Working From Home, Without the Sideshows

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Q. You have been working from home and find that it's hard to stay focused and productive. Could it be that you simply don't work well outside a corporate office?

A. Not necessarily. We often assume that people are more productive when they work in an office rather than at home, but that's not always the case. We are less productive when we're distracted, and that can happen anywhere, says Jason Henham, managing director of Slate Consulting, a management consulting firm in Melbourne, Australia.

"In the office, lack of productivity is masked by things like meetings, interruptions and socializing," Mr. Henham says. The key to productivity -- whether it's in a corporate office or at the kitchen table -- is a clear understanding of the results you're trying to achieve each day, he says.

Q. How should you organize your home work space to encourage efficiency and productivity?

A. Rather than sitting with your laptop at the kitchen table, create a dedicated space for work that isn't in a high-traffic area and that has easy access to electrical outlets, good lighting, Wi-Fi and, if possible, a door, says Angie Mattson, owner of Your Organized Guide, a time-management and organization firm in Charlotte, N.C. "That gives you a separate space for working and sets a tone that says 'work happens here,' " she says.

She also recommends setting up rules with one's spouse, children or roommates about when you can and can't be interrupted.

Keep your work space organized, says Janet Bernstein, owner of Janet Bernstein Organizers in Philadelphia. "If your work space is cluttered, your mind is cluttered," she says. "Your desk -- even if you don't work full time from home -- should only have the essentials you need access to on a daily basis."

Q. Will you be less productive if you work in your pajamas?

A. Being showered and dressed will often prompt a work mind-set to start your day, just as if you were preparing to go to a corporate office, Ms. Bernstein says. "Don't work in your pajamas or sweats," she says. "If you are too comfortable and relaxed in what you're wearing, your attitude is too comfortable and relaxed."

Q. Are any time-management strategies especially useful for working from home?

A. It's helpful to build in the kind of accountability found in traditional offices. Tell your manager -- or a friend or a colleague who agrees to act as your accountability partner -- what you intend to achieve that day or week. "Couch this in terms of results you will achieve, rather than tasks performed, so you have flexibility around how you get your work completed," Mr. Henham says. Check in daily or weekly to discuss what you've accomplished.

David Smith, managing director of the talent and organization practice at the consulting firm Accenture in Hartford, says that while results are what ultimately count, you still need to set up your tasks: "Create a to-do list for the day and cross each task off as you do it."

Set realistic, achievable goals for each day and week. You may feel overwhelmed if a task is too big, so break it down into smaller pieces.

It's also important to know your circadian rhythms, says Karen Southall Watts, a motivational coach in Bellingham, Wash. When possible, "schedule your most demanding tasks during your natural periods of high energy, and do your planning and reflection when you are feeling less perky," she says. "When your energy is low, that's not the moment to make 10 sales calls."

Q. It's easy to become distracted at home, when there aren't others around you who are also working. How can you redirect your focus?

A. Eliminate as many distractions as you can -- say, by turning off e-mail for long periods. The television, the refrigerator and the unwashed laundry, for example, should be off limits during your workday, Mr. Smith says. Build in breaks for things like snacking, checking Facebook, a walk, a lunch out or coffee, Ms. Bernstein says. Use music to rest, refocus and stay motivated.

But no amount of productivity coaching will help people buckle down if they don't like the work they do, Ms. Mattson says. When that's the case, you will look for anything to distract yourself. "If you like what you do and are eager to do it," she says, "it's much easier to stay focused."

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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