Working at home: 8 tips to stay sane--and productive

Last Updated Apr 10, 2011 5:32 PM EDT

Nearly 80 percent of people say they would like to work from home, and studies have shown that most telecommuters and others who work at home are happier and more productive than their office-bound colleagues, according to the Telework Research Network. But working from home has its drawbacks. It can be isolating (making Facebook more enticing and time-consuming), you can be so focused without all those office interruptions that you forget to take healthy breaks, and on the flip side, it takes discipline to ignore the many distractions in the home--the fridge, errands, cleaning up, gardening, re-decorating, the list is endless. BNET blogger Laura Vanderkam recently wrote about how mentally difficult it is to transition from working to non-work time without a real commute.

So here are eight tactics to stay sane and productive at home.

Take mini breaks. In an office, it's normal to get up and visit someone else's office, but there are fewer reasons to move at home. Every hour on the hour (set an egg timer if you have to), get up to stretch. Simply walk around the house, take a shower, or take the time to do the dishes or throw in a load of laundry). I actually don't clean the breakfast table right when the kids go to school. Instead I go right to my computer, and then at about 10:00, I'll clean up as a break. Or you can make it a mini exercise break, throwing in some sit-ups or push-ups (hey, you're wearing sweats anyway).

Do your exercise midday. Since there's no need to squeeze it in before or after work, when the gyms are packed, why bother? In any case, if you schedule your exercise midday, it becomes a nice break in your day. If you can, join a gym so you can get a dose of social contact while you work out.

Keep a water bottle at your desk. It's easy to forget to get up and get a drink when no one else is around and you're concentrating so intently.

Make a phone call. Schedule in a 15-minute slot to make a social call (unless your at-home job has you on the phone a lot). While emailing is fine, talking to someone is better for reducing that sense of isolation. Don't feel guilty about taking the break. Remember, you're more productive working at home than most office workers are.

Better yet, go out to lunch: Many of us work-at-homers are self employed so going out to lunch can mean losing an hour or more of pay. I get it. But aside from the obvious mental health benefits of the social contact, you might be able to bounce ideas off your friend, or if you meet someone in your field, it can pay off in other ways down the road.

Facebook as water cooler. Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter can help you feel less isolated and more in the loop. Problem is, it's easy to check the sites every few minutes if you're not careful (mea culpa). Instead schedule your Facebook and Twitter browsing to three or four designated times during the day. Or, like a colleague suggested, make yourself do an hour's work without checking Facebook or sending emails.

Take a pet break. If you have a cat or dog, squeezing in some pet time is a great way to de-stress.

Don't bring food to your desk. One pitfall of working at home is easy access to a fully-stocked kitchen. In the least, make yourself get up and go to the kitchen, rather than keeping a bag of pretzels at your desk to mindlessly munch on.

And here are a few words of wisdom from my friends in the telecommuting trenches:

"Do not start working at a lap desk on the couch. Hard to move back to a desk-desk."

"My best secret was to get dressed and put shoes on every morning. Shoes make me feel less lazy."

"I create a "To Do" list the night before. I take breaks after completing several of the checks on my list."


What works for you--and what doesn't?

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Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist who writes for the New York Times, national magazines and websites including Health, Prevention, iVillage and the Huffington Post. Follow her on twitter.
Photo courtesy flickr user Plutor
  • Laurie Tarkan

    Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist who writes for The New York Times and many national magazines. She is a contributing editor at Fit Pregnancy magazine and the author of three books, Perfect Hormone Balance for Fertility, Perfect Hormone Balance for Pregnancy and My Mother's Breast: Daughters Ace Their Mothers' Cancer.. You can follow her on Twitter at @LaurieTarkan.