12 tips for the work-at-home ninja

Discover some sound advice for home-based designers.

I've been working from home for more than 10 years; it's not for everyone. Some people lack the necessary discipline to work from home; others simply have no idea how to go about doing it. To be honest, I had no idea how to do it either. There was much to learn and even more to get used to.

A little bit of background: after the birth of my first child, I approached my employer and requested some flexibly with my schedule. Much to my surprise, they agreed. Initially, my time at the office, compared to my time at home, was split 25:75 (with the majority being office time). Gradually, that number flipped; eventually I stopped going to the office all together. And now I'm a self-employed creative professional. If I can do it, so can you! 

In this article, I'd like to share some tips as to how you can make a successful go at it.

01. Make a to-do list

Item two: do everything on the list

There's a whole industry centred around the business of getting stuff done, and you could easily end up spending a fortune on books, apps and other things that promise to help you be more productive, but really there's no need. If you want to ensure that you get things done, just make a to-do list each day, and cross everything off the to-do list once it's done.

It's simple and effective. By writing a to-do list you're physically and mentally committing yourself to doing everything on it, and you're a lot more likely get everything done than you would be if you just kept mental checklist in your head. And the act of crossing everything off turns it into a game; you're basically setting yourself a challenge rather than planning the day's work. Try it!

02. Get some background noise

Blasting load tunes can be counter-productive, but some background noise is a must

If you're moving from a life in a busy office or studio to working from home, nothing can quite prepare you for how quiet things suddenly become. You might enjoy the peace at first, and relish the lack of inane chatter about last night's TV or the constant, grating coughing of that one colleague who's bravely soldiered into work when they really should have stayed home, but sooner or later the silence will get to you and become just as distracting.

Keep yourself sane by making sure you have some noise going on in the background. Put the TV on in another room, or switch the radio on; not loud enough so that it becomes a distraction, just the right amount of volume to break up the silence. You probably won't even notice it after a while, but your brain will thank you for that little bit of background noise.

03. Create a workspace

Make sure you have a space set up specifically for working

One of the most frequently overlooked aspects of working from home is creating a workspace. As tempting as it may be to just set up on your living or kitchen table, it's absolutely imperative you create your own space for work. Otherwise, you'll find it's difficult to turn your workself off at the end of each day.

When designing your workspace, it doesn't need to be fancy. Something comfortable, with a nice view, is great place to start. Oh, and a door! This is especially important if you live with others.

04. Set a schedule

Decide when your work time is and stick to it

Okay, admittedly I'm still working on this one. But if you can manage to keep a set schedule, that would be beneficial.

People who work from home tend to do so at all hours of the day (and night!). While this may seem like a great way to increase your production/productivity, if you're not careful, you'll end up burning yourself out. Although I tend to work long hours, I try to keep them consistent.

Top tip: the trick to keeping a set schedule is: when you're working, work. Schedule non-work things outside of the time you've designated as 'work time'.

05. Limit distractions

There are all manner of tempting distractions when you're home alone; resist them!

Hang on. I'll get to this one in a minute. I just want to check my phone, look at this website, read this book, etc, etc, and so fourth.

With all of life's distractions, it's easy to find yourself doing something you didn't plan to do. Or worse… avoiding something you should be doing! Make sure you don't get caught in this trap. If you want to be a successful remote worker, this is an absolute must. Turn off the TV, turn off the phone, and keep your eye on the prize.

06. Take breaks

Get away from the screen for a bit; you'll feel better for it

Almost as important as limiting distractions is taking breaks (which, when you think about it, is the exact opposite). Not only will a few breaks throughout your day actually make you more productive, it's a great way to stay healthy too; you can also try some desk exercises to keep you limber while you're hunched over Photoshop CC.

My breaks usually consist of a walk or two, and a limited break for lunch. I know some folks who actually plan a nap during their day, but I'm not so sure I could do that. The key here is… do whatever works for you, but make sure you do something.

07. Understand that some friends and family just won't get it

Just say no

"Hey, let's go to the movies. You're not working, right?"

I'm not sure what it is about certain folks, but when you explain that you work from home, they immediately think this means you're not working. I used to get defensive about it. Then I would explain why I couldn't go out. Now I just politely decline. This technique saves me lots and lots of time.

Top tip: while you may feel like skipping out on your responsibilities, don't! Giving into peer pressure isn't worth it. Remember Nancy Reagan? Just say no (and get your work done).

08. Wear pants

Or shorts, or a skirt, or whatever

Yes. I'm wearing pants right now. And no, I won't tell you what colour underwear I'm wearing…

If you're excited about the prospect of 'showing up for work' in your underwear, don't be. Put some clothes on. If for no other reason, you should always be camera ready. Sure, you can keep the camera above the waist, but if for some reason you need to stand, you'd hate to be… get this… caught with your pants down. See what I did there?

09. Make friends, stay connected (and have reliable Internet)

Try not to get locked into a checking Slack/Facebook/Twitter cycle, though

Whether you're working alone or working with a team, it's important to stay connected. Luckily, there are a variety of ways to do this.

Slack, instant messages, Facebook, and Twitter are all great ways to accomplish this. Being a social shut-in isn't good for you. Get out there and connect. Besides, you never know when one of those connections will lead to more business; knowing how to network is an important part of the job.

10. Eat healthy

Squeeze a bit of salad into that and it'll be fine

I won't lie… occasionally you'll find me snacking on the worst food possible – especially when deadlines are looming – but in general, it's a good idea to keep your kitchen stocked with healthy foods.

When your commute to food is under 10 seconds, your choices need to be limited to things that won't kill you quickly. I like to keep fresh fruit, cereal, and salad on hand. I notice that when these foods are missing from my pantry, I end up grabbing the bad things like crackers, squeeze cheese, and chocolate. No, I never tried all three together! Hmm…?

11. Limit your research time

There's a fine line between research and messing around on the internet

You may think this qualifies as 'limit distractions', but it's a little different.

If you're working on a new project, one in which you may not have all the answers, don't let yourself spend an entire day doing research. Take a break. Come back to it later when your mind is fresh. No good will come from reading the same web articles for hours on end.

12. Leave the house

Make sure you at least order a coffee before setting up your remote office

Social media is great for staying connected, but it's no replacement for real-life social interaction. Even if you're not a social butterfly, it's important to leave the house. Get out there and explore. Take a trip to the store or go to the movies with friends (just not during your work day).

As an alternative, change it up a bit. Find a local shop that has free wi-fi, and set up your work area there for a bit. Just don't be a jerk. Make sure you order some food and tip the staff accordingly.

So those are my tips, what about you? Tell us your work-at-home tips in the comments below…

Contributions: Jim McCauley


Tammy Coron is an independent creative professional and the host of two podcasts – Roundabout: Creative Chaos and Invisible Red. She's also the organizer of Indie DevStock, and the founder of Just Write Code, a small independent production company based in West Tennessee. In addition to working on her own projects, Tammy is a contributor on Creative Bloq, Lynda.com, iMore and RayWenderlich.com. When she’s not earning a living, Tammy enjoys spending time on her farm with her husband and their two sons.