How to Successfully Work from Home

As someone who’s suffering from a bit of a case of freelancer burnout right now, I have a few things to say about working from home. Hopefully some of you folks heading into (or spinning your wheels in) a stay-at-home job can find something of use here. These ideas should be useful both to someone who’s starting out or just wants to work a little more efficiently, and to someone who’s burning out and needs to reinvigorate her work.

Remember Vacation Time

If you were working a normal job you’d have holidays, vacation days, snow days, and sick leave. Don’t forget about these things! It’s too easy to get caught up in working day-in and day-out, non-stop, with nary a vacation or sick day in sight. Worse, the more you do this the more you’re likely to find yourself no longer able to work full days. You’ll find yourself goofing off for a morning here and an afternoon there. But because you’re supposed to be working you feel guilty–which means you don’t really get the break you need. It doesn’t do the good of a real vacation, so you keep doing it because you still need the break.

In other words, the less vacation time you take, the less you work. It’s one of those weird paradox-things. Take the vacation time! Mark a day off here and a week off there. Most jobs I’ve seen give ten business days a year your first year on the job, and every handful of years after that up the count by five days. I’ve seen sick leave counts that are slightly less than one day a month (or, at some places, one day a month). Count ’em out and take them. Don’t forget to include holidays! And if you work extra hours (like a Saturday), then give yourself some comp time too, assuming you can afford it.

Go buy a decent schedule-book from an office supply store (or use a calendar on your computer). It’ll help a lot with this sort of thing.

Your alternative? Unless you’re one of those type A+ personalities who can work 20 hours a day and stay happy, eventually you find yourself doing less and less work, and you burn out.

Hobbies and Activities

If your stay-at-home job involves doing a previous hobby as a job, then make sure you have other hobbies. Make sure you still have things to do just for fun, no paychecks or deadlines attached. Go hiking. Join a roleplaying game. Take up candle-making or cooking. Find people you like to hang out with. Read good books that have nothing to do with your career.

Why? Because otherwise, at the end of your work day, you might find yourself tempted to just keep going. After all, writing was just your hobby before, so why not do it all evening as well as all day?

Unfortunately this is yet another road to dissatisfaction and burnout. As always there are personalities that can happily handle this kind of life, but I daresay that the majority of people don’t fall into that category.

Schedule Your Day

Try to come up with a schedule of hours you keep. When you have a schedule, you know when you’re supposed to be working. This keeps you from feeling guilty about not working at all hours, because outside of those hours you know it’s okay to not be working. Also try to be strict about not working outside of those hours; it can be all too easy, when working at home, to feel like you’re always “in the office.” If possible, restrict your work to one room and close the door to your office at the end of the day, as though you’d left the building entirely.

However, be ready to toss that schedule out the window if that’s what you need to do in order to be relaxed and comfortable. A schedule should not be a straightjacket. One concept I was introduced to recently along these lines that I love is “negative scheduling.” Instead of scheduling when you’ll do what, schedule when you won’t do the things that tend to take up too much of your time. Things like, “I’m not going to write email or surf the web in the afternoon,” or “no meetings on Mondays.”

Suit Your Schedule To You

If you find you never quite get around to working in the morning, then schedule your writing for afternoon. There’s plenty of relevant and related stuff you could do in the morning that isn’t writing. All of this is work (and if you worked in an office it’s stuff you’d do during work hours), so let yourself do it without feeling guilty:

  • Read writing books to help you improve your craft.
  • Read research books for your project.
  • Go to the library or bookstore for the books you need.
  • Answer your email.
  • Send in submissions.
  • Work on your web pages.
  • Do other administrivia like answering letters, sending in magazine or membership renewals, filing business expense receipts, ordering books you need, etc.

Now adapt this to you. If you can’t work in the afternoon but love writing early, reverse this. If you’re a night owl then do this in the afternoon and write in the evening. And so on. If programming or web design is your work-at-home business instead of writing, then adapt the list of related stuff to your own job. These are things that you can easily relegate to your restless, can’t-quite-write hours, because they don’t require the same sort of consistent concentration.

Here’s a Secret…

Here’s a secret I’ve learned from reading about various writers. Most really prolific writers (the ones who keep up their pace for decades) seem to spend about half a day writing, not all day. They’re careful not to write so much that they burn themselves out. Certainly I’ve found for myself that in the long run, I get more writing done if I don’t write as much as I can every day.

Do This With Non-Work Stuff Too

Schedule in time for non-work stuff like laundry or your daily walk. Don’t realize two months into your routine that you aren’t getting your writing done because you’re talking on the phone, doing your laundry, and so on. Either schedule these things for outside of work hours altogether or at least try to limit them to your administrivia hours.

If people insist on interrupting you (I know a lot of people whose friends and relatives refuse to see their stay-at-home job as actual work), then inform them that during certain hours you will not be answering the door or phone. Or at least let them know that if it turns out to be anything other than an emergency, you’ll close the door on them or say goodbye and hang up the phone. Caller ID can be a big help here.

Try to Do What You Love

This suggestion is a little tougher. You might, after all, feel that only a certain type of writing will make you the money you need in order to pay rent, and that type of writing is something that you really don’t enjoy.

Often times the whole point of a stay-at-home job, though, is that you’re doing something you love, whether it’s programming, writing, or whatever. Creative endeavors in particular have a very high burnout rate among people who aren’t doing something they love fairly consistently. If you suddenly find that you no longer enjoy writing for the roleplaying industry, then it’s probably time to do something else. If you suddenly find that web design leaves you flat, then try to find something else you can do within your area of interest.

I have heard both freelance writers and programmers quote a 10-year burnout rate — this is the point at which many people burn out and flee from their profession. It hit me at 8 years instead of 10, but then there was a particular incident that accelerated my sudden disinterest in my profession. Once you find that you are consistently uninterested in your work, don’t wait and say, “I can take one more contract. Just one more.” That’s how I went from “this particular type of writing doesn’t really interest me any more” to “no writing interests me.”

That’s a horrible thing to have happen. Something you’ve loved since childhood is suddenly arduous, a chore. Projects you’ve been extremely psyched about for years are suddenly uninteresting.

Two Kinds of Burnout

I’ve seen two kinds of burnout happen. One is a sort of general, overall dissatisfaction with one’s work. The other is a dissatisfaction that arises out of specific annoying factors that are associated with one’s work.

In the former case, finish out your current contract (or whatever) and then try to move on to a different type of work. If you’ve been doing article-writing, give novel-writing a try, or vice-versa. In the latter case, try to find a way to improve the conditions that are burning you out. If you can’t, then maybe it’s time to try that same change of pace.

Learn New Things

Study new techniques, skills, or areas within your field. Learn new languages if you’re a programmer. Learn a new technique of web design. If you’ve only tried writing novels so far, play with short stories, or just read something inspirational about writing. Learn by reading books, taking classes, talking to peers, and taking workshops.

This works well both for someone who wants to stay excited in her work, and for someone who needs to rekindle the excitement. Obviously not all books, classes, and workshops are created equal; some will sap your enthusiasm instead of stoking it. So choose carefully, read reviews, talk to people first, and develop a set of authors or teachers you trust. For writing, I strongly recommend Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing. It’s hard not to be infected by the man’s fiery enthusiasm!


Try to have a specific work-space

This should ideally be a place where you just work, where you can leave the pieces of your project out and come back to them the next day without worry that someone else will have moved them all. (Or that you’ll have to move them in order to eat dinner.) Even if you can’t afford to have an office at home, pick a side table and designate it as your project table. Tuck it away when you aren’t working, preferably someplace where you won’t see it and think about it. You need to feel like you’ve left the office at the end of the day.

Eliminate distractions

Try to get rid of as many distractions as possible. If you’re constantly checking your email, then quit your email program and don’t start it up again until you’re done writing for the afternoon. Or at least only allow yourself to start it up once every hour or two, and then shut it down again. If you can’t keep your hands off of your web browser, then shut it down too.

Try variety

If your job is starting to feel monotonous, then vary little things. Turn your desk around in your office so you have a different view. Put posters up. Take your book out on the porch or lawn and read there, or even just into the dining room or living room. Try adding music, or taking it away, or changing it.

Play with details

Experiment on one item at a time, and try any given thing for a couple of days. Take notes on how well you write at various times during the day. Use that information!

  • If you drink coffee, try drinking tea instead, or just water. Sometimes caffeine level can have a positive or negative effect on your ability to concentrate.
  • Try music with a different tempo–find out which tempos make you restless, sleepy, excited, or better able to concentrate.
  • Try different amounts of food. Do you write better when you’re full, or when you’ve had a light meal?
  • Experiment with exercise: do you write better before exercise, right after exercise, or half an hour after exercise? Do you write better if you do something relaxing like yoga or meditation, or invigorating like running?
  • Do you write better fresh, or after you’ve read something inspiring? What inspires you–a thriller by a great novelist, a magazine about scientific discoveries, or a book on creativity and writing?

I hope these suggestions will help you to get more out of your creative endeavors. I’m certainly playing with these at the moment to help get myself out of my streak of burnout. Try just one or two things at a time, and even if you don’t like journaling (I’ve never been able to do it for more than a day or two at a time, myself), at least take notes on what works and what doesn’t. Best of luck, and happy working!

Posted in Writing

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