How to work from home without losing productivity

Hack your unmotivated brain.
woman working from home
Some days, you crush your to-do list. Others, you waste hours wandering into and out of the kitchen. Depositphotos

The perks of working from home—setting your own schedule, avoiding a soul-sucking commute—can pale in comparison with downsides like the inability to get anything done. There’s a few reasons for that.

First of all, we remote workers don’t have a physical separation of work and personal space. Without that, we often start the day later than intended, and in the evening, the tasks don’t quite stop. This lack of a consistent routine means we easily get distracted, especially when we sit only a few steps from the refrigerator and the television—and no nosy coworkers can poke around to keep us honest. On top of that, people who telecommute tend to experience increased feelings of isolation compared to office drones.

As a remote worker myself, I must confess that it took me about six days to open a new Google Doc and another 15 minutes of staring at the blinking cursor to finally start typing these words (a day before the proposed deadline, no less). After four years of working from home as a writer, editor, and consultant, I can tell you that some days, that staring-blankly-at-my-computer habit dominates my schedule, while other days, I crush up my to-do list and sprinkle it on my breakfast cereal.

Wouldn’t it be nice to always do the latter?

Alas, if you’re a remote worker, or even occasionally work from home, you know the struggle of bouncing from total listlessness to superhuman levels of productivity. So we’ve rounded up the best techniques that seasoned remote workers—and I—rely on. This advice will help you stay motivated to be productive outside of a traditional office setting.

Get your basics right

When you work from home, the chances that you step outside your house and follow a normal adult routine plummet significantly. And that makes it harder to get stuff done. I feel the least motivated to work on those days where I don’t get as much sleep, eat poorly, or find myself in the same pair of sweatpants for longer than 36 hours.

Ramit Sethi, a personal finance expert who’s worked remotely for 10-plus years (and—full disclosure—is the CEO of the company for which I work full-time, along with a fully remote team), taught me that productivity isn’t about motivation. If we rely on willpower to get anything done, we’ve already lost. When was the last time you were able to consistently motivate yourself to organize that spreadsheet, without wanting to bang your head against your keyboard?

Instead, what you need is a fundamental system of habits that includes getting consistent sleep, eating your meals at regular times, and making your environment work-friendly. Those sound boring, but putting together a regulated schedule is one of the most basic ways to improve your productivity.

To make sure he eats well, Sethi keeps pre-prepared meals in his fridge so they’ll be waiting for him when meal times roll around. He also keeps his work environment free of messes and clutter. Most important, he prioritizes sleep above all else.

“As a culture, we pride ourselves on getting as much done on as little sleep as possible,” Sethi says. “And that’s harmful because the research shows that not getting enough sleep is just as bad as being drunk.” He aims to sleep at least seven and a half to eight hours every night.

“This way, I know that when I wake up, I’ll feel focused and have the energy to make my day productive, without depending on caffeine and crashing later,” he says.

Getting enough sleep sounds so simple, but many of us would rather try to watch one more TV episode, answer one more email, or “quickly” check what our friends are up to on Facebook. Sethi suggests trying this fix: Most of us have an alarm clock to wake up, but we should also rely on an alarm to remind ourselves to go to bed.

Still, forming new habits—like eating, sleeping, and cleaning better—can be tough. The key to following through is breaking down what you aim to do into the smallest feasible first step. Too often, we aim for a goal that is too vague for us to clearly comprehend how to go about doing it, and that’s why we tend to spin our wheels. For example, if you want to get in shape, the first thing isn’t to promise yourself to go to the gym five days per week—a more realistic goal would be to work out two or three times a week, then gradually ramp it up.

Set a daily to-do list

If you allow your day to be ambiguous from the moment you wake up, you become much more susceptible to distractions of all kinds. And if you don’t prioritize which obligations are most pressing on any given day, you may try to tackle everything—which leads to not making much progress on any of it. In my experience, this often causes anxiety about all the things I should have done but haven’t finished.

Whether you have a list of tasks scribbled on a napkin or rely on digital tools like Google Calendar, knowing what to do every day helps you focus. And it lets you avoid wasting time on the things that don’t actually move you toward your goals. Instead, you’ll be able to allocate the appropriate mental resources and time to the important items.

For example, let’s say you have to write an article, and you have the most mental energy in the mornings. Knowing this, you can intentionally dedicate your morning to putting words on paper. That way, you knock that task out of the way first thing.

Differentiate between “urgent” and “important”

As you plug away at the computer every little email notification and ping from Slack seems important enough to address immediately. But trying to get to them all feels like running in place—and it keeps distracting you from the work that matters. The key to wresting yourself from this torment is to know the difference between urgent and important.

Just because something is urgent—in other words, it may require your attention now—doesn’t mean it’s valuable. When something is important, on the other hand, it contributes to a goal of some sort, but you can put it off in the short term. Knowing this clear difference helps you strike a balance between getting to urgent matters, like troubleshooting when the internet is down, and important tasks, like gathering research to write your article.

“There’s this thing called the urgency effect, which basically means we prefer doing smaller tasks that feel urgent rather than tasks that are actually consequential,” says Tim Herrera, editor at The New York Times, Smarter Living section. He cites a study from Journal of Consumer Research, which concluded that humans would prefer to check off those less-vital items, “even if tackling more important ones would mean an objectively better outcome,” he says.

This is how we trap ourselves into feeling so busy all of the time: We waste energy on things that matter very little because they seem urgent. So how can we avoid those distractions?

One way is to mute your notifications. Instead of responding to every alert, you can check your messages only at set periods of time. The exact frequency of these checks may depend on the importance of the notifications you expect to receive on any given day.

Another option is to determine the urgency and importance of the various items on your to-do list. Herrera recommends an exercise known as an Eisenhower Decision Matrix, which gives you a nice visual of your priorities. “Draw out a two-by-two box with labels on the left and top sides: On top are ‘urgent’ and ‘non-urgent,’ and on the left are ‘important’ and ‘not important,'” says Herrera. “Put every single thing on your plate into one of those boxes, and it should become clear what you can outright stop doing and what you should really be focusing on.” By prioritizing your tasks in this way, Herrera suggests, you can avoid becoming overwhelmed by some unknown, nightmarish mass of work.

Commit to just 30 minutes of work

Once you know what you need to do in a given day, you need to get those wheels of motivation turning. Sometimes, all it takes is to simply do: You have to push yourself to get started in the first place, just like I had to force myself to open Google Docs and begin writing this article. Then, the motivation to finish the rest takes over.

Of course, the trick is to first convince yourself that all you need is 30 minutes to get a solid amount of work done. I hardly ever expect myself to be productive for hours on end, but most of us can keep working on something for 30 minutes. And once that half-hour is up, I often realize I am a lot further along than I initially thought, which motivates me to keep going.

You might recognize this as a slightly modified version of the Pomodoro timer, but it has one added element that Beth Skwarecki, health writer and editor at Lifehacker, and I used to employ: the buddy system. This provides a level of accountability. We called the result “work sprints,” and they worked like this.

  1. Individually, we break down what we can realistically and reasonably do or finish in 30 minutes.
  2. We tell each other what that task is.
  3. Each of us runs the timer and works for 30 minutes on our own things.
  4. We touch base again to report on each other’s progress and hold ourselves accountable.
  5. Then we repeat as many times as we can manage, or until the work is done.

This was a powerful way for us to get things done. And you don’t need to work out of the same office to follow these steps—just perform your check-ins via video chat, instant message, text, or any other form of communication. With help from this work method, Skwarecki was able to finish her book, and I was able to finish creating my eight-week advanced-writing online course.

Whether you’re working in the office or at home, relying on motivation alone only gets you so far. True, everyday productivity comes down to having a system of habits, with the bare-bones basics like proper nutrition and sleep, and establishing a consistent routine that works for your circumstances.