Make your home office more productive

One of the great benefits of self-employment is being able to work from home. While that sounds like fun, there are lots of challenges. Being productive at home takes discipline and organisation. That means establishing an area that is clearly for work.

When you’re working from home you need to set aside an area that is designated as a workspace. If you’ve got a young family, you’ll need to find a way to quarantine your work space. If you’re working from a shared home space, like a dining-room or kitchen table, you’ll need to train your family into making it a “Do not disturb” area during working times. I know that can be difficult – my family was pretty young when I started freelancing – but you need to find a way. That can be by setting some rules.

The “Time Quarantine” Method

For example, you can designate certain times to be work times when you can’t be distracted. Or, you can set your working hours to work around your family commitments. If your kids attend school or kindergarten, you can set your working hours so that you work when the children are out. Then you can give your family some attention when they’re home but focus when they’re out.

It doesn’t matter how you use the “time quarantine” method but it’s important that if you find a way that works for you.

The problem with just being able to quarantine time to work means that you need to be able pack up your office. If you struggle with keeping your research and other notes in order then it’s worth looking at online tools like Evernote (that I’ve written about before) to help you keep organised.

The “Space Quarantine” Method

If you have the luxury of a dedicated workspace then many of your productivity challenges are already taken care of. However, are you getting the best bang for buck from that space?

If you use a laptop as you main work computer, it’s a good idea to elevate it so that the display is at an ergonomically appropriate height. The rule of thumb is to have the top of the display at your eye level. The cheapest way to do this is with a couple of phone books although there are lots of more aesthetically pleasing options around.

With the laptop elevated, you’ll also need a mouse and keyboard. The best combination is the one you’re most comfortable using. Many computer stores have several models on display. Try a few out to see which are best for you.

If you have a desktop computer, the same rules apply.

One thing to consider if you have the desk space and budget is a dual screen (sometimes called a two-head) set up. This is where your computer desktop spans across two screens. The productivity benefits are substantial as you can have two applications open at once. For example, if you use Google Books for research and type into your preferred text editor you can have both open side-by-side. There’s myriad research supporting the productivity benefits. Just Google “dual screen productivity” to find some for the research.

Some general guidelines

Regardless of where you set up your workspace, there are a few things that I find helpful. Here’s a short list.

  • Keep your workspace tidy. Having lots of stuff you don’t need on your workspace distracts you.
  • Remove distractions. If there’s something in your workspace that breaks your concentration, get rid of it.
  • Have a filing system that works for you (here’s mine).
  • Cleanliness – I find I work better when my office is clean. That means vacuuming each week (at least), emptying the rubbish and recycling bins before they overflow and not leaving junk on the desk.
  • Make sure you designate your work area as a work area and that while you’re working, it’s a “no-fly zone” for others.

So, what are your home office productivity tips? Does a “no-fly zone” work for you? Tell us what works for you in the comments.

Go the extra mile

This is a guest post by David Hague, editor of AusCam Online. If you want your clients to remember you, this story will tell you what you need to do. You can follow David on Twitter  – he’s @vbthedog

Many years ago, I had occasion to drive from the Gold Coast where I was living at the time to Mackay in northern Queensland – a journey of about 873km (or 542 miles). My younger brother lived there and from time to time I’d make the 12 hour trip for a break.

This particular trip, as I approached Rockhampton at around 4.00 in the afternoon the skies got darker and darker, lighting started flashing interspersed with enormous thunderclaps and the rain started to pelt down. This was now not driving weather.

I stopped at the first motel I came to in Rockhampton – the Country Comfort – and decided to stay the night and finish the journey in the morning.

The service was fabulous, the steak was great and the owners were very friendly – even offering a complimentary port along with a chat.

I got up next morning bright and early to get going. The skies were clear and things were starting to dry out. I got my stuff together, such as it was, and went to the car, to find a leaflet under the windscreen wiper.

We all have foibles about one thing or another and I am not immune from them having a few myself – one being an intense dislike for people who put litter under my windscreen wiper! I ripped it out and was about to screw it up and find a bin when I noticed the motel’s logo on the top. It was a note from a staff member that read,

“We noticed your car was dirty after your trip, so this morning after the rain we took the liberty of washing it and cleaning the windows. Have a safe onward journey”.

I was thoroughly gobsmacked!

This was surely a brilliant example of a business going the extra mile and almost guaranteeing repeat business. But it doesn’t quite end there. Almost 12 months later I made the same trip and made a point of again staying at the Country Comfort. Not only did they remember my name, what wine I drank and the meal I had, they again also washed my car.

Filing the paperwork

As a freelancer, you’re not only the main worker bee but also the business’s administration department. That means keeping things in order so that bills get paid and documents are filed for easy retrieval. It’s one of my least liked tasks. I guess if I was a little more disciplined I wouldn’t let it mount up but it’s such a boring task and I can always find something more interesting or rewarding to do.

The filing system I used when I started freelancing was too cumbersome. I had a couple of folders for bills, three for different bank statements, one for tax and so on. As various bits of paper arrived, I’d sort them and put them into their folders. It sounds good in theory but as soon as stuff mounts up a little the effort it takes to get stuff sorted is too great. So I put off, it accumulated more, the task got even bigger and… well, you get the picture.

I changed this approach and haven’t looked back. I have a single folder for this year. It’s divided into sections for each of the various categories of paperwork. This approach has two significant advantages for me.

1 – It’s easier as everything is filed in one place. When a new piece of paper comes in I have one place to put it.

2 – Under Australian tax law, I’m obliged to retain certain records for five years. Now, at the end of their retention period I just need to dispose of one folder. Under my old system, I’d have to got through several folders to get rid of the papers.

There was a time when I used a filing cabinet but that was way too messy. I prefer binders and I think this new approach, of having a binder per year, makes staying organised easier.

What’s your approach? How do you store documents? Have you gone totally digital? If so, what tools do you use? Let me know in the comments.

Dress for work – the freelancer’s dress code

One of the great attractions of working for yourself is that you’re immune from all the petty office politics and seemingly arbitrary rules. In an office with dozens of people, those rules are what’s used to maintain a set of standards to ensure that the “corporate image” is maintained. But when you’re self-employed you can set your own rules. One of the first rules to go is the idea of an office dress code.

When you’re working for yourself from a home office, it can be a challenge to remain motivated to do some of the less enjoyable tasks required when running your own business. Things like reconciling bank accounts, chasing slow payers and other administration are an important part of running a business but are rarely a focus when your real job is about putting words on paper, taking great photos or selling some other part of your experience and expertise.

Dress for a business office – even at home

One of the most surprising things I’ve learned is that the clothes I wear make a difference. On the days I’m more casual my productivity is invariably lower than days when I get dressed up. Also, being dressed more “businessy” helos me when dealing with other folks and it means I can be ready faster if something comes up – like a press conference or media event – at short notice.

I’m not suggesting that you put a suit on to work at home, but a decent shirt and shoes might be enough to get your brain thinking it’s a work day and not a play day.

Dress up for meetings

When you attend meetings with clients, networking events and other out-of-office functions  – dress up.

For me, this means a decent pair of dress trousers, a nice shirt and clean shoes. I’ve shown up to events in both casual and more dressy clothes and I always get better networking opportunities when I’m less casual. By dressing up, it shows the organisers and other attendees that you’re serious about what’s going on and not just there for the free food and drinks.

The safest bet for men is to wear a decent suit. Current fashion seems to suggest that it’s OK to wear an open shirt and no tie. There’s no need to spend thousands on the latest Armani. A decent, fashionable suit can be purchased for around $200 on sale.

For ladies – the rules are less clear as women’s fashion seems to be far more variable than men’s. However, I’d suggest super-mini skirts, exposed mid-riffs and really deep, plunging necklines are probably not “serious business” attire.

Read the invitation and do your research

Often, event invitations include some dress code advice. I recently was invited on a tour to Japan. The event itinerary included a dress code for each session in the tour. In some cultures  – and this can be either corporate or local – what you wear is a big deal.

On that tour, many of the attendees didn’t follow the advice. I did and was quietly complimented by the organisers. I’m certain that this little bit of attention has made a positive difference to the relationship I have with the organisers.

What’s your advice?

So – what do you think? Does dressing up in the home office matter? Is what you wear with clients important? What’s your freelance dress code? Let me know by commenting.