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The Psychology of the Home Office

Working effectively from home requires insight into your own psychology.

There's an old joke: If the train station is the place where the train stops, then what is the work station? And there's no more contentious topic these days than the evolution of the work space. Cubicle farms are much less common than they used to be. Many have been replaced by the much-touted open office where all employees gather in a single large room--theoretically to generate a fantastic melting pot of energy and creativity but in practice often resulting in a miserable miasma of noise and intrusion. Some of us are lucky enough to be able to spend at least a part of our day working from our homes. This can be a choice that affords the luxury of flexibility, privacy and convenience. But the home office is not without its costs and complications and it has to be thought through carefully to be effective. I'm one of the lucky few who has a choice--I have a home office and a university office, and I have some freedom to move between the two places, depending on the time of year and the type of workload that I have.

Until a few months ago, I'd been working more or less constantly from home, only making appearances at the office for meetings. But things had begun to fall apart. I felt as though I’d fallen into a comfortable rut at home. My work day consisted of about equal parts writing, reading, visiting the kitchen, petting the cats, watching television, surfing the Internet, thinking about doing pushups, downloading apps that encouraged pushups, thinking about making better healthy life choices, downloading apps that might help me make healthier life choices, looking out the window and wondering what the neighbors were up to, shopping, contemplating impractical home renovation projects, downloading apps that might help with home renovation projects, looking for a summer vacation spot, downloading apps that might help me find a summer vacation spot, and daydreaming. In other words, my dreamy lifestyle of working hard when I wanted and where I wanted had somehow degenerated into an unfocused, fuzzy mess of distraction, confusion, and boredom. I’d lost my discipline.

In response to this, I packed up my laptop and I hiked over to my office to see whether a new setting might shake things up. I was surprised by the effectiveness of my decision. Within minutes of settling into my office chair I was firing on all cylinders—writing, thinking creatively, planning new projects. In my first week back in my office, I accomplished more than I had in the previous month.

So what had gone wrong with my idyllic, flexible lifestyle? Where had my professional life gone off the rails, degenerating from an empowering mix of autonomy, inspiration and creativity to a miasma of chocolate-chip cookies, daytime television, and first-person shooters? Yahoo’s CEO Marissa Meyer, in a much-ballyhooed memo sent out to employees last year, had argued that clocking in at the office is necessary to encourage the physical proximity to co-workers that generates collaboration, but this can’t account for my own about-face in productivity. There are lots of opportunities for collaborative adventures in the academic life, but much of it, including most of the work that I’m doing at the moment, involves many hours of solitary reflection and expression. So whatever I was doing wrong had nothing to do with absenting myself from colleagues. I think it had much more to do with both the organization of my home office and the unhealthy patterns of use that I’d developed in this space. Unfortunately, many of the advantages of working from home—the flexibility, the ability to task-switch quickly from home life to work life (extremely useful for working parents), and the feeling of mastery over one’s own time and effort—can quickly degenerate into liabilities without careful management. Based on my own experiences, here are a few tips.

1. Make your home workspace a true workspace.

Over the years, I’ve made many different places into a temporary workspace. As a university student, I used to sometimes set up shop in an all-night diner or donut shop. I found the combination of bright lights, background noise and lively human activity to be an effective backdrop for my work, especially when a hard deadline had pushed me into the notorious college all-nighter. I’ve also used the passenger seat of the car, a picnic table in a park, or the undersized desk of a motel room as an effective workspace. But these have been temporary measures, often carved out of the exigencies of a busy life. They may work for a quick jolt but, in the long-term, they’re not sustainable. When I look around at my home office today, I see a wild combination of cat toys, laundry, piles of unpaid bills, half-finished novels, and strange pieces of plastic that I’ve swept from the floor, hoping that someday I’d figure out what they were. Somewhere in the mix are journal articles that I need to read, notebooks of ideas, manuscripts in-progress, and textbooks that need to be reviewed. There’s no apparent workflow in my office, no recognizable filing system, and no indication of what should be my priorities for a day of work. A home office, though there may be slightly more latitude for domestic-professional confusion than would be at home in an institutional office, ought to be organized in such a way as to encourage one to focus on important work tasks. The office needn’t be a space closed off from the rest of the home—many of us are not lucky enough to have the space for this—but it should be obvious that this is a place of work. High priority items should be placed front and centre and any domestic clutter should be kept to a minimum. This can be managed in a small corner of a larger room, an alcove in a bedroom, a kitchen desk, or really anywhere that the tools of work can fit.

2. Establish a routine

It takes time, effort and forethought to establish a work routine, especially when one is separated from all of the work cues that can be found in a formal office filled with like-minded employees. My own formula is fairly simple. I know that my best writing is always done early in the day and I know that I write best in short spurts. As the day wears on, I know that my cognitive resources begin to wane. I’m more easily distracted. This is when the lure of the downstairs fridge and gaming console begins to weigh on my consciousness. Knowing this, I save my less taxing tasks for later in the day. This is when I might sort through email, do a bit of reading, jot down some lists or ideas for later tasks. The key seems to be to provide myself with an array of different types of tasks so that when my attention lapses, as I know that it will, I have options other than the cats, the television, or WWILFing (“what-was-I-looking-for??”) on the Internet. Another rule I use is that if I’m engaged in a highly-preferred task (such as when I hit a motherlode of great ideas and I begin to work with such pleasure that I never want to stop), I force myself to stop before I want to. This might seem counter-intuitive, but I’ve found that if I work until my motivation is exhausted on one kind of task, I’m much less likely to return to it the next day. If the work is writing, for example, then I make myself stop after about 500 words. This might not seem like much, but doing so virtually ensures that I’ll wake up the next day raring to go.

3. Keep a list of your goals in a visible location.

One of the advantages of working at home is that we have the flexibility to break off a work task to take care of a domestic task. We can do a load of laundry, begin dinner preparations, call the painter without having to take hours away from work. But because we’re engaged in a multitude of both work-related and personal tasks, it can be very easy to lose track of progress. To help with this, I’m a great fan of lists. There are many online aids that can help with planning and prioritizing tasks, but for me there’s something about the sanctity of the handwritten list on paper. I keep a notebook that consists of nothing other than lists of tasks, and I take pleasure in stroking items from the list. It’s a good idea to include both substantial tasks (write a computer program that will analyze a set of data….) and more trivial ones (answer an email from a student…) so that I can be reinforced often for the progress that I’m making. It’s also important that larger tasks be broken down into smaller steps. It’s a bad idea to include an item such as “write a book about positive psychology” and a better idea to write something like “outline the introductory chapter of a book about existential crises.”

4. Take breaks and especially a lunch break.

I’m really bad at this. If the work is going well, I’m tempted to take a break by running to the kitchen to grab an apple or make a sandwich and then to scoff it down while I’m at the keyboard. It’s a much better idea to take a real break from work, just as you might do if you were at the office. Contract with yourself to take a break of a certain length – 45 minutes for lunch, 15 minutes for a quick stretch (which can include the laundry if you must….) and make sure that you stick with the plan.

5. Forgive yourself.

No matter how carefully I plan a workday, the unexpected can arise. An overflowing toilet might end up taking a couple of hours of my time to fix. A surprise phone call from a friend can also eat up valuable work time. Sometimes my cats will simply not be ignored and I will need to spend a couple of hours in a vigorous game of Chase The Glittery Ball. These unexpected events can tempt us to throw up our hands, say something like “well, this day is shot!” and pack it in for the day. Sometimes that’s exactly what we’ll do. A better strategy is to recognize that the flexibility to roll with whatever life hands out is one of the most important reasons to want to work at home in the first place. When things fall apart--and they will--forgive yourself for the time you've lost, pat yourself on the back for all the good choices that you've made and get back into the saddle.

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