Working out how to be productive working from home is an issue that most, if not all, freelancers face at some point – or more likely, on a recurring basis. You’re lying in bed in the morning, pushing yourself to get up, but what’s one more hour? Or maybe you’re sitting by your desk, with no one to look over your shoulder and check on what you’re doing – why shouldn’t you watch just another YouTube video? We all know how one video can turn into a 2 hour binge, and before you know it your daily motivation is out of the window, and you’ll be playing deflated catch up at some point in the next 24 hours.
Thankfully, you’re not alone in all of these feelings, and we’re also occasionally susceptible to inner voices that would much rather go out and see some friends rather than write another word/code another line/read another email/see another pixel (circle as appropriate).
This is probably obvious to anyone reading, but simply creating an environment where the only thing you can do is work should lead to work getting done. I do this in a few ways.
Set up your phone to be as quiet as possible
Depending on how you handle important communication via your phone, turn off all other channels of communication. My phone has a customisable “Do Not Disturb” mode where I can choose which types of notifications I can still receive, and which won’t show up. In your app settings you should also be able to completely turn off notifications for specific apps.
Install a blocking app in your browser & phone
As you likely do a lot, if not all, of your work through your internet browser, this one step can eliminate a huge amount of digital distractions in one fell swoop.
Download the StayFocusd Chrome extension – Leechblock is a good alternative if you’re a Firefox user. Plug in all the sites that you want to eliminate from your workday to the block list (you can see mine in the gallery on the right, click to enlarge it), and set the maximum allowed time before they are blocked. Be careful not to block any sites you actually need for your work, because once your time has run out they will be unavailable to you unless you disable the whole extension, which is a long process of going through about 30 popups which try to guilt trip you into keeping it enabled.
There is also a “Nuclear Option” which will block all websites you choose for as long as you choose to block them, starting the moment you hit Nuke – and with absolutely no way to reverse it until the time is up. I find myself using this fairly frequently.
If just blocking your browser isn’t enough, the guys at StayFocusd also have an app for Mac, Windows, Android, and iOS called Freedom, which you can use to manage any and all apps or programs you use. If all the browser blocking doesn’t stop you because you’ll just boot up a video game or movie instead, this is the route for you.
Forest is also a great option for Android and iOS – you set the amount of time you want to be distraction-free, and the app plants a small virtual tree which grows during your working time. If you decide to open a different app, Forest will warn you, and if you still go ahead, you kill your tree. Emotional blackmailing at its finest.
Try the Pomodoro Technique
The Pomodoro Technique is based on the idea that you work best if you operate in small chunks. All you need for this is a kitchen timer, a pen, and paper. Decide what you will focus on, wind the timer for 25 minutes, and do nothing but your chosen task until the timer goes off. Once the time is up, add a tick to the paper. If you have less than 4, spend 3-5 minutes doing whatever you want, and then rewind the timer and repeat. Once you have 4, take a longer break of up to 30 minutes, then clear the check marks, and start from 0. If you interrupt a Pomodoro segment, it must be abandoned and restarted when you get back to work.
This technique can be very effective in that you keep track of what you are doing, constantly have a small motivational break ahead of you, as well as the longer one which also allows you to take a proper breather after a couple of hours of more intensive focus.
There are many apps any websites out there with which you can track your time (or just a countdown timer on your phone), but proponents of this technique stress the physical action of winding the timer as playing an important psychological role.
Amazon has a large range of timers – both the regular kitchen variety and those geared towards time management.
Make sure you have your own space - or find one elsewhere
When I talk to people who work from home, I often hear that they plant themselves on the sofa with their laptop and do all of their work this way. Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but I prefer having my own working area at home, in terms of a desk away from the rest of the living area, for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, it allows you to have a mental separation between work and leisure. Doing all your work in the same place where you do all your relaxing will likely (and I’m no psychologist) lead to a mental overlap that you’d rather avoid. Additionally, the sofa comes rife with its own, unblockable distractions, such as the TV, your pets, and potentially even family or friends who are milling about. You may not have a room you can dedicate to your work, but thinking about a place where you can get the majority of your work done can help keep your mind in the right lane.
If you don’t think you can manage to stay productive at home, then it might be best to head out. I enjoy sitting in a coffee shop from time to time; there’s something about the bustle of other people actually getting on with their lives that causes me to focus on what I’m doing. Co-working spaces may also be available in your area, which allow you to rent a desk in a shared space for a day or as long as you need.
Make a to-do list at the end of every day
This is pretty short and sweet, but I enjoy it for two reasons. Firstly, I get the satisfaction of ticking off everything I have achieved that day. Secondly, when I wake up in the morning I already have a list waiting for me to take on, can can add to if anything else comes to mind. Combining a list like this with the Pomodoro Technique above can also work well.
Finally, think dedication, not motivation
As we’ve discussed before, self-motivation and time management are two of the most important skills a remote worker can possess. However, ultimately, it isn’t even motivation you need, it’s discipline and dedication. A good freelancer will wake up and already have their day planned out ahead of them, knowing when and how much work they’ll be doing, and just get on with it. While the tips above should help stave it off, procrastination boils down to avoidance behaviour, and unfortunately there’s no magic fix for the syndrome, besides just doing.