Working from home? Here’s how to stay on task

I’ve been working remotely as a freelancer or contractor for two years now. I also have ADHD, and I am a terrible procrastinator. As a result, I’ve spent the past two years developing a system that helps me get my work done and be a good teammate in the process.

Whether you work remotely as a full-time employee or you freelance, the major struggles of staying on task usually come down to time management. An office has a natural structure and system. When working from home, you’re left to your own devices. And if I don’t follow my own system, I fail miserably.

I’ve found that creating structure is the best way to approach the difficulties of remote work (and to wrangle the double-headed monster of ADHD and procrastination in the process). By creating systems and routines for how to structure my time, I’ve been able to replicate, to an extent, the kind of structure that comes naturally when working in an office.

Start with a strategy

“Tactics are idiosyncratic,” Seth Godin says. “But strategies are universal, and there are a lot of talented folks who are not succeeding the way they want to because their strategies are broken.” While productivity tactics are helpful, they aren’t universal. And they aren’t necessarily that helpful unless I place them within a larger strategy of structure and routine. Because the difficulty of working from home, I think, is the bigger picture: the overwhelmingness of it all.

The difficulty of working from home is the bigger picture: the overwhelmingness of it all.

The hardest part of my endless freedom is just that, the freedom. Freedom is amazing. But it can quickly become overwhelming. While the work itself is defined, the way you go about it is not. There is no one checking up on your progress, no coworkers sitting nearby who might silently judge you for being on Facebook. It’s just you, your computer, and a deadline. When at the office, you can’t leave to run errands (or you can, but not regularly). You can’t do your laundry or clean the kitchen. Working from home offers all sorts of distractions that just aren’t available at the office.

Many people suggest working at a coffee shop, library, or coworking space. Or any other place where, when you’re there, it’s time to work. I prefer to work at home, so I am left with a desk in my bedroom, and my structure—the only tools I have to be productive.

Establishing a routine has been crucial. Each day can be vastly different as a natural result of All The Freedom. So I’ve developed a routine and I try my best to stick to it.

Everyone’s routine will be different. There are so many articles out there advocating specific tactics routines that successful entrepreneurs follow. What it comes down to is what works best for you. Over the years I’ve tried various methods, picking up bits and pieces that work for me, never hesitating to throw the rest out of the window. I will never wake up at 6am and go for a run and not check email until 10pm. I am not that person. And that’s okay.

The point is: I listen to myself. And I try to understand what makes me happier and more productive. That’s all there is to it.

Find your rhythm

So how do you go about figuring that out? I started with what I knew. I know that I work best in the morning. I know that I get an afternoon lull where it’s almost impossible for me to get work done. And I know that I get another burst of focus from 4–6pm. This pattern naturally occurred. In fact, it’s common.

There’s even a name for it: circadian rhythms. It’s your 24-hour cycle of energy, and it tends to follow a similar schedule for most people: A few hours after waking, we hit our peak energy and focus, usually in the late morning. In the afternoon, there is a lull of energy, and it becomes hard for us to focus. Then there is another spurt of energy, right before we leave work.

Of course, this is not the same for everyone—some people’s rhythms are shifted earlier, or later. But everyone has a rhythm. Unfortunately, our work schedules often work against our rhythm.

So one of the great benefits of All The Freedom is that you can plan your day around your natural rhythms of energy and focus. Keep track of your energy and focus levels at regular intervals throughout the day. Just make a quick note every half an hour. After two weeks, you should have a pretty clear idea. What you want to do is plan your heavy duty, work work for those high-energy times.

For me, that’s the morning between 10am–1pm, and the afternoon between 4–6pm. So I have created a structure that fits this. I wake up around 8am and check email and Twitter. I get up and make coffee. I brush my teeth. Then I work.

Take breaks

Usually around 1pm my attention starts to dwindle. When I last worked in an office, we had a workout room, so during this time I’d often go lift some weights for half an hour, and then shower. I’d get back to my desk and feel energized, ready to finish out the rest of the day. This is a luxury that most people who work in an office don’t have, but lucky for us remote workers, we have All The Freedom to take a break in the middle of the work day.

There are tons of benefits to taking a quick break: they refresh our energy, stave off boredom, and help us refocus on the bigger picture. Most people suggest working out, taking a walk, or even napping. I often use a lull in attention as a cue to make lunch and eat while reading a book that’s unrelated to my work.

Remember, though, that your break should be just that, a break. I’ve learned over my time working remotely that there are some breaks I will never come back from. This is where All The Freedom can be a burden. Theoretically, I can galavant off to wherever my heart desires. It’s tempting, especially on days when I’m frustrated or bored. So that’s something I keep in mind when choosing a break activity. If it’s too fun, or too tiring, I might not get back to work.

Leave work at work home

I’ve always struggled with “leaving work at work” and it’s even harder to do when working from home or freelancing. Because I manage my own time, and am lucky enough to have a steady stream of work, every minute of the day is a minute I could be working. Research has shown that people who work remotely often end up working far more than their counterparts at the office. The thing is, this can also be exhausting and stressful.

It’s a mental problem, and one I don’t have a perfect solution for. But I have stumbled into a half-solution lately: setting hours when I don’t work. For example, I recently decided to not work on weekends. I have a life outside of my work, and many friends and family whom I love spending time with.

Listen to yourself. Watch yourself. Experiment and find the structure that fits you, one that allows you to do your best work.

After all, we need breaks. We can’t be “on” all of the time, and while some people can work on the weekends and not want to cry, I am not that person. I need time in my week when I don’t have to think about “what I should be doing.” When I finally admitted that to myself, it was like a weight was lifted off of my shoulders, and it made working during the week much easier.

That’s the point of all of this. Listen to yourself. Watch yourself. Experiment and find the structure that fits you, one that allows you to do your best work in the most effective manner, because as a remote worker, no one else is going to do that for you, and if you don’t do it for yourself, you’ll go crazy. Believe me.

Structure leads to success

The challenges I encounter as a remote worker can be solved with one thing: structure. Structure in my day, in my approach to tasks, and in my communications with my clients and teammates. While working from home is fantastic, the freedom can sometimes be too much. When that starts to happen, I take a step back. I use organization as a tool to wrangle this freedom. I set expectations and boundaries for communication, I set routines for myself, I listen to myself, I experiment, and I implement what works best.

What are your strategies for staying productive while working from home? Let us know in the comments!

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