How to Tweak Your Home Office to Be Productive Full-time

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Change is on my mind. This week has been my first week as a full-time web worker. I feel like I have been initiated into a club, and have a new sense of freedom. My home is my office, my work hours are flexible, and I can wear what I want. I like those changes!

I also find myself thinking about the changes I need to make for my new work situation to be as effective as possible. This week I am away from home, and I have been thinking about major and minor adjustments I will need to make in my work space and lifestyle. My home office has been quite effective on a part-time basis, but will it cut it when I will be there all day (or all night), when I need to concentrate when the kids get home from school, and when I am under pressure to get a task finished?

Here are five issues I need to deal with when I am working from home next week:

1. Rethink Your Office Location

A home office should be a dedicated room away from noises and distractions with a door that can be closed when necessary. Unfortunately we don’t have a spare room for an office—a side-effect of having so many kids. At first I used an outdoor table in an under-cover barbecue area, but even in sunny Queensland, sometimes the weather (not to mention the flies and mosquitoes) made work difficult.

A home office should be a dedicated room away from noises and distractions with a door that can be closed when necessary.

After that I started using our dining room table, which isn’t often used for dining. Although it’s a heavy-traffic area, and close to the clash of pots and pans at washing up time, it has been quiet enough during my part-time working hours. During noisy times I have been wearing headphones.

But I’m working at my home office all day every day, and that isn’t going to cut it. I need a new place for my desk. My ideal desk location would:

  • be well ventilated, with fresh air to keep the brain working
  • be well-lit, preferably with natural light during the day
  • have a window to look out of when I’m thinking or having a break, preferably with something nice to look at, like a garden
  • be spacious enough so that I don’t feel restrained or claustrophobic
  • to be in a separate part of the house to the noise, including TV, music, washing up and kids in general.

Would you add anything else to my list?

To make things more complicated, I have an eight-month old baby and a shift-working wife, both of whom may need to sleep during the day time, so my desk should be away from the sleeping area. On the other hand, when my wife is doing a day shift, my desk needs to be close enough to the cot to keep an eye on my son. This is the fun of freelancing—what other type of office needs to take these kinds of issues into account?

What other type of office needs to take these kinds of issues into account?

I’m looking forward to a surprise when I get home: my wife is rearranging the house (including my desk) in a way that she thinks is going to work. I’m curious to see what she has done. Fortunately she is going away a week later so that I can fix things if necessary!

2. Declutter Your Desk

I admit it: I inherited the hoarding gene from my dad. Over the years I have collected piles of paper containing “useful” information, including reference information, useful tips, decade-old receipts, and the kids’ report cards from school. They’ve been shuffled from box to box each time we’ve moved house, and seriously need to be sorted out. My desk is also surrounded by spare monitors and keyboards and computer speakers, “useful” knick knacks, and piles of books.

When I was working from home part-time and out servicing clients most of the day, my jungle of junk was bearable, but as a full-timer it is only going to frustrate me and drive me away from my work. It’s time to seriously declutter my work space.

I’m not brave enough to throw out whole boxes of paperwork – there are definitely useful documents in those boxes. But I won’t have time to sort through it all in one sitting. I need to find an alternate location to store it, and schedule time each week to slowly sort out the wheat from the chaff. And for the paperwork I decide to keep, I need to invest in a better filing system.

I need to find an alternate location to store it, and schedule time each week to slowly sort out the wheat from the chaff.

Next week when I am setting up my desk in its new location, I’ll be asking myself two questions:

  • What needs to be on my desk in order for me to work effectively?
  • What needs to be close at hand, but not on my desk?

Whatever isn’t included in the answers to those two questions either needs to be thrown out, or stored elsewhere. In answering those questions, I need to work out whether I need a bookshelf close to my desk, and whether I will be printing often enough to keep my large color laser printer on my desk, nearby, or in another room.

3. Optimize Your Tools

“Sharpen the saw” is one of the basic principles of Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”. This principle was inspired by something Abraham Lincoln said:

“If I had six hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend the first four hours sharpening the ax”.

Before this week I spent my time working in different jobs with different focuses doing different tasks. But now my time is much more focused, and I spend a lot of the day doing similar tasks – some of which involve considerable repetition. That means that if I can find a way of saving a few seconds per task, over a day or a week it may add up to saving me many hours.

This week I have started thinking about some software tools that can make some routine jobs faster and less frustrating:

  • I now have several Gmail accounts that I need to check regularly. The nature of the accounts makes me reluctant to forward one of them to the other – they should remain separate. I tried a few Firefox extensions that didn’t really work for me, and settled on using two different browsers: Firefox and Flock. I chose Flock because I heavily rely on several Firefox extensions, and Flock is based on Firefox.
  • I’ve found that there are some tedious HTML code fragments, common phrases, and standard emails that I need to type a few times every day, and started looking for some software to take away the pain. My main workstation runs Linux, so I tried the Flock web clipboard, the snippets plug-in for the Glipper clipboard manager, and copying and pasting from a text file that I kept handy. I settled on using AutoKey, which is similar to TextExpander on the Mac and AutoHotKey on Windows.
  • I regularly need to upload files to various online storage repositories, including video sites and Amazon’s S3 file storage. I’m sure there is a way to use a single tool to upload to all of these services, but I’m still looking for the right one.

Have you found some software tools that maximize your productivity? Let us know in the comments.

If I can find a way of saving a few seconds per task, over a day or a week it may add up to saving me many hours.

Now that I will be spending more hours at my desk, ergonomic issues have become more crucial. Since writing an article about ergonomics in May, I have been slowly improving my work space. I have purchased a Logitech Wave keyboard which makes typing a breeze, bought an easy-to-read 24″ LCD monitor, and placed my laptop on a stand so that the monitor is at the right height and the keyboard is out of the way. So many web workers suffer from health issues relating to computer equipment and usage that it is well worth doing an ergonomic evaluation of your own workstation.

4. Rethink Your Workflow

Now that my workload has increased, as has the number of deadlines I need to meet, it is time to streamline my workflow. By making changes to how I do each task, and the order I do them in, I should be able to achieve a much better use of my time. As I master each new task, I am carefully thinking about new and better ways to achieve them, the most efficient order in which to do them, and whether there is any duplication that can be eliminated.

Work in a way that maximizes productivity and minimizes effort.

I need to decide whether to do all of my work in one big chunk of time, or split my day up into smaller pieces. I’m hoping to get into a routine where I do similar things at the same time each day in the most effective order. And I still need to find out what time of day I have the most energy for tackling the difficult jobs that need a lot of concentration. I think that is normally first thing in the morning for me, but that may change as my lifestyle changes.

In short, I’m planning to work in a way that maximizes productivity and minimizes effort so that I can get the most out of each day.

5. Plan For Flexibility

Flexibility is definitely one of the things that has drawn me to becoming a web worker from a home office. One of my concerns is that if I allow too much flexibility in the way I spend my time, I may end up working until the early hours of the morning on a regular basis. While enjoying some flexibility, I still need to get work done throughout the day.

Here are some things I am hoping to achieve with my flexible hours:

  • I will care for my eight-month old son when my wife is on day shifts at the hospital. Since going back to work after the baby, she has done a large proportion of night shifts, and doesn’t get much sleep during the day because of the baby. Now if she is rostered on a day shift, I can look after him during the day, and work while he sleeps and at night.
  • When my wife is home during the day, I can arrange my schedule so that we can spend more time together on a regular basis.
  • I want to get back into a pattern of regular exercise, especially walking around the wetlands near where I live.
  • Working from home should also give me the time and opportunity to set up a small music studio again, something I haven’t had time for since the 80s and 90s.

I can start to plan my time in advance so that I accomplish these new goals and still have time for work.

Now that I have worked out how I want to make the most of my new flexibility, I can start to plan my time in advance so that I accomplish these new goals and still have time for work. Without this planning, I’m afraid that either I’ll take too much time off work during the day and find it difficult to meet deadlines, or I’ll be so focused on work I won’t achieve my new goals. Planning and good time management should help me achieve a healthy balance between the two.

Many of you would have gone through a similar journey in becoming a full-time work-from-home freelancer. Do you have any tips to share with us? Let us know in the comments.

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