What it takes to work from home, Part 2

I decided to write about the factors that help me work from home. Read Part 1 here.

Here’s what works for me:

1. Have a separate work space.
2013-07-03 14.16.50In 2006, when I started working from home, I was living with friends from college and my then-boyfriend Oneal. There wasn’t exactly space in the house for an office, so I had a desk in the bedroom. All my work files were there, and my laptop was set up  there. But it was a small desk, so I didn’t have space to use my laptop and write in my notebooks at the same time. When I was sitting at my desk, my back was to the bed so that I wouldn’t be tempted to just lie down in the middle of the day.

When Oneal and I were looking for a place to live after the wedding, one of our hard requirements was a second bedroom that I could use as a home office. We found a three-bedroom townhouse in Pasig, so the biggest room became our bedroom, and the smallest room became my office.

It was incredibly useful. I had a place for all my work files. I was able to get a large desk, and attach a secondary monitor to my laptop. There was actually space on my desk for my laptop, various paperwork, my notebook, and various pens and office supplies. I even had space for a freestanding whiteboard. My office also had two windows, so there was plenty of light to energize me.

It also helped that I actually had to walk from the bedroom to the office. The fact that I was in a different room really helped to put me in work mode. If I was in my office, I was there to work. I kept work out of the bedroom.

2. Set your own routine.
If you’re in the office, you probably have some sort of routine. Maybe a coffee break mid-morning, emails until lunch, reports, then emails again, or meetings.

I do the same thing. Mornings are usually for household chores or other concerns, like bringing up the clean laundry, getting groceries, feeding the cats, going to the bank or the shoe repair shop. After lunch, I sit down at my desk and attend to emails for perhaps an hour. I might take a few minutes to write in my journal, or write down tasks. I work steadily until about 6 or 6:30 PM, at which point Oneal is on the way home and I start making dinner.

As much as possible, I try not to work when Oneal gets home. In other words, I have work hours too.

And just like people with regular jobs, I occasionally have to put in overtime. That happens when I have a deadline. So after dinner, I work until the job is done. I try not to let this happen too often.

3. Make task lists.
2015-03-30 07.37.11I make task lists. They look like this:

[ ] PROJECT #1: task #1
[ ] PROJECT #1: task #2
[ ] PROJECT #2: task #1
[ ] PROJECT #2: task #2
[ ] (for repetitive tasks) Part 1
[ ] (for repetitive tasks) Part 2

This would take up a page in my notebook, and I would use different colors of ink to make check marks when the task was done. I would at the start of my day, or at the end of the previous work day, to help me allot enough time for each task.

I remind myself that not everything on the list has to be done TODAY. The list might take two or three days to finish, but that’s really not the point. The point is that having a list to being with helps me figure out what needs to be done.

2015-03-30 07.37.17Earlier this year I discovered Kanban, a sort of task organization system.

You have three columns: To Do, Doing and Done. Then you put tasks in each column. It helps you figure out how much work remains unfinished, and the Doing column is useful for keeping your current workload manageable. The Done column is great for reminding you of how much you’ve achieved. Some people suggest adding another column: Backlog. This is so you can write down tasks that need to be done but are not terribly urgent. When they need to be done, you can move them to the To Do column because they are already a priority.

I found this really useful. The problem with my old task list system was that it was a little hard to keep track of what I was doing at a given time. I gave this a try and it was so useful! I tried Kanban on a sketch pad, with the columns drawn in marker ink. Then I used sticky notes that I could move from one column to another. It really worked for me.

Now I have my Kanban on a white board beside my desk. I’ve had this white board for years, but only with Kanban do I feel like I’m really maximizing its use.

4. Take breaks! The Pomodoro Method helps.
I keep telling people about the Pomodoro Technique, which I learned about maybe in 2005. The idea is that you work for a period of time, maybe 20-30 minutes, then you take a 5-minute break. After 4 such cycles, take a longer break.

Why do this? For one thing, distractions are unavoidable. There’s an email, a message, a consult. When these unscheduled things pop up, they disrupt the pace you already have going for that report, this article, that other deliverable. So you make them wait. You have 20 to 30 minutes to work on this thing, then you can deal with that person who needed to ask you something. This is also when you can stand up and stretch, go to the bathroom, get a drink, and all those other things you really should do anyway.

Pomodoro Challenge

The Pomodoro Technique really helps me focus. Some people just use a timer on their phone, while others use an extension installed on their browser. I have an app called Pomodoro Challenge on my tablet, and it counts how many Pomodoros or hours I have dedicated to different projects, which days I had most Pomodoros, and so on. I really like this app because it has de-motivational messages, rankings and achievements. The developers are pretty snarky, and that appeals to me. I love this app so much that I paid to unlock Pro mode! (I hate paying for apps.)

Achievements on Pomodoro Challenge

5. Your schedule must be kind to you. I use Google calendar.
My friend Ian works in network TV.

Years ago Ian blogged about her work schedule. She tried to schedule only one thing a day. So if she was working on a script today, she wouldn’t go to a work meeting. If tomorrow was for meeting up with Friend A, then she wouldn’t schedule any work things.

This might not work for people who want to get the most out of their 24 hours, but it worked for Ian. So make sure your schedule works for you. Since I work from home, and I live a little far from the business districts, I try to arrange my schedule. If I have a meeting in Makati, I schedule all errands in Makati on the same day. If I have to go to QC, I’ll probably spend the night at my best friend’s house, so I schedule all my errands in the North for those two days. And I make sure to spend the rest of the week at home, so I can actually work.

I also do my best to avoid work appointments on weekends. My weekends are usually for Star Wars or family events.

It also helps to share my work calendar with people close to me. Oneal and I have a shared calendar for events we both
attend. I have work calendars shared with respective co-workers, so no scheduling snafus happen.

Read Part 3 here.


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