What 16 Years Working From Home Taught Me
In 2004, my wife and I decided to team homeschool our autistic son because we knew he would need more help as he entered middle school. I had spent 20 years in corporate America, working for both Accenture and Microsoft, but in the Fall of 2004, I became his part-time math and science teacher, spending the remainder of my time doing business consulting and writing books.
Up to that time I always had either a client or office to go to. With the change to homeschool teacher/author/consultant, I now had no place to go each day. My office was either our playroom where we homeschooled, our home office, or local coffee shops. It was definitely an adjustment and I learned a lot about how to be effective without going to a workplace. Now I can’t imagine it any other way.
In 2020, millions of people were quickly forced into working from home. When I started working from home sixteen years earlier, I had the benefit of preparing for my new life-a stark difference from those who suddenly found themselves in work-from-home mode with little warning or preparation. Some aspects of 2020 versus 2004 were easier and others harder, for example, the collaboration tools available in 2020 were simply non-existent in 2004. But the bottom line is the changes were massive and required significant adjustments.
In my 16 years of not having an office I experienced a lot of bumps and bruises to get into an effective work/life rhythm. Key to my learnings was the need to enforce greater self-discipline about:
- what I do,
- how I manage my time,
- what and when I eat,
- how much I sleep,
- when and how I exercise,
- how I “turn off work,”
- and how I interact with others.
It’s those bumps and bruises that I want to help others avoid in shifting to a sustainable work-from-home lifestyle, which I have boiled down into five lessons:
- Master the online experience – For Pete’s sake, if Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or other online meeting tools are an integral part of your business, take the time to truly understand them and ensure the hardware you’re using creates the most positive experience for others attending your meetings. Not knowing how to do things like share your screen, give others control to share their screen, or use an electronic whiteboard is akin to meeting a business associate face to face at a coffee shop with blaring music and no chairs or tables. When you fumble with the tools you send a clear message to your recipient that he or she isn’t important enough for you to create an outstanding online experience. Just as important, struggling with online meeting tools conveys that you are slow to adapt to changes.
- Plan to “Done” not “Do” – Each Monday morning I go through my to-do list and decide what I plan to have done by the end of the week. I then plan time in my calendar throughout the week to work on each to-do, then I schedule a Friday 5 p.m. meeting summarizing what I have committed to getting done that week. Key to this is expressing your to-do list in terms of a deliverable, or “done,” not in terms of an activity, or “do.” If you think only in terms of activity, you’re more likely to measure success in terms of how long you spend doing something versus what you actually got done.
- Put everything in your calendar – In my article “I Can’t Keep Up!” Six Principles for Using Your Calendar to Get More Done, I talk about how to use your calendar not just as a work thing but as a life thing. This is particularly important when you work from home because work start/stop events like commuting to and from work are no longer there. With those barriers gone, it’s much easier to be less respectful of your own time. I’ve had to learn that working from home doesn’t mean I can work anytime; it means I had to be much more disciplined about when I would and wouldn’t work.
- Set clear expectations with loved ones – Working from home doesn’t necessarily mean you’re always accessible. Having very clear expectations about when you will and won’t be working is crucial to your overall effectiveness. Patty and I send meeting notices to each other for social gatherings or other meetings where one of us won’t be available to the other. This works very well for us to keep us aligned and ensure we don’t overcommit ourselves.
- Make physical and mental health a priority – While there are great conveniences in working from home, it also means you have to be more diligent about tending to your physical and mental health. I never stay in pajamas during the day, I schedule exercise time in my calendar, I eat meals away from my workstation, stick to a regular sleep schedule, and *try to* be disciplined about between-meal snacking. I also weigh myself regularly. This really helps if you want to maintain or lower your weight and if you tend to wear stretchy clothes that don’t remind you if you’ve added an inch to your waistline.
For many, working from home may be a long-term if not permanent reality. Consider these five lessons to help you design a sustainable and satisfying work-from-home lifestyle.