I’ve Worked from Home for 20 Years—Here’s How I Stay Focused

These tips will increase your productivity and help you stay sane.

worked from home for 20 years Ian SandersCourtesy Ian Sanders

My name is Ian Sanders, and I’m a creative consultant, author, and coach who is based in the United Kingdom and lives by the coast in Leigh-on-Sea, 40 miles east of London. I’ve been working from home regularly since January 2000, and my work involves energizing people about their work lives through talks, workshops, and one-to-one coaching. I also help business leaders and executives navigate change and help them transition careers and embrace new chapters in their work lives.

Right now, many people have been thrust into the work-at-home life suddenly and under less-than-ideal circumstances. While this is a big shift and may seem daunting at first, you can learn to thrive at home—and be just as productive as when you’re in a traditional office. Here are some tips for focusing while working from home that I’ve accumulated over the past 20 years.

Adjust your mindset

The first thing to do to be effective at working from home is to acknowledge that the experience is very different from being at the office. On LinkedIn the other day, someone was bemoaning all these articles about home working. “Just get up and start working,” they exhorted. But it’s not that easy! It’s going to take a shift of mindset and a few tips and tricks to get your work done. It’s not just a case of working from home; it’s being productive from home. These are two very different things.

Check out these 8 daily habits of naturally productive people.

Know what a good day looks like

We’re all diverse individuals. Some of us need a quiet environment to work in; others thrive on listening to 1980s pop music cranked up loud. The key is to tune into the habits and behaviors that make you most energized, productive, and creative when you’re working at home. I know what that looks like for me: getting out first thing in the morning to take my dog for a walk on the beach, some calls with other folks, good music, and strong coffee in the morning. How about you? Figuring out what a good, productive day looks like for you will help you come up with a strategy for getting things done.

Think like a designer

Man using laptop at homedeimagine/Getty Images

When you work from home, chances are you’re going to have more control over your day than when you’re office-based. So, get organized and structure your day accordingly. Know when you’re at your peak, and actively schedule the tasks that require more creativity and brain input for that time. I’m most creative in the morning, so that’s when I do all my ideation, and I’m careful not to let mundane tasks creep into my peak. I spend time creating a schedule and doing other administrative tasks during the afternoon slump I experience—and most of us experience—after lunch.

Here’s how to be more productive in your first hour of work.

Take breaks

In the last few days, I’ve been hearing experiences from people embracing working from home all over the world. And so many people seem to be replicating their office life but at their kitchen table—shackled to their laptop all day without taking a break. The good news is that most of us are much more productive at home when we don’t have unwanted interruptions or unnecessary meetings. But you must take breaks! It’s not shirking your responsibilities—it’s really important, as research shows that if we don’t take breaks, we become irritable and less productive. So, take ten minutes to sit outside on your apartment balcony, do some yoga, or go for a walk. This is how often productive people take breaks.

Don’t get distracted

You’ve swapped the distractions of coworkers for myriad other things: pets, the fridge, the laundry, Netflix. Set your work hours, and focus on the work that matters in that time. You can grab a snack/pet the dog/put the washing machine on when you take a break. Similarly, it’s easy to get sucked into Twitter and Facebook and go down rabbit holes, especially when so much is happening in the world. Set rules about when you’ll check social media, or use an app to rein you in. Stay focused!

Find out how the most productive people handle their emails.

Stay connected with others

SmartphoneGeorgijevic/Getty Images

We know we’re living in crazy times when governments are asking their citizens to socially distance themselves from others. That’s why it’s more important than ever for us to have human contact in other ways. Whether it’s an all-hands Zoom meeting with coworkers or team members or a WhatsApp video call with your friend at lunchtime, be sure to stay connected.

Put boundaries around work

I’ve found that one of the biggest downsides of working from home is knowing when to switch off. When 6 p.m. comes, it can be so easy to just drift over to the sofa with your laptop and tablet and carry on working. But then you never stop working—or give yourself a break. Instead, put the guidelines about what works for you in proverbial stone. Know when to switch off your email, and don’t take your phone to bed.

Move around your house or apartment

When I’m working with teams in workplaces, I always advocate moving around the office building or campus to stay energized, and not staying at a desk all day long. The same goes for working from home. Getting up and moving around your home or apartment can be really beneficial, too. You can try to identify an ecosystem of spaces where you can do different tasks: taking a Skype call on the sofa, doing business planning at the kitchen table, or conducting research in a comfy armchair. Even moving a short distance inside your home can re-energize you.

Here are some ideas for an ideal home-office setup.

Get outside

Hiker walks on Mountain Traildeimagine/Getty Images

For me, the most detrimental part of working from home is not going outside. I realize many of us are in lockdown situations right now, and we have to keep our distance. I love working from cafés, but that’s just not practical at the moment. But still, try to get outside. Go for a lunchtime run or a bike ride. It’s not only for exercise—it’s for your mental health, too. Spending time outdoors also helps generate those creative sparks that I always find flow more freely when I put one foot in front of the other.

Prepare for the unexpected

Our business lives are changing daily as the world adapts to a new rhythm, so let’s stay open and recognize that things are going to change—and suddenly. Working at home is not a shiny Instagram idyll. It’s going to be crazy, especially if you work from home and your children are off school. You’ll be talking to a customer on a call, telling your kids to quietly get on with their homework and trying to ignore the dog when it playfully brings you a toy. It helps to know that we are all in the same boat.

Look after yourself and check in with others

There’s a lot to worry about at the moment: our health, our families, our elderly parents. And what about the future of our businesses? Will our jobs be secure? Or if we’re self-employed and have lost revenues, how will we pay the rent this month? If it’s all getting to be too much, be kind to yourself. Restrict your consumption of news. Take a break. Have a go-to meditation app. Phone a friend. Listen to your favorite Spotify playlist. Remember the positives—the amazing health-care workers doing so much for us at this stressful time and the delivery people and shop workers who are all doing their bit. Also check in with others and ask how they are and how you can help.

Want more tips? Don’t miss these 13 golden rules for working from home.