Staying focused working from home

In 2016, Dan Zimmerman, in, notes that “Freelance writing is an ideal job for those who likes writing and prefer having flexibility. However, this is not a job for every skilled writer because it has its own set of challenges……………. knowing when to cut the assignments off is one of the top keys to avoiding freelance writer’s burnout”.

So, is it what it may be, by many, cracked up to be? Is it easier or more difficult than working in an office, a (sic) “fixed environment” if you like? I think it can be challenging. There are the obvious potential concerns: how do we secure business; do we have enough cash; the competitive nature of the CV writing business – in January 2017, my Google search of CV writers produces 2,850,000 results.

So, no commute. No short-notice meetings. No dress code (I LOVE that – I have never been one to wear my pyjamas at 11am but I do like a little flexibility – like, if the client is on the phone, do they know I haven’t shaved for 3 days?! If you feel that will be detrimental, look at my LinkedIn (please!!): so far, it’s never been an issue).

Remote CV writing work can seem like a dream — until personal obligations get in the way. These can vary from my 30-year old daughter wanting to share her new-found pregnancy (as you can imagine my CVs at that point took a back seat as, briefly, my life gained a new perspective) to a simple “I must go to Tesco” diversion. These distractions are easy to ignore in an office, but at home it can be difficult to draw the line between personal and professional time.

When I’m working on a project and get a call from a friend, or in my case, more likely, my family. I know I need to finish my current difficult CV, but I feel rude for not talking when I technically could. Or when I’m planning my daily to-do list, but also need to decide when I’ll squeeze in my personal commitments. Taking the time to empty the dishwasher or programme the Virgin Tivo box (others are available) can seem like a quick task — until I find myself making up that work time late at night. In the end, it’s never entirely clear when I’m really “on” or “off.”

I have found 2 things to be pertinent here: the nature of a CV, and a CV “package” – perhaps a cover letter, LinkedIn profile, personal statement too; and the pressing that clients often bring to bear. The 2 require balance, a certain regulation and construct. I discovered over the years that I can write CVs as individual documents, and balance the various package strands and calls, easily. But it took a while, and I’m conscious that not everyone’s so inclined or disposed.

For example, my phone has the now-standard auto-text reply feature for use when it rings. I use it often. It can be because I’m genuinely juggling 3 things or because I’m going to the toaster. Both, I feel, are equally valid. The fact that the client will never know is good and, again, to me at least, not detrimental to ultimate on-time project completion.

As someone who has worked from home as a CV and content writer for 12 years – as well as venturing into occasional career coaching, proofreading for remote workers, and more – I’ve seen and experienced the good, the bad, and the ugly. I’ve found from speaking remotely to remote colleagues that the most focused and effective home workers set up boundaries for themselves so that they can get work done. In this regard, being able to work both entirely freelance but also contractually has proved very beneficial because I am able to work to my own protocols but also require fitting with others’ which I don’t set.

Working from home tips

So, here are some tips for how I think you can make remote writing work more productive and satisfying.

Establish working hours. It may sound silly, but if you want to have a focused day of work, pretend you’re not working from home. My son-in-law very recently had to do this. He’s an IT manager who is based, by his employer, at home. Not long into his job, he requested to rent office space since he was finding it very difficult to plan and focus.

I often have CV clients who are, I imagine self-evidently, coming to me because they have specific – to an extent – personal deadlines yet I often need to juggle their deadlines with the fact that they are entirely self-centred and don’t think I may have others in the same position.

Before I became a CV writer, my schedule was good – I’m just that type. But I was always aware of the potential pitfalls (ironically, I think that’s, at least in part, what kept me focused). I didn’t have a set time that I would be at my computer, and I would often schedule personal appointments – say going to the doctor or to Tesco during the day. And since my personal life didn’t have boundaries, my work life didn’t either. When I was at home, I would feel guilty for not checking business email at all hours of the day and night. I never felt that I could truly rest. I am fully aware that it is the same for most of us these days, freelance or not: the blurring to the point of almost no lines, of email checking and phone answering, is not healthy. But that’s a separate topic.

On the assumption that most flexible/home workers will, definitively if they are just starting, have no idea if they will be disciplined or not, I suggest setting up “office hours” for working from home. It might be 9 am to 6 pm most weekdays though there must be flexibility – life does go on.

You then need to clarify what is or isn’t acceptable to do during that time. Ask yourself, “If I was in an office, would I do this task during the day?” If the answer is no, you know you need to do the activity before or after office hours. Spending time with friends, going to Starbucks (reference the Tivo box) all might have to become activities that need to happen before or after work. Of course, you may still take an occasional call from a friend during your own-designated lunch break, or if you have an urgent task like an emergency car repair, you’d make it happen during the day. But these should be exceptions, not the rule. In setting this boundary, I think you not only create dedicated work time but will also find that you can focus on personal items guilt-free “after hours.”

Structure your day for success. You need to maximise the effectiveness of your time at home by structuring it differently than a typical workday. For example, if you work from home only one day a week or on occasion, make it a meeting/call-free day. If you can’t entirely avoid meetings, reserve at least half a day for focused work. Choose a time that works best for you, based on any required meetings and your energy levels. My best body clock time is evening, so I tend to work mid-morning until, maybe, 8pm or 9pm. In my case this works well because my CV client base is global so if I offer a client in, say, Saudi a chat at UK 8pm, they think I’m doing them a huge favour!

Then define one or two key items that you want to accomplish during this time. These could be tasks that require an hour or more of uninterrupted attention, or they could be items that simply require more creative, strategic thinking than you may be able to achieve in the office environment. It can also be helpful to switch off email during this period — or at least stay away from it for an hour at a time. Alert any colleagues of times that you’ll be disconnected, so they won’t be surprised by a delayed response. I have a message in my email signature advising that there may be gaps and, crucially – for me – advising that I don’t have that platform on my mobile, so they shouldn’t always assume a near-immediate reply. This works for me because clients often don’t read it, but they can’t deny it’s there if they complain that they tried to mail me and I didn’t reply.

Set boundaries with others. Be clear with the people who might see your work-at-home days as simply days you’re at home. Explain to friends, family, and other acquaintances that the days you’re working remotely aren’t opportunities for non-work-related activities. For example, I tell my partner, even though we don’t live together, when I’m planning to be on my computer. She respects this and understands that whilst she might text me, if she doesn’t get a quick reply, that’s fine.

Typically, when you set expectations and stick to them (say, really stopping at 5pm), people understand your limits instead of assuming you’ll be available. I also recommend having a place where you’re away from anyone else who might be home, such as an office or bedroom where you can shut the door and be out of sight. And, as an aside, bear in mind that if you structure the rooms appropriately, HMRC will allow a significant tax offset.

In situations where you may have unexpected visitors, you’ll need to be diplomatic. If a neighbour arrives, you need to be prepared to have a brief conversation, just as you would with a colleague who would stop at your desk if you were office-based. But ideally don’t suggest they come in for a cup of coffee – you’re throwing your own schedule away; and, simply by asking them in, giving the unspoken message that you have time to spare – you probably don’t.

If you do need to take on non-work-related requests during the day, set expectations for how much time you have, based on what your schedule is like in the office. For example, if your family asks you to go to the shops or even meet them for coffee, estimate what you can do during a lunch hour, then commit only to that. For example, say, “I’m happy to pick up the dry cleaning and some milk at lunch, but I won’t have time for a full food shop until after work.”

When you explain your limits, you don’t need to do so apologetically. Lay them out factually, having the same respect for your time working from home that you would have if you were on-site. As you consistently communicate and live by these expectations, other people will begin to expect them, and you’ll find yourself having more time for focused work.

And remember, if your boundaries are good and you stick to them, you’ll almost certainly work from home more effectively, regardless of your job sector or whether you are a freelancer or a senior director.


Written by

Nigel Benson is a professional career sector specialist with over 12 years' experience writing executive level CVs and expertise in recruitment, job interviews and training.

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