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.

Learning to Listen

Header image: logo design is about 10% design skill, 30% design knowledge, and 60% listening to what your client is (and isn’t) telling you. Our logo design process for Redfish was a good example of giving your client more to talk about if they don’t really have a distinct idea in mind.

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I am not a very good listener. I am guilty of forgetting what someone has just told me and realizing with shame that I wasn’t really paying attention to what they had to say. It’s a terrible habit and I don’t really know when it became so commonplace for me to mentally withdraw from conversation. I do, however, know the moment I realized that I had some very serious work to do on my listening skills.

Long story short, I was working on a large case-bound book for a local organization to celebrate a milestone. They kept giving me ideas for what they wanted to see and I kept dismissing them for what ‘I knew’ they really wanted. In the end, I finally opened my ears and we got the finished piece, which they adored, on-press just in time but that feeling of having absolutely no idea what to do about my client’s displeasure has stuck with me ever since.

Admittedly, all of us fall into the habit of being poor listeners from time to time – we’re all busy and we’re all consumed with our own thoughts. However, I have recently found listening to be one of the most valuable skills a person can learn. People who listen well not only do their jobs better but people tend to like them much more. And so, without further blabbering, I present my top three tips to help you improve your listening prowess.

Give up trying to be so interesting.

I don’t mean that you need to dull yourself down or diminish your accomplishments – far from it! When the moment is right, use your fascinating life and talents to add meaning and depth to the conversation but – and here’s the kicker – don’t start preparing your speech while your conversational partner is still talking.

This is a mistake that so many of us make – we get so focused on what we’re going to say next that we completely tune the other person out. Others often pick up on this and soon the conversation just becomes two (or more) people politely enduring the chatter of others until they get the opportunity to talk about themselves again.

To avoid this, I have been attempting to make myself approach conversation a little more organically. Instead of trying to prepare something interesting to say as the other person is speaking, I try to take away little bullet points from what they’re saying. Maybe their daughter just turned 5 years old or perhaps they just got an advanced degree – maybe they even just went shopping and really like the new shirt they’re wearing. It doesn’t have to be big, just meaningful.

Then, when it’s your turn to speak say something related to one of your bullet points to engage with your conversational partner or, if you don’t have anything to add, ask them to expand on something they’ve already said! This brings me to my next point –

Ask questions.

People love talking about themselves and I certainly don’t mean that at all as a negative attribute – it’s just a fact. And, this is also the greatest conversational tool out there.

Because everyone likes to talk about themselves, the people in their lives, their hobbies, woes, triumphs, and even ho-hum moments, you have endless conversational prompts that you can grab on to. Ask about their children, their spouse, their job, their pets – whatever! Asking questions not only shows your interest in the person but it also makes you stop thinking so much about your role in the conversation and focus more on the other party.

Make it fun.

As I’ve said before, even if you’re doing your best to listen well, we all experience lapses from time to time. I often feel my attention straying after about an hour of fierce networking so I employ my favorite listening method – I make it game.

In this game, I try to remember as much as possible about the person with the intent of bringing up those same points the next time I see them. If I’m in a large group setting, my goal is three facts (and a name!) from at least 15 people. In smaller settings, I increase the number of facts and tidbits I’d like to remember. This little game has given me a way to measure my listening skill overtime by how well I remember someone’s name and personal little details next time I meet them. I feel an immediate sense of satisfaction when I remember pieces of these people’s lives and they often feel better connected to me in return.

However you decide to enjoy listening, remember that it’s all just to help you get in the habit of doing it more naturally. Some of us (me) need more practice than others so giving yourself a little mental challenge can be a great way to encourage better communication.

As I get better, I am delighted by the way people respond when I remember things about their lives and express an interest in them and I feel like I am able to form a genuine connection much more quickly. Just a little bit of effort and focus can really make a difference in the way those around you perceive you and the way that you perceive yourself.

Good luck out there!