How to Create a Productive Home Office Environment

In the last few decades, working from home has become more popular and possible for all sorts of professionals. Those who work from home could be a remote employee for one company, or they could be contract/freelance workers for many different companies. Some are self-employed or run their own small business from their home.

While working from home sounds attractive at first, it also comes with its own challenges. You don’t have to commute, but without a designated work space separate from where you sleep or relax, it might always feel like you’re at work. Even if you have a home office, it’s a good idea to work somewhere different every once in a while or to go for frequent walks to make sure you don’t get stir crazy. Working from your own home can also be very distracting, especially if you are a stay-at-home parent on top of other remote work. Separating “work” life and “home” life is very important to keep a good work/life balance. But how can you do this?

Work/Life Balance

Separate Time

Working from an office can make it easy to split up your time. Office time is work time, and home time is for you, your family, and your friends. And even some people who work in an office have trouble turning off their work—they continue checking emails or taking phone calls no matter where they are, whether they are “on the clock” or not. Working from home makes it even more difficult to unplug from work.

On the other side of the coin, working from home may not look like work to some others. Friends may want to make plans to spend time together during your most productive work time. If you have a partner, they may leave household chores to you simply because you’re home more often. Setting a schedule for your work hours and setting strict boundaries on what that time is and is not for, is critical for yourself and your friends/family.

In Uttoran Sen’s article “31 Simple Ways to Maximize Efficiency in Your Home Office”, they emphasize the importance of keeping to a work schedule. “It’s not enough to have your hours; you have to maintain them as well. Be sure to be in your chair, working, at 8 in the morning and call it a day around 5 if that is your set time. You may realize you can adjust your hours later to be more efficient for you, but don’t make it a habit of stretching out your hours—it just invites wasted time.” (Lifehack)

Separate Space

The most obvious difference between working from home or in an office is the literal space. Designating a special place in your home for “work” is very important for several reasons. The first is that this special place sends a message to both you and to others: I am at work. If you run a small business that has an inventory—a shop online for knitted items, for example—keep all your supplies in one place. Not only does this keep you organized, it also keeps work from spilling over into “home” life.

You may not have a separate room for your work at home. Keeping a desk designated for work, or even a separate laptop, can help signal that you are working and should not be bothered. If “home” tasks pop up during the day, keep a to-do list handy where you can jot them down for later. In my house, we have a white board where I can write the to-do list and even assign some tasks to my husband so that they’re completely off my radar. Beware: if you decide to assign tasks to someone else in the house (with their permission), you should also discuss expectations regarding urgency. Include a deadline if the task has one. Set that deadline a few days early if you want to make sure it’s done on time. But otherwise, try to keep the task out of your mind and especially off your work desk.

Keeping a separate work space or work hardware has another advantage as well. Any property, including designated space in your home, can be written off as a business expense in your annual tax return. Make sure you know how to file a Schedule C properly and keep track of your expenses and income if you decide to go this route. Otherwise, tax season will become more of a hassle than it needs to be.

What does a productive home office look like?

Quiet

Whether you’re turning your guest room into your own haven or clearing off a corner of the dining room table, there are some universal elements to a productive home office space. Before settling on a work space, try to find the quietest part of your house or apartment. In their article, “7 Tried and True Secrest for a Productive Home Office”, Tikva Morrow explains that “While some people need some background noise to work, others find any noise at all (a barking dog, a noisy air vent, playful children) incredibly disturbing.” (Muse) These distractions could also lead to more distractions: getting up to quiet the dog may lead you past a pile of laundry that needs folding, which gets put away in the room where you didn’t bother making the bed…and on and on.

If a quiet space is hard to come by, invest in some sound-cancelling headphones or try to institute quiet hours when you are most productive. Some find that changing their work hours to earlier in the morning or later at night can help cut out the intrusions of a regular day at home.

Music

For some people, complete quiet is more distracting than background noise. Personally, I can get busy work done better when one of my favorite television shows is playing in the background. But more often, I listen to environmental sounds such as rain storms, quiet coffee shops, and even page turning or fountain pen writing videos.

For more “inspiration based” work, however, I have different music playlists or albums I listen to using streaming services or YouTube playlists. If your are the kind of person who likes background noise, experiment a little until you find out what works for you. Knowing that different soundtracks will help with different kind of work is also good and will add variety to your day.

Decluttered

Much like an actual office, your home office needs to be organized to be efficient. There are so many options for organizing your office, from minimalist to super funky, that it would be impossible to list them all. Try walking around the office section of your favorite department store, or a specialized shop with organizing and office supplies. See what calls to you and try out some different options. What works for one person may be overwhelming to another. You might even need to mix designs or methods before settling on the one that works for you.

Decluttering your office also means removing distracting items or pieces of equipment. Unless you need it for your work (reviewing movies or T.V shows, keeping up with news, etc.), there should not be a television in your office. The internet provides enough distractions as it is, and a television could only add to the temptation to get lost in a binge

Desk toys can be contained in a drawer or a Tupperware box to keep them out of the way of your workspace until you take them out specifically. Extra office supplies should be kept out of the way, as well. They can be stored in a closet or even in milkcrates tucked under or behind your desk. This way, they are easily accessible when you need them without taking up unnecessary space on your working surface.

Don’t declutter so much that it makes work more difficult. Keep your most used supplies within easy reach, and make sure those drawers your filling are well-organized so you know what is in them. In their article for Lifehack, Joe Falconer explains that this will help you catch your new ideas as they come to you. “The home office is where you’re most likely to get in the head-space of your work and produce new ideas, so not having an immediately accessible idea receptacle is utter foolishness.” (Lifehack)

Positive Energy

Every design decision you make can change how your home office “feels”. Painting the walls different colors, or hanging colored tapestries or curtains, can change the energy of the room and either add or take away from your ability to focus. In an article for Entrepreneur, designer Jo Heinz explains the psychology of color. Harsh shades like red or bright yellow could distract or even add stress to the room, while soft shades of blue could actually make your sleepy. On the other hand, neutrals like white, grey, tan or ivory make wonderful accent colors, while greens can add balance to a room. And finally, “Accents and shades of purple have been proven to stimulate imagination. Purple or lavender tones cross the line between warm and cool tones and can evoke a favorable response when focus and concentration are required.” (Entrepreneur)

You can further enhance the “feel” or energy of your space by applying feng shui design ideas, which help keep the flow of the space open and efficient. Adding plants to your workspace can also keep air flowing and clean. If you want to add a scented candle or oils to your space, you can do that as well. Look for smells that soothe you or help you focus. Some of these include lavender, eucalyptus, lemon, and clean or fresh “laundry” smells.

Lighting

If you have the opportunity, invite as much natural light into the space as possible. One major problem in company offices is fluorescent or unnatural lighting, which can affect your mood and even your mental health. Make sure that your office lighting does not cause glare off your computer screen or cast strange shadows over your work space, as these things can cause eye strain. Leaning towards “yellow” based lighting is a good option when compensating for limited natural light. This kind of lighting also lends itself well to helping you settle in to bed after a long day in your office. The blue and white lights of computer or phone screens keeps your brain stimulated and can make it more difficult to decompress and fall asleep.

If you have focusing, eye strain, or headache issues, there are several apps online for free that can change the lighting color on your computer to match more with the natural light of the day, depending on your location and the time of year. Changing your word processor background to a seafoam green can also help ease up on eye strain, as it softens the light the computer gives off.

Changing any of your computer settings to less bright will also save battery, which will make your computer or hand-held device last longer when it’s not plugged in.

Ergonomics

Sitting at a desk, doing repetitive motion, often sitting in the same position, can cause pain or cramping in your body. You can avoid or alleviate some symptoms with specialized equipment. As someone who suffers from tendonitis and carpal tunnel, I have an ergonomic keyboard, soft wrist support, and an ergonomic, wireless mouse. I also keep a heatpad handy for sore muscles, and make sure my back is supported with an ergonomic pillow.

Getting up and going for walks, doing stretches throughout the day or taking a yoga break can also help with some of these symptoms. Walking in the fresh air for even five to ten minutes a day can help rejuvenate our bodies and help shake any cobwebs loose. If you have considerable pain in any part of your body, talk to your doctor and see if they have any specialized equipment to recommend to you.

Using a small easel for paperwork while typing or making sure to take breaks from repetitive motions while crafting are just two specific ways to change things up while working, as well.

Tips and Methods to Stay Motivated

Trackers

My alarm clock is one of my most-used tools in my office. I have a Pomodoro technique app for very long chunks of work, like when I’m editing my novel for hours at a time or working on a long-form essay. The “25 on, 5 off” rhythm works very well for those marathons. But on days where I’m at more of a sprint speed, I need to set myself fifteen-minute reminders to stay on track or even keep a physical record of what I’m doing on paper.

Excel spreadsheets are another frequently used tool for me. Keeping track of what has been published where, when my deadlines are coming up, and where I’ve shared content on social media, is made infinitely easier with a couple simple spreadsheets.

I also keep a bullet journal, where I track things like books I want to read or short story ideas I want to revisit. And I have a social calendar on the wall that I only use to keep track of plans I’ve made with friends and family, and times I will be out of town on residencies or fellowships. I have entirely made the system that works for me out of pieces of many other systems. It’s taken me two years of freelancing and ten of working online to figure out a system that works. Similarly, my system would not work for different kind of businesses, as it does not have to track inventory or customers.

Much like discovering your physical organization style, nailing down your digital tracking system will take time and experimentation. Don’t be afraid to abandon a system that worked for someone else. No matter how popular or well-known a method may be, there are many options because there are many kinds of workers, thinkers, and businesses.

Reward Yourself

Once you’ve made it to one milestone or another, take a break. Remember to reward yourself for a job well done and put aside some of your paycheck for leisure activities/items, if you can. If you are working a Monday through Friday schedule, treat your weekends like what they are. Go out with family or friends if you’d like and try not to scold yourself for stepping away from your home office.

Keeping some snacks or your favorite beverage near your desk can be another way to reward yourself. You could also take a short break for an episode or two of a television show, reading something for your own pleasure, or even just laying outside in the sun. If you decide to reward yourself with internet surfing or social media scrolling, try to set a time to make sure you don’t go over “break” time.

Unless you have a deadline looming, or you’re really in the zone, try to take actual breaks for your meal as well. Just like taking a break for lunch in the office, this will help you relax and reset for the second half of your work day. It can also help you appreciate your meal a little more if you slow down to enjoy and focus only on your food.

DRESS FOR THE JOB

When working from home, one of the greatest temptations is to stay in your pajamas all day. While that’s fine every once in a while, it is actually signaling to your mind and body that you’re still in sleep mode. Changing into “office appropriate” attire, or at the very least into jeans and a t-shirt, can help you psychologically in believing that your job is valid and important. You are your own boss—so shouldn’t you dress the part?

Maximizing the productivity of your home office is entirely up to you, your work, and your personal preferences. Whether you have a taped off space in your shared dining room, or an office with a door and a “do not disturb” sign on the outside, working from home can be a productive and highly successful way to move forward in your career.

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