambassador for you, to do the right thing for you, and to come through on their promises.

You won’t always be rewarded for your faith – that’s simply the nature of the world we live in. Sometimes you will spend all of your energy on a client that will give you almost nothing in return. Sometimes, you end up with a false friend that doesn’t have your best interest at heart.

But, as a business, you can never be that friend. When a client needs you, give them your full attention. Commit to the people you choose to do business with and remember that each of us is looking for someone to treat us fairly and kindly. If someone is good to you,  be even better to them. Always reciprocate kindness.

And buy your own beer.

Getting Started

Header image: my first round of Antares logos, which some may recognize and which were retired after only a few short months of use when I finally took the hint because I got tired of people saying, “oh, it’s some kind of fox?”

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Make no mistake – I am fully aware that this post will go largely ignored by the overwhelming majority of people out there. Since I am fresh out of the box, the only people likely to see this are my ever-faithful cheerleaders: my parents (hi guys!).

But, despite that, here we are. One day, this archival post may prove useful to someone just starting out who is inspired by my work, wit, and success (one can dream, right?). So I’d like to take a minute to look back over the last year of my journey, when this whole endeavor started out as a vague fog in the back of my mind and has slowly grown into something real and almost-tangible.

It takes a lot of time to rearrange the puzzle pieces of your life to accommodate a dream that you never even thought possible so don’t let slow progress deter you. At the end of the day, patience and exactness really pay off when you’re fumbling your way through those first couple of months.

So here it is, my top three tips for those poor souls that are furiously Googling how to branch out on their own for the first time, feeling lost, a little afraid, and really, really excited.

Get yourself a good lawyer.

In all seriousness, this was one of the biggest steps for me, not only in terms of legal viability but also for my own peace of mind. I got a recommendation from a local business relation of mine and decided to take the leap into becoming a ‘real’ company.

Don’t get me wrong, those guys and gals are not cheap. Expect to pay a good deal of your hard-earned – and very often meager – income for their time, advice, and services. However, I have found that the amount I invested in my lawyer was well worth it in the end because I no longer wake up in the middle of the night fretting about the looming potential of losing my dream to some legal nightmare.

I especially recommend a lawyer to help you get your business ‘on the books’ with your state, such as becoming an LLC, corporation, or any of the other wonderfully confusing entities that you can classifying yourself as.

At least do yourself a favor and have them look over any contracts you use (or write them for you if – heaven forbid – you’re not already using some sort of legal shield).

Get your finances in order.

This is a pretty broad to-do so I’ll try to just touch on the highlights. One of the biggest fears that a lot of new start-ups have is just earning enough money to stay afloat financially.

However, try not to be daunted by the yearly salary number and just take it a week at a time – how much do you need to earn each week to stay at your current level of income? When you break it down this way, it’s much easier to set realistic goals and I think you’ll find that the dollar amount is surprisingly low.

Next, keep track of literally everything that you buy for your business. New computer? New desk? A small business class at your local community college? Keep track of all of it using an organizational system that makes sense for you and that will be easy to reference. One of my biggest expenses each month is the software I use but lovely Adobe makes it very easy to keep track of the amount of money you spend with them. If you work from home, you may be able to even mark down things like electricity usage as an expense for your business.

Remember how I said you need to keep it all organized? It’s always the right time to invest more in your business and get some serious accounting software. I use QuickBooks myself and, while I’m not advocating them specifically, they do have some excellent features that I found to be essential for my business. First is the ability to keep track of all those expenses we just talked about. Second is the ability to generate quotes through them, which I can then magically turn into invoices. These invoices allow people to pay with a credit through a big ‘ol button right there in the email and I cannot get over the simple beauty of that. Finally, QuickBooks organizes everything for me – income, expenses, tax write-offs, etc. – in a fancy quarterly statement that I can plug into my tax documents and move on with my life. I cannot stress how important it is to keep track of and stay organized with your money.

And, if all else fails, I’ve got a lovely CPA that I call from time to time with questions that likely seem silly to a veteran but are things that newbies have never even thought of until someone casually mentions it at a luncheon and you have to awkwardly giggle and pretend you know what they’re talking about. We’ve all been there and your CPA understands.

Get in the right mindset.

I know the prospect of launching off the edge into worlds unknown is incredibly daunting – so much so that many people fear that they could never do it. I know this may seem like a cliche piece of advice but at some point you’re going to need to take the leap and decide to believe in yourself and your capabilities. I’m not saying it has to be today or next week but at some point, all of the planning and thinking and budgeting and seminars will all fall away and you’ll have to rely on your own personal capabilities.

Don’t let this scare you. This is the moment you’ve been waiting for. If you’re anything like me, I spend a stupid amount of time thinking about my business – how can I market, expand, keep the fabulous customer I already have, and thrive in an ever more competitive world. Keep your mind in the right place and remember the reason you started on this journey to begin with.

It’s not an easy road by any means but every mistake is a chance to learn and every challenge is a chance to grow. Seize these chances and get out there! Go live your dream.