As one of my friends put it, our world has gone “from zero to crazy” nearly overnight, and part of that may involve you working from home for the first time. That may feel very foreign and challenging to you, and that’s understandable.
Since I’ve spent most of my adult life working on my own at home, I want to share some of the lessons I’ve learned (and am still learning).
I’ve also got a number of tools to share (many of which are free), so be sure to check at the end of this post for a link to that list.
When I started working from home more than two decades ago, we were living in a small one-bedroom apartment. There was no separation of work vs home. (My office was the area that was supposed to be the dining room, but there was no door.) I was constantly distracted, both internally and externally. (Squirrel!) And I didn’t have systems for getting things done.
So I want to help you navigate this brave new world by avoiding some of the mistakes that I’ve made.
Setting Yourself Up for Success
- Have a morning “going to work” routine. No, it will no longer involve a commute (except to a different room). But you’ve got to set the tone for your work day. For me, that means fixing breakfast, listening to my daily devotions podcast, and brewing a mug of tea before I head to my office.
- Speaking of that, even if it’s not a formal office space, you do need to carve out some kind of workspace. Unfortunately for me for several years, that was often sitting on the couch with my laptop. (NOT recommended!) So clear off your dining table, put up a folding table in a nook, whatever it takes to have a space to call your own during your work time.
- Find your groove. Sure, a lot of people will tell you to jump in full-force first thing each day. But for those of us who aren’t morning people, sometimes you need to adjust what you do when. For example, I tend to schedule my more in-depth tasks for afternoons, when I’m more focused and productive. I do more administrative stuff in the mornings – you know, the kinds of things that don’t require a lot of brainpower. Plus since I’m a night owl, sometimes I do a bit more work late at night after my husband has gone to bed and there’s no phone or e-mail interruptions. Now if you’re more of a morning person, that might reverse to you getting up early to squeeze in a bit of work before everyone else gets up.
- Plan out your day and week ahead of time. I take a few minutes each weekend to map out a plan for the week, filling in any appointments, then assigning my projects to various days. Do I always stick to that exclusively? No, but it does function as an outline of tasks that need to be completed. Sometimes I skip ahead a day to knock out something simple at the end of a brain-heavy day. Other times, I have tasks that carry over. But before you shut down each night, take a look at what you have on the docket for tomorrow and adjust as needed.
- On the subject of productivity, if you don’t already have a planner (paper or digital) you rely on, now is the time to set something up. I do kind of a hybrid model – I still have a paper planner on my desk. (In fact, it’s one I created. You can click here to learn more.) But for projects, I use an online project management tool called Plutio. (Note: This is an affiliate link, which means I may make a commission if you choose to purchase. So thank you!) You may be familiar with Trello, which is similar. In there, I map out all the steps for all kinds of projects, from pulling together exhibitor education webinars for my clients to planning out my podcast episodes. That way my paper planner is more of the outline, and not crammed with infinite lists of details.
Working Through Your Day
- If you share your living space with others, let them know your work times. Find a way to set boundaries and let them know when you need to work undisturbed. I’ve heard some clever examples of this – one of my friends hangs a sign on her office door (kind of like a do-not-disturb sign at hotels) so her kids know when not to knock. I also know of a man who puts on a shirt and tie before sitting at his kitchen table, so he sends the signal to his family that he’s at work.
- Take breaks during the day. I have to confess … this is one thing I still struggle with. Once I get on a roll with a project, I can work for hours without even standing up from my computer! So don’t do what I do. Follow my husband’s advice and take a break at least once per hour. There are even apps out there that will sound an alarm every time you should be taking a break. And right now, it’s really a good idea to step away and do some exercise. You might even want to do dance breaks with your kids or something. You could also use these quick breaks as a time to start a load of laundry or dishes, but don’t allow yourself to get sidetracked for an hour or two before getting back to work!
- Manage distractions. For years, I had a hard time with friends and family members who would call me at all times of day because they knew I’d be “available.” So I had to kindly let them know I wasn’t just sitting around doing nothing and that it would be much better if they called later, say after 4 PM. If you just can’t resist answering, you may need to put your phone in airplane mode or leave it in another room, especially during that focused work time. Also on that, turn off notifications. You don’t need those constant dings letting you know who’s just posted on Facebook or something.
- Eat and stay hydrated. I’m pretty good at that last one – I keep a mug of tea and/or water at my desk pretty much all day. But as for a regularly-scheduled lunch … well, you know what I just said about taking breaks. So again, take a lesson from me (or rather listen to my husband) and stop for lunch. (And no, that’s doesn’t mean a candy bar or couple handfuls of potato chips – just sayin’!)
Shutting Down and Staying Balanced
- Admittedly, this is one of my biggest struggles. Especially back when work was all around me 24/7, I tended to be on the computer checking e-mail, doing research, or working on my next blog post. My husband had to keep reminding me that tomorrow is another day, and unless I’m on deadline, the work can wait. It’s much easier now that my office is in the basement. Once I come up for the night, I’m much less inclined to run back down just to send one e-mail.
- Find an accountability buddy. This can either be someone within your company or simply a friend in the industry. There have been many times over the years where I’ve turned to a friend to help me focus on the right priorities or share my big wins. No, there may not be high-fives in the hallway, but those virtual pats on the back still feel pretty great, especially now!
- Stay connected using whatever tools you can. We’re so fortunate to live in a time where virtual connections are possible. For me as a solopreneur, these past few years I’ve gotten very involved in a variety of online groups and can honestly say that some of my closest friends are people I first met online. There are a number of industry groups on LinkedIn and elsewhere that allow you to connect. We have a weekly ExpoChat on Twitter for trade show industry professionals. (You can learn more about that on the TSNN website – they’re our sponsor.) You can also pick up the phone and call one of your industry buddies. I’m putting in my planner each week to reach out to four or five people, either via phone or e-mail.
And I’m excited to announce that I’ve been putting together something special for you – Virtual Lunch in the Exhibit Marketers Café!
Starting on Tuesday, March 24 at Noon CT, we’ll have the opportunity to come together to share tips and resources with each other, as well as providing some much-needed encouragement and accountability.
It won’t be all business though – just like in your office breakroom, we’ll share recommended books to read, movies to watch, recipes to try (it is the Café after all!), resources to keep the kids entertained, and more.
There’s no charge to join our Virtual Lunch, and you don’t need any special software. Simply go to ExhibitMarketersCafe.com/lunch to learn more about how this will work.
Remember the old saying that out of every crisis rises opportunity? We will get through this together. And in the meantime, if I can help with your transition to working at home, please don’t hesitate to reach out. Above all, I want to use the tools I have available to provide you with a community so we can all support each other and find ways to thrive during this change.