Unproductive at Home? 4 Steps to Make Your Home Office Work for You

Home Office

Last year I wrote a post about the importance of having a work space outside of your home. Because sometimes you just can’t get into the right frame of mind to work from home, right? It happens to all of us. We just don’t want to do the work. ‘Screw you, home office! I’m going to do some other very important tasks right now, like cleaning the bathroom, washing the dishes, and watching the latest episode of Fear the Walking Dead.’

You know you have a problem when Fear the Walking Dead is enough to tempt you away from your work, because Fear the Walking Dead is terrible. (If you’re going to procrastinate, at least do it with Game of Thrones, amirite?)

Having a specific place to go and get your work done outside of your home can work wonders for jolting your brain into work mode. Maybe there’s no internet there. And there are definitely no dishes to wash. And, of course, eventually your brain starts to think of this place as ‘the place where you do work’, and it becomes a habit to get shit done while you’re there. I certainly found this to be the case when I conducted an experiment on it last year. Later in the year, I also joined an awesome co-working office, which is where I’m sitting right now to edit this. So yes, having a work space outside of your home is definitely a good thing for productivity. But there are downfalls to this approach.

Why You Need a Home Office

Completely separating work from home sounds nice in theory, doesn’t it? When you’re at home, you can relax. When you’re at work, wherever that may be, you get shit done. Recently I realised that this mentality meant I had unconsciously decided that I could no longer write when I was at home. When I wanted to write, I would always go to my spot overlooking the sea, or to a nearby cafe. (I rarely write in my co-working office, because I like to be alone – or at least anonymous – when I write, and because I go to my office to do other work, like editing, answering emails, checking student homework, and other administrative tasks.)

Not being able to write at home? That’s just dumb, especially for me. I live alone. I like to be alone when I write. You see the connection, right? Surely being at home is the perfect place for me to write.

But the main problem here is that when you rely on an external place to do your writing (or whatever work you’re struggling with), you’re also at the mercy of external factors. Here are a few things that can throw you off:

  • There are people sitting where you usually sit.
  • There are no other available seats either.
  • You can’t sit where you normally sit for a completely unpredictable reason that’s outside your control, such as the entire area being closed off because they’re attempting to install a gigantic carousel in the middle of the room. (True story.)
  • There are too many people around and they’re distracting you.
  • You’ve run into someone you know, and they want to talk to you. (Bastards.)
  • The music that’s playing is awful. AWFUL.

And countless other reasons you don’t expect and can’t control. I often found that if I woke up too late, I would simply decide not to go and have my morning writing session, because I knew that one (or multiple) of the factors above would likely already be in play. What I needed was an environment I controlled completely. Then there are no excuses. Except the ones you tell yourself, like ‘I can’t write when I’m at home.’

If you’re struggling with the same bullshit excuses for not being able to work from home as I was, I have a 4-step plan to help you become productive at home again:

How to Set Up Your Home Office to Ensure Productivity

1. Change Things Around

The mind gets set in its ways pretty quickly. Like, astoundingly quickly. New habits form fast, and once they’re there, they’re hard to shift. My home desk had become a place for dumping my bag when I got home from the office, for chatting with my friends on Facebook, and for piling up unopened bank statements on. In fact, since moving into my co-working office, I’d barely been sitting at my desk at all. It was just this huge, purposeless thing taking up space in my living room. I knew that if I wanted to make my desk a place where I actually sat down to write, I’d find it much easier if I moved things around. Having my desk in a different part of the room would help break that connection my brain had made between my desk and how I used it.

If you’ve got into the habit of sitting at your desk and refreshing Facebook over and over, or of not even sitting at your desk in the first place, try moving things around. It’s much easier to form new habits in a fresh environment, and moving your desk to a different part of the room, or even to a different room altogether, could help zap your brain into action. If moving your desk isn’t an option, how else could you change your environment? Maybe there are things in the room that distract you. Can you move those instead? (Or, more to the point, re-move them?) Or maybe you could move your chair to the other side of the desk, or get a completely new chair. Just something that signifies to your brain that this is a different environment.

You need to retrain your brain to understand that this is the place where you do work. It’s the same thing that happens when you go to your external work place, but without the hassle of having to put on grownup clothes (aka not sweatpants) or brush your teeth. (Of course, once you’ve moved things around, it’s important – especially in the first few weeks – that you are vigilant about doing your work and not falling back into old habits. Otherwise your brain will be all, ‘Hey! I like this new place where we get to watch YouTube.’)

2. Set Yourself Up for Success

Humans are lazy by nature. We want convenience. Gretchen Rubin talks about this in her book about habits, Better Than Before:

One thing that continually astonishes me is the degree to which we’re influenced by sheer convenience. The amount of effort, time, or decision making required by an action has a huge influence on habit formation. To a truly remarkable extent, we’re more likely to do something if it’s convenient, and less likely if it’s not.

Last summer, I wanted to write or do some other creative work each morning, but my process involved having to get washed and dressed, pack my laptop up, walk a mile, buy a coffee (if I wanted to work in a coffee shop), unpack my laptop, and then start writing. It’s nice to do it like that sometimes, but if I’m feeling lazy, or if I wake up too late, or if it’s cold or windy or a little bit drizzly, I won’t. I’ll only do it if I’m in the mood. With a home office, it’s much easier to sit down and be productive – because there are way less steps between you and the work.

And hey, since you’re already moving things around, you might as well do it in a way that benefits you, right? How can you change your environment to support the good work habits you want to form? How can you make it easier for yourself to sit down at your desk each day and be productive?

One of the key things to focus on is reducing the number of steps between you and your work. Is your desk currently shoved away in a room at the far side of the house? Or do you work at your kitchen table, but can’t begin until you’ve cleared all the breakfast stuff away?

Or maybe it’s something as simple as not leaving your laptop set up to begin working on the next day. I’m looking at you, people who take your laptops to bed to binge-watch shows on Netflix. If you’re in the habit of taking your laptop to bed with you, not only do you waste time getting everything set up in the morning, you’re also far more likely to crack your laptop open as soon as you wake up and start pissing the day away on Facebook. (This is also why you shouldn’t sleep with your phone next to your bed, by the by.)

3. Make It a Pleasant Place to Work

Alongside removing any barriers to beginning work, you can also add things to encourage you to work.

One of the reasons my desk became a dumping ground instead of a productive working space was because I didn’t like it. The desk itself was fine (who wouldn’t love a giant slab of oak to work from?) but it felt like it was just shoved to the side of the room and abandoned. (Poor desk.) It was not an alluring place to work.

The ridiculous thing is that I’ve only moved the desk about five feet – it’s still against the same wall as before. But now it’s near my window, so it gets lots of bright natural light. And it’s next to my bookcase, too. (It’s not just me that feels more inspired to work when I’m near books, right?) I also now keep the desk clear of clutter – the unopened bank statements get shoved in a cubby hole, plus the desk is simply further away from the front door, so I’m less likely to dump stuff on it (which goes back to the whole ‘setting yourself up for yourself’ thing).

The other thing I did was segment the room properly. My living room has always housed both my chillout space (aka sofa and TV) and my office space. But they weren’t always distinct areas. They kind of blended into one. Now I use my sofa as a divider, and it makes it feel as though I really do have two different rooms: an office and a living room.

Another important factor here is making sure your desk setup is comfortable. I get upper back and neck pain if I sit in the wrong position, so I invested in ergonomic equipment that works for me. You should definitely think about whether you’re in any pain – even just a tiny little niggle – when you sit at your desk, because it’s really hard to work when you’re uncomfortable. If you’re suffering, invest in equipment that alleviates the pain. (Out of everything I’ve mentioned today, this is probably the most important thing you can do. Pain is a debilitating fucker.)

4. Decide Your Priorities

The final step in making your home office a productive space is getting your priorities straight. Maybe my laptop-in-bed comments struck a nerve. ‘But I really love watching an episode of something before I go to sleep! It’s how I unwind.’ Or maybe you’re of the ‘It takes two seconds to plug my laptop back in at my desk’ ilk. Excuses, excuses. What’s really your priority? Zoning out to the latest Game of Thrones ep in the minutes before sleep? (Speaking of, how badass was Dany last week? That chick be crazy, but I love her.) Or knuckling down in the mornings and feeling great about yourself because you got so much good work done? It’s your choice which one you prioritise, but realise that it is a choice – and that one impacts the other.

Previously, my chillout area took up more room than my office area. It was a welcoming, social space, with seating aplenty and a coffee table everyone could reach to put their drinks on (or their feet, which is a rule in my home – you wanna put your feet up? YOU GO RIGHT AHEAD. I love being an adult sometimes). But this meant that my office space suffered. I pondered a lot over what to do about this. The thought of prioritising my work area over my chillout area made me feel uneasy. It would mean removing the big comfy armchair (which, by the way, I never sat in). It would mean I couldn’t have as many people over.

But then I remembered that I don’t like having people over. I like the idea of being the fun, sociable, wonderful host. But you know how many times I have thrown house parties in my entire life? Or dinner parties? Zero. If there’s a party in my home, it’s because someone else organised it and I just happened to live there. Now I live alone, and the chances of me throwing a party any time soon? Slim to none. If I’m socialising, I’m doing it at your place so I can leave whenever I want and don’t have to clean up afterwards.

I realised I was sacrificing my work area for the sake of my social area. And when I realised that, I decided to change it – I made my work area bigger than my chillout area. Now I can have a maximum of two guests over, which is basically my optimal number of guests anyway. And in return, I have this wonderful office space, which I use on a daily basis.

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