If you’re one of the more than 53 million people doing freelance work in America today—or even just a dude savvy enough to get your boss to occasionally let you “telecommute”—you know as well as I do that it can be hard as hell to get things done in your own personal dojo.
There are good days, of course, when you savor being your own boss, enjoy your insane wealth of privacy, and manage to motor through tasks with a Jedi-like focus. But on the bad days, the distractions mount, procrastination rears its ugly head, and you inevitably get through little more than a solid Netflix binge session.
Believe me, I know. Ever since I left my tech-support job and went solo more than a decade ago, I’ve been working hard to build my own media company. It all began with small segments talking tech on the radio; I eventually worked my way up to the national stage, not only writing for Men’s Fitness but also appearing regularly on CNN as well as NBC’s Today and other daytime talk shows.
And somehow I’ve managed my whole new career from my home office.
If you’re thinking about joining the gig economy, you won’t be alone: Those 53 million freelancers I mentioned before are projected to make up 50% of the labor force in 2020. And because I’ve spent years honing what I consider the perfect system for working remotely, I promise that with these simple tips, you’ll stay on track, boost your productivity, and ultimately stay sane.
Rule No. 1: Set in Stone the Time and the Place
Sure, you can roll out of bed at noon, sit in front of your computer without taking a shower, and start churning out emails. But that doesn’t mean you should.
Your first step to becoming a killer tele-commuter is re-creating office hours. It’s important to maintain the same rhythm you had in your commuting life and bring a semblance of balance to your home-working life. So I’d encourage you to make it a goal to get everything done by, say, 6 p.m., and only then peel off to meet the guys for a drink at the bar.
Or if you know you get your best work done in the morning, make sure you’re getting up extra-early, and maybe you can finish your workday by early afternoon.
(Interestingly, a 2011 study in Thinking & Reasoning found that solving insight problems—i.e., getting a “flash of brilliance”—is actually easiest at a person’s non-optimal time. Night owls tend to come up with insights in the a.m., and early birds at night. So consider figuring that into your scheduling.)
When you’ve got your hours set, then create a workplace. Of course, this can be as simple as putting a desk in the living room, as long as you don’t wake up in the morning and have to decide where you’re going to work.
And the more set apart the work area is, the better: If you’ve got papers on the coffee table and a laptop on the bed, you’ll start to feel like work is everywhere and you can’t escape it. So choose one space as your work zone and own it.
Rule No. 2: Shower Power: Reboot Your Day When Things Go Bad
No worker in any profession likes to have a bad day; it happens to the best of us. But when you have a bad day as a freelancer, it’s especially awful, because it’s easy to sink into a funk in the confinement of your own apartment than at an office, near compassionate colleagues.
Whenever this happens, I find it helps to “reset” my day and start all over again. For instance, I take advantage of the fact that I’m at home and hop in the shower. That might sound crazy, but hear me out: There’s something about going through the process of starting your day all over again—physically washing off the stress, putting on some new clothes, and sitting down for a second time that can help get a bad business taste out of your mouth.
Rule No. 3: No Cat Videos! (Or any other kind.)
Without co-workers, a boss, and an IT department watching over you, it’s easy to get distracted by “just one more” YouTube video or the endless wall of junk-food links on your Facebook feed. To keep myself focused, I turn on the Freedom app, which allows me to block websites that can serve as distractions while still allowing me to do research and get things done.
Or if you really need some space, you can block the Internet completely for a set period of time to focus on your work.
Rule No. 4: Be Prepared to Feed Your Face
You never want to stop to figure out where your next meal’s coming from, so make sure you’ve got easily accessible foods you can eat to keep yourself fueled.
In my pantry, for instance, I keep boxes upon boxes of quick snacks—granola and energy bars, mostly—that I can substitute for a meal in a pinch. For when I need a bit more, I make sure to keep the freezer well stocked with frozen fruit so I can whip up a nutritious smoothie in minutes and get back to work without having to sit down and take an extended break to eat.
Plus, eating a few extra lunches at the home office each week will save you thousands of dollars over a year.
Rule No. 5: Tell Everyone to Ignore You
I’m married to my business partner—my wife is the CEO of our company, and I’m the lead on creative projects. The arrangement can be tough, as we’re often sharing the same space. We manage this by establishing a ton of rules about how we manage our space and time.
The first is that, when we’re working, the other person doesn’t exist. If I see my wife in the office plugging away at her keyboard—or she finds me in the basement setting up a video camera—we don’t so much as acknowledge each other’s presence. If I want to talk to her during business hours, I set a meeting with her as if I would a future client. We email each other despite the fact we’re only in separate rooms.
You can put this tip into practice even if you’re not married—just make sure you set strict boundaries with roommates that, whenever you’re working, they respect the fact that you’re still “at the office” and not available to grab a beer and hang.
Finally, there’s one rule my wife and I have had for more than a decade that I believe is more responsible than anything else for keeping our marriage alive: no work talk in the bedroom. It’s all about mindset, structure, and focus—with the right combination of elements, you’ll be more productive, have more free time, and never have to settle in any aspect of your work-life balance.