How to make your home office a sanctuary (and never rent office space again!)

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When you’re stuck in a cubicle, all you can dream about is the freedom of working from home. Your own office, your own tools, your own decor…oh, it’s simply glorious!

Then real life smacks you in the face: you’re distracted by a steady stream of interruptions, your backside hurts from sitting on your hard kitchen chair all day, and someone moved those notes that you absolutely must have for your client meeting.

But before you justify the financial burden of renting office space to escape the challenges of working from home, follow these tips to make your home office a sanctuary of productivity and efficiency.

You can also check out “8 Tips for making the most out of working from home

Create some space

I’m not saying you’re never allowed to lounge on the couch and sketch ideas for a project while enjoying the fireplace or watching your favorite movie, but you need a real office.

As a freelancer, you need four walls and a door that you can enter and say to yourself (and others), “I’m at work now.” (tweetable)

Your office should be a welcome, comfortable, calming place for you. (Whether that’s fresh flowers, hockey memorabilia, or inspirational quotes, I’ll leave to your tastes.)

In addition, choose equipment (chair, desk, keyboard, mouse, and monitors) that you’ll be comfortable using all day every day, even if they’re a little bit more expensive than you were thinking (use the $3 per use principle). Spread the purchases over time if need be.

Ultimately, if you dread entering your office (no matter the reason), you won’t enjoy “going” to work. Fashion your office such that you smile when you walk in!

Note: Sometimes you just need a change of scenery for the day, and that’s okay.

Set rules

Now, just because you’re smiling and comfy in your office doesn’t mean that all of your distractions aren’t going to stop bursting into your space – literally – and interrupting your work.

You have to set rules about how family, friends, roommates, and pets should interact with you during business hours.

Not sure what rules to set? Here are a few of my favorites:

  • When the door is shut, pretend I’m not here. Please don’t bother me unless it’s an emergency.
  • If the door is open, feel free to enter! I may be working, but it is okay to ask me a quick question or ask me to join you for lunch.
  • Please call before dropping by the house. I may not be able to stop working to spend time with you if you arrive unannounced. (Define your general working hours, especially if they are unconventional.)
  • If I don’t answer your call/email/text/etc., I’m in the middle of a project and can’t respond right now. I will respond later in the day.

Talk with your family and friends about your needs. For example, it’ll be easier to get your family to agree to your closed door policy if you promise to have dinner with them nightly at 6:30 without fail.

How to apply your rules without feeling mean

In those first few days when everyone is adjusting to your rules, you may bump into some intentional or accidental resistance. Be firm but gentle in your reminders. Here are some examples:

Situation 1: Your family forgets what a closed door means.

For younger children, help them make a sign to hang on your office door to help them remember.

For teenagers, ask them to do a chore for you every time they interrupt you – soon enough, they’ll stop!

As a drastic measure (only in final desperation), lock the door.

(PS: Here’s how to work from home without ignoring your kids completely.)

Situation 2: Someone drops by unannounced and you’re in a creative groove.

Remember, you don’t have to answer the door even if they know you’re home. (If that feels really uncomfortable to you, tell them you were on a business call or had music on and didn’t hear the doorbell.)

If you do decide to answer the door, don’t welcome them in.

John, hi! I’m so sorry, but I’ve got a conference call with a client in a few minutes and I need to finish preparing. If you can call ahead next time, I’ll let you know when I’m free to watch the latest episode of The Game of Thrones.”

You may feel rude, but you’re not – imagine yourself walking in unannounced at their job/appointment and expecting them to drop what they’re doing for you.

It’s just like if I were to visit you while you’re preparing a legal brief, Aunt Emma. Sure, it’s not impossible for you to stop and have tea with me, but the interruption will cause you to lose your focus and work flow.”

Situation 3: When your door is open, your spouse comes in to chat with you for longer than you’d like.

First, remind your spouse that work time interruptions need to remain brief. Then schedule a specific time to discuss the longer topic.

Honey, I’d love to talk to you about the kitchen remodel, but I just don’t have time right now. Can you give me an hour to finish this project and then we’ll talk? Come get me at 2:30.”

If that doesn’t seem to work, you might have to close your door more often.

Remove distractions

Okay, so you have a great office and time to work…but now you’re playing Spider Solitaire and Words With Friends instead of working.

Time to remove your distractions, even if it means (eep!) removing games from your office computer. (Use a work login if your work computer and home computer share the same motherboard.)

Also consider using a different browser for work and play with bookmarks specific to each task.

This goes for other items as well – if you keep getting distracted by your TV, cell phone, tablet, cat, or logic puzzles, remove them from your office.

(Want to go minimalist? Check out this post.)

Clean up after yourself

Finally, clean up after yourself regularly. Establish a “home” for your office supplies, current projects, inspiration, and past projects. Then spend five to ten minutes tidying up before leaving your office.

When you return, you’ll know exactly where everything is and can easily start on a different project without accidentally putting client A’s sketches with client B’s project notes. Especially if you share your computer with your family, you don’t want red Kool-Aid spilling all over your printer paper.

In my opinion, this is one of the most undervalued and overlooked aspects of creating and maintaining a home office sanctuary that you enjoy working in.

PS – Don’t believe me? Check out this post for creating the ideal freelance design workspace.

Tell us about your home office!

Is your home office a sanctuary? What about your office makes you smile? Leave a comment on this post and tell us how you’ve improved your productivity and efficiency with these and other tips!

About April Greer

April is a go-to freelance designer with a rare combination of creative expertise and technical savvy. She is available for subcontracting and speaking engagements – visit Greer Genius for more information.

Comments

  1. Great post April! I like the bit about rules….very important. I wrote a post on decorating a home office, http://www.webshoo.com/the-home-office/, sort of funny, you may get a giggle.

  2. When I walk past my office on my way to get a cuppa tea; my little brown dog, Riley Jo is always in my office with crossed front paws and an expression, as if to say, “what are we going to do today, mom?” “Let’s get started!” Makes me smile and is very motivating.

  3. Carey Jordan says:

    How I dream of having my own office! Unfortunately for me, I live w/ roommates so my only option is to create a space in my room. Which you might imagine can be a bit challenging with your bed so close and looking extremely comfy. It’s especially challenging to work in my room, as I work FT and PT freelance at night. I do appreciate the tips as I notice when my room is uncluttered I feel more open and less stressed when trying to create.

    • Carey,

      Combining a room and bedroom can be a challenge. I don’t know how much space you have, but you might consider a divider between your bed and your desk. Or, consider adding extra lighting around your desk so that it doesn’t feel like bedtime even when it is.

      Good luck! Hopefully you’ll get some extra space soon.

  4. Love the advice about giving teenagers a chore! I find cleaning off my desk is the best way to increase my ability to focus. Still working on making it a habit, but improving. . .

    • Jane,

      Since I share a workspace with my boyfriend, we have to make sure our desk is clean for the other one when we’re done. At first it was difficult, but I find that it also helps me start the day when I have to bring out my work materials, and end the day when I put my work materials away.

      You can do it!

  5. Hey April, I’ve never heard of the “$3 rule” but it does make sense. I always ask myself “will you be using this item a year from now and will this actually help make your life easier”.

    On a related subject here are some ‘Pros And Con’s Of Graphic Design Self Employment”: http://designbuddy.com/pros-cons-of-graphic-design-self-employment

    • Derek,

      My dad (a financial consultant and CPA) taught me about it and I’ve used it ever since in both my personal and my professional life.

      Thanks for the link – they are all good points, and his last one is the most important: it’s not easy!

  6. I’m going to have to find a way to make this work.

    I moved back home after college and have been freelancing since then but because my parents’ house is so small there is literally no space to have a private office. My only option is either to get my own apartment (which I can’t afford just yet) or to build a separate room.

    I’ve been looking into getting a shed and building it in our back yard (The house is small but we have plenty of land!) and I think that will really help my productivity. I can still get things done with the setup we have now but I’ll find it a lot easier and will probably be more productive when I have a quieter, less stressful space to work.

    Besides that, though, I love how my current “office” is set up. I was able to keep my old desk from when I was growing up and it’s big enough to hold my computer, a printer and a small shelf and still have enough space for drawing. Behind me I have my bookshelf which is overflowing with reference books and a few novels that I like to pick up and leaf through when I’m feeling uninspired. Really, once I get my own room I’ll be set!

    Great article, and I’ll definitely let me mom see the section about setting “rules” with family… she’s pretty good about leaving me alone during work hours but sometimes she comes in a juuuust the wrong moments and I lose focus on something important :)

    • Hannah,

      A shed might be just the thing you need – private space at home but not at home where you can be in your own world. Make sure you factor in getting electricity and heat/cooling (depending on where you live) out there.

      Being determined is often more important than having the best setup ‘out-of-box.’ You learn more about what you want in an office and see if self-employment is for you – dealing with obstacles is a big part of freelancing.

      Thanks for sharing!

  7. I work for home but I don’t have a spare room for the office. I love some of the tips mentioned here and will be applying them to my working environment.

  8. I use the Leechblock firefox plugin to keep me on track during work hours. During work hours it blocks certain websites and allows access to others for a total of 10 minutes. That helps me stay on task.

  9. I’m always interrupted by friends and family via phone, who know I’m here and have a flexible schedule. Even though I’ll answer (politely) “Hey! I’m working right now, whatcha need?” they will still launch into the latest dream they had, or their food diary for the day, or “Have you ever wondered what MONKS are for?” Sheesh! Seriously!? (that one was NOT made up, I SWEAR!)

    And I feel so rude repeating “umm… I’m working right now, I really can’t ponder the usefulness of monks!” (in my head I’m going, “which part of “I’m working” did you not understand?”)

    Friends…. can’t live without ‘em, can’t shoot ‘em. ;-)

    • Tamian,

      You’re hilarious! :) Thanks for the laugh.

      Sometimes during working hours, I just don’t answer the phone. (It helps that I don’t like using the phone all that much anyway, so I get back to them later.)

      My struggle lately has been a redecoration of one of our rooms…just when I get back in the groove I hear, “Hey Dear…do you have a moment? I need help lifting this/What do you think of this here?”

      Door is going to have to shut a bit more!

  10. Great post!

  11. I enjoyed your article, April and it served as a good reminder on several levels. One of my favorite home office attributes is my fireplace. I have one in my studio upstairs. i don’t have to use it very often but on those cold, grey days of winter, nothing is more inviting! And I’m no Scrooge when it comes to firewood. When the warm weather sets in I have my window where i hang a bird feeder to offer up treats to our feathered friends throughout the year. I call it “cat T.V.” as it also keeps the cat from walking across my keyboard! It also allows me to look up from my keyboard on occasion which is important for eye strain, posture and overall ergonomics. We do tend to forget that we are sitting in one position for long lengths of time when we become absorbed in our work. In that case the brief distraction is a welcome one.

    Cheers!

    • Bernie,

      Couldn’t agree more! I have a bird feeder outside my window as well as a tree and rose bush, so I enjoy a variety of birds and sometimes hummingbirds. My dogs also serve as excellent break reminders!

      Thanks for sharing!

  12. I use a diffuser with peppermint essential oil to keep me alert and ready for work. Plus it just smells divine and you’re not bothering a coworker who has allergies, etc.

  13. I really enjoyed your article April. I live in a one bedroom apartment, which has minimal space rooms and a joint living/dining area. I have a lot of equipment: 24″inkjet, and hp laserjet, drafting table, desk and computer cabinet with 2 computers (PC and Apple). I needed to create an office because the integration of my office within my living room kept me from feeling like I was actually in business. So I made a big change. I turned my dining space into my office.

    To separate the living/office space visually, I use two paint colors, eggplant purple, and sea grass green (for my office space). I have all of my office equipment from the living room in my office space. Only my drafting table is in my bedroom.

    I really love it. Unlike some of the other designers, I do not have the distraction of people around me, so the open space plan is good for me. I also found that downsizing was important, as I lost two of my dining room chairs, which is not apart of the living/dining room.

    Color is very useful for creating a mood. Perhaps those without space could consider color blocking as means to define a work space that feels like an office space.

    Lastly, I really appreciated the need to keep family and friends respectful of your working hours. Now I receive very few calls from family and friends. The way that I solved the problem was to explain to them that I am working, I am not available to go on errands, eat and chit chat on the phone. I also reasoned with them concerning how bad it would be for me to call them and working spouses at their job to take me on a trip to the grocery store, or to just say high. Now all of the calls has stopped. You do not have to be harsh but as a woman we tend to be taken less serious, for men do not get disrespected like woman do, so you have to be business like when talking to your friends. But, to call when it is not an emergency is to take a person for granted.

    Over all I will put many of the suggestions concerning distractions into practice.

    Great post.

    Bobbi

    • Bobbi,

      I love your color idea. Sometimes a fresh coat of paint makes all the difference! And changing the color in your office space so it is different from the living room? Genius. Well done.

      Thanks for sharing!

  14. I really enjoyed your article April. I live in a one bedroom apartment, which has minimal space rooms and a joint living/dining area. I have a lot of equipment: 24″ inkjet, and hp laserjet, drafting table, desk and computer cabinet with 2 computers (PC and Apple). I needed to create an office because the integration of my office within my living room kept me from feeling like I was actually in business. So I made a big change. I turned my dining space into my office.

    To separate the living/office space visually, I use two paint colors, eggplant purple, and sea grass green (for my office space). I have all of my office equipment from the living room in my office space. Only my drafting table is in my bedroom.

    I really love it. Unlike some of the other designers, I do not have the distraction of people around me, so the open space plan is good for me. I also found that downsizing was important, as I lost two of my dining room chairs, of which my dining table and 4 chairs is now apart of the living/dining room.

    Color is very useful for creating a mood. Perhaps those without space could consider color blocking as means to define a work space that feels like an office space.

    Lastly, I really appreciated the need to keep family and friends respectful of my working hours. Now I receive very few calls from family and friends. The way that I solved the problem was to explain to them that I am working, I am not available to go on errands, eat and chit chat on the phone. I also reasoned with them concerning how bad it would be for me to call them or working spouses at their job to take me on a trip to the grocery store, or to just say hello. Now all of the calls has stopped. You do not have to be harsh but as a woman we tend to be taken less serious, for men do not get disrespected like woman do. That is because men know how to be business-like. Women have to be business like too, by setting grounds and communicating to friends and family. For to call someone working when it is not an emergency is to take a person for granted.

    Over all I will put many of the suggestions concerning distractions into practice, as I must keep the television off when working is something that has to change. I have noticed that I am more productive without the noise.
    Bobbi

  15. HI, I worked for 6 months in a very confined space at home, it was dark, no natural light, and tiny. I really dreaded going to work and I wasn’t happy. We have a beautiful attic that has an amazing NYC view and is only used as a guest room. Guess what? we get visitors once every year? and the rest of the time is empty, so I decided to move my office to the attic, I get to see NYC every day I placed my desk right next to the window, and my attitude towards work, took literally a 180, I ‘m so happy now, and wonder why the hell it took me so long to think of it. The attic is about 400 square feet and it has a private bathroom, a private entrance, so my husband always knocks or calls me asking when is a good time for us to talk, He knows that when I’m up here, I’m working and doesn’t disturb me. :) I decorated it and put really nice courtains and flowers and I’m sooooooo happy. I really feel like I’m running a business now.

  16. Thanks for the article! When I was finally able to have a separate room for my home office my productivity really increased. The rule setting is crucial. Luckily, I have a pretty quite space without much distraction except two pugs…and the beautiful sunshine!!
    I find starting the day with a discipled routine really helps too. It sets the pace for the day. Also, I try not to spend too much free time in my work space. I feel I am much more refreshed after I “step away from the plate”

    • Ariana,

      Two dogs (I have labradoodles) and sunshine can be big distractions for me, too! However, sometimes it’s that cold, wet nose to the elbow or the toy dropped in my lap that reminds me I should take a break and enjoy 20 minutes of free time to boost my productivity.

      One thing I’m improving about my routine is exactly what you mentioned – disciplined morning routine. The days where I stick to it I feel better, more focused, and get things done!

      Finally, I love your comment about not spending your whole life at your desk. It can be hard for freelancers with only one computer to work and play in the exact same spot, and that leads to a lot of problems.

      Thanks so much for sharing!

  17. After a long day at work, our homes are places where we want to feel supported, at peace, inspired, and free to be ourselves. In a nutshell, our homes should be sanctuaries for our bodies, minds, and spirits. They should be restorative and far from the stress-filled world of work, deadlines, and traffic jams.

  18. I think that is a great idea. I will do it in my next office. Thank you

  19. Really nice idea… I will do it in my next office. Thanks.. Best regards fom Interior Design Picture blog.

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