It’s the most common question I get asked:
“So… do you actually have a job…?”
Yes, I do.
I write for a living.
I know that may seem like a strange career — I mean, who writes and gets paid these days? — but it’s true.
But I don’t just write fun nonfiction pieces for newspapers and magazines. (Now that would be a glamorous life!) I supplement my income by writing advertising copy and website content, and once in awhile, I’ll even help with social media strategies for businesses.
While I don’t make a ton of money — the most I’ve ever made in salary was when I was 28 years old — there is one big perk of my job: I get to work from home.
Now, working from home doesn’t come without its downsides. I’ve had friends who left offices to work at home only to return to the cubicle, citing reasons like there was no separation between work and home and the distractions — laundry, TV, Facebook — were too great. They preferred using office supplies, utilities, Internet and air-conditioning paid for by someone else, too.
For me, though, I love it.
But it did take an adjustment.
I first started working from home back when I was a reporter at The Honolulu Advertiser. A handful of us — we were called “MoJos” or mobile journalists — were sent home to work, covering our neighborhoods are our beats. We were set up with a laptop, video equipment and Intranet access to file our stories. We had a system where we checked in with our editor in the morning, gave him the rundown of our schedule that day, then worked for about eight hours before clocking out.
Of course, that was the ideal plan.
It really worked out like this: I got up at 4 a.m., checked my email and sent my daily schedule to my editor. Then I surfed for about an hour or so, came home and resumed working. My editor, who was slightly paranoid about handling several reporters who were never in the office, kept close tabs on us, checking in just about every hour by phone. (This was particularly difficult when we were in the middle of interviews or writing.) Then, as much as I wanted to shut off my computer, I couldn’t. I would check my email and work on stories well into the night, often waking up in the middle of slumber to fix a sentence in my story.
This wasn’t working out.
It took me awhile to figure out how to stop working at home.
A few years ago, when I started teaching full time at Kapi‘olani Community College, I did my freelance writing at home, after work hours, in between grading papers. The lines between work and home had blurred so much, I should have just ditched my rental and lived in my campus office.
It wasn’t until I really left the full-time office gig and worked solely from home that I figured out how to make it work.
There are five rules I live by:
1. Stick to a schedule, one that includes breaks: I work regular business hours, usually from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. That means, I try to schedule interviews and meetings and do most of my writing during those times. And most of the “fun” stuff I do, I still do before or after work. All the hiking, surfing, swimming, running happens before I start my workday or after I clock out. But, as we would in an office, I do allow myself breaks during my work hours. It’s just that I can do different things, more productive things, than had I been in the office. I can walk the dogs around the neighborhood, putter in my garden, do laundry, wash dishes, cook dinner, vacuum, run errands, read a book, or sit in front of the TV for a good hour and veg.
2. Set up a comfortable work area: This one is a work-in-progress for me. Right now, I’m set up in the living room, on a small, expandable table facing our avocado trees outside. (You need a view.) But I’m also facing our big-screen TV, which is almost always turned on to the Food Network. That can be distracting. And the chair I’m using is painfully uncomfortable. The trick is to set up in an area where there are minimal distractions, with access to tools — books, files, printer, Diet Coke — and a view that will revitalize your spirits while you’re working. And you need a good chair, one with adequate back support that’s not so comfortable you’ll use it for naps. That’s key.
3. Stay organized: If you’re not self-displcined or organized, working from home can be tough. You can easily get distracted and lose track of what you’re supposed to be doing every day (especially if you’re like me and have no whip-cracking boss standing over you). So I make sure my iCal is up-to-date — and always on; I check this at soon as I wake up in the morning to make sure I won’t forget an interview, meeting or deadline. I keep a writing pad next to my computer so I can make notes of things that come up. And I have a to-do list for each day. (Some people keep an hourly one. I can’t.)
4. Get out of your house: I’m a big fan of the coffice — where people with no physical office work out of coffee shops or co-working spaces. It’s great to get out of your pajamas and don real clothes, sit in a new — and, hopefully, stimulating — environment (with free WiFi) and work. The distractions are different here — people, conversations, the smell of freshly roasted coffee — but it’s nice. It’s also important to schedule meetings and, in my case, interviews outside the home office, too. Get out. It’s good to feel like a normal, working person sometimes. (Plus, talking to your dogs all day can get a bit dull.)
5. Focus. This may sound a lot like No. 3, but here’s the difference: you can be organized and prepared for the work day ahead. But if you’re easily distracted, it will never work. While I’m able to work with a lot of noise around me — credit my 10 years in a newsroom — I turn off the TV and refrain from checking Facebook and Instagram when I really need to focus. I’ve learned this from my freelancer friend on Kaua‘i, who also works from home: she sets her timer to 45 minutes and works straight through. When the timer goes off, she takes a 15-minute break, doing whatever she wants. Then she goes back to work for another 45 minutes. I do the same, even setting deadline times with a reward. For example, if I can finish my story by noon, I’m free to do whatever I want after that. It gives me incentive to really buckle down and work.
So this is what I do. This is how I’m able to get my work done and still have time to walk the dogs up the Makapu‘u Lighthouse Trail and get in an early-morning surf session.
Like I said, I don’t get paid much. But I’m doing what I love, I have a lot of flexible time, I can tend to my vegetable garden in the middle of a workday, and I can still pay my bills. What else do I need — besides a comfortable chair?