Keeping Focused When Working From Home

Rumination by our founder, Sabrina Boyd.

Today's subject is a tricky one for me. When I launched Living Room Marketing, I started working full-time from home for the first time. I had worked 9 to 6 in an office, I had worked part-time jobs while attending school, I had worked weekend shifts at a radio station and night shifts at a restaurant, but whatever jobs I'd had before, I always had somewhere to go to do my work, and I came home to relax when I was done. Now, I have to find a way to work in my home where all I really want to do is relax.

For some people, working from home is the dream. For others, it's a necessity. Entrepreneurs starting new businesses often can't afford a separate office space. Freelancers may not need or want a separate office if they're working on their own. Musicians are working when they're playing a concert, but they probably also need to do some work at home to book shows, write music, and promote themselves (unless they have a team doing that for them, but then they still spend time communicating with that team). 

So when you need to hunker down and get something done at home, how do you turn your living space into a working space? How do you stay focused when you're feet away from the TV, snacks, and your bed? I've only been at home full-time for a few months, so I can't say I have it down perfectly, but here are some things that have helped me so far.

 
 Welcome to the Living Room Marketing home office.

Welcome to the Living Room Marketing home office.

 

Have a separate work area. 

Ideally, I would have an extra room to use as an office. As it is, I share a one-bedroom apartment with my fiancé, who is also a freelancer. Luckily, we have a little entrance area – it was marked as a “study” on our floor plan – that we’ve transformed into a shared office. People say you shouldn’t work near your bed because then your brain won’t recognize when it’s time to sleep. I’ve also found that the reverse is true: I’ll fall asleep when I’m trying to do work sitting on my bed. So I try to avoid working in my bedroom or on my couch, anywhere I’d be tempted to curl up and nap. When I’m in my the “office,” I know it’s time to work. It also makes me feel more official to say I’m in the home office.

Of course, not everyone has a “study.” Maybe you have roommates, or you live in a studio apartment. You have to work with what you’ve got, so maybe you can set up a desk facing away from your bed and put on headphones to put you in the work mood (I recommend some instrumental electronic music: Spotify’s Brain Food playlist got me through grad school in a shared apartment with two other roommates).

To be honest, I do break my own rule sometimes. When I just can’t get a good flow going in the office, I’ll move to the desk in my bedroom or the living room for a change of pace, or even take my laptop outside. Which brings me to my next point…

 

Don't stay at home.

One of the biggest challenges for me has been finding ways to get out of the building. I can’t stay in one place all day. I get stir-crazy on a single snow day, never mind 24/7 in the same apartment. So I make it a point to leave at least once a day. Go to the gym. Take a walk. Run to the store. Go work from a coffee shop for a while. Sometimes just taking my work out to the patio or down to the building lounge can help.

My fiancé, on the other hand, would never leave the apartment if he didn’t have to. He works in his pajamas all day. Different people work in different ways, and if you’re like him, then you might not need any of my advice. But I need to get out.

Also, as a music industry person, a major pro of working from home is that I have more energy to go out at night, and I never have to worry about needing to wake up early to get to the office the morning after a show.

 

Treat work time like a day at the office.

I know, the best thing about working from home is that it doesn’t have to feel like a day at the office, but if I don’t have some regular time set aside to do work, I’ll procrastinate like I’m back in college. I once spent the whole afternoon cleaning my bathroom so that I didn’t have to do work. Not to mention, when left to my own devices, I’ll sleep until noon every day. Instead, I set an alarm for somewhere around 7:30-8am, a little later than I used to wake up to go into the office, but still early enough to be awake and ready to do work at 9. I try to keep my “work hours” close to 9 to 5. That way, I can turn off my computer and relax at the end of the day. It doesn’t always work out that way – sometimes I’ll be working late to meet a deadline, or I’ll go grocery shopping during the day, so I need to work later that night. Still, having a loose structure helps me to separate my work life from my…other home life.

I’m definitely a creature of habit, so it also helps me to have a regular morning routine: I get up, do a quick yoga-style stretch, eat breakfast, drink coffee, get dressed, and then start my work. Doing all these things as if I were going into an office wakes me up and gets me into work mode. Staying in my pajamas is tempting, but it makes me feel so cozy that I’ll wind up on the couch in front of Netflix all afternoon.

 
 The office cats, bowie and Isaac (not pictured), help keep us calm.

The office cats, bowie and Isaac (not pictured), help keep us calm.

 

Exercise.

It may not seem like much, but walking to your car, up the stairs to an office, and around an office building is a decent amount of movement that you lose when you work from home. If you have a Fitbit, you may have realized this already. At home, I walk 5 steps to the bathroom, maybe 10 to the kitchen for lunch. Being stationary for long periods of time is bad for pretty much everything: your body, your mind, your metabolism. Moving generates energy. Going to the gym regularly helps me hit two of my points: regular exercise and getting out of the apartment every day. You could go for a run or do a workout video at home if you prefer. Just make sure you move during the day, otherwise, trust me, you will start to feel it in your creaky joints and drowsy eyelids.

 

Give yourself breaks.

Another thing I struggle tremendously with is knowing when to stop working. I said I try to keep 9 to 5 hours, but very often, I don’t notice when it hits 5 o’clock, and I just keep going. I work on the weekends, too. I have to remember to give myself permission to take breaks. Long breaks, like a day off mid-week since I’m going to work that weekend, or short breaks, like time to watch one episode of television over lunch (without falling into binge-watching). In an office, people waste plenty of time chatting with coworkers, hanging out at the water cooler, whether literal or metaphorical. You don’t get that at home, so in my mind, that justifies me taking a few longer breaks during the day. And when I stop working for the day, I try to put my phone out of reach, turn off the computer, and really let my mind rest. If you’re working for yourself or freelancing, no one is telling you when to clock in and clock out. Some people will have trouble clocking in and staying focused, others will have trouble clocking out and disconnecting from work. Me, well, I have my difficult moments with both.

 

Remember the pros of working from home.

I am an incredibly structured human being, but the beauty of working from home is that you don’t have to be. You’re working on your own terms. Work slowly over the course of 12 hours if you like, or non-stop for 5 hours, whatever you need to get your work done. You can do things during the day now: catch a matinee movie, go grocery shopping when there will be no lines at checkout, call the doctor to schedule an appointment without having to make a fake event in your calendar to make sure you’ll have time to call while they’re open. This is as much a reminder to myself as it is advice to others: embrace the freedom of this life. Make your time your own, and take in all the little things that you didn’t see in your office building, whether that means physically seeing your pets or noticing a beautiful day and going outside to actually see the sun, because you know what? You can leave the “office” whenever you want to.