How to Work from Home and Get Stuff Done While Still Preserving Family Peace and Normal Social Behavior

Working from home can produce heights of ecstasy and depths of agony.

Anyone who has experienced the liberation of a pajama-clad workday can identify with those heights of ecstasy. And anyone who has succumbed to wallowing in a weak-willed Netflix binge-watch can relate to the depths of agony. We love the concept of working from home, but the execution can be challenging.

For all its glories, working from home has risks.
  • Not getting anything done. Like nothing. At all.
  • Becoming a de facto hermit with absolutely no social skills.
  • Getting upset with family members, or having them get upset with you.

In summary, you risk becoming an 1) unproductive 2) social freak with 3) family problems.

As a seven-year veteran of remote work, I've had my fair share of frustrations, including one or more of the ones mentioned above. In addition, I've experimented with solutions. Some of these solutions have worked. Others have failed miserably.

Here are the ones that worked.

Make your office separate.

This idea of office boundaries may sound provincial and petty, but it is actually awesome. When you allow your working space to be for work, and your living space for living, you can effectively separate the two in your mind and in your daily practice.

The idea is rooted in human psychology, particularly the habit loop.

According to habit researchers, we form habits in a cyclical way.
  • First, we are reminded.
  • Then, we engage in the routine -- the habit itself.
  • Finally, we receive a reward.

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In the context of a separate office, the habit loop works like this:
  1. Reminder: Monday morning, 9am. Time to work!
  2. Routine: You step into your office -- a separate room of the house.
  3. Reward: You get stuff done. This feels good, and your brain celebrates by shooting some dopamine into the bloodstream, which is always nice.
I realize that not everyone who works at home has the luxury of an extra room. Here are some ideas.
  • A detached office on your property
  • Rented office space
  • Coffee shop
  • Renovated basement or garage space
  • A corner of the family room, bedroom, etc.

A dedicated work space is ideal. But if this is impossible, try to at least create a routine around the beginning of your work that will signal to your brain that it's time for action.

Set working hours.

When I first started working from home, my friends couldn't wrap their minds around the concept.

Even if they did understand, they thought that my schedule was flexible enough accommodate theirs.

Here's how it worked in a not-so-hypothetical situation.

It's Tuesday morning, and Joe needs to move a piano. He could call Bob, but Bob works at the bank. He could call Tim, but Tim owns a lawn business. Who can he call? Daniel! Yes, Daniel works from home! (I.e., "He must not work at all!")

I obliged myself to the random coffee shop trips, drop-in visits, extended lunches, and piano-moving efforts, until I realized that I needed to set some boundaries.

Make sure your family and friends understand what it means for you to work from home. How? By setting working hours.

You'll prevent a lot of frustration and misunderstanding.

Wear headphones.

You might be surprised at the astonishing impact of noise-cancelling headphones.

A quality set of headphones costs less than a separate office but can have nearly the same positive impact.

Here's a pro tip. Play music with no lyrics. In a Stanford study, researchers learned that music helped the brain to "pay attention." The music used in the study was from the 18th century English baroque composer William Boyce. Lyrics: none.

If music inhibits your work performance, try listening to white noise. White noise can improve one's memory.

Do things together as a family away from the house and among other people.

When you work from home, it can be easy to slip into a situation where you feel like you're with your family, even though you're not being present with them.

I alternate between working at a rented office space and working at home. When I'm at home, I have a false perception of "spending time" with my family, when in reality, I'm just doing the same thing I would be doing if I were in a cubicle farm.

It becomes important to intentionally do things together as a family. Sometimes, the best thing you can do is get out of the house!

Go to church, eat out, go to the store together, run around at a park! Just do something that gets you away from the house and among other people.

Get creative with your schedule.
The modern workweek with its five days and forty hours is a hangover from the industrial revolution, reaching its apex of refinement with Henry Ford and his factories.

This tradition is a theoretical imposition created by people of long ago who made stuff in factories. Such a schedule may be perfectly appropriate for some, but with your work-from-home flexibility, you can make a change.

Do what works best for your family, not what's expected.

Involve your family in your business.

In the modern industrialized era of knowledge workers, it is, admittedly, difficult to involve the family in our work.

Your 5-year-old probably isn't ready to create pivot tables in Excel or write a file in Node.js.

So how does this work? Here's an example from my recent past. I hired a designer to create three logo options for a new business. I showed all the logo options to my kids, and asked them to pick which one they preferred. User testing, right?

Every situation is different. You may have a teenager who's interested in coding. Your 6-year-old might take out the trash. One child could be hired to shred paper. Perhaps you need envelopes licked or stamps stamped.

Even if the family's involvement is small and occasional, it can make a big difference.


So how does it happen -- working at home, getting real work done, and not turning into an ogre?

You discover through trial and error what works for you and your family.

Keep in mind, you're never going to satisfactorily eliminate all the problems and risks of remote work. But if you use a few of these choice techniques, you may improve your productivity, cling to peace with your family, and remain socially functional.

There will be trial. There will be error. But through creativity, flexibility, and determination, you will discover the sweet spot.

This article originally appeared on the TeamGantt blog.