How to Stay Organized When Working from Home

December 10, 2015

stay organized working from home

Whether you’ve recently transitioned from a traditional 9-5 desk job, shift work, or other occupation which requires you to log a certain amount of on-site hours to do your job, making the leap from that type of employment model into a home-based one can be liberating, scary, and frankly, overwhelming.

Anyone who has the ability to work from home knows that, while a privilege and a blessing, getting (and staying) organized can often seem like a job in itself! As someone who is pretty organized by nature, I was surprised how different “work” feels when it’s being done from your house – in the best way, of course. Even though I’m logging fewer hours, I almost feel busier because I am the one responsible for creating the structure around my work day.

Things Change That We Don’t Think About Until They’re Different

When going to a job is all you know, which is how I spent more than the past fifteen years of my life, you take for granted all the things that an employer or place of business already has in place. Physically, the infrastructure is there for you to do your job. Furniture, devices, equipment, and supplies are provided, policies are handed to you, you are given a specific set of parameters within which you are expected to perform your duties, and you adhere to an assigned schedule. 

If you’re a waitress, you might be provided with a uniform and apron, tablets to write on, pens, a wine or bottle opener, and other items to help you provide efficient service. Your restaurant has a system in place for processing orders and payments – whether you use computers and credit card machines or you hand-write your checks and add up your tables’ bills on a calculator. You know how you’re expected to behave and treat customers, you know which menu items are available (or unavailable), and you know how to arrange the place settings on the tables.

If you’re a corporate employee, you most likely have an office or a cubicle inside of a building where all of the multi-function devices and office supplies you need are close at hand. There’s likely to be a computer (unless you work for a BYOD employer), a printer, fax machine, copier, scanner, and a closet full of pens, legal pads, staples, tape, and envelopes. You might’ve received an employee handbook upon being hired, at which time you acknowledged a bunch of protocol and workplace guidelines. You most likely use certain computer programs relevant to your line of work which are pre-installed on your machine, and it’s likely that you inherit the existing network, databases, and calendars managed from within your workplace.  There are usually ample desk drawers, shelves, and places to store files, information, and personal belongings. If you can’t find something, you can walk over to your coworker’s desk to ask for assistance. 

Similar infrastructure is in place whether you’re a nurse, plumber, professor, or bank teller. You have an assigned work space, required tools, and a program to follow (usually with someone directly or indirectly managing you). Then, when you make the switch to a home-based position, most of that structure disappears – which can be exciting, challenging, and frightening depending how you process change. For an organized, everything-in-its-place person like me, I have to admit that it was a little unnerving – but simply taking the time to develop a strategy has made all the difference and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. 

Becoming More Diligent and Disciplined Than You Think You Already Are

If you work from home for a company that allows you to telecommute, log in remotely, or is almost completely internet-based with no actual brick-and-mortar location, congratulations – you are very fortunate, my friend! The relief (and thrill) of working in pajamas from your couch when it’s cold outside probably doesn’t get old. But defining your own schedule when you’re accustomed to adhering to one that’s been assigned to you requires some diligence and discipline.

You can certainly get more done from home – especially if you have a quiet room where you can work for an extended period of time without many interruptions. But it quickly becomes apparent that the wind-up and wind-down time of working in an office or on-site setting turned your 8-hour days into less, and eroded your efficiency. Not only that, but we all have days where chats with co-workers can turn into unscheduled breaks, or a 30-minute meeting turns into a 3-hour one. When working from home, the wind-up and wind-down time pretty much goes away, and then you have a true day’s worth of work that may feel more intense than what you’re used to.

Mapping It Out

Not to worry – the key is having a plan. First things first: you need to know where at home you’re going to work. Most humans are more efficient as creatures of habit and, if you consistently work from the same relative spot, you will start to associate that spot with getting things done. It should be a comfortable spot close to whatever you need to accomplish necessary tasks (i.e. printer, fax machine, etc.) and a place where you can focus, shut a door, minimize distractions, and have drinks and snacks next to you to cut down on empty, distracted “break time.”

Secondly, think about how you can replicate some of the workplace practices that were beneficial to you, like having a handy list of important numbers or shortcuts on the wall above your desk (or dining room table). Just because you’re not “at work” anymore doesn’t mean you have to entirely abandon habits that worked for you. Just make sure to leave behind any bad ones. Obviously you’re less likely to stash an extra K-Cup or two when you’re the one buying them, but treat your home office like your former employer is watching: forbid yourself from time-sucking distractions like your personal social media accounts and texting with friends. To be safe, don’t have any browsers open that aren’t work-related while you’re trying to focus, and put your phone on silent or set yourself times to take short breaks to check messages. 

Next, think about what you need to get the job done. Were you dependent on a multi-function device or special type of software that sort of just came with the territory at your former job? Never contemplated turning a spot in your house into a home office? It may be time to invest in a desktop machine that can help you accomplish routine tasks like scanning and emailing documents, sending a fax, or even printing postage without having to get up and go somewhere to do that. The additional travel time or facilitation of arrangements can drain hours from your work week.

Getting Organized

Next, get yourself organized. Don’t have a desk or a filing cabinet? Will you be writing or working with documents? Is everything you need to do your job available online? Do you have enough memory on your computer to deal with large files, or do you need an external hard drive? Do you have special accounts and file storage established on your computer and cloud sites to ensure secure and organized handling of your work-related files and projects? How do you communicate primarily throughout the day? How do you schedule and collaborate? The answers to these questions will determine the structure that you can build ahead of time so that you’re working within a framework and not flying by the seat of your pants. Arbitrarily saving files to your desktop and not remembering how to log in to important programs can hinder productivity.

Plan and Prioritize

And perhaps most importantly, plan and prioritize. If you’re lucky enough to have an accessible and proactive team with whom to check in regularly, you can seek some guidance as to what your to-do list should include. But even so, chances are that you’ll need to work independently and be self-motivated, very organized, and extremely flexible. Creating workflows may not be something you’re familiar with, but outlining your processes, deadlines, goals, targets, and priorities daily or weekly will make your life a whole lot easier! You may not be used to having to pre-plan and self-monitor if you weren’t responsible for creating structure in your former workplace, but if you get a handle on it in the beginning, you’ll be able to see how things can be shifted to accommodate other pieces of the puzzle. 

One of the beautiful things about working from home is the flexibility associated with the nature of the role. For me, being able to schedule errands and family obligations into my day was becoming more non-negotiable the more difficult it became. During the course of my career, I went from commuting to working locally and I still found that being required to work on-site within the same range of several hours every day left very little time to achieve much outside of work and retain my sanity. It’s different for everyone, and millions of people do manage this way. You may be saying, “that’s life, get over it.” But with several personal variables, I was coming up short on time for myself and not living a healthy lifestyle. Being burnt out is no way to be productive.

That being said, when you have this new and unexpected freedom, time can get away from you and, if you’re not careful, you’ll be scrambling to recover your day and fit work in. I recommend applying the pre-planning approach to your personal agenda as well so that you can time-block your days (always allowing room for rearrangement wherever possible).

For example, if you need three hours per day to attend to personal matters – making a decent breakfast, exercising for an hour, running a couple of errands, or enjoying some ‘me time,’ I recommend you block those hours into your work day. Decide when you’re most productive – many people feel that tackling important tasks in the morning works best – and take into consideration the typical working hours of anyone with whom you interact regularly. This may mean that if you’re not a morning person, you’ll need to become one. Think about the hours in a day and decide when you want to be done – creating boundaries and ‘hard stop’ times will help you retain a sense of normalcy and a healthy balance. Just because you can work right up to bedtime doesn’t mean that you always should.

Set Boundaries

Go easy on yourself, too. It can be a struggle to feel like you have to sit at your dining room table or in your office chair for a solid eight hours just to get everything done. Productivity and routine are personal and different for everybody. Some people work best when they take a break between tasks. Others find that background music helps them focus. Use the time when you feel the most alert and energized to conquer the day’s toughest tasks, then take a break after a few hours to recharge, and return your focus to finishing your work. Regularly monitoring the clock and self-checking your progress will keep you accountable, flexible, and on top of things.

When working from home, you have to be your own toughest boss. Overall, your goal is to make your clients or employer happy and provide high quality work, and you can’t do that if you’re disorganized, frazzled, anxious, and inefficient. The work-from home, virtual employee model is one that’s becoming more common as employers and employees alike realize the many benefits associated with such flexibility. There’s no reason not to love it – but things will go much more smoothly if you establish some guidelines early on, and you’ll be on your way to enjoying a productive at-home workflow in no time!

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