A List Apart


Working From Home: The Readers Respond

Working From Home: The Readers Respond

We asked. Our gentle readers answered. In A List Apart #263 we inquired how you walk the blurry line when you work from home. Here are your secrets—how to balance work and family, maintain energy and focus, get things done, and above all, how to remember the love.

Balancing work and family

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Keep the peanut butter out of your keyboard and nosy relatives out of your office.

Hire your mom

I’ve “hired” my retired mom to watch my two‐year‐old for me in the morning two days a week. Normally, I would feel strangely about paying my mom to watch her grandchild. But this is not for a casual grandma-and-grandson day. I’ve asked her to come specifically at 8:30 a.m. on certain days. That way, I always have at least two full work days a week I know I can rely on. Putting “restrictions” on her time makes me feel more like I’ve hired a sitter. The small fee removes any kind of “I’m taking advantage of my mom” feelings that I may have. It puts a little extra mad money in her pocket each week, and my son gets guaranteed grandma time. Everybody wins.   –Lynda Stewart

Go with the flow

I balance my web design and consultancy business with being mum to a wacky toddler in an incredibly cramped two-bedroom flat, which we can’t afford to move out of. Our living room is also my office, my toddler’s playroom, and the dining room—so I do more of a balancing act than most.

I tend to do planning and meetings during the day. My daughter goes down for a long nap after lunch so I’m usually able to plan the day out in advance between time with her and time for clients. I use the Printable CEO and BT Workspace to keep me structured.

If my toddler is having a bad day—or if I am having a bad day—I know now to write the workday off and not feel guilty about it. We also work by the weather (which is a must in Scotland). If it is sunny and hot on a Thursday with a forecast for a monsoon on Saturday, I will take Thursday as my “day off” and work through Saturday.   –Heather Burns

Do not disturb—this means you

I work out of my basement. My kids all understand that “Daddy is busy working” and they only interrupt me for emergencies. Other adults and visiting family members are a different story. They come into my office and start talking to me when I’m clearly wearing my headset—no matter how many fingers I hold up (or which ones). It’s funny that my kids know what’s going on while adults don’t get it, but that’s the trick: get everyone you live with on board with your work-from-home plan. Otherwise, you’re doomed.   –Brian Alvey

Angela’s rules for success

  1. Work out at the gym at least three days a week.
  2. Eat healthy.
  3. Remember to recharge the spirit—have a moment of silence and prayer to empower the day.
  4. Hug hubby, kids, and cats whenever the opportunity presents itself even if it means breaking the train of thought.
  5. Breathe—especially when situations present opportunities to get stressed.
  6. If you don’t know, ask someone. “Ask and you shall receive.”
  7. Give yourself a break. If you get frustrated, change your environment. Go for a two minute walk to clear your mind.
  8. Plan when you can. Do what you can before you have to even if it is a small action list for a project.
  9. Praise yourself for not procrastinating until the very last minute.
  10. Make time to spend with those who care about you (once a week at the very least).
  11. Be flexible. Some days may be conducive to rules and other days may not. –Angela Vangalis

Make pancakes

We make breakfast time a special time to connect. Sometimes we’ll make pancakes together. (They’re faster than you think.) We always talk about what we’re going to be doing that day. After breakfast, we have some special together time. We’ll read together or play a game. After, I work on things that take less focus while the kids are playing (email, paperwork, filing, etc.). I work on things that take more focus while the kids are asleep (phone calls, creative work, concept building, etc.). I have a “turn off computer” time every day. It may not be the same time every day, but after I say I’m done for the day, I am DONE. I don’t do anything on the computer, even fun stuff.   –Sarah Bray

Set boundaries

I telecommute several times per month, depending on the season and needs at the office. My parents live with me and require some support—a situation offering its own challenges to staying focused when working from home. I use telecommuting with flextime to schedule appointments that need to be addressed at home. I keep a daily journal and spreadsheet of time accrued. My goal is to maintain a 40-hour week. If I’ve had an interruption or other task that has taken a part of my work day, I know how much remaining time to schedule for that evening or the next day.

As a team, my coworkers and I are accountable to each other for daily progress. We hold a short team meeting each morning. When telecommuting, I email a daily summary to the group. I’ve found when you have peers to report to, you’ll stay focused on your assignments—wherever you’re working.   –Stephanie Marcum

Keep communication lines open and your guard up

Show your clients that you’re there by staying available on IM, updating Twitter, and promptly answering emails. You don’t want your clients to stereotype you for working at home. It may cost you your next gig. Make sure your clients know your business hours too. Don’t take phone calls from clients after hours—it’s offensive to your family and it sends a bad message to your client—that you’re a pushover.   –Justin Carroll

Dress for success

The successful web worker knows what not to wear: pajama pants and fuzzy slippers are out.

Dress for the office, even at home

Several years ago, my buddy got laid off from his highly corporate marketing job, and launched his own PR firm from home. Every morning he’d wake up, shower, shave, put on a suit and tie, and march down the steps into the basement. My friend said getting dressed for work not only put him in the right frame of mind, (he’d always worn a suit to the office) it signaled to his wife and kids that he was at work and not available to run a quick errand or mow the lawn.   –Stephen Petit

Wear shoes

When I start to work, I put on the specific pair of shoes I would wear if I was walking to the office and working there all day. This simple trick just triggers my mind into “office mode.”   –Ian McFarlan

Apply technology

The tools, applications, and services you love, and new ways to use them.

Create a new IM account

Keep work and friends in different pockets. AIM will ruin your life if you let it. I really like to chat and have constant casual company while I work. If you want to be productive, create a new IM account and only add people who are doing the same thing as you are while working.   –Brad Johnson

On The Job highly recommended

A great piece of software that I use for time tracking is called On The Job. It’s Mac-only. It is beautifully conceived and easy to use. All I have to do is add a new task under a project, start the timer, and when I’m done it will calculate charge backs based on my personal rate. It also exports invoices. Great tool—highly recommend it!   –Ben Reed

Grand Central da bomb

Use Grand Central.  Grand Central is an application that masks several phone numbers as one. You input all your phone numbers and label them “home,” “mobile,” “work,” etc. The application gives you one phone number, local to your area code, that you can hand out. It’s fantastic for having one phone number and being on the road, at home, at my external office, at the coffee shop, etc.   –Eric Muntz

Use multiple computers

Use multiple computers to separate different job functions. I use a MacBook Air only for websurfy, newsready, and emaily-type things, first thing in the morning and at intervals throughout the day, so that I’m not obsessively checking for new mail. I have an iMac for design and web work, and an old G4 tower dedicated solely to driving a large inkjet printer.   –Lee Shiney

Lovin’ RememberTheMilk.com

I use RememberTheMilk.com and its Gmail plug-in for time-sensitive scheduling. This includes meetings, deadlines, and future plans. I can see deadlines and work on the closest ones first. The Remember The Milk plug-in for Gmail allows me to see things such as my grocery list, and my appointments for tomorrow and the next day. I can also create them from Gmail. The interface is very easy to use and there’s a very satisfying “Finish” button for when things are done.   –Jessica Sprague

Get your GTD freak on with GTDInbox

I’ve found a free Getting Things Done plugin for Firefox/Gmail which is totally worth a look for those into David Allen’s Getting Things Done philosophy. I love filing emails into their respective projects and I’ve adopted an “empty inbox” policy, which is SO nice.   –Jessica Sprague

Takin’ care of business

Get paid. Run your business like a law firm. I use FreshBooks and Backpack. I run a journal on my daily activities. I schedule what I am working on and when I am working on it. I bill for everything (phone calls, meetings, sketching ideas). I also know how many hours I need to meet my financial goals each month, each week, each day.   –Jesse Korzan

OmniFocus your to-do list

Keep a daily to-do list. I love OmniFocus. Each night before I go to bed, I write out a to-do list for the next day. Once that list is done, I walk away. The benefit is two-fold. Firstly, having a list of things to keep myself busy each day helps to minimize distractions and keeps me on track. Secondly, it helps me to have the list so I can feel good about walking away eventually. If I did not schedule an “ending” to the day, since I work at home, I might just never stop working. It keeps things in check, and priorities straight.   –Nick Francis


Skype is the best thing that ever happened to our collective of contractors. Skype video conferencing makes working with designers in Berlin and developers in Montreal seamless—all from Washington DC. Skype-to-go and the Philips Skype Phone allow me to make close-to-free calls without a flipping computer.    –David F. Choy

Earth Class Mail

Get an address. You certainly don’t want customers showing up at your home to bother you, so getting an address is critical. A P.O. box may work, but there are some new options. Earth Class Mail is a great one. It gives you a physical address and puts all your mail online. You don’t even have to make a trip to the post office!    –Jonathan Stanley

Maintaining focus

Inspire yourself.

Use visual stimuli

Organize the files on your desktop and put a beautiful picture there that focuses you—something that has meaning and motivates you. I used to use an old picture of Steve Jobs sitting on his empty apartment floor, when he had nearly nothing, to remind me that even the captain of the ship used to kick it in a paddle boat.   –Brad Johnson

Getting Things Done

Organize your time and space to silence seductive sirens. Prove your worth with progress.

Chunk work time

Work in chunks of time—about one-and-a-half hours works best for me. Then I do something else for 15-30 minutes. This helps concentration and posture, which I find is always much worse at home than at work. My house is always cleaner when I work from home, as the 15-30 minute gaps are good for putting in washing, hanging it out, cleaning the cooker, hoovering, etc.   –Helen Sargan

Don’t throw out your alarm

Get up at the same time everyday, like the rest of the world. It creates discipline. But bend this rule to feel more alive. Had enough routine lately? Wake up late and work late. Just don’t make a habit out of it—it ruins the fun of doing it. There’s nothing like getting lost in Photoshop at 12 a.m. to some tripped-out beats.   –Justin Carroll

Demonstrate progress

My employer and I have a deal worked out. When I work from home, I have a set agenda each day. I send visible progress reports each hour—or at whatever time increments we decide on. I send links to pages I am updating, image files I am working on—anything that shows what I have been doing. Each of us in my office communicates via instant messaging so even though I am not in sight—I remain a click away. Knowing that I am still being somewhat supervised keeps me on my toes—but still gives me the freedom and flexibility to do what I want.   –Brittany Moon-Miller

Tackle tough jobs in the morning

Do the hardest work in the morning, and the easy jobs in the afternoon.   –Carsten Engel

Avoid the seductive siren

It took a while, but I eventually convinced my old-school boss to let me work from home for a couple days every week. Virtual Private Network (VPN) and call forwarding are the only tools I need. With VPN, I have access to all the applications and services available on my work computer. But to really get my work done, I find that it’s important to move my desk away from the window and face a wall—a corner if possible. If there is one thing I’ve learned it’s that windows are the seductive sirens of daydreaming. Look away!   –John Kulunk

Use tunnel vision to your advantage

I tend to save my most focused work for nighttime or very early in the morning when it is dark out or still mostly dark. It gives me sort of a tunnel vision where all I can literally see is my computer or paperwork.   –Kelley Mitchell

Use the view to your advantage

Speaking of basements, make sure your workspace has a window and that you have few meters of space in front of your desk. This way, you can view objects further away while doing the critical thinking part of the job.   –Pirkka Hartikainen

Consider alternate locations

I’m a full-time senior software engineer in the U.K. I work from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. (That’s 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. if you include commuting!) I also freelance as a website designer and developer for small companies. I end up doing most of my freelance work on the train to and from work with my trusty tablet PC. I invested in a pair of Bose QC3 headphones, which actively cancel out exterior noise. This means I can not only happily listen to music, but block out the sound of the train (and other passengers).   –Andrew Brigham

Get creative (with) space

When our first son was born, it became clear that it would be difficult to continue working from home in our small, three-bedroom house. After debating the merits of moving or remodeling, we decided to build a separate office in the dead space behind our garage. I had a pre-fabricated, 8×15 ft. shed delivered and installed a few weeks later. After finishing the inside, I had the ultimate home office.   –Brian DeHamer

Chocolate carrots are good

If I’m working on something I don’t love, I really have to MAKE myself work on that first. I get the big, bad thing out of the way first—even to the point of bribing myself with chocolate or an iTunes download. I can be bought.   –Jessica Sprague

Don’t be ruled by the clock

Make your clients work within business hours—but make sure you do not! Don’t stop programming because you heard the lunch bell. Be task orientated. Break up your programming…“once I finish building this object then I get lunch.” Be pragmatic. Some things come with inspiration; others come with a train of thought. Don’t stop the train or cut off inspiration because it is the right time for lunch.   –Aaron Martin

Get a cleaning lady

The most important thing about working from home: saying “yes” to one thing, means saying “no” to another. Both my wife and I freelance outside of our university jobs. At some point we lost Sunday afternoons in the park and doing laundry and scrubbing the toilets. So the deal was this: if we said “yes” to both of us freelancing, we had to say “no” to either toilets or the park. The choice was obvious, and Craigslist provided a great person.   –Charlie Triplett

Maintaining energy

Keep your professional network and your body healthy. Remember the love to keep your creative chi flowing.

Abandon the rules

We’ve done this for years—five now to be exact. How does it all work?  We ask ourselves this all the time. After a lot of thought, here’s what we figure: it works for us precisely because we have no boundaries. We think our work is, for the most part, fun. We like what we do. Because of that, we don’t tend to think of it as “work.” If we tried to structure ourselves, even a little bit, it would rapidly devolve into “work” and it wouldn’t be fun so we’d do less of it, and make less money. What this means, is that often, in the middle of the “workday,” we feed the chickens, see a movie, or go sit in the tree house. Clearly, this is why we’re not rich.  But, when the DEADLINE looms, we work all night (well, not really, but close) because we can and because we seem to thrive on the adrenaline.    –Claudia Dunitz

Get out of the (home) office

I leave my home office for most coffee and lunch breaks—even if it’s just to go upstairs to have lunch. Getting out of the office keeps me fresh, and reinforces the boundary between work and home. Meet clients outside the office. I find it more rejuvenating to meet them at their workplace, where there are other people hard at work. It keeps me in the work mindset, and allows me to be visible to my clients as a professional, and not just “some guy who works from home.”   –Alan Bucknam

Do lunch

Even though I work from home more than 70% of the time, it’s not a prison sentence. Take anyone, who may (someday) lead you to additional work or opportunities, out to lunch. I keep a list of all of my contacts. I work that list top to bottom, meeting with at least two people every week.  When I reach the end, I start over again at the top of the list.   –Scott Kersey

Make connections

Start or join an “office of freelancers”—you can rent desk space/internet monthly and sit in a cool apartment building/loft space with other freelancers. Go to as many social networking events as you can, or start you own. I began an event called “SNIBL” in Boston—“Social Networking is Better Live,” to bring together former colleagues/designers and discuss what’s happening in the field.   –Brian O’Neill

Get some exercise

Find some evening activities—gym, classes, whatever. It’s too easy to turn into a mushroom when working from home. I’m lucky because we have a post box that I can check every day. Even if I’m not expecting mail, the five km bike ride there and back makes for a good (and reasonable) mid-day break.   –Sean Kimball

Manage your energy cycle

I take advantage of my natural energy cycles. In a creative job, it’s more important to manage your energy than your time.  Everyone has different fluctuations and certain times when they’re most energetic, creative, and productive.  If you combine working at peak energy times with all the other tips you mentioned to get a distraction-free environment, you really can get more done while working fewer hours.    –Stephen Fung


I like to have a one simple household chore going while I am home. It helps to stand up and move around. The best one for me is doing laundry. This way I am forced to stand up and get the blood circulating about every 30 to 40 minutes.   –Erskine Harris

Remember the love

To keep the energy high and the work flowing for me, I try to remember that I have a great passion for the work I do. It’s the love that motivates, man. The love. So sometimes I need to go look at the work of the people I teach, or review past successes, or to read some inspiring and motivational words to get the juices flowing again.   –Jessica Sprague

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