LearnWorking from Home? 3 Tips to Staying on Task

(Flickr photo by David Martyn Hunt)

Theresa Cramer
writes on May 13, 2014

(Flickr photo by David Martyn Hunt)

Successful freelancers know that the key to keeping a great gig is staying organized, meeting deadlines, and doing great work. They also know that it’s easier said than done.

Being a freelancer — or just having the freedom to work from home — has plenty of perks. Setting your own schedule, working in your pajamas, and getting a load of laundry done in between tasks are just a few of the benefits that people who work remotely enjoy. But working from home — or the coffee shop, or the beach — comes with even more distractions than perks, and before you know it, you may find yourself procrastinating and falling behind.

It isn’t just freelancers enjoying the perks of remote work, and struggling to stay on task. As Tom Ashbrook said on the May 2 edition of NPR’s On Point, “Now, work and the workplace are going free agent. To a corner of Starbucks. Or anywhere.” Today, even employees with 9-to-5 jobs have the option to work from home. But working in an unstructured environment can be challenging for some.

Establishing a routine that works for you is integral to working remotely. Luckily, plenty of workers have come before you, and they are happy to share their tips for staying on task.

1. Plan Ahead

Nancy Davis Kho

Nancy Davis Kho

Based out of Oakland, Calif., Nancy Davis Kho is a freelance writer and columnist for EContent. Like many freelancers, she understands the importance of sticking to a schedule.

“My number one piece of advice is to plan your workday the night before,” she says. “I use Outlook like crazy to manage and prioritize even the smallest tasks, so as soon as I start in the morning, I know exactly how I’m going to tackle things and in what order, and I try really, really hard to never let a task slip by a day.”

Davis Kho also finds that keeping busy keeps her mind from wandering. “I find the need to sort of overload myself; otherwise it’s too easy to get tempted by the siren song of Facebook and Twitter,” she says. If her hands go idle, she’s more likely to get distracted and end up falling behind.

Loving your work helps, too, says Brad Harris, a software engineer at Yahoo who works from his home in Denver.

“For me, setting up a schedule of when I start and end work for the day has been crucial,” Harris says. “I don’t see staying on task as much of a problem if you genuinely enjoy what you do. Rather, it’s hard to put work down at times because it’s so accessible. Having a specific time of day where I’m ‘done,’ even if that means putting work away for a few hours until dinner is over and kids are in bed, has helped me keep it from creeping in too much.”

Part of planning ahead is prioritizing — deciding what needs to get done now and what can wait until tomorrow. Kho says, “When I prioritize, I start with the jobs that pay. If I do have to let something slip, I’d rather it be something I’m not directly earning money on (i.e. backing up files, reading someone else’s blog and commenting, returning a call to the pharmacy.)”

2. Find the Tools that Work for You

Ron Miller

Ron Miller

One of the wonderful things about technology is that there is a tool (or an app) for just about everything. Just like Davis Kho uses her Outlook to create a task list, other freelancers rely on tools to stay organized and focused. Ron Miller, a freelance writer and enterprise reporter for TechCrunch, swears by Evernote — but he also likes a good old notepad.

“I use Evernote to organize my content so I have quick access to notes and related articles and such on any device and I’m a big believer in lists,” Miller says. “I still haven’t found an electronic listing tool that I like as much as simply writing one at the beginning of each day and checking off things as I go.”

Carolina K. Reid, a freelancer who is working on a startup in on-demand housing, relies on a truly unusual tool: an egg timer. Reid says she uses the kitchen gadget “just to keep on track and devote x-amount of time per day in a week — minimum 30 minutes and no distractions.”

Harris has one must-have tool that may seem a bit unusual at first, but also ingenious: “Bose noise-canceling headphones are a must if you have kids at home. They’re pricy, but well worth it in my opinion.” But Harris also has tips for people who have to stay in touch with co-workers in an office — or in their own homes — during the workday.

“We use a team chat tool called HipChat, which is super-helpful for staying up to speed with what the team is doing. There are other solutions, but something similar is extremely helpful if you are a team with remote workers,” Harris says.

3. Get Out of the Office

One of the biggest perks of working from home is the ability to pick up your laptop and work from anywhere. That may sound counterproductive, but there can be a lot of distractions in your house. Whether you have kids running around the house, or the temptation to turn on the TV is too strong, sometimes it can be smart to get out of your home office — though it isn’t for everyone.

Carolina Reid

Carolina Reid

Some people enjoy heading down to the local coffee house to grab a beverage and to bury themselves in their work. But be sure that you’ve planned your day to suit itself to a few hours at the coffee shop or the library.

Reid says, “I like the coffee shop idea but I am too fundamentally social not to look up… Also I get on the phone a lot, setting up interviews, and calling for copies of reports or books. So I like to be able to make calls from a quiet place.”

For people who aren’t cutout for business in the coffee shop, there are other options. Co-working spaces are on the rise. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, freelancers, independent contractors and the like will make up 40 percent of the workforce by 2020. By allowing freelancers to rent as much or as little office space and time as they need — while providing all the important amenities like Wi-Fi — co-working spaces are filling the gap between the home office and the cubicle farm.


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9 Responses to “Working from Home? 3 Tips to Staying on Task”

  1. I definitely agree with all three! I’m obsessive about logging even the smallest of tasks in my to-do list (I use Todoist now that Astrid’s gone) and set them in order the night before. The day seems much more manageable that way, having a plan of action. Yet getting out of the office is too often necessary–the thing that perks inspiration and refuels motivation. I find myself never once leaving the house in an entire day too often–sometimes you’ve got to get outside and reacquaint yourself with the rest of the world!

  2. Great tips.
    Handling my freelance from home can get pretty hectic. Especially because I work a full time job and try to take on a little more than I think I can take at times, and of course there are always distractions and personal things to deal with.

    I love my Basecamp to-do lists because it helps me stay on task. When I can see everything I need to get done right in front of me, it reminds me that I need to stay focused on complete my projects.

  3. This is nice and interesting article! definitely worth to read and the information you provide is beneficial.

  4. Software engineer at Yahoo? I thought they couldn’t work from home anymore.

  5. Ben Lockett on May 13, 2014 at 4:50 pm said:

    Thank you for these tips I am certainly going to try and put these into play. I currently work from home and some days hate it. I have currently relocated my office to a downstairs room which is helping. I think for me the worst part of working from home is the lack of interaction with other colleagues.

    Thank again

  6. Elder Henrique Souza on May 13, 2014 at 4:27 pm said:

    Nice tips! I’ve just got back to freelancing, I’ve done some work remotely but I was living alone at the time, now I moved back to my mom’s house, and it’s been at least awkward to make my family members understand that I’m not really ‘available’ to them. Things like going to the market or do random chores at the house are always directed at me, and it’s really hard to explain that I can’t do these things, at the very least I’m embarrassed to even say no, but then it turns out that I really don’t have time to do it, then frustration sets in quickly and it’s really the worst, cause I wanted to help but couldn’t anyway. I’ll appreciate some tips from people with the same problem. Thanks!

    • Although I’m a beginner to this freelancing world, I too faced the same problem as yours. The solution is simple, Just go have a chat with the family as usual and tell about your work and how you manage your time on it, maybe then they will understand to give you your own working time and also understand how you work. And also, just get to know the ongoing schedule of your family e.g are the grocery stuff enough to last for the coming week or do we need to shop again (stuff like that) so that you can plan your working schedule without any conflict. Hope this helps 🙂

  7. I do some work in the morning take a break do some more in the afternoon then again at night.

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