Home office tips from a veteran freelancer

If working from home has become a lifestyle, these guidelines born from long experience can help ensure WFH employees have everything covered.

Next month marks my 15th year of self-employment, working in a home office. I take responsibility for everything from invoicing to making sure there’s enough paper in the printer. With some studies forecasting that the number of gig workers like me will soon exceed the size of the full-time workforce in a few years, I thought I’d share are few things I’ve learned along the way.

Have a space for yourself

I discovered early on that there is no such thing as working at home with children. You need to find your own space — even if it’s in the attic — where you can go when you need to concentrate. Kids need to understand the boundaries, too. I’m usually happy to see them at any time, but I also keep an assortment of signs that I can tape to the door of my office when I absolutely cannot be disturbed. Don’t feel guilty about this; your shift away from the office will ultimately give you more time with your little ones. But they need to know that you can be working even when you aren’t going to work.

Don’t skimp on technology

Time spent waiting for PCs to boot up and applications to load is time you don’t spend on more important things. Every couple of years I invest about $2,000 in the fastest PC I can get for my money. I also keep two large monitors on my desk so there’s plenty of space to keep current projects open. I consider the few extra dollars I spend every month on a speedy internet connection and the $500 for a high-quality laser printer to be productivity investments that pay back many times over.

Have a backup for everything

That said, things break, so don’t let technology failures leave you dead in the water. I keep two laptops on hand in case my main computer fails. If internet goes down, I can tether to my phone or drive a couple of miles to the library. Microsoft OneDrive, which comes as part of my Microsoft 365 subscription, continually backs up my files. I even keep a cheap printer on hand in case the laser workhorse has a headache.

Keep track of projects and deadlines

My definition of a bad day is an email from a client reminding me that a 2,000-word report I had forgotten about is due that afternoon. So, I keep a spreadsheet on Google Drive with up-to-the minute status information on every project I have on my plate. I also keep a sheet of paper in front of me where I jot down any new projects or schedule changes that need to make their way into the spreadsheet later. Use whatever tool you prefer. The important thing is not to rely on your memory to keep you on track. Color-coding helps you track the clients and projects that are most important to your job or business.

Learn how to search

I probably conduct more than 100 internet searches in an average day. Your mileage may differ, but search is likely to be an important part of your information-gathering activity. All sorts of little goodies are buried in search engines. For example:

  • The phrasing site:operator limits searches to a single site while enclosing a query in quotes searches for that exact text string. So "work from home" site:computerworld.com will get you stories from only Computerworld that include that exact phrase.
  • Image search is a great way to find statistics. Look for charts and graphs.
  • The Internet Archive can find web pages that disappeared long ago. The “cached” option that appears next to the URL in Google and Bing search results resurrects pages that have recently gone missing.
  • Google and Bing also allow you to narrow results down to a specific timeframe, which is a plus when you need the most current information.

Make your own work discoverable

Reuse whenever possible. Applying tags to Microsoft Office documents (under File|Info) makes it faster and easier to find relevant content. So does the search function in Windows File Explorer and Mac Finder. I’ve been a paying subscriber to Diigo, a social bookmarking service, for years. It lets me highlight text and images on webpages and PDF documents and store them as notes or outlines. I can even make a permanent cached copy of a webpage, as well as share and publish my bookmarks.

Compartmentalize big tasks

In the process of writing several books and numerous long-form projects, I’ve learned the value of decomposing tasks into pieces. A 10,000-word e-book isn’t nearly as daunting if you think of it as 10 chapters of 1,000 words each. Complete just 500 words a day and the project is done in four weeks. Many tasks can be broken down into smaller segments to make them more manageable.

Take a walk

If you’re stuck on a project, I can promise you that staring at a screen won’t unstick you. Get outside and clear your head. A 20-minute walk gets the creative juices flowing, and I usually return to my workspace with a clear idea about how to proceed.

Your calendar is your friend

Calls and meetings can quickly overwhelm your schedule, leaving little time for actual work. When deadlines are looming, I often block out entire afternoons on my calendar as “no calls” time. I also designate time each month for important but disagreeable tasks, such as accounting. All-day events at the top of the calendar page are a great place to note upcoming deadlines or reminders.

I love working for myself and can’t imagine going back to a full-time, in-office job. Whether your own situation is a temporary move or a career change, use the tools at your disposal to minimize distraction and disruption so you can focus on what matters.

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