I’ve Been Working From Home for 5 Years — and These Have Been My Biggest Mistakes

Learn from my errors.

Woman using laptop in living room
Photo: Getty Images

I spent years working in an office, strategizing about how to maximize every day of paid time off (I only had 10) or trying to make the most of working on Christmas Day. It felt like all I did was commute and work, and I was over it. In 2015, I bought a laptop, quit my job, and started working freelance, eventually moving into a full-time gig at a fully remote company. In both jobs, I found the freedom I’d been craving; I could do laundry on my lunch break, work from an airplane, and explore Paris in the morning before clocking in to work.

The freedom was great, but working remotely proved to be harder than I expected. I had to figure out how to manage people from my makeshift home office (or from a hotel room in Buenos Aires), bad Wi-Fi was my worst nightmare, and Slack chatter and Google Hangout calls consumed my time.

Now that stay-at-home orders are in place, not much has changed for me and other already-remote workers, the population of which has grown 173 percent since 2005, according to Global Workplace Analytics. But now, hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of office-adapted Americans are being asked to work remotely, resulting in a rushed, mass-scale trial run of working from home.

As I’ve figured out over the years, there are plenty of mistakes to be made while working remotely — some you’ll figure out immediately and others won’t rear their head until later on down the line. To give you a leg up on working from home, I’ve outlined some of my mistakes, so you can avoid months of distraction and lack of productivity.

1. Wearing Pajamas All Day

Even to this day, I often feel tempted to wear PJs all day. But anytime I do, I feel horrible about myself when the afternoon rolls around. I’ve found that washing my face and putting on a fresh set of clothes, even if they’re just yoga pants and a sweater, make me feel infinitely better and more productive.

2. Allowing “Urgent” Work Communications to Distract Me

For a long time, when I heard the ping of a Slack message or saw a new email pop up, I’d stop what I was doing and check it. Most of the time, it was just a courtesy “thank you” email or a colleague asking how my weekend went. These little distractions are the norm in a work-from-home setting, but it took me a while to realize how detrimental they were to my productivity and that I could mute them without being rude.

All it took was a message letting my team know that I was going to do a couple of hours of focused work. The effect improved my productivity and allowed me to efficiently tackle big projects that often get pushed aside for those small, more “urgent” tasks and communications.

3. Starting Work the Moment I Roll Out of Bed

I love to sleep, so the idea of rolling out of bed and grabbing my laptop right in time to start the work day has always been tempting. But what I found was that by forgoing my morning routine, which often included exercise and a calm, pre-work breakfast, I started my day ill-prepared and flustered. There’s something about taking time for yourself in the morning that makes you feel ready to finally get to work — virtually, of course.

4. Thinking I Could Stay Organized the Way I Always Had

I’m naturally very organized, but when I was working remotely full-time, I found myself floundering. When working from home, I had to use a complex online system to organize my work (and the work of everyone at my company). Over the years, I’ve used Trello, Airtable, and Asana — and each time, I’ve had to carve out a couple of hours to organize my own work, weekly reminders, and tasks in my own way.

5. Not Being Clear About Boundaries

Like many people at home during the coronavirus outbreak, I’ve had to work alongside my partner. Having someone in your space while you're trying to work is tough — and it only gets harder with the addition of homebound kids. I spent several years allowing my partner to interrupt my workflow until I figured out that if I didn’t clearly communicate my boundaries, I’d never get anything done. If you have a separate home office, tape a sign to the door letting people know that you’re on a call or focusing on work and shouldn’t be disturbed. If you’re working from your kitchen table, let your new “coworkers” know that for the next hour or so, you can’t be bothered.

6. Being Too Narrow-minded About Working From Home

After five years of working from home, I figured out how to turn on my tunnel vision and get things done. I spent a lot of time at my desk zoned in on my computer, and it took me a while to figure out that I wasn’t taking full advantage of the benefits of working remotely. I have to remind myself that when it’s sunny, I can work from a chair on the deck, and if I’m feeling low (or cold), I can sit under a blanket on the couch. Rather than eating my standard office lunch (a sandwich or a premade salad), I can make hot bean and cheese burritos. And before the stay-at-home orders were issued, I could spend a few hours of my work day at a local coffee shop or the library.

7. Sitting All Day

When I worked in a traditional office, I never had a standing desk, but after a couple of years of working from home, my lower back started bothering me and I felt myself going a little stir-crazy. A simple standing desk fixed all that (I have a Vari desk). Now, I try to stand at least half of the day — sometimes more, depending on how I’m feeling. Lap desks are another great option.

8. Not Structuring My Day

When I first started working from home, I let my workload dictate the day. I’d work all the way to dinner, then sign on again before bed. When things were slow, I’d find myself giving into the stack of dishes in the sink, Instagram, or my bored partner. It’s only recently that I’ve started blocking out the day before I start work. I outline my entire work day, setting aside blocks of time for every task I need to complete. I also make sure to schedule in breaks and lunch. It’s my own method, but I adapted it from the Pomodoro Technique.

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