It was 2016 when I first went freelance as a writer and editor, and I have to admit, the idea of working from home scared me a little. So, I settled for an arrangement where I worked in my clients’ offices and was paid on a per-day basis.
A year in, I realised commuting two to three hours a day was a senseless waste of my time. So, I stopped taking day bookings and took the decision to instead work from home, on a project-by-project basis only.
It was the best decision I’ve ever made, but it wasn’t all plain sailing. Here are the three tough challenges that I had to face when working from home, and how I overcame them.
1. Staying disciplined
The most obvious challenge of working from home is staying disciplined. Like many, I feared that once I had total freedom to set my own hours, I’d never do any work at all.
At first, I found it a struggle sticking to the 9-5. My mind would wander. I’d get distracted by stuff on Twitter, or a daytime TV show. It all started to fall apart.
Eventually, though, I realised I was looking at things from the wrong perspective. I wasn’t being paid per-hour, so why was I focusing on keeping to strict hours at all? Instead, I started to focus more on the work itself, and being honest about my attitude towards it.
Consequently, I start ditching clients I didn’t enjoy working for, and seeking more work from those I did. I also – slowly – discovered that if I have a lie-in when I want, do fun stuff when I want, and work when I want (ie, when I’m not fighting your urge to do something else), I end up doing better quality work, in far less time than I’d ever thought possible.
That might mean working early in the morning, or late at night, and taking a Spanish-style siesta. It might mean three hours one day, then ten the next. I might take Monday and Tuesday off one week, then pull a six-day week next month. But the point is that I generally work when I’m in the right mood to do so.
That’s relatively often, of course, because I love what I do. And that’s the crux of the matter: if you’re truly finding self-discipline a problem, it’s maybe a sign that you don’t. Which means you probably need to have a much broader think about your career choice in general.
The second big issue with working at home is the potential lack of physical contact. And that’s obviously not great for your mental health, let alone your productivity and creativity.
The keyword here, though, is ‘potential’. There is absolutely no reason that if you’re saving, as I did, two hours of commuting time each day, that can’t be converted into two hours of quality time with your friends, partner, family, or meeting new people, say, at an evening class or a freelancer meetup. It’s all about making a conscious decision to do so.
Let’s face it: most of us have people in our lives we don’t spend enough time with. We tell ourselves it’s because we’re too busy, or we’re too tired from work. But if we’re honest, it’s often that we just never get around to it.
Working from home, though, can be a great spur to push you into action, and make more effort to meet up with people, old and new. When I started operating remotely, that was the first thing I did. As a result, I’m now a much more sociable person than I ever was as a commuting office worker.
And what have I lost, really? Those strained water-cooler conversations about the latest Netflix show, with co-workers whose name I struggled to recall? Don’t miss them at all.
3. Message overload
When you first start working from home, the number of emails trebles overnight. After all, when you’re sat next to people in an office, they don’t need to email you; when you’re remote, they do.
I soon started drowning in messages, and realised I had to act. So I started enthusiastically researching Gmail filters (highly recommended). I set out-of-office messages like there was no tomorrow: not just for holidays, but evenings, weekends and lunchtimes. I’d also talk people into using Skype or phone whenever possible, because in my experience, two minutes of actual chat can be worth 50 confusing emails.
More generally, though, I realised that it’s not about the actual volume of emails, but how you perceive them.
In the office, people can approach you and bark, “Why haven’t you answered my email?” But working from home, you’re free from that kind of tyranny. And eventually, I realised that I don’t need to respond to emails the moment they arrive. Or even the same morning.
Instead, I set aside two particular times of day to deal with my inbox, respond to them all in a big splurge, and then free my mind to focus on other things. Bliss.
And crucially, no client has ever complained about having to wait up to half a day for a reply to their email. Much as we hate to admit it, we’re not actually that important. So my advice is to embrace this truth, and realise that most of the stress that a bulging email generates is purely in our own heads.
The idea of never going to the office again is both exciting and terrifying, but in general, once people take the plunge, they never want to go back.
Yes, after years of conditioning yourself to an office environment, it can be a little discomforting at first. But in my experience, as long as you focus on the immense positives – the lack of commuting, the surge in productivity – you’ll soon be wondering why you didn’t do this years ago.