How to Make Working From Home Work for You

Everything I learned from 3 years of location-independent work

Julia Horvath
Feb 26 · 18 min read
Photo by Zakaria Zayane on Unsplash

I worked location-independently for the last three years.

While my family still secretly assumes I lie in bed all day, watch Netflix, and eat pizza while I live on welfare, I built my business and got stuff done at home, which now generates my income. I don’t have to commute, can take days off, or work from everywhere in the world as a digital nomad.

“You lack discipline!” and “You’re way too scattered” are claims I heard frequently before I started this endeavor and which I also deep down believed myself.

Discipline is choosing between what you want now and what you want most. — Abraham Lincoln


The Un-Productivity Myth

It’s a pity many managers, and often even “regular” employees, demonize the concept of working from home, as evidence shows the opposite.

Nicholas Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford University, conducted a large-scale experiment to prove to work from home works. Employees of a 16,000-person Chinese call center were randomly assigned to either work from home or at the office for nine months. He found at-home working led to a 13% performance increase, due to fewer breaks and sick days, and more calls per minute, which he attributed to a quieter and more convenient working environment.

I don’t say work from home was always easy or I was a productivity machine all the time. I needed a lot of time to adjust and figure out my best practices. On the other hand, I don’t know anyone who’s always productive in the office, and each new workplace needs a time in which you get used to it.

Yes, work from home is different, you do need another kind of self-discipline, and you will probably struggle at times, but in the end, there is no such thing as “too lazy to work from home”. It all boils down to figuring out your best practices and how you can make it work for you.

The following tips are partly personal experience and partly science-based guidelines and suggestions I have all tried and tested. There’s no one-size-fits-all, so the purpose of my tips is rather to reveal your array of options and equip you with the necessary toolbox to design your ideal work-from-home routine.


The Place

Home or elsewhere?

When I talk about work from home, what I mean is location-independent work. I assume if you can work from home, you can work from pretty much anywhere—and this is also the mindset I want you to adopt. You’re not destined to eternal solitude at your desk, as you can as well work in a coffee shop, a library, or pay for a coworking space.

I have found I get to work quickest when working at home — I can wake up and start pretty much straight away. However, I don’t usually produce my best work at home. I’m a lot more creative when I go to a coffee shop or library.

Public spaces like coffee shops and coworking spaces, however, cost money. Even if I work at a library, I have to eat out somewhere.

These are all aspects to consider when you decide about your ideal work location. I notoriously worked away from home for a while until I figured out that I lose a lot more money then I make. This sent me into full frugality mode and I worked exclusively from home for weeks.

The balance came shortly before I lost my mind. I now work 3–4 days from home and have 1–2 days of creative work at the library or a coffee shop.

It might be entirely different for you — you might be most creative from home and get more easily distracted elsewhere. However you tick, consider all your options.

In the book Deep Work, Cal Newport suggests making a grand gesture whenever you need an extra kick in the butt:

By leveraging a radical change to your normal environment, coupled perhaps with a significant investment of effort or money, all dedicated toward supporting a deep work task, you increase the perceived importance of the task.

Not all of us can take his advice by booking a $1,000 hotel room out of town for our endeavors, but we can order a cappuccino and a healthy lunch in a nice café in town every once in a while.

Location independence is one of the best aspects of non-office work, so don’t chain yourself to one place — keep your energies flowing!

The surroundings and necessities

Before I pitch my tent anywhere to start my day, I have a little checklist of must-haves.

For me, these are

  • natural light,
  • an option to get fresh air quickly,
  • a healthy lunch,
  • an electrical socket,
  • reasonable internet connection,
  • a big enough desk,
  • an appropriate noise level.

This is how I designed my workplace at home and I check all of these before I sit down to work anywhere else.

Some of these are subjective (socket, desk, internet, and my preferred noise level), but others are not: access to natural light, nutrition, and fresh air are proven to impact your well-being greatly and are also part of the WELL Building Standard — a performance-based system to measure, certify, and monitor features of the built environment established by the International WELL Building Institute.

In the end, what your ideal work environment comes down to is your personal preferences combined with as many of the proven factors which enhance your overall well-being, as possible.

If you’re curious about more of these factors and how they help you perform better and stay healthy, here is a great overview of them.


The Preparation

Since there won’t be anyone to tell you what to do, preparation is key when you work from home. Nobody watches over your shoulder, so you literally have to be your own boss.

If you don’t plan, you’re a lot more likely to end up scattered and all over the place. If you don’t set deadlines, you’ll have a way harder time finishing anything.

It might sound hyperbolical, but to plan my days, weeks, and months saved my bottom and kept me from becoming a weeping pile of helplessness.

If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail! — Benjamin Franklin

When you work from home and are your own boss at the same time your work is most likely diversified, which means you have several different tasks or jobs at hand you need to prioritize.

Here’s how I made planning my friend.

Step 1: Set quantifiable and measurable medium-term goals

Quantifiable and measurable medium-term goals (3–6 months) are goals you can work towards, while you know what you do, as the timeframe you work in is foreseeable.

These are the goals which can give you the necessary tunnel vision on a clear target without becoming scattered.

To give you an idea, here are a few examples of past and current medium-term goals I had:

  • Make writing a steady income of at least €200 per month within three months (starting from zero).
  • Refine the idea and pre-sell my online language-course to at least ten out of 100 people who showed interest within two months.
  • Launch my online course within six months from the collection of these pre-orders.
  • Make freelancing a steady income of at least €400/month within four months (starting from zero).
  • Reach my €500-goal of monthly support on my Steady page (similar to Patreon).

Your goals must be ambitious, but not unrealistic. To work hard for them is okay, to work yourself to death and still be far from them is not. It’s also okay to adjust them along the way, based on your progress.

In my experience, 3–4 medium-terms similar in scope to the above examples work well for me.

Step 2: Set monthly goals

Break your medium-term goals further down and decide what you can realistically do for them in the next 30 days.

Decide on 1–3 smaller goals for each medium-term goal you can accomplish this month and make a rough schedule when you will spend time with each.

Here, it helps to estimate how many days/hours you’ll need for each task to countercheck whether the set of your monthly goals are realistic for 30 days.

Example:

A good example to demonstrate this was my endeavor to refine the idea and pre-sell my online language course to at least ten out of 100 people who showed interest within two months.

The time frame was two months, so I first divided the task into two bigger sub-tasks:

  1. Find potential customers and figure out their most pressing problem with learning Hungarian.
  2. Refine the product idea, create a product prototype, and pre-sell.

After that, it was a lot easier to brainstorm concrete action steps for the next 30 days (task #1):

  • Create a survey, and ask for an email address at the end (three hours, including research about how to conduct a good survey)
  • Post the survey on various social channels based on a fixed schedule (two hours to find the right channels + half an hour daily to post the survey)
  • Send the survey to my email list (30 minutes)
  • Evaluate the survey and focus on the most relevant (longest, most elaborate) answers (3–4 hours incl. merging the answers, formatting, research about how to evaluate)
  • Find five people to interview further about their problems and conduct the interviews (five hours for the interviews themselves + 1.5 hours spent to get in touch with them and fix appointments)

If you add this up you’re at approx. 25 hours of concentrated work, which is almost a week, procrastination, free time, and sleep included. Do this for every medium-term goal and you’ll instantly see if they’re realistic.

Step 3: Plan your week every Sunday

Weekly tasks are based on your monthly goals. You already have a list of 1–3 sub-tasks for each medium-term goal. It’s time to decide on concrete action steps and to plan your week around them.

I count the hours I can spend on work (I deduct my sleep and free time), define the things which must be done no matter what, estimate how long each task will take, and create my weekly to-do list accordingly.

I use Wunderlist, a simple app and desktop-tool for lists.

Example:

Here is a recent weekly to-do list I did in Wunderlist. The numbers next to each task indicate the time I’ll need or decide to spend with the task. Above are the fixed tasks (“GIVEN”) — I need or want to do these no matter what and I assign hours to them. “OUTSIDE OF WORK” refers to sleep and free-time activities I’ve already planned — also non-negotiable.

Based on these I have a fairly good idea how much time I have left for things which aren’t so urgent but still due this month (“FLEX”):

A work-week plan (Screenshot by the author)

I write five days every week for 1.5 hours to reach my current medium-term writing goal. My tax filing is due next week, and I have two lessons scheduled which I also have to prepare for. These are all non-negotiable.

I currently work on my next language course and do freelance work, but I’m more flexible when I do these throughout the month.

Apart from that, I need to sleep, knew I had dinner with friends and a concert planned on workdays. To boulder is my workout, and I do it three times per week.

The time which remains from the week (68 hours or 2,8 days) is there for two days off, my morning routine, procrastination, and “doing nothing”.

Step 4: Plan your day the night before

I plan with no more than 6–7 hours of concentrated work every day. Sometimes it’s oddly tempting to think you’ll pull it through for 10–14 hours, but you won’t — at least not in any beneficial way.

Scientists have studied the ideal work hours for long, and while there isn’t one single right answer, the tendency of all studies is that less than 8 hours of work equals greater efficiency, satisfaction, and productivity. A good example is Sweden’s famous experiment, in which nurses of the nursing home Svartedalens were switched to a 6-hour workday.

It’s easy to feel you don’t do enough in a day if you don’t have to physically go to an office, but according to this survey across ~2,000 employees in the UK throughout their eight working hours, the average office worker is productive for no more than two hours and 23 minutes per day.

This means with three hours of deep work in a day, you outdo the average employee in the office.

You can, of course, do more than three hours. On my best days, I manage 5–6 hours of concentration, and since I’m human too, I also add some “wasted” procrastination time. However, when I set my daily goals, I put them in a time frame of not more than 8 hours — procrastination included.

Step 5: Make monthly reviews

I started this recently after I read Shaunta Grimes’s article about how to be your own business coach and it was a game-changer.

On the first of every month, I measure how I do against my intermediate-term and monthly goals. In the (common) case of any gaps, I try to figure out the issue behind and adjust next month’s goals accordingly.

The whole process takes around 1–3 hours, but it’s so valuable — it helps me keep on track and aligned with what I wanted to achieve in the first place.

Example:

One of my medium-term goals is to make freelancing a steady side-income of 400€/month, and I struggled with it last year.

Screenshot from my monthly review of October 2019

I had a look at exactly how many hours I spent, how much I made and by how many hours and how much money I missed the goal.

I had one client. Since there wasn’t more work I could to for him, I decided to spend the time I’d otherwise dedicate to freelancing (and a bit more) to find new clients.

Ramit Sethi is there in brackets because he has some juicy tips about how to find these clients and I wanted to try his methods.

Apart from my goals I also do a fast check on all my finances and how much I spent and made in total. I track all my income and expenditures in the Dollarbird app, so this is a fast procedure that gives me a feeling of safety.

Tip: Be realistic

This is my biggest takeaway from the last 1.5 years of constant goal-setting: be realistic about them.

It’s great you’re ambitious, but you probably still want to sleep, wind down, and maintain your social life. You’ll also want days off.

Shoot high, but give yourself a chance to reach these goals. Reckon in enough free- and sleep time when you plan. You’ll thank yourself later when you tick off your goals instead of constantly falling behind.


The Work

How to do the work is so highly individual it’s almost unnecessary to give tips. One productivity trick might do wonders for me but nothing for you. Besides, there are gazillions of productivity hacks floating out there so I’ll focus on those two which can be beneficial to everyone:

The Pomodoro technique

In case you haven’t heard of it, the Pomodoro technique is a time-management method developed in the 80s. When you work in Pomodoros, you set a timer for 25 minutes in which you concentrate on the task at hand and afterward have a break of 5 minutes. After four 25-minute Pomodoros, you take a longer break of 15 minutes.

While this sounds so mundane I was reluctant to try it for a long time, it’s the single “hack” I stuck with, out of all fancy productivity tricks out there.

Evidence shows short breaks enable you to focus on a task for a lot longer and enhance your attention span.

Furthermore, this study suggests taking breaks helps fight decision fatigue.

For me, the Pomodoro technique is a simple way to trick my brain into a creation-mode, as I can convince myself to do almost anything for just 25 minutes.

Process- vs. goal-orientation

According to Alex Ikonn, co-founder of Intelligent Change and the Productivity Planner, there are two ways to tackle each task: in a goal-oriented and in a process-oriented way.

If you choose goal-orientation, you focus on getting a task done, no matter how long it takes.

If you choose process-orientation you focus on spending a fixed amount of time (or number of Pomodoros) on a task before you move on to the next.

Choose wisely. Process-orientation makes sense for tasks you’re new to and which don’t have a fixed deadline out of your control. Goal-orientation is good if you know how long the task will take (you already have experience with it or it’s a routine task) and you work toward a deadline.

Example:

When it came to writing I went with the wrong approach — goal-orientation — at first. I worked towards daily word counts, daily publishing goals, daily followers, and all the things which add pressure to the process.

I constantly fell behind. I had no steady writing experience and didn’t earn a single cent in the beginning. This made me doubt my goals in the first place and filled me with a bad conscience since I didn’t focus on the “profitable” stuff.

To switch to process-orientation changed everything: I decided to spend 1.5 hours per day on writing, 5 days a week. If it was 100 words, fine, if it was 1,000 words, also fine. My goal was to sit there for 1.5 hours, regardless of the outcome.

While focusing on the process helped me surpass my initial medium-term goal by far, to set rigid goals almost made me gave up.


The Before- and After-hours

We’ve now covered where to work, how to plan the work and methods to do the work. What’s missing is everything not directly related to work which will affect your endeavors to the same extent.

Wake-up time

Most articles that deal with work from home will tell you to wake up as early as possible to win the day. I tell you to listen to your body!

One of the greatest perks of working from home is you get to decide about your wake-up times and working hours.

You can adjust them based on your circadian rhythm and chronotype. By all means, get up early if you’re an early bird but don’t force yourself to beat the sun if you’re a night owl.

Morning routine

No matter when you decide to wake up, a morning routine you like will help you do it. To be able to honor your mornings without the need to get up at unholy hours is another gift which comes with work from home.

No matter, if it’s exercise, meditation, a full English breakfast, or a mix of these, to have a regular way to start the day which is not instant work will motivate you to get out of bed and face the day.

What to wear

Many articles I read about work from home told me to get into full business casual attire. Some others write to at least dress “properly”, whatever this means.

In my experience, I work best if I feel clean and comfortable.

I absolutely endorse jogging pants and my only dress code for home-work is to get dressed at all and be presentable, i.e. if someone important knocked on my door unexpectedly I’d be fine to open.

I have no research to support this, but I see zero points to force myself into a pencil skirt and blazer if I don’t have to.

Food

One of the biggest (unexpected!) challenges I faced with home-work was to have a proper diet on a budget that didn’t take half a day to prepare. I’m a lousy shopper and cook. To eat out every day in my city is a luxury I can’t afford, but healthy nutrition is nevertheless important to me.

Plus, one of my big office perks before was a great and cheap cantine.

The bottom line is, I found out about meal prepping and can warmly recommend it to all my fellow home-workers. The point is to prepare dishes in advance (for a week or so) and a quick Google search will give you several handy methods of how you can do this quickly and efficiently.

My bonus trick is to prepare a large batch of roasted veggies I can prepare differently every day (as tacos, with rice, with tomato sauce for pasta, etc.).

No matter what you do — what’s important is you make it a point to eat healthily and find an efficient way to do it, wherever you work.


The Free Time

More so than in any office job, your work and free-time become entangled when you work from home — for better or worse. If you’re self-employed, likely, you can seldom switch off completely and enjoy your free time with a head free from all worries.

This is normal, but not healthy — this study in the Journal of Applied Psychology confirms what we all assumed anyways: psychological attachment to work during off-job time leads to emotional exhaustion, psychosomatic complaints, and is bad for your health in general.

Read: days off are important and you should make it a point to switch off from work mentally.

This is a lot easier said than done if you worry about money, are labeled as lazy for working from home anyway, and have a business to run and clients to satisfy, all at the same time.

What helped me is bring home the facts to my consciousness and stick to the knowledge play-time will make me a better entrepreneur in the long run, not a lazier one.

Days off are important and you should make it a point to switch off from work mentally.

Here are my other tips to wave goodbye to the work-hustle fetish culture and embrace your free time:

Days off

When I started to work from home, I had no real days off. My free time mostly consisted of wasted hours I spent with worry and social media, while I knew I should be working.

This went on for the first six months when I learned the term time management is not reserved for fancy workshops and CEOs (see paragraphs about preparation above).

Proper planning also helped me plan in free time — it gave me a psychological safety net which ensured me I won’t go down if I take a day or two off.

For a while, I took one day off, then started to go consistently for two. When Takuya Hirano (CEO of Microsoft Japan) said, “Work a short time, rest well and learn a lot.” I took him by his word and now try to take at least two and a half days off per week.

What’s important is I do my best to give my everything to both my free and work time. I want to make sure they enhance instead of taking away from each other.

Leisure time on workdays

No matter how long my to-do list is, I make three things a priority:

  1. Leave the flat every day

Since the daily commute isn’t necessary, one of the few drawbacks of work from home is you can be stuck between your four walls for entire days if you’re not careful.

The vitalizing effects to be outdoors and in nature are scientifically proven for long. Whenever I felt like the waves crash over my head, a walk no matter how short always helped me see things clearer.

Thus, I highly recommend you make it a point to leave the house every day.

2. Exercise

You might’ve read here and there that to move your body helps your creative juices flow and I’m here to tell you this is not just a new age legend: this study found exercise indeed interferes with divergent thinking (the thought process used to generate creative ideas).

I found even a little exercise or a stretch works well for me. When I first realized the wonderful possibility to move my body before I get to work, I simply stuck with the first stretch video I found on YouTube and went with it for a while.

If exercise hasn’t been a regular part of your life so far, make it easy for you to like it and make it a habit — start with something simple you can do daily.

3. Stay connected

While you can’t choose your colleagues, and the connections you make in the office aren’t usually your soulmates, they’re still connections — people you talk to every day.

Work from home can be isolating. However, it doesn’t have to be if you make your human connections a priority.

Above, I mentioned the opportunity to work from cafés or co-working spaces. While this can remove you from actual isolation, psychological isolation happens when you get too hung up on your work to meet your real friends.

No matter how long your to-do list is and how desperately it feels like you don’t have it all together, you deserve to spend time and have fun with the people closest to you every week.

Remember whatever you do, you need a human connection to thrive in it. Social relationships decrease your risk of mortality and increase your mental and emotional well-being.

Bottom line: Never allow your location-independent work to reduce your overall purpose (to enhance your circumstances) to absurdity. You deserve fresh air, movement, and fun with friends as much as everyone else.


The Takeaways

To have the chance to work from home is awesome. It can really be the freedom most people in the office can only dream of.

However, it’s also a steep learning curve at first. If you’re new to it, allow yourself to be a beginner and make mistakes.

There will be times when you feel like you don’t have it together. There might be a whole week when all you eat is pizza and feel like you got nothing done. At times, you’ll probably yearn for someone to tell you what to do next. It’s all part of the process and you will figure it out. I’ve been there, and these are the things that helped me find happiness in remote work.

In the end, location-independent work comes down to proper preparation, the work itself, and good management of the rest of your time.

When stuck or in doubt, as a rule of thumb, a (re-)definition of or a good look at your medium-term goals works. It gives you the necessary guidance and helps you figure out your possible action steps. If you’re at the beginning or got stuck somewhere on the way, this is what I recommend you do next.


Disclosure: This article contains one or more Amazon affiliate links. These links make Better Humans a small amount of money, but more importantly, help us understand which books are popular with our readers.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most…

Thanks to Terrie Schweitzer

Julia Horvath

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I run the Pro-Crastinator: a newsletter full of actionable tips to help you stay sane & on track — in life, business, and emotionally. bit.ly/pro-crastinator

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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