How to Survive Working from Home

The only real job I’ve ever worked was at the Taco Bell in my college’s food court. 1

Besides that, my entire decade of work experience has been running a production studio from the comfort of my home (and my sweatpants).

Sounds like the dream, right?

But make no mistake, the freedom of working from home can quickly become its own hell.

My first few years were filled with an endless haze of waking up past my alarm, pulling all-nighter after all-nighter, and feeling completely unmotivated and alone.

Yeah, not so fun.

It took me the better part of a decade to figure out how to work from home in a non-soul-deadening way.

As of the last few years, it finally feels healthy, enjoyable, and incredibly fulfilling. Now, I wouldn’t give it up for anything.

Here are a few things that helped me get to that place.

Your mileage may vary, but this is the advice I wish I could’ve given to myself years ago…

Start Your Mornings Right

Mornings really are as important as they say. How you start your mornings sets the tone for the rest of your day.

Wake up at the SAME GODDAMN TIME every single weekday! Look, I get it. You’re working from home and you think that you don’t need routine. That you can sleep in whenever you feel like it.

Don’t do it. For the love of God.

This messed me up for years. Turns out, routine is an amazing thing that most office people take for granted because it’s forced upon them.

Without routine, your body gets confused. Your sleep quality suffers. Your mornings start off muddled, hazy, and with no motivation. Setting a horrible tone that the rest of the day usually followed.

Keep your phone/alarm across the room. Since you don’t actually NEED to be anywhere at a certain time, the temptation to snooze will be incredibly seductive. Keep your phone or alarm across the room so you have to actually get OUT of bed to turn it off.

Keep your phone in airplane mode until after breakfast. Yeah, that’s right. You don’t actually need to be bombarded by texts and useless notifications immediately upon waking. Give yourself 30-60 minutes of feeling grounded, peaceful, and focused before you open the floodgates of stress and brain activity.

Meditate for a few minutes before you start the day. This gets your day started off at a grounded, centered baseline. Anchor yourself in the present moment and be reminded of what’s important, before you get swept up in your flurry of thoughts and worries. Doing this consistently will give you a stronger and stronger anchor over the years.

And you don’t have to sit in lotus pose or do anything fancy. I literally just set a timer when I’m in the bathroom and stare at the wall for 5 minutes before I brush my teeth.

And/or do a few quick stretches. Getting the blood moving and using your body first thing in the morning helps you wake up and feel alive. (Child’s Pose or a quick Downwardfacing Dog is a great way to start the day).

Make a quick, healthy smoothie for breakfast. Get a Nutribullet and make a green smoothie for breakfast. Super healthy. Quick. Easy on your digestive system. And you can get to work immediately and drink as you answer emails.

My favorite combo: 2-3 handfuls of leafy greens, 1-2 fruits, your favorite protein powder, and anything else you want to add to your diet (i.e. chia seeds, coconut milk, cacao, turmeric, mushroom powders, etc).

Get Out

Get out of the house as much as possible. Working from home, it’s all too easy to stay in…and get stuck…and never leave. Not only will this make you feel cooped up and stir-crazy – it will start to make you resentful of your home.

Your dwelling will start to feel more like a prison rather than a comforting, rejuvenating place. This is the absolute last thing you want.

Home needs to be a safe place that you look forward to returning to. Or you’ll get so burnt out, you’ll have to move every 4-5 months (like I did for years).

I go to cafes as much as possible. I love their energy and casual vibe. Different cafes depending on the vibe I’m feeling.

A co-working space is also an option. But unfortunately, they never worked for me. I’ve tried tons of different spaces and they all made me feel…lifeless.

It felt like all the dreariness of working from an office, but without any of the collaboration or shared community. Just a bunch of separate office workers all silently focusing on their own things.

Bleh.

There are 2 pieces of equipment I consider essential (besides the laptop):

  • A laptop stand. They elevate your laptop so you don’t have to hunch your neck down. A lifesaver for your back.

    (I love this Cosmos stand because it’s compact and is angled such that you don’t have to buy a separate keyboard & mouse. Also feels more natural for the wrist, so take that carpal tunnel!)

  • Noise-cancelling earphones (I use Bose QuietComfort20’s). I just can’t work in public spaces without these. They allow you to drop into your own world. So necessary to focus and get in the zone.

Energy is Everything

Paying attention to and managing your energy levels is everything. For productivity. For creativity. For happiness.

When my energy is high, I’m at my absolute best. When my energy runs low, I become a useless, depressed blob.

Do your most important work first, when you have the most energy. As the day goes on, your energy will wane, so tackle the highest-priority items first while you still have the focus to handle them.

Don’t know what they are? It’s most likely the thing you’re dreading the most. Just get it over with. Then it’s all downhill from there.

Don’t eat a carb heavy lunch. Or you’ll go straight into a food coma and be useless for the whole afternoon. A protein-heavy salad or something light for lunch is perfect.

And always have a snack on hand (like a bag of nuts or some fruit). Never let yourself get too hungry and crash. Keep your blood sugar levels constant and steady throughout the day. No huge dips or crashes.

Do some physical activity every workday (or at least 3x a week). It doesn’t have to be much. Even a minute of jumping jacks or a few pushups will do wonders for getting your blood moving and boosting your energy. Change the purpose of your workouts from looking good to feeling good. (And use this as an excuse to get out of the house!)

Beware of Mindless Browsing When your energy is low, you’ll be seductively pulled towards what I call Mindless Browsing: endlessly scrolling through Facebook or Reddit with no end in sight.

This is the quicksand of working from home. Once you’re in this trap, it’s nearly impossible to get out. And it can easily kill your entire day.

That’s why I recommend keeping your energy levels high, but also carving out time for your distractions…

Be Productive (and Unproductive) in Short Bursts

When working from home, there’s no one setting your schedule. There’s no one cracking the whip.

You’re 100% accountable for how you spend your time. And you quickly find out that being productive – and not burning yourself out – is much harder than you thought.

The key is to work smarter, not harder.

Work in short, focused bursts. It’s like sprinting. If you try to treat work like an all day marathon, you’re gonna burn out real quick.

I loosely follow the Pomodoro Method, where you set a timer for 25-30 minutes and work laser-focused on a single task until the timer goes off. While the timer’s ticking, no distractions. No checking your phone, checking emails, or juggling other tasks.

(This means turning your phone face-down and putting it on vibrate – so you’re not constantly interrupted by notifications and being pulled out of the zone.)

Then when the timer goes off, take a quick 5 minute break to get all that distraction out of your system. Swipe away on Tinder or check your Twitter feed, but once your break is over, it’s time to get back to work!

The basic idea being: when you work, work. When you goof off, goof off. Allow yourself to cleanly separate the two and fully get the most out of both.

Do your best to CLEARLY delineate between focused productivity sessions and goofing off time. Both are important, but it’s when those two constantly blend throughout the day, that you get in trouble. A whole day will go by and you’ll feel like you neither got anything done NOR got to really relax and enjoy yourself.

Now I don’t religiously follow this system, but I loosely structure my days with “30 minutes of focused work, short break, rinse, repeat”.

And it is SO much more effective. Helps break down the long, intimidating workday into small, easy chunks. And keeps my work laser-focused while still making time for the silly, fun stuff (which, I would argue, is still important).

Set timers for everything. You can use the timer on your phone, but I prefer using timers that give you a clear visual indicator of how much time you have left (such as the digital FocusBooster or the physical Time Timer – I enjoy using both).

Set alarms for everything. If I have an appointment I need to get to at 3pm, I’ll set an alarm for 2:45pm to remind myself to get out of the house. This keeps me from constantly checking the time and distracting myself. Now I don’t need to think about it. My alarm will tell me when it’s time to make moves.

Protip: it’s way faster to tell Siri (or Google Now) to set your timers and alarms.

When taking breaks from work, move your body! Get up and walk around. Do some light stretches. Dance or wiggle about.

Shake things up (literally) and give your body a break from all that damned sitting.

I’ve been playing around with only letting myself check Facebook or Twitter while standing up or dancing around. Keeps me from getting too comfortable and lazy. At the very least, now these “unproductive” activities help wake myself up a bit.

Batch as much as possible. For example, instead of checking your email every 5 minutes (constantly interrupting your flow throughout the day and making you feel crazy), try checking your email just a few times a day. And when you do, clear all your emails in one, focused batch.

And on this note, turn off notifications for emails! You shouldn’t be pinged every single time you get an email. More notifications may make you feel busier, but you’ll be way less productive.

Don’t worry so much about finding the perfect productivity system. There is no one-size-fits all. Take what works for you, discard the rest, and continually tweak and evolve as you go. (I personally create my own Daily Planner using Evernote, then use Trello to get a bigger project view of things.)

My constantly evolving Evernote daily planner
My constantly evolving Evernote daily planner

Enjoy Yourself

Remember, you work so you can live. Not the other way around.

Try not to work during evenings and weekends. This will be hard to avoid during crazy deadlines, but try your best to live by this. Breaks from work are necessary. Not just to recharge, but to lead a fulfilling and rich life. To give yourself room to explore and expand.

Discover what you’re capable of beyond just answering emails.

Carve out time to handle Personal Stuff. I loosely split my day into two parts: Mornings for Business Stuff. Afternoons for Personal Stuff (creative work, reading, working out, errands, clearing personal emails, etc.)

Obviously if I’m slammed with work, I’ll let that eat into my afternoon time. But I like this loose structure because it gives my day some sort of objective. It sets an artificial limit on my work time, so I try to get as much done as possible before lunchtime, which makes me way more efficient and productive.

I think it’s important to officially carve out time for Personal Stuff. It reinforces for me, daily, that my life isn’t all about work. That making time for my other interests is also a high priority.

Go easy on yourself. I try my best to follow my own guidelines, but only get it right like 75% of the time. Usually less.

Everything in moderation, even moderation. If you decide to go off your routine for a day, that’s fine. Don’t beat yourself up. Your body/mind probably just needed a break. But make sure a productive, fulfilling routine becomes the norm – not the exception.

Community

I know, I know…I just won’t shut up about community. But there’s a reason why.

For most people, the office functions as a type of community. A place you see people daily and build bonds and relationships.

But when you work from home, you have none of that. It’s lonely. Isolating. And can become debilitatingly depressing.

For most of my ten years working from home, this lack of community was the one part I couldn’t figure out. And it severely impacted all areas of my life.

The best thing I did was to start living in an intentional community (AKA a co-op, co-living, communal living, etc.) It’s made a night and day difference to my mental/emotional health and happiness.

Not just for giving me some much needed human interaction throughout the day. But also for giving me a thriving, loving community to come home to. To cook with. To connect with. To share my life with (not just catch-up-over-happy-hours with).

If that’s not an option for you, then consider putting in lots of energy to find or create community around you. It’s worth it.

(Hint: building community is all about seeing the same people on a regular, frequent basis. Try setting up a weekly art night or potluck that people can feel comfortable dropping in on and bringing friends to. A few of you can rotate hosting each week. This would also be a great thing to invite people whom you’ve been meaning to see but didn’t have time to schedule one-on-ones with.)

In Conclusion

Look, at the end of the day, working from home is not as easy or fun as it may initially sound.

All that freedom and comfort can easily turn into stagnation and overwhelm.

But if you treat working from home like a skill – one that needs to be developed, fine-tuned, and custom-fit to your exact needs – it can be one of the best things ever.

You get the freedom to determine exactly how you spend your days, weeks, and months – adding up to an entire lifetime as the captain of your own ship.

For certain personality types (like mine), there’s nothing better.

But just know, it may take a fair amount of blood, sweat, and tears to get to that point.