The best tips for working from home, from people who do it all the time
It’s more than greasy potato chip fingers and lying on the couch.
Your home office is rife with distractions and booby traps: TV, pets, kids, and, yes, that 55-ounce container of peanut butter-filled pretzel nuggets. Transitioning from a traditional office or job site to your living room takes time to perfect.
I started working from home about six months ago and there are still some things I find quite difficult. If you’ve recently found yourself in a remote working situation, you may be having a hard time, too. So let’s learn from the experts: some of Popular Science and Popular Photography’s most experienced work-from-homers.
Set reasonable expectations
When you no longer have to leave home for work, it can be tempting to fantasize about all the extra time you’ll have to cross things off your personal to-do list: cleaning, learning to cook, and reading shelves of books, to name a few. But it’s important to set realistic expectations about non-work activities, says PopSci’s tech editor, Stan Horaczek.
“I think a lot of people are finding out they really don’t have that time, and it’s really disappointing and upsetting,” says Horaczek, who has worked from home since 2008.
You may also feel guilty about not having to leave the relative comforts of your abode. Don’t, Horaczek says. The work is the same, so don’t feel like you have to do more of it to “make up” for staying in.
“You’re still doing your job,” he says. “Do the work you’re supposed to be doing. Don’t feel bad about it.”
Make a plan, learn from it, and stick to it
One of the easiest things to do when you start working from home is to plan your days in advance, as much as you can. It doesn’t matter if your first approach doesn’t work—no one’s a pro the first time they do something. It’s important to develop the habit, our experts say.
Whitson Gordon, a PopSci freelancer who’s been working from home since 2010, acknowledges that when he started, he wasn’t good at scheduling. The hours he’d eat meals, exercise, or even shower varied day to day. What worked for him was plugging those essential tasks into his Google Calendar with alarms attached.
It might seem excessive, but having those alarms baked in makes it easier to stick to your routine. Once you get into those habits, you can turn the alarms off and, hopefully, continue following your new itinerary, he says.
Even if you don’t have a strict work schedule, it can help to make note of the tasks you need to get done in a given day or week. Jeanette D. Moses, contributing editor to Popular Photography, has a pretty loose schedule going into each week. As additional responsibilities like photoshoots or breaking news arrive, she slots them in where necessary.
Working from home may also allow you to be more flexible about when you finish assignments, but if you adopt an unconventional work schedule, understand that your coworkers probably don’t want a project update as they’re getting ready for bed. Horaczek says that if he ends up working late, he’ll typically wait until the morning to file stories and send Slack messages. That way, he’s not tacitly encouraging others to work odd hours or making them feel bad for not answering a question at 10 p.m.
Take breaks, eat, and, seriously, move around
In an office, surrounded by coworkers, it’s easy to roam. Head to the kitchen, the much-romanticized water cooler, or a colleague’s desk, and you’re combining a bit of social time with physical activity while giving your brain a short rest.
At home, it’s easy to stay stuck in one place. That’s not ideal.
“You want to take breaks throughout the day,” Gordon says. He usually spends a few minutes with his wife and kids, gets food or water, or takes a longer break to work out. You could also use this time to listen to a podcast, do a small household chore, or watch a YouTube video about something weird.
When it comes to sustenance, there’s a lot of advice out there. Snack when you’re hungry, don’t snack at all, don’t eat where you work, and more. Do what works for you.
Horaczek, for example, has learned not to snack. “I will just eat garbage all day long and also just eat my meals,” he says. Instead, he likes to plan and prepare meals in advance, as if he were commuting. He prefers food he can toss in the oven and cook with a timer. That way, he can plan around when it’s baking, know when it’ll be done, and be able to eat lunch without having to worry about anything else.
All three of our experts stressed the importance of exercise, too. Moses, who lives alone and has worked from home for about three years, says carving out some time in the day to work out helps keep her focused. Still, it can be hard to exercise at home if you share your space with others, so be respectful of their needs.
“I like to do yoga, and if I were living with roommates, it might be distracting for me to put on a yoga video and do that in the middle of the day,” she says. Her cat, Ziggy Kittydust, however, is not bothered.
Horaczek recommends exercising at the start or end of your day. That way, it’s a buffer between waking up and going to work, or working and any after-work activities.
Rituals can help
No, we’re not talking about sacrificing a goat in your living room to appease the finicky printer god, Epsox (may He have all the magenta He craves). Simple actions that signify the start and end of your workday can do wonders for your productivity and mental health.
There is a mental component to starting the day well-fed and comfortably dressed that’s hard to replicate, Gordon says.
“I do think it’s important for some people to get out of their pajamas, wake up, and eat breakfast,” he says. “You don’t necessarily need to be dressed up in a suit and tie.”
Often, when he gets up, doesn’t shower, and goes right to work in a bathrobe, he’ll realize around noon that he feels like he’s wasted the day. If he prepares for work instead, he’ll usually feel much more productive.
He also tries to have a solid clock-out time. Having kids has made that easier (his son and daughter are both younger than four), because he knows his wife needs help with them, he says. Doing something like closing Slack, exiting your email inbox, telling coworkers you’re done for the day, having a kombucha—all that signifies that you’re done working.
What to do when you have kids
If you have young children, do your best to create a separate workspace with a door. One of Gordon’s rules is: If the door is closed, don’t come in.
Horaczek also has two children, but they’re old enough to handle themselves. He says that if you really want to commit to being with your kids when your workday is finished, it’s important to treat your office hours like you’re really at the office. If you’re trying to do a task that should take an hour, and it takes nearly three because you’re dealing with kids, that eats into the time you have to fully dedicate to them after work.
Work where you feel happy
For many people, it can be helpful to have a dedicated work space, but not everyone working from home has that luxury. Going a little further, not everyone works best tied down to a single location. In the middle of writing this paragraph, for example, I moved from sitting upright in a chair to lying on my stomach on the couch. I find simply changing locations can recharge my brain. What matters is that you’re comfortable where you work.
If you prefer working from an area you consider an office, a good office chair and a solid desk is great, Gordon says. He considers his ergonomic setup crucial to getting as much work done as possible.
Moses has a section of her apartment set up as an office and says it helps that her mind knows she’s “at work” when she sits there.
“I think, for a lot of people, when you’re working from home, it’s very tempting just to work from the couch,” she says.
For some people, though, that works. Horaczek, for one, was working from his couch when I called him to talk tips, and I was in bed.