If you're a freelancer and you work from home, you'll know only too well the challenge of separating work from personal life and finding ways to stay productive during working hours.
There'll also be times when you suffer from cabin fever, and you'll miss the company of others when you're feeling cooped up and all alone.
Looking at my own experiences of working from home, I've put together the following tips to ensure you maintain a happy, at-home working environment while running a successful business.
Establish a routine
Every morning, set your alarm as you usually would if you had a full-time job, working for someone else. Get up at the same time every day and stick to a morning routine. Don't be tempted to lie-in every day – you'll end up working through your lunch break and into the evening when you should be relaxing with family and friends.
Get showered and dressed
It's all too tempting to slob around in pyjamas all day without having a shower or getting dressed, but this will only leave you feeling sluggish and lazy. Make sure you have a hot shower and wear some nice clothes. Dress like you're going to work, and you'll feel professional and ready for anything.
Have a good breakfast before you start
Don't be tempted to roll out of bed and go straight to your desk before you've had something to eat and drink. You should also avoid checking emails or tweets before munching through your usual bowl of cornflakes. Start the morning by eating breakfast and gaining the energy you'll need to have a productive day.
Leave the house and come back
A great top tip is to leave your home every morning and go for a walk. Nip to the shop for supplies, if you need to. Or get some exercise to start the day on a positive note. When you get back home, it will feel like you've 'commuted' to work, and you'll be able to achieve that physical separation of home and work.
Have your own space
Don't, whatever you do, have your computer or desk in the lounge, kitchen or anywhere that shouldn't be associated with work. Keep your workspace separate from everything else. Try and have a dedicated area in your home that's specifically for your work and is off-limits to everyone else. Make sure that workspace is comfortable, cosy and away from any distractions. More importantly, make sure it's professional, tidy and organised.
Look after your health
Although it's tempting to sit with your laptop in front of the TV, it's not ideal for your health. Get the right set-up in terms of chair and desk to protect your neck, back, arms and wrists.
Make sure your laptop plugs into a keyboard, mouse/trackpad and monitor. Set everything at the right height and distance to avoid causing any physical health issues. Read this article on how to stay healthy at work.
Stick to sensible working hours
Just because you don't have to commute, it doesn't mean you should work longer than people who do. Eight hours is all you need to get work done, so avoid the temptation to extend your day and clock up ridiculous overtime. Remember, it's scientifically proven that working for any longer than eight hours is pointless because you'll only be unproductive.
Get your telephone answering right
If you're using your home number as your work number, make sure you keep things professional by avoiding other people picking up the phone when it rings. For example, if you've got children on half-term holidays, let them know that they're not allowed to answer any calls during office hours.
An alternative option is to get a Skype phone number and divert to your mobile. That way, only you will be able to answer work calls. When answering calls, make sure your environment is quiet. It won't sound very professional if you have the television on in the background or the children are arguing again.
Don't use your home address
It's a tip that most people forget to mention, but it's vitally important for many reasons – do not use your home address as your business address. Firstly, it can make you look unprofessional, i.e. people might not respect your company if they know you work from home. And secondly, it could open up a can of worms – for example, what if something terrible happens through your business? Do you want the world to know where you sleep at night?
Register your registered business address (i.e. the one you have listed with Companies House) with your accountant – they usually do this for a small fee. And then get a PO Box through Royal Mail for your office address, either picking up your post from your local delivery office or paying extra for post-forwarding.
Don't forget to take breaks
It's all too easy to sit at your desk for eight hours straight without getting up to take regular breaks. I can't stress this enough. Don't forget to give yourself time away from the computer screen. Working long hours will only make you ill. Set the alarm every hour, so you know it's time to get up and stretch your legs, make a cup of tea or call a friend.
Get motivated and stay productive
One of the biggest challenges for homeworkers is finding the motivation to work in the first place. And once you do get going, it's challenging to stay productive. Avoid twiddling your thumbs and procrastinating. Sit at your desk at 9 am and tackle a few of the easy jobs first. It will help to set you off along the right track, and before you know it, you'll be ticking tasks off your list in no time at all. Read these top 20 ways to stay productive at work to help you stay focused.
Lay down the home-working/housework rules
Many people assume that people working from home will also find the time to sort all the ironing, cleaning and cooking. It's not the case. Inform your partner, husband/wife, family or friends that you have to work eight hours a day like everyone else and that housework should remain a team-effort during out-of-office hours.
Get rid of any distractions
Switch off the radio, ditch the TV and avoid those tempting computer games. Ban yourself from all at-home activities until you've had a full, productive day and tackled your workload. When I worked from home, I used to find the lure of Assassins Creed on the Xbox too much, so I made my husband hide the game completely. Do the same at your home – get rid of any distractions. And that also means limiting the amount of time you check emails, Twitter and Facebook.
Avoid cabin fever
Being stuck at home for both work and personal life can leave you feeling claustrophobic and cooped up. To avoid that common 'cabin fever', get out of the house during your lunch break to enjoy some sunshine and fresh air. Go for a walk or cycle after work as well. Do anything to break up the day and get yourself out of the house. You could also consider becoming location-independent, so you're able to take your laptop to cafes or public spaces. Do anything to stop the feeling of those four walls closing in on you.
Don't be alone
Just because you work from home by yourself, it doesn't mean you're alone. Make friends on Twitter. Join communities and forums. Find Skype pals to chat with. Go to networking events. Get yourself a little support network of fellow freelancers who are all working from home and could benefit from some shared company and the chance to bounce ideas off others. You are not alone, so do everything you can to tackle those feelings of loneliness or isolation.
Ditch the guilt
There is no need to feel guilty that you have a fantastic opportunity to work from home. Just because you don't have to commute or go through the hassle and expense of travelling to work for someone else every day, it doesn't mean you're a terrible person. You probably work harder at home than you would in an office, so ditch the guilt and start embracing all the benefits that working from home brings.