6 tricks for developing a work from home schedule

Stay flexible, embrace change, and think of the transition to your home office as an opportunity to create a healthier WFH experience.
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Working from home at a laptop


When you start working from home, one of the first things you might have noticed is that there almost no outside influences on your schedule.

You probably have meetings—some over team chat and others over video— that you have to attend, but otherwise, there's nothing requiring you to do anything at any specific time. What you find out pretty quickly, though, is that there's an invisible influence that sneaks up on you: deadlines.

This lack of structure fosters procrastination, sometimes willful and other times aimless, followed by frantic sprints to get something done. Learning to mitigate that, along with all the distractions working from home might offer, is often the hardest part of your home-based work.

Here are a few ways to build in that structure for yourself do you don't end up feeling like you are falling behind.

You have always had your own schedule

Everybody reacts to schedules differently. For some people, schedules offer guidance and comfort. For others, schedules are rigid and oppressive.

An office space generally provides focus. There might be plenty of distractions at the office, but you usually find a good stretch of time at some point during your day when you can get a big chunk of work done. Even in an office, though, each person actually keeps their own schedule. Your colleague might arrive early in the day, happily completing a day's work in an empty office before anyone else arrives and then spending the rest of the day doing menial tasks and socializing. Another colleague might arrive late and leave early, maximizing time spent in the office for actual work. Still others follow a steady pace throughout the day.

As you're settling into a WFH routine, take notes, either mentally or physically, on what seems to work well for you. If you like formalized systems, then build a schedule for yourself after a week or two, based on what you've been doing naturally. If there's something that isn't working for you, then drop it from your schedule.

Once you've found a good rhythm for yourself, you can manage your day with a to-do list like todo.txt, or if you prefer sledgehammers (or you actually manage a department), you can try a project management application.

Treat yourself as a new hire

For the first week or two at home, you may find it helpful to treat yourself (and your remote team) as a new hire. Instead of trying to mimic or impose the same schedule you kept at the office or at school, take time to monitor your own activity. It takes time for your body and mind to establish new and comfortable habits, and if you're the kind of person who wanders into a routine, then you need to give yourself time to discover what those habits are.

For instance, if you're consistently finding that you do your best work right after breakfast, then relegate menial tasks, like responding to email, reviewing tasks, or triaging bug reports, to the early morning, and make sure you have a big task set up for after breakfast. If you're having a hard time maintaining focus, then make time for morning tea so you can relax, reassess your workload, and plan your next step. Be curious about yourself like a manager would be for a brand new employee. Adjust accordingly.

There is no guilt to being interrupted at home

Not everything on your schedule is under your control. If you have children too young for school, or if children are home from school, then their schedules take precedence.

It's a perceived benefit of working from home that your schedule is more flexible than at an office, but with that assumption, there can sometimes come a little to a lot of guilt. You might feel you're not working "enough" because you have to stop to wake up and feed children, or because you want to take a few play breaks every now and again.

That's mostly illusory, though, and here is how to think about it. If you swap out "children" for "manager," you might remember some times at the office where your "real" work was interrupted because you had to entertain upper management with sparkly presentations, or complete piles of paperwork for HR, or decompress by chatting with colleagues by the water cooler.

Your work from home is really no different. There are plenty of distractions, and they're only a problem if you fail to acknowledge and work around them.

Making the choice to move beyond the 9-to-5

Unlike at the office, you're not forced into a rigid and dated 9-to-5 structure. If your day has to start at 7am, contains a lot of breaks, and doesn't end until 7pm, then that's alright. The essential part is to define that as your schedule for yourself (once you've established it as a schedule that works for you; remember to give yourself a few weeks to get a feel for what your schedule actually "wants" to be). Pick your start and end times, establish break times with your housemates, whether they're children, spouses, pets, or roommates/friends. Work when you're supposed to be working, and don't work when you're not scheduled to work. For most of us, colleagues don't need to know exactly when you are online as long as you're available when you're needed. In that case, your hours are your own. If the team is the kind that needs to know, run it by them.

Don't forget time for yourself

It's important to at least establish times you stop thinking about work, no matter what. If you've got a very young child who's not given to staying on any schedule, then you might have to stay more flexible than most. Still, give yourself permission to actively be inactive. Do something you enjoy, even if it feels unproductive. It's normal to spend some idle time at the office to think or intentionally not think. Working from home deserves the same space. If anything, it's even more important as you establish working hours. The goal is to recognize when you're at home and when you're at work.

Finding stuff to do at work is relatively easy, but sometimes finding things to do to relax can be hard. If you have children, you can collaborate with them using Scratch for drawing beautiful art, programming video games, or even robotics. For the times you're not necessarily looking to collaborate and need your little one to do some exploration of their own, there are some great open source alternatives to Minecraft, too. If you're interested in getting away from the screen, though, you might try some Arduino or Seeeduino gardening projects. Start with some programming, and end up outside in the garden!

Choose to see change as exciting

Some say humans don't generally love change and that we're primarily creatures of habit, so moving from an office into a home office can be upsetting. And yet, invariably, we've shown that change can be exciting and even good. 

Use this thought experiment to remember how much you love change. Would you willingly revert to technology from even two years ago? How about five, or ten?

If we can embrace change in technology and be uninterested in reverting back, why not embrace change elsewhere?

When you work from home, you have the opportunity to be willing to explore change. If you find that a meeting time doesn't work for your schedule, mention it to your team. It may not work for them, either, and moving it to a different day could mean making room for a work sprint that knocks out a good chunk of your work for the week. If you find that a tool isn't working out for you, find a different one.

In fact, some of the most productive people are constantly evaluating new applications and new methods of working. They're constantly learning new things, developing new skills. They don't do this because they need the new skill, at least not by the letter of their work contract, but learning new things often reveals a surprising applicability to something they do need.

Need some examples? Tinkering with a Raspberry Pi for fun could result in a home server running useful apps to help you stay informed. Learning how to write in Markdown could introduce you to a new and more efficient workflow than you ever knew possible. Setting up a computer with Linux could reveal a new world of open source software that changes the way you approach problems, and improves the methods you use to solve them. The possibilities are limitless, but if you don't know where to start, you can browse through some of our articles or cheat sheets for ideas and tips.

Working from home is a new opportunity

The habits we've built up around work aren't always healthy or efficient or fun. If you're starting to work from home, though, it's a chance to reinvent what work means for you. Keep the lines of communication open with your colleagues, embrace new ideas and the potential of change, and discover how you can be more productive by enjoying yourself and the place you call home (and $HOME).

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Seth Kenlon
Seth Kenlon is a UNIX geek, free culture advocate, independent multimedia artist, and D&D nerd. He has worked in the film and computing industry, often at the same time.

1 Comment

Good article. I've been struggling with WFH for the past month. It was fun at first, but it began to get boring and lonely. I ended up being very inefficient and failed to finish my work on time. I tried to do the first point you listed above, which was to set up a schedule with a to-do list app.
Best decision ever. Softwares such as TickTick and Quire helped me out a lot. They would remind me the deadlines of my work tasks, and also remind me what I should be doing at that particular time.
Another point that you talked about above "Time for yourself" is also another thing I ended up working on. I kept trying to stuff my schedule at first, which made me burn out in a few weeks. I completely agree that we all need a bit of time for ourselves in order to keep moving forward.
Loved the tips!

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