How to work from home without losing your mind

Working from home might sound like a dream come true when you consider the prospect of having no commute, working in sweatpants, and doing laundry in the background. But it isn't easy; it takes discipline and structure, and it's not for everyone.

Working from home might sound like a dream come true when you consider the prospect of having no commute, working in sweatpants, and doing laundry in the background. But it isn't easy; it takes discipline and structure, and it's not for everyone.

If you're thinking of telecommuting, these 10 crucial steps will help keep you productive--and employed:

1. Commit to being disciplined. If you spend your workday doing laundry, organizing your closets, catching up on TV, or surfing the Internet, you'll not only be abusing your employer's trust--you may end up out of a job. It's essential to focus and not get distracted when you work from home.

2. Have set hours, just like you would at work. If you don't set working hours and stick to them, it's too easy to say, "Well, I'll relax this morning and make up for it by working late tonight," and then at night decide that you'll make up the hours later that week. On the flip side, it's also too easy to end up working well into the night simply if you don't have a set time to end each day.

3. Create a daily to-do list. A daily task schedule for yourself can keep you focused. If you find yourself procrastinating anyway, try scheduling out each hour of the day so you know what you need to do when.

4. Train your friends and family not to interrupt you. Friends and family may think that if you're working from home, you're not "really working." So be clear with them that you shouldn't be interrupted at home while you're working any more than you should be at the office. You might need to explain that you're not available to watch the neighbor's kids (or your own, for that matter) or do chores around the house.

5. Establish a clear system for communicating with your manager and be vigilant about sticking to it. If you leave it informal, you're less likely to have regular communication than you would if you were physically in the office together. For instance, you might decide that (a) you'll have one regularly scheduled phone meeting per week; (b) you'll proactively and regularly create opportunities for less formal interaction, since your separate locations mean those won't pop up organically; (c) you won't rely on email for sensitive or complicated issues and instead will get on the phone to hash them out; and (d) you'll visit your headquarters at least twice a year.

6. Be accessible. As convenient as working from home is for you, it has the potential to inconvenience your co-workers, by making it harder for them to talk to you when they need something. Since they can't just walk down the hall to your office, go out of your way to be accessible by phone, email, and--if your office uses it--instant messaging during the day.

7. Over-communicate. When you're telecommuting, you risk losing your connection to your boss and co-workers, and even having people wonder what you're doing all day. To combat this, proactively let people know where projects stand and what your priorities are for the week. Additionally, while you should always stay on top of your email and phone messages, it's especially important if you telecommute. If you let emails or phone messages go unanswered, you risk people thinking that you're not working as hard as you would if your colleagues could see you.

8. Don't eat while you work. With your kitchen just a few feet away, it's easy to find yourself eating more than you would if you were at an office. Many telecommuters gain weight because it's so easy to snack throughout the day.

9. Find ways to have in-person contact. Working from home can be isolating. If you find yourself a little too excited to see the FedEx man, it's time to get out of your house. Try to have lunch once or twice a week with colleagues, networking contacts, or friends--outside of your home.

10. Be honest with yourself about whether you're cut out for telecommuting. Not everyone is a good fit for working from home. If you'll feel isolated or give in to temptation to slack off, telecommuting might not be a good choice for you.

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results, and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.



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