by Carolyn O’Hara

More people are foregoing a lengthy commute and working from home. Whether you are a full-time freelancer or the occasional telecommuter, working outside an office can be a challenge. What are the best ways to set yourself up for success? How do you stay focused and productive? And how do you keep your work life separate from your home life?

What the Experts Say
The days when working from home conjured an image of a slacker in pyjamas are rapidly disappearing. Technological advances and employers looking to lower costs have resulted in more people working outside an office than ever before. By one estimate, telecommuting increased in the U.S. by 80% between 2005 and 2012. “The obvious benefits for workers include flexibility, autonomy, and the comfort of working in your own space,” says Ned Hallowell, author of the forthcoming Driven to Distraction at Work. And done well, working from home can mean a marked increase in output. A Stanford University study last year found that the productivity of employees who worked from home was 13% higher than their office-bound colleagues. People often feel they make more progress when working from home, says Steven Kramer, a psychologist and author of The Progress Principle, and “of all the things that can boost people’s work life, the single most important is simply making progress on meaningful work.” Here is how to work from home effectively.

Maintain a regular schedule
“Without supervision, even the most conscientious of us can slack off,” says Hallowell. Setting a schedule not only provides structure to the day, it also helps you stay motivated. Start the day as you would if you worked in an office: Get up early, get dressed, and try to avoid online distractions once you sit down to work. Whether you just started working at home or you have been doing it for months or years, take a few weeks to determine the best rhythm for your day. Then set realistic expectations for what you can accomplish daily. “Make a schedule and stick to it,” says Kramer. Make sure you give yourself permission to have downtime. If you must work extra hours on a project, give yourself some extra free time later on to compensate.

Set clear boundaries
When you work at home, it is easy to let your work life blur into your home life. “Unless you are careful to maintain boundaries, you may start to feel you’re always at work and lose a place to come home to,” Hallowell says. That is why it’s important to keep the two distinct. One way to do that is to set aside a separate space in your home for work. You also want to make sure your friends and loved ones understand that even though you are at home, you are off limits during your scheduled work hours. “If the doorbell rings, unless I’m really expecting something, I’ll ignore it,” says Kramer. That not only helps you stay focused but makes it easier to get out of work mode at the end of the day. “Schedule your time with your family, and with yourself,” says Kramer. “Put those on your daily calendar as seriously as you would your work.” And do not worry about stopping for the day if you are on a roll with a project. Pausing in the middle of something will make it easier to jump into the task the next day — a tip that is valid for everyone, but especially those working from home. “Ernest Hemingway would try to leave in the middle of a paragraph at the end of the day,” says Kramer, “so when he sat down again, getting started wasn’t hard because he knew where it was going.”

Take regular breaks
It may be tempting to work flat out, especially if you are trying to prove that you are productive at home. But it is vital to “take regular ‘brain breaks,’” says Hallowell. How often is best? Researchers at a social media company recently tracked the habits of their most productive employees. They discovered that the best workers typically worked intently for around 52 minutes and then took a 17-minute break. And these restorative breaks need not take any form. “It can be as simple as staring out the window or reading the newspaper,” says Hallowell, anything to give your brain an opportunity to briefly recuperate. “The brain is like any other muscle. It needs to rest,” says Kramer. “Go for a walk, get some exercise, stretch. Then get back to work.”