From personal phone calls to household emergencies, it can be very challenging for a small business owner to stay productive while working from home. With so many potential distractions, how are you expected to concentrate on your work? Fortunately, resisting these work-hindering temptations is simpler than you think. In episode #95, Elizabeth Larkin and Gene Marks discuss several strategies that can help you maintain your focus while still working from the comfort of your own home.

Executive Summary

0:47—Today’s Topic: How Do I Stay Focused While Working at Home?

1:33—Every weekend, create a list of several goals that you would like to accomplish for each day of the upcoming week; afterwards, prioritize these goals based on their importance and urgency.

3:29—You need to make sure that your home office or work space is free of any visual distractions.

5:29—For optimal productivity, determine which times of the day make you feel the most focused and then, arrange your work schedule around those times.

7:23—Block out your day, so that you can give your undivided attention to each individual assignment.

11:39—Gene encourages small business owners to watch the television show, “Nathan for You,” because it offers unique and entertaining marketing ideas for real small businesses.


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Elizabeth: Welcome back to Small Biz Ahead. This is Elizabeth Larkin. I’m here with Gene Marks, who’s a small business owner, and he works from home.

Gene: Yes, I do work from home.

Elizabeth: You’re on the road, but you’re also at home.

Gene: Yeah. So I travel for clients, and then I work out of my home office. But then during the week I’m also at clients’ locations a lot.

Elizabeth: So we don’t have a question today instead I wanted to ask you a question about how you stay focused when you’re working at home.

Gene: I’ve never had a problem doing that.

Elizabeth: Now we’ve kind of talked about this before, we talked about your ‘to-do’ list and some of the tools you use, but I wanted to do a refresher on this because we have a lot of readers, a lot of listeners who are sole proprietors, they’re working out of their homes and they have a really hard time with staying focused.

Gene: You know, it’s funny. I’ll give you an example, and I think this leads into during the week as well. When the weekends come, Elizabeth, when it’s Friday, I like to shut down for the weekends, like do whatever. However, over the weekend there are some things I usually need to do work wise, just whatever they may be. And that happens every weekend. I keep a list. I have a manual … I don’t have it in front of me, it’s in my bag … but I have a composition book –

Elizabeth: Do you feel weird that you don’t have it with you right now?

Gene: No, I don’t. Now that you bring it up, I’m feeling a little –

Elizabeth: Want me to go get it like your lackey?

Gene: It’s an old time composition book that you see and I keep manual lists in there. I know I’m supposed to be a technologist but technology firm, but I still like the manual list whatever. I have an ongoing list. When the weekend comes, I have a bunch of things that just need to be done overall, but I’ll put a star next to two or three things that say, “By the end of the weekend, I need to make sure I have these things done.”

Elizabeth: Give us an example of what those things would be.

Gene: Some of them have to be I have a proposal that needs to be drafted or somebody sent me a project plan that needs to be … I need to review it. For a client project that’s gonna begin shortly. Maybe it’s an employee evaluation or maybe it’s a … My database, I need to update my database. I got in a list that I just bought, set up a spreadsheet. I need to get that in and set data up so then I can start emailing people about … those are the kinds of things. Tasks.

I’ll say, “Okay listen, as I start the week, I need to get these things done by then.” I try not to make it too much, but I do make it two, three, four things and I’m pretty good … I go back to … I carry that composition book around, and I’m very disciplined in saying I’m gonna get these done. That translates over into the week. If you’re working from home, and you know you’re gonna be in your office during the day, you should have every day just a … Don’t overdo it for yourself I get it. People that start making lists, they put 47 things on a list and you’re automatically gonna fail before you even get started. So you pick just two or three things and say listen, “By the end of the day I gotta make sure I’m gonna get these things done … ”

Elizabeth: That’s a good tactic.

Gene: “Or else I’m gonna be really annoyed with myself if I don’t do this.”

Elizabeth: Let’s talk about your home office. Is it just a dedicated home office?

Gene: No. It’s actually a den. I live in a two-bedroom apartment in Philly, so it’s a guest room den with a foldout sofa. By the way, whereas my wife originally was like, “We should just have a bed in there,” I said “No, we can’t do that. I need to have a sofa that folds out.”

Elizabeth: Because you would just be taking naps all day long?

Gene: I don’t even know if I could be taking naps, but I don’t wanna be looking at a bed all day while I’m working. There’s something –

Elizabeth: You make your kids sleep on a pull-out sofa?

Gene: They do. It’s a really good pull-out sofa and they should be darned lucky that they got a roof over their heads and food in the refrigerator. Let’s end it at that. The sofa gets put … Even when my kids are home, and I’m working we put the sofa away. Sorry, this has gotta operate.

Elizabeth: Do you kick them out?

Gene: Usually sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. It really kind of depends. But getting back to in the home office. It’s a professional looking room. It’s comfortable, it’s nice, it’s cozy, but it’s still somewhat professional. Computer’s in it with a printer, like a multi-purpose printer that can also act as a fax machine believe it or not, because –

Elizabeth: Really?

Gene: Sometimes I know. You wouldn’t believe, I sometimes get faxes. Whatever.

Elizabeth: I’m gonna start faxing you.

Gene: Don’t. Please don’t. It drives me –

Elizabeth: Hi, Gene.

Gene: It drives me insane. We use eFax as well, so most of that’s kind of going away. The multi-function printer and the laptop, and that’s pretty much it. That’s really it.

It’s a very spare kind of place with minimal distractions in it.

Elizabeth: Do you have a routine that you follow? Do you bring a cup of coffee in and you’re like, “Alright, I gotta get down to business?”

Gene: Everybody does that. Yeah I guess I do. Again I get up every morning at five and I’ll write until about seven. And that usually involves a cup of coffee in the beginning. You can take a break. One of the beauties of working from home is that it doesn’t have to be a job like you’re at a cubicle. One of the greatest benefits is that you can get your work done at different times of the day. You just gotta pick those times out that you think you are most productive. And that’s really important to remember. If you look at yourself and say, “Listen, I’m a night person or I’m an early morning person,” I don’t think anybody’s an early afternoon person, right after lunch. You pick your times during the day where you know you’re strongest and you leave your work, particularly when I mentioned at the beginning of this conversation those two or three things you want to get done you leave it during that productive time, I’m gonna knock these things out then because I know I’ll be super … I do that.

Elizabeth: What you do with those little nagging things that you’re like, “Oh I just gotta get this done before I can move on?”

Gene: I prioritize … again I’ve go the things I promised myself I was gonna get done today and this takes priority over everything else. The other thing I do during the day is I do block out my time. So I will say okay for the next hour, I’m gonna respond to emails. Period. I don’t care what calls are coming in. They can wait. They can all go to voicemail. I don’t care what … I’m gonna be doing emails this hour.

Elizabeth: I think that’s actually your best technique. From talking to you about this a lot, you were really able to just focus on, “Okay, this is what I’m doing at this point.” A lot of people can’t do that.

Gene: Yeah, people seem like they get distracted very easily and you have to just say to yourself, “Listen, if you choose this is what you’re gonna do for the next hour nothing is really as important.” Everything can wait. I’ve learned that everything can wait. The other thing is I also know … You get to know yourself. If you finish … There are certain points of the day … If you finish a call and you just kinda know it’s gonna be hard for me to get focus back again after I finish this call if you know that in advance, that’s cool. You just know okay I’m to gonna be able to do whatever so after this call I’m gonna go out and grab a cup of coffee and get my head back in order. Then I’m gonna come back at 4:00, and I’m gonna get this stuff done. Block out your day and stick to those blocks. Again, nothing is that important that it can’t wait while you get your priority work done.

Elizabeth: You used to have an office?

Gene: Yeah. So we had offices in Philly up until about eight or nine years ago I guess it is now.

Elizabeth: And you were just there by yourself.

Gene: Yeah by myself. Nobody would come in the office.

Elizabeth: Did you use the same techniques then?

Gene: Yeah, sure. I’ve always been very, very much able to focus on –

Elizabeth: Maybe you’re not the best person to interview about this because you’re like, “I’m pretty good at this.”

Gene: Yeah. It’s funny. The thing is that you don’t wanna interview people that … you know, it’s funny I’ll bring this up maybe I hope it’s okay to bring this up. I listen to Howard Stern and I remember he was complaining about people that sell books on weight loss that they fluctuate. They tend to be people that have gained a ton of weight and then lost it and then gain it again, whatever. And he was always like … and he would say it half jokingly and seriously, I would wanna read a book about weight loss from a thin person who’s always been … because they know … I’m telling you I think I am a good person to ask these questions because I think I am productive and pretty focused on what I do. I can say this is what I do as a focused person. I block out my time. And I set certain goals, tasks I wanna get done.

Elizabeth: Let’s say it’s 5:30 in the morning, you’ve been sitting at your computer trying to write for half an hour and it’s just not coming.

Gene: That never happens to me either.

Elizabeth: Really?

Gene: That doesn’t happen. I usually have a whole bunch of things to write about, saved and I can pick out anything and just start … but I will tell you one thing. There are some times where sometimes it’s harder to write than others. What I’ll do is I will still write because I –

Elizabeth: You’re like, this is just garbage so I’m gonna have to rewrite this.

Gene: It’s never totally garbage. But it’s like okay sometimes you hit a single, sometimes you hit a home run, what can I tell you. You’re not gonna write a masterpiece every time, but let me get it out and start doing it.

Elizabeth: One thing you just said that I think would be a really good tip for a lot of people is don’t wait until the morning to make your to-do list for the day, do it the night before –

Gene: That’s a great tip.

Elizabeth: So you hit the ground running.

Gene: And I do that. For example, we’re recording this today is a Monday we’re recording this session, so on a Sunday night I always go through my to-do list so I hit the ground running. I always have a to-do list ready and then when the week ends, by Friday, I’m making my to-do list for over the weekend and for the next week. It’s always looking ahead with stuff to do. And there is … I find it very satisfying to go through a to-do list and cross items off. I think it’s really –

Elizabeth: It’s so good.

Gene: It’s a really good feeling to do. So to-do lists, block out your time, don’t overdo it to yourself, pick out the times of days that you really feel like you’re very productive and leverage them.

Elizabeth: Don’t try to start something right after lunch. It’s just not gonna happen.

Gene: Unless you happen to be super productive right after lunch.

Elizabeth: That’s actually probably a good time to make calls. You get a little energy off talking to people.

Gene: Could be. Could be a good time to take a 30-minute nap. It depends on what you are. If you’re working from home, one of the greatest benefits is that you can choose your schedule. You don’t have to sit there … I remember when I worked at a job, job and for a company and I’m in an office and I’m like, not. I know you’ve been there. Everybody who works at a company is. That stinks but what are you gonna do? You can’t just get up and walk away. Everybody else is around. One of the joys of working from home and take advantage of that.

Elizabeth: Companies don’t often have break rooms now so you can’t even go hide in the break room.

Gene: You can’t and then it just looks whatever, by the way one final thing. There is nothing wrong with taking a nap in the middle of the day if you work from home.

Elizabeth: Do you do that?

Gene: Sometimes … Like 20 minutes. 30 minutes at most. I get reenergized by it. It’s hard to get up from it. But within a minute or two of getting up, you feel yourself better and there’s nothing wrong with that. We are human beings with biological needs. If your need is to take a nap, do it.

Elizabeth: Do it. We’ll be right back with Gene’s Word or Words of Brilliance.

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Elizabeth: Okay, Gene. Take it away with your Words of Brilliance.

Gene: Actually, it’s one word. But it could be three words. I’m gonna tell you what the word is –

Elizabeth: You’re cheating.

Gene: The word is Nathan.

Elizabeth: Like the hot dog?

Gene: No. Nathan for You.

Elizabeth: Nathan, like the name?

Gene: Nathan for You. If you’re listening to this show and you wanna learn about small business and you wanna have a great time and laugh when you learn about small business, people say to me what’s my favorite TV show about small business. People like, “Oh, Shark Tank, Shark Tank or Gordon Ramsey’s Kitchen Makeover or The Profit.”

None of those shows are … the best show about small business on television is on Comedy Central, and it’s called Nathan for You. And I think it’s in its fourth or fifth season now. Elizabeth, it is the funniest, most educational show ever. They’re 20-25 minutes in length and here’s what the show is. Nathan Fielder is a young comedian … a nerdy guy from Canada but he lives now in California. And every episode he goes to a small business and he comes up with an idea to help them grow their business. Except the ideas that he comes up with are hilarious. And the business owners don’t … they’re not in on the joke. They don’t know that it is a joke. And a lot of the things that he comes up with makes national news because they’re so outlandish. For example, did you ever hear a few years ago there was the Dumb Starbucks thing. Did you ever hear about this?

It was national news where somebody had a coffee shop; and instead of align it Starbucks, they called it Dumb Starbucks, and everything in the place was dumb. They had put dumb … It attracted a whole bunch of attention and then ultimately it attracted a lawsuit from Starbucks. That was one of the ideas from his show and nobody knew that it was a joke.

What he does is he’s a very quiet reserved kind of guy, so funny and what it teaches you … a few things about small business. First of all, the marketing ideas are nuts obviously, but it makes you feel great. He talks to real small business owners. These are not tech startups or genius. It’s our audience. It’s me. It’s people going to work and battling for every customer and it makes you feel a little validated just to the lengths that some small business owners will go to grow their business and find new customers.

It tells you it’s not easy running a small business and you think to yourself I can’t believe that this guys gonna let this Nathan do this crazy scheme, but the reason why is because this guy has got an auto repair shop or he’s got a restaurant and he’s really … One of Nathan for You’s episodes was, you know the guy that plays Kramer on Seinfeld? The ideas was to advertise for a restaurant … you ever see on the newspapers or online, restaurants get attention when a celebrity comes in and leaves a big tip in a check? So he came up with this whole thing. He hired an actor who pretended to be the guy from Seinfeld and he came into this diner and they rehearsed the whole thing with the diner and the guy would leave a tip, like a giant amount and it became news. It was really, really funny the way they did it.

If you wanna learn something about some marketing ideas but you also want to feel validated as a small business owner and have a good time and laugh, Nathan for You is my three words of the day.

Elizabeth: Nathan for You.

Gene: Yes. Watch that show.

Elizabeth: Okay, we’re gonna be back in a couple days and we’re gonna be talking about the latest and greatest business technology. We’ll talk to you soon.

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