How I work from Home

People are always asking me what I do. I tell them I'm a writer and I work from home and they typically respond by saying something like, "That must be great!" or "I wish I could set my own hours!"

I get it. Most people work in an office and their time is not theirs. I, on the other hand, can work whenever I want.

When I worked full-time from home for VICE, I don't think my schedule was too different from your average office employee's. I worked a task until it was done, taking breaks as needed. Now though, things are different. I'm working on a book proposal and some other long-term projects, with an occasional freelance assignment thrown in. If I'm not on assignment, I don't have a boss or a deadline. There's no word count I'm trying to hit. The projects are simply done when there done.

I can work on my projects in my pajamas and take breaks at my leisure. During those breaks, I can shop for dinner or run other errands. I can come back from those errands whenever I want. If I'm having trouble with my work I can drink coffee on the balcony and consider the problem or maybe take a little walk. I can have two cups of coffee. I can have five cups and extend my break for an hour. Two hours. I can decide what I really need to do is take my mind off the problem, and I can play video games at 10:30 am, you know, to take my mind off the problem. But oh shit, it's suddenly 2 pm!  "Oh no," I can say to myself. "There are only really like three hours left in the work day. That's not really enough time to get anything accomplished. I might as well just stop now."

The distractions, in other words, are endless. And the upside of going into an office is that it's easier to be productive.

Feeling productive is important, not just for a person's bottom line but for his or her mental health. When I have an unproductive day, I feel bad, like I've let myself (and, more importantly, my super supportive wife) down. String a couple days of low productivity together and I'm in a funk. After a week, I'm in a kind of deep gloom where I start wondering why my career isn't going the way I want it to. IT'S BECAUSE YOU'RE NOT WORKING ON ANYTHING, YOU IDIOT.

So, feeling good about myself is dependent, in part, on the recent progress I've made creating things. Over the last two months, I've been trying to create a system for keeping myself honest, and I think I'm finally onto something. 

Here's what I do:

1) I keep a running to-do list in a notebook. I use a Leuchtturm1917 hard cover, but it doesn't really matter. You could use stapled together cocktail napkins if you wanted to. I no longer follow all the conventions of a bullet journal, but my system is close. It's a good way to stay organized and quantify progress. 

2) I keep a monthly task tracker. I turn the notebook sideways and list every day in the month along one axis and, on the other, all the tasks (or habits) I hope to keep track of. When I complete one a task, I put a check mark in the corresponding box. Again, it's about quantifying progress. 

3) I set aside half-hour blocks for focused, distraction-free work. This is huge. I find I'm far less productive when I'm distracted, and I'm almost always distracted.

I use the tomato timer system, where I work for 25 minutes followed by a five minute break. During these 25 minutes, I put my phone on airplane mode and, if I'm writing at the computer, close all tabs except for a thesaurus. My goal is to complete at least five hours of focused work every day: two hours writing and three researching/reading. Five hours might not sound like much, but you'll be surprised how much you can get done without distractions. And it's not like just pack it in during a work-day's remining three hours. I'm doing something then too, it's just not as, well, focused. 

4) On a chart much like the one in step 2, I have a page where I put a check mark down after each tomato timer spent on research or writing.

5) I don't beat myself up when I miss my marks. As you can see, this month I've missed them more often than not. Yeah, being productive helps me feel good about myself, but agonizing over a missed tomato timer adds a level of stress I don't need. Often I miss my marks for a good reason. For example, I skipped working out for a week after a slight injury. And as I mentioned, just because I may have missed my mark one day on "focused work" doesn't mean I didn't accomplish anything that day. It probably just means I spent a lot of time working online. 

It's important to recognize when I've failed to hit my marks and consider why and try and avoid that in the future. But it's also important to be flexible and to capitalize on the advantages that do come with home office. If, say, shopping for dinner during the day means I spend an extra hour with my wife on a night she gets home early, that's a trade I'm willing to make.