I hate to break it to you:
If you’re a freelancer, the world is against you.
Well, maybe not the whole world.
But your partner, your family, email, Netflix, Facebook, the dog (or cat), the neighbors, your friends—they’re all against you.
It’s not personal. They’re against me too.
Oh sure, your friends and family say they want you to succeed as a freelancer.
But their actions tell a different story.
The people who love you are among the constant distractions that keep you from getting your work done.
Same with the dog. Or cat.
And email, Twitter, Netflix, Facebook, Pinterest and the rest of the internet?
Well, they only care about keeping your attention on their content and away from your work.
Or is it, House of Cards!
The world may be against you, but Copy Hackers and I have your back.
I’m going to tell you how I set up my home office to eliminate distractions and increase my ability to get work done.
But it’s a critical step toward your long-term freelance success.
Eventually you need to stop working at the coffee house or from your kitchen table if you’re going to succeed.
So pay attention.
How to set up your home office so it makes you a better freelance copywriter
Take a look at a few of the beautiful “home offices” featured on Pinterest.
Who doesn’t want a home office so perfect that everyone pins it to their Ideas For My Home Office board?
Normal people work in gray cubes in boring office buildings, but we get to work here!
Umm… about that…
Actually, take another look at those photos.
Now imagine working there 6 to 8 hours every day, 5 or 6 days a week.
Imagine hunching down to peer into your monitor, which is stuffed under a shelf holding books you’ll never refer to.
And see those chairs? Sit in one of those for more than an hour or two and your back will ache like you’ve been hauling bricks.
And those tiny desks? Where’s the space to lay out papers, notepads, research materials and the other stuff that you need to get your projects done? Heck, some of those desks barely hold a laptop.
A pretty office is rarely a productive office.
And a coffee shop is, of course, no better. If you try to do your freelance copywriting work at the coffee shop, you’ve probably had more than one day like this:
With all the noise, the tiny tables, the hard chairs, and in some cases, the customers with freaky abilities, coffee shops simply aren’t designed to help you concentrate and write great copy.
Just because it’s got free wifi doesn’t mean you should work there, via @brandstory on…
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Get serious about your office.
You’re going to be spending a lot of time in your workspace. And you’re a writer. So most of that time is going to be spent sitting in your chair, at your desk, hunched over your keyboard.
Start by Setting Aside a Space in Your Home
(Bonus Points for Using a Room with a Door)
When I left my last job and started freelancing again, I rented an office. It was a nice quiet space several miles from home. But I never loved being all alone in an office all day.
And the money I was spending on rent?
Probably not worth it.
So I moved home.
With my wife’s permission, I turned our old dining room into my home office.
Don’t worry, we still have a place to eat.
But to be totally honest, I was concerned about whether I’d be able to get stuff done working from home.
My wife and I have four teenagers and a Westie. None of them are the introspective, quiet types (including the Westie).
Things are fine while they’re at school, but every afternoon the house “comes alive”.
And they’re home all day, all summer long.
One son loves dubstep/house at high volumes.
Yes, I know that if the music’s too loud, it means I’m too old, but dubstep? Dubstep sucks.
One daughter loves to watch Psych and Jessie, also at high volumes.
Another regularly brings home friends to learn the Napolean Dynamite dance. True story.
Friends. Video games. Ringing phones. The very occasional argument between siblings.
So I needed an office where I could shut out that part of my world for eight hours a day.
Which is why I decided against the dining room and created this home office instead:
I’m lucky. Not everyone has this much space. But if you’re serious about freelancing from home, you may have to make a few sacrifices.
- Kids can share rooms.
- Exercise equipment can be moved to the side.
- Storage boxes can be moved to the garage.
You need to find the space. Just do it. An extra bedroom or the corner of the basement will work.
(There may be tax advantages to using the space solely for work. Check with your tax advisor.)
When choosing where to create your office, make sure you’ve got:
- A strong wifi connection (a room in the basement may require a booster)
- A bathroom nearby (don’t underestimate how important this can be)
- Close proximity to water (or other beverages)
- Easy enough access to the front door so you can grab your daily Amazon deliveries
- A window you can open and close (airflow!)
- Reliable heating and A/C
Setting up a space where work (and only work) happens provides a psychological barrier between your work and everything else.
Once you’re in your office, it’s time to work.
And when you leave – hopefully after you’ve met your deadlines – you can let go of the stress and worries that come with your freelance projects and relax. In the rest of you home.
Ideally your office space should be away from the areas where family and friends spend their time (and make noise). Bonus points if your office space has a door that you can close and lock when needed. If you can’t get a door, get a set of noise-cancelling headphones.
I know some of you are thinking “I can make do at the kitchen counter”
Or you’re thinking you might convert a relatively big closet into a home office. It’ll be easy to work there when no one’s home.
Don’t do it.
It’s hard to be productive in a space that’s used for anything by anyone at any time.
Don’t don’t expect to get much done at the table in the backyard.
Don’t lay your work on the bed.
And never set up on the sofa in front of the TV.
The temptation for most of us is simply too strong.
You’ll tell yourself you’re just checking the news for a minute… and three hours later…
When it’s time to work, be consistent about where you work. This will help you establish the work habits that professional writers have.
Everyone Needs to Know: “Dad works in that room” (or Mom)
Here’s the hardest part of working from home.
I’m still the dad. And the spouse. Maybe you’re the mom. Or the partner.
Those roles don’t go away, even when your office door is shut.
Every once in awhile one of my kids comes home from school, excited to share something that happened that day, only to find my office door closed.
My office doors are glass. I can see them bursting with their news as I wave my hands frantically warning them not to open the door and interrupt my call.
But good provider.
And, of course, you CAN make an exception now and then. Just don’t make the exception the new rule. You won’t get anything done if your workflow is interrupted at will by family and friends popping into your workspace.
Like it or not, you need to establish office hours
Office hours are the time each day when family and friends know you are “at work” even though you are at home. It’s the time when, no matter what they need, you are “far away” at work and can’t be reached. Doesn’t matter that you work from home. Your office isn’t home during office hours.
This was the biggest hurdle I had to overcome when I started working from home. I’d be in the middle of a project and hear:
“Can you pick up the kids from school?”
Or get a call…
“I’m stuck in traffic, can you take the girls to swimming?”
And my favorite…
“Would you mind running to the store to pick up some garlic so I can finish dinner?”
We eat a lot of garlic.
These are requests I never got when I worked 15 miles away in an office.
But at home? A totally different story.
When you’re working in the next room, it doesn’t feel like a big deal to ask for a favor. And if you’re not on a call, it doesn’t look like you’re working on anything important.
So they ask.
And you feel like a jerk if you say “no”.
But if saying “yes” takes you away from your work, it’s a big deal.
Interruptions kill the flow of your work. They break your concentration. They take away time that you need to hit your deadlines. And, of course, a break in your workflow isn’t that easy to come back from—not when you work in the field we work in.
That’s why you have office hours.
Talk to your family, neighbors and friends, and let them know that when you’re in your office between certain times, you are as good as 100 miles away.
They’re simply not welcome in your office space during those hours.
If that sounds too harsh, put a sign on your door when you really can’t be disturbed. Use it when you’ve got to get things done.
Mine says “On a call” and I’ve been using the same note for months:
Then use it when you’ve got to get things done.
My family knows that when the note is on the door, I’m unavailable.
When someone makes a demand on your time during your office hours, let them know you’ll help as soon as your work is done.
Of course, there are exceptions. Arterial bleeding and broken bones. But that’s about it.
Too many exceptions = no office hours at all.
You might even take your office hours restriction to a new level by not responding to email or chat (or any of the Slack-like messaging tools) while you’re writing [see below].
That’s up to you.
At the very least, set up a few hours a day when you won’t be disturbed so you can get work done.
Make Your Office Your Office:
Here’s How to Choose What Goes Inside
When it comes to decorating your home office, these are the things I’d recommend you spend good money on. In most cases, you can write the office furniture and tech you buy off your taxes.
1. Invest in a good chair.
My first chair was the vinyl executive high-back seat on sale for $69 at Office Depot. Something like this…
I hate spending more money than I have to.
I figured it’s just a chair, right?
But what happens when I get a two-week influx of work that keeps me at my desk 12 hours a day? Hello, chronic back pain.
Then I spent some time “hoteling” in a friend’s office for a few days. Everyone there had an expensive task chair with adjustable lumbar support and a bunch of ergonomic features I don’t have space to go into here.
It was as if the clouds parted and angels began singing.
Sitting in a good chair was a revelation.
I swapped out my faux leather executive special for a task chair the next day.
The specific chair I use is the Haworth Zody.
The company calls it “a high performing chair that blends science-based wellness and comfort with sustainability and international design”.
I call it comfy.
You don’t need to choose this specific chair. Knoll makes something similar. And the team at Copy Hackers spends their sometimes-very-long days in classic Aeron chairs by Herman Miller:
But you should expect to spend $500 or more (though some newer ones are more affordable).
What? For a chair?!!
No. For your back. For your health. And for your ability to get more done.
It’s worth every penny.
Follow the old rule of spending well here: Buy once, cry once.
Other than your computer, your chair is the most important piece of equipment you will use as a freelance copywriter. But before you run out and drop that cash on a life-changing chair, do your research:
- Digital Trends likes the Herman Miller Embody.
- And Gadget Review has this No Bulls#*t Guide to Office Chairs
- Here’s what PC Gamer recommends (and those guys do a lot of sitting)
- And this is a pretty good comparison of a few more options
And, of course, try before you buy.
Sit in the chair. Lean back. Shift your weight around. Put your feet up. Press down on the padding. Can you feel the frame?
Padding will compress over time, so if you can feel it now, you’ll definitely feel it later.
And the seats of those Aeron chairs curve up on the sides. Those curves are made of hard plastic—which isn’t comfortable if you sit cross-legged in your chair, like that weirdo Joanna.
Other than your computer, your desk chair is the most important piece of equipment you will use.
A chair that takes care of you makes all the difference.
2. Get a good desk.
A writer’s desk is a romantic thing.
We covet “just the right one” because it’s the space where our genius makes its way onto the page. Books have been written about it. Seriously.
Check out this review that touches on the fascination with the writer’s desk:
But here’s the thing: your desk is your workspace. Not your dreaming space.
It’s where you’ll sit in the early hours, throughout the day, late at night and on weekends. (Hopefully not as constantly as that sounds.)
But your desk needs to support your life and health much like your chair does.
My desk is pretty big.
It used to be my dad’s.
It’s been painted, stripped, stained, scratched and just about everything else that can happen to a piece of furniture over forty years.
But I love it because there’s room for books, papers, laptop, an extra monitor, a podcasting microphone, water, a Coke Zero and more.
I like a lot of space.
Joanna and Lance at Copy Hackers love their standing desks by Autonomous. Studies have found that you can burn as much as 50% more calories by standing vs sitting. (In case you’re interested, you can use this calculator to see how many more calories a standing desk could help you burn.)
The one thing to note here: standing and exercise desks wobble a little bit. So it can be hard to write intensively while you’re standing, walking or riding, unless you deal well with a little motion sickness. That said, you can always move your desk into standing position when you’re returning emails, researching or in meetings—that is, when you’re doing things where typing with a wobbly screen won’t throw you off your game.
One more thing about desks…
In On Writing, Stephen King tells the story of how he dreamed of owning a “real” desk so he could get rid of the “cramped knee hole” he’d been using for years.
The desk he wanted was “the sort of massive oak slab that would dominate a room.”
Then he got it.
He put it in the middle of the room and for six years sat behind the desk “drunk or wrecked” out of his mind “like a ship’s captain in charge of a voyage to nowhere.”
Eventually King sobered up and replaced the monstrosity with a desk that was “handmade, beautiful, and half the size of the T-rex desk.”
And he moved it into a corner at the far end of his office.
That desk was a metaphor for a lot of things that went wrong for King in his life. And the advice he gives for getting through it all is this:
“…put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”
Your desk is just a tool to help you write.
It’s not furniture. And it’s not art.
It’s the place you work.
As long as it gives you enough space to get your work done, it’s probably good enough.
3. Make your home office a space you want to spend hours and hours in.
You’re going to be spending a lot of time in your office.
Probably more time than any other room in your house.
So make it a place you want to be.
I had shelves built into the wall behind my desk to hold some of my favorite books.
As I sit at my desk, I can look out the window at the mountains on my left or over to the fireplace on the right.
There’s space for a reading chair (because books).
And there’s even a television, though I don’t turn it on much.
On the walls and shelves are family photos and a couple of trophies.
The actual stuff in my office doesn’t matter as much as making it a place where I like to spend time.
You should do the same.
Freelancer Kaleigh Moore has a large whiteboard in her office that she uses to track her schedule. The Copy Hackers team has an entire wall painted as a white board. Other writers decorate with plants, motivational posters, toys, guitars, vision boards or other inspirational images.
Make your office the kind of place you want to go when you get out of bed. Or you’ll avoid it and the work you need to do.
A few other things to consider when setting up your office space…
Working alone is hard enough. Working in a dark, or dim room makes things unbearable.
Your office space should be well lit. Choose a room with a window that lets in as much light as possible. More light exposure during the day has been correlated with better sleep quality, more physical activity and beneficial effects on mood, alertness and metabolism.
So my office has a big east-facing window that lets in plenty of light in the morning.
Writer, Jessica Merhring, puts her desk right up against a window in her office so she constantly looks out on the world.
Joanna and Lance’s home office has two enormous windows with distant water views.
If your home office space is dark in spite of natural light sources, consider getting this lamp to keep your energy up.
While there is some research that indicates messy environments can lead to more creative output, keeping some order reduces stress, increases productivity and helps keep things “feeling” manageable.
Shoot for a happy medium. Your desk doesn’t have to be spotless, but it shouldn’t look like it’s a prop from the reality show, Hoarders.
My desk looks like this most of the time:
When I’m working on a project, I spread reference materials all over my desk.
And my computer desktop.
But once the final draft is done and submitted, all that goes into a file. If I need to reference it later, I know exactly where it is. But there’s no reason to let it continue taking up space.
So I keep a couple of nice looking, but inexpensive file boxes next to my desk to hold project files, tax information, research materials and anything else that would get stacked on my desk.
Then every few months (or more like once a year) I clean it out and get rid of everything I don’t need any more.
What You DON’T Need in Your Home Office
Other than a good chair, a place to spread out your work, and a few things to make it comfortable (windows, art, books), there aren’t a lot of other “must-haves” for your home office.
In fact, there are a few office things you can easily get by without. Stuff like:
- A printer: You’re remote! Send anything you need printed to Staples.
- Google Chromebox for meetings: Unless there are a few of you working in your home office, you don’t need this
- Hue lighting: Fun but definitely not necessary
- A phone dock: Unless your phone is a major part of your workflow, why invest in anything that’ll clutter up your desktop
- A Rolodex: Welcome to the 21st century. Put those contacts in your phone.
When You Set Up Your Home Office Right, It Supports Your Work Habits
When it comes to optimizing your home office to get things done, the most important things to think about aren’t related to the space or furniture.
It’s about creating the right work habits.
There’s a popular notion that freelancing means working when you want, instead of being tied to a desk from 9 until 5. You can take time during the day to play with your kids or help them with homework. Or take off for a movie in the middle of the day. You do what you want because you don’t have a boss to tell you what to do.
There’s a little bit of truth to all of that. A little.
You can take time off without asking your boss… but that means you won’t be making any money while you’re away from your desk. As Joanna tells her stepson:
“I still have a boss. The bills are the boss.”
The freelance copywriter’s life isn’t as cushy as it looks from the outside.
The reality is that your kids will want you to take time off work to play or to help with homework, but you’ll be in the middle of a project with an unforgiving deadline.
Friends may want you to join them for coffee, but you’ll have an interview to conduct and transcribe before the afternoon is over.
And Jon Snow, Bran Stark and the Lannisters are always tempting you away for an hour or two. But when’s the last time anything with those guys turned out well?
You probably chose to be a freelancer in part for the freedom it gives you. But that doesn’t mean you can wait to work when you feel like it. Or wait for inspiration to hit.
You’re a professional. And professionals show up every day and do the work. And if pros don’t have client work, they work on their own businesses (guest posts, improving your own website, creating products and growing your list).
If you have office hours, you know that every day at a certain time, you’re going to sit down and do your work. For me that’s around 8:00 AM, right after my kids head off to school.
There’s no question about whether I’m going to get up every day. And I know I won’t be turning on the next episode of Luke Cage or Breaking Bad.
I’ve made that mistake before and it never results in more work getting done.
I’m in my office to work.
I treat my office hours just like I would if I were working for someone else (which I am – my clients).
That doesn’t mean I don’t take breaks—I do.
And, no, they’re not always scheduled. I make time for things like dentist appointments and performances at school. Lunch with friends. Or even a couple of hours on my bike.
But most of the time, I’m in my office for my office hours.
Sometimes my home office gets a little crazy.
Here’s what I do when that happens.
Of course, even with office hours, things can get crazy around my home. Yours too.
Kids bring friends home for an adrenalin-fueled marathon of Smash Bros Brawl.
Or your partner turns up the music as they do their work.
Or the cats go crazy in the background as you conduct a conference call.
Maybe you work at your local coffee shop from time to time.
That’s when you break out your secret weapon: active noise-cancelling headphones.
Like a good chair, this is an investment worth making. I touched on it earlier. But now it’s time to give these genius innovations on the headset the adoration they’re due.
Noise-cancelling headphones eliminate the background noise around you so you can focus on writing. They work by listening to the noise in the background, then they create sound waves (exactly the opposite of what they pick up) and send them to your ear.
The combination of the original noise and the new sound waves cancel each other out, so all you hear is the music in your headphones.
Or nothing, if you don’t turn on your music.
If you don’t have a set, here’s a pretty good comparison of the options.
These are mine:
Like your chair, they’re not cheap. But they’re a worthy investment.
When I can’t beat them, I join them.
If you don’t have noise cancelling headphones, you can go the other direction and drown the noise out.
I like to listen to music while I work.
Playing music helps me focus on my work instead of the noise going on outside my office.
For me it’s usually Jazz or classical piano because there are no lyrics to distract me.
I could just turn on the radio, but a couple of years ago, I discovered Sonos and I love it.
Like… marry it, love it.
Sonos plays music from my iTunes playlist, Pandora, Spotify, SiriusXM, Google Play and about two dozen other music services.
And anyone connected to my Sonos can add tracks to the playlist.
When things get loud outside my office, I can turn up the Federico Aubele station on Pandora (thanks for the recommendation Tim Ferriss) or switch over to my favorite piano jazz playlist.
When I’m not writing, my guilty pleasure is Brit Pop played on stations in Edinburgh and London.
Lance and Joanna have a Sonos system in their home office too. They favor jazz and “London shopping music”.
If you’re the type that can’t help but sing along to the music you play, try listening to music without lyrics—something like jazz or trance. A few writers I know like to listen to a white noise playlist on Spotify.
Which brings us to the biggest barrier to your office’s awesomeness: your computer.
How to Make Your Computer Make You Productive
(Not a Distracted Copywriter Who’s Barely Making Ends Meet)
It’s a miracle anyone gets anything done with all these cat videos to watch. And puppy videos.
Seriously, who can’t make time for this?
Or puppies and kittens…
And a few hours later…
Getting work done requires focus and the right mindset.
But when I see a Twitter notification letting me know that @copyhackers just shared my latest blog post (Sweet!), I can’t help but click over to check it out.
— Joanna Wiebe (@copyhackers) November 14, 2016
Or when my sister tags me in a photo on Instagram… what photo? Better check it out.
Or a friend mentions me in a comment on Facebook. Wonder what he had to say?
Or someone tags me on Slack and that red dot is calling…
The Internet doesn’t care about your work. Or mine.
It cares about getting your time and attention.
To focus on your work, switch off pop up notifications.
Turn off any app or program that you don’t absolutely need to get your work done.
Yes, that means email. And Facebook. Definitely Facebook.
Notifications are addictive triggers designed to capture your attention and get you to check into an app or email. To pull you away from your writing.
And they work.
It is almost impossible to ignore the email ding, or the red dot, or the pop-up at the top of your screen.
They practically scream, “PAY ATTENTION TO ME.”
Just turn them off.
Distractions are the enemy for productivity. You do not need to stop what you’re doing to learn everything you can about the next season of Stranger Things. Don’t let distractions in.
So, if you can’t help but check email, Instagram, ESPN, Facebook or any other social network or website a few times a day, leave your phone in the other room and invest in a distraction eliminator.
An app like Cold Turkey will block notifications, turns off specific websites like Facebook, and can even shut down the whole Internet while I work. It’s highly customizable and hard to get around once I’ve set it up.
If you struggle to stay on task, you should check it out.
TL;DR Your home office is like a surgeon’s operating table: single-purpose, clutter-free and work-focused
I’ve shared a few tools and tricks that work for me.
But your situation may be different.
You might not have an office (perhaps you “hotel” at a coworking space). Maybe you don’t have kids. Or you can’t work while listening to music.
The idea here is to find the tools and develop the habits that help you get your work done.
Do you do something different?
Share your favorite habits and practices in the comments (or post a pic of your workspace)—I want to learn from you too.
~ Thomas Jefferson