Do you work from home?

There’s no getting around it; while there are obvious advantages to working from home, the inevitable entanglement of work with your personal life can be challenging. You want to knuckle down and get work done, but there are all manner of potential distractions. As Lauren Sandler says in an article exploring the state of happiness in America:

“Benefits [of working from home] include more flexibility with regard to child care, errands, etc. and lower costs (no gas or dry cleaning expenses, to name two). Among the downsides: The danger of going crazy from a lack of contact with non-relatives, and no respite from the dreaded inbox.”

The dog needs to go out, a package gets delivered, the plumber will come between 1 and 4, your spouse would like to spend time together, and the kids bounce in looking for attention. Your Slack, Twitter, and inbox keep pinging you. Is that a tension headache coming on? Deadlines are coming fast. You end up feeling torn, frustrated and overwhelmed. Perhaps you get cranky and snap at the kids or you fire off a terse email to a client.

It’s not easy to cut through the noise and find a way to be enough. Enough for all the demands that you face. Enough to attend to everything that is important. Work, relationships, downtime, home life – all of those are important things, so how can busy entrepreneurs optimize the time for each?

Need practical tips on optimizing working from home? Get ours here

Set strong boundaries

Time is always our most precious and scarce commodity, and each interruption, each loss of focus, and every distraction takes away from the time we have to get productive work done. Chances are, if your work time is interrupted frequently, you end up taking much longer than you anticipated to get work done, which then cuts down your time for other things.

Surprisingly, research findings indicate that Americans average over an hour more free time per day than what they had in the 1960s. Dr. Geoffrey Godbey and Dr. John P. Robinson have published their findings and argue that our biggest problem isn’t that we don’t have enough time, it’s that our lives are highly fragmented, over stimulated, and interrupted.

Dr. Gloria Mark set out to build a picture of 21st Century work life in America and found an overall situation “far worse” than she could have imagined. Workers were interrupted on average every eight minutes, with each interruption taking approximately five minutes. Average that out across a work day and that’s around 250 minutes on interruptions – just over four hours!

When you look at it from that perspective, it’s clear that setting strong boundaries around your time can help you to make space for the important things in your life. Dr. Mark also found that each time someone was distracted from a work task, it took an average of 25 minutes to return to that task, meaning that overall productivity could be severely impacted.

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The infamous kid-interrupted interview – the ultimate work from home hazard? (Source: BBC)

Deep work

While the idea of multitasking has been a popular one, studies have found that in reality, most of us aren’t multitasking. What is more likely to be going on through all of those many interruptions is that you are “serial tasking” – shifting from one thing to another in rapid succession.

Attempting to multitask (or serial tasking) is an absolute killer when it comes to successfully integrating the different areas of your life. The shift between tasks is not as quick as you may imagine – the natural lag-time of your brain means that it takes up to 40% more time than single-tasking.

How can we avoid interruptions, maintain focus, and optimize our time? One theory that can help is that proposed by Professor Cal Newport – Deep Work. The idea of deep work is that you can bring intense focus and deliver high-quality work by avoiding distractions while working on cognitively demanding tasks.

Deep work is immersive, it leads to elite performance and in a scientific sense, wires the brain for mastery. Getting into an environment for deep work means being firm about boundaries. It means setting conditions for yourself and communicating with others so that you are not interrupted.

When you work from home this is probably one of your biggest challenges, so here are suggestions to create that space:

  • Have a separate work area or office, if possible. This way you can create the space that is conducive to getting your best work done, and others will associate that space with work. If you’re sitting in the living room or at the kitchen table, there are too many other activities associated with those spaces and physically, you are more accessible to others.
  • As a natural extension from the previous point, having your own workspace can give you better control of the environment. For example, you can have it set up as you need it for optimum performance. Researchers from Princeton University found that clutter affects our ability to focus. It limits the brain’s ability to process information because it adds stimuli that overload your senses. The kid’s Lego all over the floor in the living room is not going to create a productive work environment!
  • Communicate with all who may interrupt. It’s very common that family or friends don’t “get it” when someone works from home. They think you can be available at any time because you’re not within the confines of an office. If you’ve got office hours set at home, let them know!
  • Have a signal to prevent interruptions at home. This might be a closed door with a sign or symbol on it that your kids or spouse understand to mean “please do not interrupt unless the house is on fire.”
  • Block out your most productive times of day for deep work. You’ll get a lot more done in less time, freeing you up for other activities! Make sure your team knows when you’ve blocked out this time too, so that people know not to expect a response from you until later. Turn off distractions such as email, social media, Slack or Skype to prevent loss of focus.
  • Consider outsourcing those tasks around the house which can be a distraction. For example, lawn care, house cleaning, and even grocery delivery. It’s easy to get sidetracked when you know those things need doing and they’re on your own plate!

Block time for other activities

There’s a temptation when you work from home to always be “on.” Digital technology means that you could be replying to emails at 9pm, but it doesn’t mean you should be obligated to do so. Many entrepreneurs struggle with work encroaching on personal life as much as personal life encroaching on work. There is no easy answer, but each individual should set up routines to suit their own desired lifestyle.

Having strong boundaries is equally important for ensuring that you get the needed time for those other parts of the “self.” This is not suggesting that you become utterly rigid, but that you pay attention to how your time is spent and be present in what you are doing. If you have a tendency to pick up your phone and answer emails while you’re in the middle of a romantic dinner with your partner, then you’re not entirely present in the moment (and you’re possibly being shot a dirty look across the table!).

When it comes to work hours vs. productivity, the overwhelming evidence shows we need to “get a life.” More work hours do not equate to better productivity or improvements in markers such as GDP beyond a certain point. Sometimes as entrepreneurs we need to work some pretty crazy hours and that’s okay, the key is that we don’t allow that to become the norm.

An important part of optimizing your performance and maintaining the various important parts of your life is to have some “healthy body” routines. Sleep, nutrition, and exercise form the basis of a body that is primed for focus, creativity, and social interaction.

Speaking of which, social interaction and playtime are also vital parts to nurture for your overall wellbeing. Entrepreneurs working from home might appear to have the ultimate luxury in determining their schedules, but truthfully, these things are often neglected. Studies have found that play in humans is a natural part of ourselves, but we need to be conscious of making the time for it.

Setting boundaries that include time to be present in other activities is an important tool in your work-from-home kit. It might mean building a few routines into your life, something that you can schedule and will be respected by others. There is no “right” way to go about it (if you’ve seen earlier posts from me, you’ll know I find the term “work-life balance” to be misleading), but the trick is to find a routine that works and allows you to be present in whatever you are doing. “Balance” isn’t the aim as it implies you have equal portions of time to commit to each activity, but successful integration of your work and “life” activities helps to nurture all parts of the self.

Get 5 quick tips for working from home here

The most important skill…

What all of this boils down to is that, in order to make time for all of the important things in your life when you work from home, a key skill is to set boundaries.

You might not be nailing “rules” to the front door, but it is important to take the time to clearly define how you will operate from home. Your aim is to optimize your performance and create time for all of your other needs.

How will you get others onboard? What specific things do you need to make time for? Our time is finite, but the options we get for how to spend it are endless.

For more on this conversation, check out our new book The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Keeping Your Sh*t Together: How to Run Your Business Without Letting it Run You.