A lot of people ask me about working from home, frequently with a faraway look in their eye. I usually respond by pointing out that, like any other job situation, working from home has both advantages and drawbacks. Its sole unequivocal advantage lies in the commute. Beyond that, much depends on work habits, social needs, and home life. The freedom that conjures up a traditional office worker’s daydreams creates a nightmare in the home office. As more and more traditional office jobs embrace telecommuting in part or in whole, this issue has spread much more widely: I have to get work done at home. How do I do that efficiently?
If I’ve learned nothing else in all my years of working in a home office, I’ve learned this: set office hours. This doesn’t mean home office hours need to be as inflexible as corporate face time—after all, why leave the nine-to-five office world for a nine-to-five home office slog unless you like that type of thing? Home office hours don’t need to be consecutive, and they don’t have to be the same every day. They simply need to exist. Work acts like a liquid in that it will get all over everything if you don’t contain it. Since we all have limited resources, we need to make sure that container is the right size. Make it too small and the work sloshes over the edge and onto the floor again. Make it too big and you’ve got a comparatively large space for a small amount of work.
When you work from home, you sit within an easy short walk of every imaginable household chore, as well as a whole host of other distractions. On the flip side, the office and all the work therein lies within a few short steps any time you happen to be in the house. Inveterate procrastinators and workaholics may not have much in common, but absent a solid schedule they’re both dead meat in a home office environment. It’s as easy to spend twenty-four productive hours as it is to spend twenty-four unproductive hours, and neither of these situations leads to a healthy work environment. The office may be an inefficient workplace in a lot of ways, but your arrival and departure from it give shape to your day, and your coworkers are mostly toggling between working and goofing off.
The practical upshot of all this is that it takes time both to do things and not do things, which are both legitimate and necessary uses of your time. The same freedom that allows for the most efficient, productive work schedule you can imagine also has the potential to paralyze you. When I left the requirements of daily face time at the office I also lost the form and structure that gave shape to my work. I resisted the idea of work hours because I object to the idea of face time on principle: if you get your work done well, what difference should it make where you did it and how long it took you? Without a structured plan for my time, the amplitude between lulls and peak productivity got way too big to handle. The more intense the peak season, the more downtime I needed to recover and stave off burnout. The longer the recovery period, the more the work piles up, making the peak more intense.
It has taken a long time to learn my work habits and set up a schedule that keeps me productive, energized, and flexible. My schedule changes weekly because I customize it to my work habits, but your mileage may vary—some people need a hard beginning and hard stop to their day, and that means the office door closes at nine and opens back up at five. Some people work better in the morning, or in the evening. Some people love all-nighters, and others wake up early to get more done. All schedules are different, but we all have schedules, and we have to fit our work around them. The more we can contain our work, the easier it becomes to do all those other things we keep saying we would do—if only we had more time.