I’ve been a full-time freelancer since 2012, and most of my work gets done at home — that is, from my home office. I tried working from coffee shops and co-working spaces, but I tend to get the most work done when I’m in a quiet, comfortable, familiar space where I don’t have to worry about whether I’ll be able to find a seat near an electrical outlet (and won’t have to ask someone to watch my laptop every time I need to use the toilet).
I also know that I get my best work done in the morning and early afternoon; the closer it gets to 3 PM, the more I’ll want a task that allows me to respond to information rather than generate it. Reading a book for review, for example, instead of writing a book review.
So I’ve developed a schedule that lets me do my best work at the times I work best.
If you’re also working from home and would like to develop a similar schedule, here’s what I’ve learned over the past seven years.
Know your chronotype
I’m a morning person, both in terms of “when I like to wake up” and “when I do my best thinking.” I solve more problems between 6:30 AM and 9 AM than I do the entire rest of the day. That doesn’t mean I start putting those solutions into action right away, of course, but it does mean that I scribble down a lot of notes that get captured and scheduled in my Getting Things Done system during my workday’s first chunk of admin time.
If you’re a freelancer, you should be able to take full advantage of your body’s natural tendencies towards sleep and wakefulness. Yes, some clients may expect you to be available during “business hours”, but if you set expectations about when you will and won’t answer email (more on that below), you can hack your schedule until it suits your night owlishness or larkitude.
If you’re working remotely for a traditional employer, there may be stronger expectations in place about when you’re expected to be at your desk. However, you can still structure your day to allow you to work in tandem with your body’s natural rhythms. Maybe you sleep in as late as possible and don’t shower/get dressed until your lunch break, for example. (Just make sure you don’t have any Skype calls scheduled.)
Give your best time to your most important project
What’s the most important thing you need to work on today? Whatever it is, give it your best work time.
Depending on your individual situation, your “best work time” might be:
The time when your energy is highest
The time when you are least likely to be interrupted by an urgent request from a client or supervisor
The time when you are least likely to be interrupted by a partner or children
The one chunk of time that hasn’t already been allocated to meetings
Whenever possible, work on your most important project before you start working on less important projects. That way, you’ll be more likely to complete your most important project by its most important deadline. However, depending on your schedule and chronotype, you might be better off working on a “medium-important” project in the morning before devoting two or three hours to your most important project in the afternoon.
Don’t know what your most important project is? It might be the one with the nearest deadline; it might be the one for your most valuable client; it might be the one that’s the most important to your boss.
If you still can’t decide, just pick one and start working. It’ll be fine.
Set boundaries around email and admin work
At this point in my freelance life, I don’t open my email until 10 AM This is a privilege, to be sure, but one I’ve both earned (by proving myself as a reliable, in-demand freelance writer) and created for myself. By setting boundaries on when I will and won’t reply to email, I’ve developed a workday in which I don’t have to spend every working hour managing my inbox.
You may not be able to close your inbox during the workday — a lot of us can’t, and that’s fine. However, you can probably set aside a couple blocks of time to power through all the admin that comes with a typical workday: invoicing, making phone calls, sending and replying to any non-urgent messages.
Right now I do a very short “urgent message check” at 10:00, a 90-minute admin break from 11:30 - 1:00 (yes, my freelance career does include that much admin), and then I leave my inbox open for the rest of the afternoon because that’s when editors tend to request time-sensitive revisions or reply to emails about pitches.
Closing my inbox in the morning, while I work on my most important projects, makes sense. Closing it in the afternoon, when editors and clients are most likely to reach out to me, does not.
Figure out what admin boundaries make sense for your workday—and then set them. Don’t forget the most important boundary: closing your email at the end of the workday.
Get more work done by sticking to a routine
If you want to maximise your workflow and avoid having to “stay late” at your home office, the best way to solve this problem is to create and stick to a routine. Specifically, you’re going to want a schedule that lets you know what you’re doing next.
Asking yourself “what do I feel like doing this afternoon” takes time away from the actual doing, especially if you’re accompanying the question with an overview of all your outstanding projects. (It’s also a good way to lose track of one of those outstanding projects, miss a deadline, and have to apologise to your clients and/or coworkers for not getting your work done.)
So schedule your day. Give yourself two hours of project work in the morning, then a walk to a coffee shop and an hour of project work, then back to the home office for an hour of admin and two hours of project work.... or however you want to set it up.
Plan your big email checks and your admin and your breaks, and when you get assigned new work to complete, schedule it into one of your open project slots. That way, you always know which project you’ll be tackling next — and you know that they’ll all get done by their respective deadlines.
Setting a routine also helps you learn how much work you can complete in a day. This is important for freelancers, who have the ability to take on as much client work as they can successfully land (and then stay up into the wee hours trying to get everything done by deadline), but it’s also important for employees. If you’re being assigned more work than you can reasonably get done, it’s time to have a conversation with you boss about your workload.
So give yourself a schedule and see where it gets you. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t found the best-and-most-optimised routine yet. In fact, setting a schedule is a great way to learn how to create that optimised routine; you’ll find out pretty quickly if your lunch break comes too late, or if you scheduled your “most important project time” while your brain is still revving into gear, or if your most time-sensitive emails come in the mornings and not the afternoons.
Then use what you learn to adjust your schedule. Being able to structure your own workday is one of the biggest benefits of working from home, after all, so take advantage of it!
Maybe you’re a Pomodoran. Maybe you’re a postprandial walker. Maybe you like to take some time after lunch to catch up on the latest episode of whatever (another benefit of working from home). Don’t get so caught up in your work that you forget to take breaks—but don’t get so caught up in your breaks that you forget to do your work.
A lot of work-from-homers wonder if they should use their work time to get household chores done. I tend to avoid doing chores during my workday — from a freelancer perspective, it takes up too much time that could go towards paying gigs — but I will admit that on the odd day when you accidentally spill lunch down the front of your shirt, it’s a relief to be able to change your clothes and start a load of laundry immediately, before the stain sets in.
It’s the immediacy of working from home, for me, that makes it so effective. If you need to do something, whether that’s toss a shirt into the wash or go for a walk to clear your head or respond to a family member’s urgent text, you can do it. Likewise, if you want to tackle that big project first thing in the morning or late in the evening or simply for two focused, uninterrupted hours in the afternoon, you can do it.
Working from home gives you the freedom to create a schedule that works for you, so use these tips to structure your own work-from-home workday—and if these suggestions don’t work for you, make adjustments until you create a workday that does.
And then get to work.