Thanh and I were at dinner the other day with some online marketers, and they asked “hey, so do you guys have like, a guide for working productively from home?”. To which we replied “of course we do”… and then we checked the blog. And unbelievably, we had never written a guide to working productively from home before!
So here it is – the Asian Efficiency guide to working productively from home.
In this guide we want to discuss some of the things that we’ve learned about how to work productively and stay productive at home.
The entire Asian Efficiency team is a remote team – this means that everyone is given the flexibility to work from home, or a coffee shop, or a co-working space… or from wherever they like.
The truth is, working from home is not all that different from working in an office or any of these other places – productive people are productive people, no matter where they are.
Here’s what we’re going to cover:
- Structuring your day.
- Setting up your workspace.
- Setting up your headspace and mindsets.
- Handling distractions and people.
- The importance of your social life.
- Things that just make working from home easier.
Structuring Your Day
The definitive guide to structuring your day is in our Guide to Structural Productivity.
But let’s go over some things that are specific to working from home.
The thing to remember here is that you have enormous flexibility when you are able to work from home. And that you absolutely, cannot abuse that flexibility.
The biggest mistake that we see people make is that they don’t respect their work time – and end up doing personal tasks during their work time. You may not have meetings to attend, and you may not have “must work” times, but you should still enforce some semblance of structure and discipline on yourself.
In general, it’s best to assume that you’re at a regular 9-5 and work during your allocated work hours. Sure, on occasion you can do something like accept a UPS delivery or go see the dentist while everyone else is at work… but these events should be the exception, not the norm. We cannot stress this enough – this is a HUGE HUGE mistake that a lot of people who work from home make… and end up wondering where all their time goes.
What your day looks like will largely depend on what time you wake up, and your circadian rhythms. For example, if you start your day in the afternoon and your first meal is when most people are having dinner, your “day” is going to look vastly different from people who start their day at 5am.
A rough way to chunk up your day is into these periods:
If you start your day at 5am, your morning will by 5am onwards. If you wake up at 1pm, your “morning” will be 1pm onwards. Regardless of the actual time that you start your day, the allocation of tasks in each chunk is usually the same.
In the morning, you usually have:
- Your morning ritual, which will get you ready for the day.
- Things you have to do to get the day started.
- If you have kids, you need to get them ready for school.
- After your morning ritual and responsibilities are clear, you’ll want to start with your most important/hardest task of the day. Hint: it’s usually not email.
Around lunchtime, you’ll want to remember to eat and take your first extended break of the day. It’s important to note:
- You may get a little tired after lunch – this is normal.
- Pick something light to do after lunch, like reading or clearing emails or browsing the web.
- It’s perfectly fine to take a break after lunch.
- This is usually a great time for a short nap.
The afternoon chunk is your “second wind”, where you can get through your second most important task or clear through some backlog and things that need to be done.
The evening chunk is from dinnertime onwards. It’s debatable as to whether you should work after dinner – usually we recommend “only if you need to”, as it’s usually better to disconnect, unwind, go through your evening ritual and get ready to go to sleep.
Daily Work Rhythms and Breaks
If you’re just starting to work from home, you may not know yet what your rhythm and pace of work and breaks is.
In this case, you will want to use time boxes (pomodoros) to help you measure and pace out the rhythm of your day a bit.
But as you spend more time working from home productively, you’ll be able to gauge and use your intuition to help you determine when you need to take breaks.
Note that taking a break doesn’t mean switching your browser tab over to Facebook or Skype for 5 minutes – it means getting up from the computer, going to another room and away from a computer screen (don’t take your phone with you).
One of the things that makes a real difference in how productively you can work from home is having a separate workspace for work. This means a separate room like a study or a home office that is solely for “work stuff”.
It doesn’t have to be fancy – here are some photos of mine:
The most important things are:
- Your own computer. If you have family/roommates, get your own computer… this is after all, your productivity lifeblood and connection to work. It should be yours and yours alone.
- A sturdy table. Go with whatever style you like (wood, glass, modern, standing etc).
- A comfortable chair. My tendency is to splurge a bit on this, as I’ll be sitting in it for most of the day.
- A desktop keyboard and mouse. Working on your trackpad all day will slow you down.
- Good lighting.
You will want to make your workspace desirable to be in, as you’ll be spending a lot of your time there. Think about photos you’ve seen of offices of places like Google – they make their work environments comfortable, fun and a little playful… so that people have no psychological barriers to being there. The simple truth is, if you don’t like your workspace, the probability of getting work done there decreases dramatically.
Something that is an extension of this concept is to keep your workspace clean. This means no piled up papers, no CDs, USB keys and post-it notes all over the place.
Definitely not this:
Because you’re going to be in your workspace all day, and you don’t want clutter. Having a clean and tidy workspace creates a psychological sense of wellbeing. You can and should extend this concept beyond your workspace too to as much of your residence as possible – it absolutely sucks to go from a tidy workspace and then walk into a living room that looks like a bomb went off in it.
Tip #1: Recruit your family members/housemates to help you out with this.
Tip #2: The easiest way to create a psychological sense of clean and orderly is to make sure all the flat surfaces are clean and don’t have things on them – even if this means hiding away things in drawers until you can deal with them later.
In the absolutely worse-case scenario where you don’t have a separate workspace… you can use the kitchen table. Again, clear away anything that usually sits there (we’ve noticed that people like to put permanent fruit trays, appliances etc on there) and you can make do. We would strongly advise against working in bed (save that for sleep and sex).
Note from Thanh: It’s possible to work on your sofa as well – if you have a laptop and are doing non-focused tasks, like clearing email or catching up on social media.
Setting Up Your Headspace and Mindsets
Your headspace is where the real magic happens.
The more you work from home, the more you realize that working productively from home isn’t all that different from working productively from anywhere else – it’s all about focus and self-discipline.
Sure, there are a lot of temptations at home – you have television, video games, books, hobbies (like spending hours cooking) and little non-work things lying around. But this is offset by the fact that all thee things are controllable by one person – YOU.
In an office, you have interruptions like meetings and phone calls and colleagues – and you can’t really say no to them. But at home, anything that can interrupt you can usually be said no to without consequence.
As we mentioned earlier, the rule of thumb is this: minimize the time you spend on non-work items during your self-scheduled working hours… and feel free to take as much time doing non-work items when outside of your self-schedule working hours.
As an example for how this plays out in real life, when I’m in my morning chunk of time and still have 3 outcomes to get through for the day… I ruthlessly ignore everything else. But once those 3 things are done, I have zero guilt with spending some time cooking, or chilling out for an hour playing Kingdom Rush or sitting down with a good book for the rest of the day.
For more on setting up your headspace correctly, be sure to check out the procrastination and focus modules of the Productivity Blueprint.
Handling Distractions and People
Most likely your biggest source of distraction when working from home will be people.
This is because the other sources of distractions that we talked about (TV, books, hobbies) are controllable directly by you – a little bit of self-discipline is all that is needed to reign those in.
But other people aren’t under your control, which means that some additional thought is needed.
Everyone’s living situation is different, so please take the below with a grain of salt.
We’ll roughly cover:
- Partner/significant other.
One of the very first articles we ever published on Asian Efficiency was about how to pick good flatmates, and how it would increase your productivity.
Simply put, pick people who have the same goals, aspirations and values that you do… and you’ll be fine.
If they happen to work regular 9-5 jobs, that’s even better as they won’t be around during your work hours.
If they work from home, teach them what’s in this guide – and that way, everyone can be productive.
That being said, there are times where you need to be “plugged in” and in the zone – this is here headphones come in handy. As such:
You’ll also want to establish ground rules and boundaries – and this can be as simple as “hey guys, I really need to focus right now” and off you go. As these are friends/flatmates, this should be less of a problem that trying to enforce the same ground rules with family.
This relationship is slightly trickier, as the complexity of our relationship boundaries starts to play into what rules you can/can’t set, and there is usually a sense of “I’m important enough to intrude in your working time” going on.
I (Aaron) personally struggled with this in the beginning, but over time I’ve worked out some of the necessary ground rules and strategies for making it work.
As with flatmates, you want to setup the ground rules of letting them know:
- When you are working and need to focus, and can’t be interrupted.
- When you can be interrupted.
Tip: A really useful phrase to use when you’re about to be interrupted is, “Hold on one second, I need to finish this first.”.
Now ideally, your partner/SO won’t work from home as well… but if he/she does, then you’ll want to teach them what you have learned in this guide.
There are 3 big strategies that you can use to minimize and mitigate any potential issues when your partner/SO is around when you’re working from home.
The first is to not worry about how long it takes him/her to do things or to get ready in the morning.
For example, I know that it takes me about an hour to get through my morning ritual and then I’ll be sitting in my study, ready to work. My girlfriend takes somewhat longer (2ish hours), and then likes to “warm up” by reading articles/Facebook/blogs for 30 minutes before she’s ready to start doing productive work.
This also applies to things like eating, cooking, cleaning… anything around the house really. Different people just take different amounts of time to do particular things.
The second strategy is to try to coordinate your sleeping times as much as possible. This can be painfully hard in the beginning, but it will work itself out over time. Through trial and error I’ve usually found that it’s better to coordinate your wake up time rather than your “go to bed” time – it’s really hard to quietly go through your morning ritual without waking your partner/SO up.
You may be an average-length sleeper (7-9 hours) while your partner/SO may be a short-length sleeper (5-6 hours). The way to work around this is to either have them sleep for a longer period of time, or for you to go to sleep first (usually with an eye mask and ear plugs), and have them join you later.
The third big strategy is respect for your home. This means respecting the space – and keeping it neat and tidy.
If your partner/SO doesn’t work from home, they aren’t in the space all day, and they don’t really notice if things are tidy or not… and this tends to make them more lax about the appearance of your home.
But as someone who works from home, you ARE in it all day, and you NEED it to be clean and organized, because physical clutter = mental clutter.
Be sure to take the lead on this – you can and should most definitely establish some new rules and processes around this – buy new furniture to store things if necessary, and move things around if it makes more sense. And when you see things starting to slip, gently remind your partner/SO and have them help tidy it up.
Tip: If your partner/SO also works from home, there’s a great interrogation session in the Productivity Blueprint with Marc and Angel where they talk with Thanh about working from home together.
I don’t have kids, so I asked AE team member Marie (who does), about what she does.
There are two separate conditions for working productively from home with kids. The first is during the school term when the kids are away at school for part/most of the day, and the second is when they’re on break and around most of the time.
When they’re away at school, that’s a great time to get things done. At other times, it’s about give and take.
The most important thing is communication – let them know when you’re going to start working, and ask them to behave while you’re working.
Sometimes though, they just want attention – and you have to give it to them. In those cases you can say “OK, give mommy 5 minutes”. This orients them and sets a time frame… and gives you 5 minutes to finish up what you’re working on and then go back to them. You absolutely, must stick with the 5 minutes so that they trust you and so that they won’t say “mom you’re lying”.
Remember that your kids are smart – really smart – and over time, they’ll learn and understand that when you’re working you need some quiet time and they’ll help you get it, by turning down the TV a little or reminding you that you’re supposed to be working.
For more on how to work productively from home with kids around, there are two excellent interrogation sessions in the Productivity Blueprint with Brett Kelly and Mike Vardy where they talk about exactly how they do that.
Generally speaking, when you work from home you are running our own schedule anyway – and people will usually work around you if you let them.
You’ll want to be flexible on things like quality time, or sitting down for a meal… and remember that a little give and take goes a long way.
The Importance of Your Social Life
Working from home a lot can get a little lonely, especially if you live in the suburbs or aren’t in a big city where there are people around all the time.
If you live with people, you’ll get some limited social exposure from the family/people that you live with.
If you don’t the best solution is to get out of the building.
Try to get out the house at least 2-3 times a week for something else – even if that’s just getting groceries or going to the gym.
The absolute best thing is to meet up with friends or others for lunch or dinner once a week.
In fact, if you work from home and work online and don’t have any tie-down commitments… it’s worth moving to a city that has an abundance of digital nomads and other work-from-home folk. For example, here in Bangkok there is a huge community of online marketers and online business people – and we meet up on a pretty regular basis.
If that isn’t an option for you, there’s also meetup.com to find like-minded people, and most cities now have co-working spaces where people bring their laptops to sit down and work.
Remember that social needs are really important for everyone. Cabin fever is very real – but in our case, it creates a spiral of stagnating and negative thoughts, which is bad for our productivity.
Things to Make Working From Home Easier
Here are some miscellaneous tips for making working from home easier.
- Have everything you need for work ready beforehand. This means papers, files, documents, emails etc.
- Clear to Neutral after each task. This gets you ready for the next thing.
- Drink LOTS of water.
- Remember to eat.
- Green tea is awesome.
- Batch cooking. If you do this on the weekend, it will save you hours during the week.
- An ergonomic setup with a standing desk and great chair.
- Structural Productivity.
Working productively from home isn’t difficult – it just takes some planning and setup, some communication with others around you and realizing that people who work productively from home are those who work productively from anywhere.
If you have any questions or comments – ask away in the comments section!
I currently work for http://www.oktra.co.uk who are one of the leading office design companies in the UK.
We have designed offices for some of the biggest creative, legal, insurance, tech and coworking companies so I have been lucky enough to have tried and tested them as well as home.
I love working from home but I am a big believer in having different working spaces to be most productive. These spaces could be quite rooms, formal meeting rooms to open plan brainstorming areas – these spaces help us and match different working styles.
You need different spaces to work most productively and that’s why most companies are creating a home environment at work!
“There is usually a sense of “I’m important enough to intrude in your working time” going on.”
This is just spot on Aaron! So is the rest of the post. I still work remotely (although not everyday) so I’m bookmarking this one. Thanks for the guide!
Great Article, just what I needed to make sure I an doing it right. I am a full-time college student doing my degree online. It takes alot of self-discipline, focus, and more importantly green tea for me to perform optimally.
Glad it helped David. Green tea = awesomeness :)
Regarding your comment on Home/Office Setup where “A desktop keyboard and mouse. Working on your trackpad all day will slow you down.” Can you clarify if you saying that a mouse is recommended, over a trackpad alone in a Mac set-up? If you have both devices, which one do you like to use, and when?
I have a trackpad only set-up, including laptop trackpad only when working outside in cafes — where it seems to work. But interested if you and others are using a mouse as well to boost productivity.
The trackpad definitely works, especially if you’re working from your laptop.
But if you have the chance to setup with a monitor and external mouse and keyboard, it’s significantly more productive for most things.
Good stuff, Aaron.
I worked from home for nearly 2 years. It was great for a while, but I totally failed at keeping clearly separated work and relaxation time.
My problem was on most workday afternoons, I felt unmotivated and just wanted to nap, browse Reddit, watch something on TV, etc.
And then on most weekends, I felt like I should be working so I’d end up doing work a lot of Saturdays and Sundays.
This lifestyle put me in a state of never feeling fully productive while also never feeling like I was truly enjoying my life.
Eventually, I gave up and joined a co-working space to get more separation because my apartment had just been too corrupted as a work environment. When I move into a bigger apartment, I plan to resume working from home with a distinct work area.
Yeah I’ve never really been into the co-working thing as there aren’t many convenient spaces in Bangkok.
I am headed to Sydney next week though are there are *a lot* there and I definitely plan to check them out.
The separation thing is huge – a separate work room or even a clear kitchen table will do.
Adding friction like unplugging the TV from the wall every time you’re done also helps :)
Awesome. Hope you find some good spaces in Sydney to try out.
Definitely agree about adding friction as obstacles to time wasters. I often store my iPad in a hard to reach place because I know when I feel too lazy to work, I’ll also be too lazy to go get a chair and climb up to grab my iPad. Usually end up reading a book instead which I consider a high value task second only to high priority work.
Great article! Extremely detailed and full of actionable tips.
Oh yeah and Kingdom Rush is awesome
I have a theory that people who play tower defence or RTS-style games make for better strategic thinkers :)
While the adjustable desk you link to sounds cool, there are ways to get cheap standing desks (cheap in the meaning of “does not cost much”). A couple of interesting IKEA hacks exist and I recently tried out these instructions: https://spacekat.me/blog/2012/07/26/diy-standing-desk/ and it worked pretty well: https://www.organizingcreativity.com/2014/06/standing-desk-finished-more-or-less/. Too soon for any long-term experiences, but I really like it. Especially the storage space directly underneath the desk for the notebook, cables, and some other easily accessible stuff.
Looks pretty neat.
IKEA here in Thailand is actually more expensive than normal furniture stores haha.
When I was in the US I picked up a Biomorph desk on Craiglist for really cheap – worth checking out if you’re stateside!