Every conversation goes something like this:
“Wow, you work from home? That’s so awesome, I’m so jealous. I wish I worked from home!
I bet you can just work in your pajamas all day if you want, huh?”
I’ll smile, and launch into a mildly self-deprecating discussion of how, while it is awesome in so many ways, working from home also means that I have to go through some pretty intense self-motivation in order to avoid feeling like the ultimate sloth.
For the better part of the past three years, I’ve been remotely employed. I’m very lucky; I can work where I want, I don’t have a commute, and yes, I could (in theory) work in my pajamas if I really wanted to. However, I’m also intimately familiar with the pitfalls of working from home.
Working from home is awesome—except when it really, really isn’t.
The reality is, it can be difficult to remain productive while working from home. If you work from home, I’m sure you know the feeling of struggling to remain productive, focused, and efficient, when other tasks call out to you—or when you’ve just discovered a new show on Netflix that you’re dying to binge-watch.
Can you be as productive working from home as in an office?
Research suggests that remote and home-based workers have the potential to be considerably more productive than their office-based counterparts. When surveyed, 77 percent of remote employees report greater productivity working from home versus in an office. Not only that, 24 percent feel that they can accomplish more work in the same amount of time, and 30 percent of those surveyed felt that they could accomplish more work in less time.
So, it’s theoretically possible to be more productive while working from home—you just need to set yourself up well to reap the benefits by avoiding some key productivity pitfalls.
Over the years, I’ve personally fallen prey to the many productivity saps that working from home can present. Fortunately, I’ve also found ways to combat them.
Here, I’ll go over common problems we encounter while working from home, and what you can do to get your focus and workflow back on track—and potentially avoid these productivity minefields in the first place.
Productivity pitfall #1: The lack of a defined “start” to the day
When you work in an office, it’s easier: You leave your house, get in your car, and drive to an entirely new building to start the workday.
When you work from home? Not so much.
You might go into a different room, but that’s probably the extent of the distance you physically travel.
The issue here is that without a clearly defined beginning to your workday, it can feel a bit like sliding into work mode without an established “starting point.” One minute, you’re checking emails over breakfast, and the next minute you’re fully embedded in the workday—wait, how did that even happen? You never even left your kitchen table!
To combat this, make an effort to pick a clear time that marks the start of the workday, and don’t begin your work until then. If you look at successful entrepreneurs, you’ll see a common pattern: while their schedules may differ, most rely on some form of established schedule and stick with it.
Even if you’re self-employed and can technically work whenever you’d like, it’s still wise to stick to a rough schedule and make an effort to avoid working around the clock just because you can. Similarly, your defined “at work” start time marks the time when you need to head into your office—no exceptions.
Speaking of “heading into your office,” when it comes to clearly defining the start of the workday, physically transitioning from one room to another is hugely important.
Now, depending on your living situation, you may or may not have an actual office dedicated entirely to your use. However, there are plenty of ways to delineate “office space” that don’t necessarily require a designated room. If you have a spare bedroom, turning a portion of the room into your office can be a great way to make the room do double duty. If that’s not an option, look into setting up a desk in your living room.
Whatever route you choose, having a set schedule and a clearly defined office space that you can “go to” at the beginning of the day goes a long way toward providing a clear “start” to your workday, which will result in higher productive output.
Productivity pitfall #2: Feeling a little too comfortable
So, back to working in your pajamas:
Okay, so maybe that’s a little prescriptive. Hey, if you want to work in your pajamas, far be it from me to stop you.
However, you’ve probably found that this makes the start of your day feel as loosely defined as pitfall #1. It’s comfy, sure, but you might feel a little too laid back.
Even when working from home, this makes a difference; research has shown that overly casual dress can make us feel more relaxed. This is due in part to our connotations with certain styles of dress; your slouchy sweatshirt screams “weekend,” and so it can be harder to remain productive when dressed in a way that we associate with relaxation.
Combating this is simple: Pretend you’re going to work.
Get ready as you normally would if you were going out into the world, and working in a physical, external office space. Now, it’s fine to do a truncated, slightly more casual version of your morning routine (I certainly wouldn’t recommend working from home in, say, a suit—that would just be silly), but even simply changing into a fresh, put-together outfit helps encourage productivity and clearly defines the start of the day.
Productivity pitfall #3: Home-based distractions
One of the biggest misconceptions about working from home seems to be the idea that you can easily multitask while being productive at work.
But, just because you’re at home, doesn’t mean you should feel obligated or inclined to take on a variety of home-based tasks while at work. Additionally, this calls to light one of the biggest misconceptions surrounding our ability to multitask; namely, that we can actually do it.
It has been found time and time again that rather than multitask, what we do is “task switch.” This is exactly what it sounds like; we shift our attention from one task to another, which ultimately means we’re simply prolonging the amount of time it takes to do any one thing. So, if you’re working from home while still trying to do several other things throughout the day, your productivity at work is suffering, plain and simple.
This means potentially explaining to your family that no, you really can’t prepare a labor-intensive dinner during the afternoon; just because you’re at home doesn’t mean you’re not still working. Similarly, fight the urge to commit yourself to tasks and chores throughout the day that split your focus.
Again, sticking to a schedule here can help with this. Frame your workday as you would a workday at the office—maybe that means an hour lunch break, and the odd 15-minute break throughout the day to get a cup of coffee or stretch your legs (more on this in a minute). Similarly, it may be necessary to kindly point out to well-meaning family members that your day is spoken for, even if you’re physically at home, and let them know what your schedule looks like.
After that, it’s down to you to enforce a schedule and stick with it—and you’ll see your productivity skyrocket.
Productivity pitfall #4: Cabin fever
My biggest cause of waning productivity while working from home? That midday slump when I realize I haven’t left the house all day.
Working from home can cause a major case of cabin fever. So, making a conscious effort to get out and about has made a huge difference in my productivity.
It has been found that the best workspaces are potentially the ones that offer a variety of working environments or are to some extent “customizable” (think the option for both a sitting and standing desk, or varying locations from which to work).
When I want to experience a change of scenery, I tend to take my show on the road and find a local coffee shop with good Wi-Fi from which to work. I find that it’s harder to fall prey to distraction when I’m working in public, and so I find that I get more done. Additionally, research has shown that ambient background noise of around 70 decibels helps boost creative thinking by 35 percent—and this decibel level coincides pretty closely with that of the average coffee shop.
So, if you’re feeling the effects of cabin fever from working in your office at home all day, it’s a good idea to make an effort to get out of the house—whether to take a short break, or to get a change of scenery and work somewhere outside your home.
I personally advocate for a combination of the two: I enjoy taking a quick 10 to 15-minute walk throughout the day, to clear my head and mentally unwind for a few minutes. I also make an effort to leave my house and spend a few afternoons working at a coffee shop, especially when I need to devote several hours of focused energy to a single task.
Productivity pitfall #5: Not taking enough breaks
In the previous pitfall, I mentioned that I take occasional short, 10 to 15-minute walks throughout the day.
Doing this didn’t come naturally; I have had to make a concerted effort to pull myself away from my work and take a break. However, I enjoy these breaks immensely; they serve as a sort of mental palate cleanser, which I find makes me more productive
It might sound counterintuitive; how is it possible that stopping working can make you more productive? In an effort to test exactly this, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that brief breaks do ultimately improve productivity, and that research subjects who attempted to focus for a prolonged period of time without breaks experienced a decline in attention and ability to perform tasks.
Your preferred break can take on a variety of forms—reading a short news article, for instance, or a deliberate scroll through social media (read as: not checking periodically throughout the day, but a purposeful social media break). I prefer a quick walk because it not only serves as a break from the workday, but also based on the fact that walks are shown to improve creativity, leaving you refreshed and ready to get back to work with increased attentiveness, focus, and ability to think creatively.
At the end of the day, finding that sweet spot of productivity while working from home is a matter of both assessing the wealth of research surrounding productivity, and figuring out what works best for you.
Without externally-enforced structure, the biggest difficulty is often creating a system and sticking with it. However, once you’re able to overcome this obstacle, avoiding these key productivity pitfalls will become second nature.
What is your favorite strategy for being productive while working from home? I’d love to hear more suggestions and find out what works for you. Share your experience in a comment below!