Matt Gemmell

Working from home

10 min read2701 words

I’ve been working from home full-time for more than seven years, and running my own business for the same amount of time. Many of us at least have the opportunity to occasionally work from home, and I daresay that many people would like the chance to do so permanently.

It’s not just as straightforward as pulling out a laptop in the living room, though. Working from home has a number of difficulties and challenges. In many ways, it’s a battle for mastery of yourself. I’d like to talk about a few of the issues I’ve faced, and how I handle them.

Discipline

The main problem you’ll encounter when working from home is… well, you. We need constraints in order to reinforce productive behaviour. The idea of a work ethic goes out the window for most people when no-one is looking over your shoulder. Some people can just work diligently, regardless of whether anyone is checking up on them. That’s fantastic. Most of us, however, need some help.

Slacking off (regularly) when working from home is always self-defeating. Either the boss will notice and stop you working from home (or fire you), or if you’re the boss, you’ll suffer everything from shame to the collapse of your business. The secret to working from home is to work, and the secret to working is to have enforced boundaries.

Here’s an obvious piece of advice. The easiest way to encourage yourself to work is to really like your work. If you survey your home, with all its distractions, snacks and comfortable napping areas, and you decide that the thing you most want to do is your work, you’re probably going to be productive. So do please try to love your work – and I mean in the sense of changing your job to do something you enjoy, not trying to convince yourself that an awful job is actually great.

For most people, that’s not feasible – at least not completely. There are disagreeable, boring or actively unpleasant aspects of even the most enjoyable jobs. Your motivation will be low at those times, and that’s why you need some structure.

You should have a schedule. It shouldn’t vary, except for exceptional circumstances. Here’s mine:

  • Be at my desk by 09:00.
  • Admin (email, organisation) until 09:30.
  • Work til 11:00.
  • Exercise until 13:00.
  • Lunch at 13:00, until 13:30.
  • Work until 18:00.

(At least half of the exercise time includes work, by the way, as I’ll explain later.)

I regularly work for a couple of hours in the evenings too, and for a few hours in the afternoons at the weekend. I probably work too much, but I love my job.

Your schedule will look different, but the important thing is to have one – and to stick to it. Letting yourself sleep late is dangerous, because it throws everything else off. Likewise, you need to be up and dressed. Don’t go near the couch. Don’t switch on the TV. Don’t play videogames. Yes, of course you can make exceptions, but generally, that should be your plan. Lunch (and indeed breakfast) probably shouldn’t be taking more than 30 to 60 minutes either.

Building in breaks and leisure time is important, as long as it’s scheduled. I quite often have an afternoon walk, for example. The important distinction is between a regular break, and a quick cheeky fifteen minutes of the PlayStation. The former is healthy, the latter is a slippery slope if you don’t have the willpower to walk away afterwards.

Eliminating distractions

A schedule can help get you started, and at that point most of us can work fairly well for a while. The next problem you face (after yourself) is other people.

I’m in the fortunate position of not having to deal with time-critical or real-time communication with others. I can make pitches, submit copy, manage sponsorships and so forth all asynchronously, which means I can schedule a time for admin (as you read earlier). It’s probably the single greatest boost to my focus. If you can possibly manage it, schedule your email time.

Quit the mail app on your work machine, disable notifications on your phone, and let email wait until the specific time you’ve set aside for it. Otherwise, the context-switching (and temptation) is going to kill your productivity. If you might potentially be needed on short notice, tell people to instant message you, or even to call. Yes, phone calls are a horrible method of communication, but at least both parties know that contact has been made.

Most people, and most jobs, are extremely dependent on drip-feed email all through the day. The majority of it is pointless, and could wait until your set-aside email time, but I don’t deny that this is a tough sell. If you can engineer it, it will pay off more than you can probably imagine.

Email is only one distraction, of course. Be ruthless about telling people when they can and can’t contact you. Block chatty people on instant messaging services, or sign out. Silence your phone. That’ll handle most incoming distractions, but then there are the ones you’ll actively seek out. My recommendation is to get SelfControl.

It’s a free (and open source) Mac app that locally blocks your access to a given list of sites, for a chosen time period. It’s a godsend. I block:

  • Social media. Twitter, Facebook, App.net, Google. Vanity fave-tracking sites.
  • The API endpoint sites for social media services, so the apps don’t work either.
  • Feeds, news and other reading, including my feed aggregator’s domain.
  • Shopping. Amazon, eBay.

I like to run SelfControl for a minimum of 2 hours at a time. I still find my Twitter app mysteriously appearing in front of me, having been launched by my treacherous hands during a moment of thought, but it just fails to connect and then I remember that I’m focusing right now. I really, really need the extra strictness. SelfControl allows me to actually work when I’m working from home.

If you’d like to use my SelfControl blacklist, you can download it here.

Be a professional

When we’re around others, we’re governed (or at least moderated) by peer pressure. Expectations and judgement tend to keep our behaviour in line with social norms, and that’s never more important than when you’re at work and your livelihood depends on remaining employed.

It’s different at home, because you can do essentially anything you like in the short term. That’s a recipe for disaster. It’s very important to cultivate an attitude of professionalism – or let’s say pride. That doesn’t mean you have to wear a tie; it’s about being in a frame of mind that’s conducive to getting the job done.

My earlier point about getting dressed in the morning is the bare minimum. Pyjamas are comfortable, yes, but when you’re working they erode your self-respect a bit. Wear whatever you’re comfortable in, but they should be day clothes. Get up, shower, get dressed, have breakfast, and tackle the day like you’re in a place of work – because you are.

The next point is diligence. If you’re working at home, your home is your office. That means leaving behind a slipshod approach to things like:

  • Backups. You absolutely must have a credible backup solution. You should have automated periodic backups at home, and you should have remote backups. “The dog ate my homework” isn’t an acceptable excuse anymore. Backups are cheap, and they only get cheaper when disaster strikes.

  • Security. Lock down your wi-fi network (I know you’ve already done this; just check again for me). Sort out your passwords, and don’t reuse them. Put a lock on your office door and don’t let the kids in. Put new batteries in your smoke alarms. Don’t leave the back door unlocked. You get the idea.

  • Ergonomics. It’s not possible to spend too much money on a chair and desk that prevent repetitive strain injury. You’re weighing a few hundred or thousand dollars against recurrent pain for the rest of your life, lost earnings now, and possibly even out-of-pocket medical costs. Sort out a comfortable working environment right now. Even one day per week working at home is enough justification.

On a related note, control your domain whenever possible. You probably wouldn’t have outside visitors dropping by for a cup of tea and a chat when you’re in an office, so don’t let that (casually) happen at home either. You’re in complete control of whether you’re successful or not.

Separating work from home life

So far, this has all sounded pretty strict – and rightly so. I’ve been talking about ensuring you spend enough time focusing and working. I know many people who work from home, and in my experience, anyone who does so full-time tends to spend too much time working rather than too little. That’s not a great thing, either.

It’s important to have a boundary between your work and home life, psychologically and physically. For anything but the most casual, occasional periods, you need a dedicated working environment.

Don’t sit on the couch with your laptop. If at all possible, don’t just have a computer nook in the living room – that’s not going to work out. You’ll be distracted by the environment and by your family members, and it’ll be frustrating for everyone as well as unproductive for you.

Your best bet is to set aside a room (or box room, or closet, or landing half way up the stairs, or part of the garage, or a shed in the garden), and work there only. Decorate it as you like, and make it very clear that it’s not part of the house: it’s where you work. When you walk in, you’re in work mode. Again, this will pay huge dividends.

I’ve had a dedicated home office room for three years now, and I wouldn’t go back. It has no function other than being my office – there’s no fold-out bed, or dining table, or linen closet, or washing machine or whatever else. It is a place of work. Here it is:

Desk

(I count the Stratocaster as a thinking aid.)

If you can manage to set aside somewhere like that, you’ll be a happier and more productive person by far.

Preserving sanity

Working from home can be a lonely experience. You do need some human contact, or you’re going to go a bit odd. I spend almost 50% of my waking life alone, working. Some would argue I’ve long since gone a bit soft in the head, but that’s another matter.

I have two pieces of advice:

  1. Make sure there’s some noise. I tend to leave a few windows open to the park, so I can hear the bustle of life outside. Children, dogs, people wandering by. I also have music on at practically all times. Even just the radio on quietly in the background can stave off any sense of isolation.

  2. If you can, have a social environment you can dip into periodically. I don’t advise social media for this because it’s endlessly distracting: always something new scrolling by. Instead, I have a chatroom with a few of my closest friends from university. All but one of us work from home full-time, and the other does so four days per week. These are people that I know and trust, and the room is silent for most of the day – but when we need to speak, or remark on something, or even share a link, we can do it.

I’ll also mention those afternoon walks again. They can be very therapeutic, regardless of the weather.

Enjoy the flexibility

Of course, my final piece of advice serves to moderate what’s gone before. Being successful and productive is great, but there comes a point where you’re not taking advantage of the fact that you’re at home – and you absolutely should.

For the first six or so years of working for myself, from home, I rarely took walks. I have a river just a few minutes’ walk away, and I never set aside any time to enjoy it. Whenever new acquaintances would find out that I’m self-employed and have a home office, the obvious jokes would be made about playing videogames all day. Next, the questions about how I can possibly manage to force myself to work. Finally, my wife would tend to quip that it’s harder to force me to stop working – and that’s a fair comment.

Somehow, you’ve earned the fantastic modern convenience of working from your own home: it’s the dream! It’s OK to enjoy it a bit. Those leisure breaks and walks I mentioned are just the beginning. It’s fine to schedule a half-day off for the launch of that new game, or take advantage of cheap daytime movie tickets once in a while. Otherwise, why bother at all?

There are a few other things I’d recommend too, making use of flexibility you might not have in an actual office.

  • Strongly consider buying a whiteboard and attaching it to a wall in your office. I don’t know of any professional endeavour that can’t be enhanced by the ability to sketch out your ideas on the wall. Get a magnetic one so you can attach things too. I have a large one on the back wall of my office, as far as possible from my desk, with a load of markers, 3x5” index cards, and coloured magnets. I’ve designed software APIs and components for Apple on it, I’ve sketched out magazine articles there, and it currently holds the plot structure for my novel.

  • Have a break-out area. You can’t always get a conference room at work, but you have a dining table (or coffee table) at home. Don’t stay there, but do make use of the space when you need to think in a more abstract, big-picture, unbounded way. I use the dining table in the living room for this.

  • Get some exercise. You probably have a gym nearby (perhaps even at the office), but working from home is an opportunity to not let your exercise cut so much into your budget or your time. As I mentioned, I have an exercise bike in my office that I can use whilst working on my MacBook Air – I’m doing so right now, in fact. I also have some free weights, a pull-up bar, and a rug for push-ups and sit-ups. I went from getting essentially no cardio- or strength-related exercise, to now doing 13 or 14 hours per week. I sleep better, and I’m sure my mind is sharper for it too.

It’s what you make it

Working from home full-time isn’t for everyone, but I think it can work for far more people than you might at first think. The key is introducing a level of self-control that’s implicit when you’re in a traditional working environment, but also taking advantage of the fact that you can tailor your environment to your own particular preferences and strengths.

I’ve been doing this for seven years and five months now, and I can’t picture myself going back to a desk job. I’ve made mistakes and learned some difficult lessons, but I’ve found the particular rhythm that suits me and lets me balance productivity with happiness. And I still get a kick out of the fact that my commute takes about thirty seconds.

I’m confident that working from home is something that you can make work for yourself. Be realistic, plan your week, and make a change if something isn’t sticking. You know yourself best.

Just don’t forget to enjoy it.


If you’d like to discuss this further, you can find me on Twitter. You might also be interested in my follow-up article about running an effective consulting business.

You can also read this article in German, or in Brazilian Portuguese.

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