How to Work From Home When It’s Other People’s Home, Too

Writing takes focus and concentration, and the environment in which you write matters. (It may seem very writerly and romantic to take your laptop to a coffee bar, but remember that the writers who worked in cafés in Paris of the 1930s only went there because the cafés were heated — and the small hotels in which said writers lived were not!) Most writers who produce a steady stream of good work do so alone, not in an atmosphere of chatter and clatter.

Unlike Sartre & company, many of us live in perfectly well-heated houses where we could work quite nicely, except for the fact we share those houses with other people. Spouses. Roommates. Children. They’re challenges, to be sure. But when faced with the decision between continuing to work from home and vying for a small table in a crowded coffee bar, don’t give up your space and your solitude until you’ve tried setting a few boundaries. For others. For yourself.

I live alone, so any distractions that happen are generally of my own doing. But ’twas not always so, and I had years of living with people who didn’t always grasp the fact that when I was working from home, I was, well, working.

That may be your current difficulty as well. There are a few things you can do to make sure your home-time and your work-time are not one and the same thing:

Create signals.

This can be as simple as the position of your workroom door: a closed door means no interruptions short of the sky falling, an open door means sure, come on in, and a door that’s half-open may mean it’s okay to come in if it’s important. Notes pinned to the door work a lot less well, I found, as no one tends to read them.

Create space.

Speaking of that workroom, make sure that you have one. The absolute best way to work at home is to have a room that’s assigned to that function and no other. If you cannot set aside an entire room for your work, then be very clear about defining the space in which you write. A small section of your bedroom that you can keep private is far better than working on the living-room sofa or the kitchen table.

Create ambiance.

Using special “work” music can help set the tone. If other people are going to be in the house while you’re working, consider using headphones rather than speakers: they’re a great way to block out the world and focus on what you’re doing, and they send a clear signal to others. If you work best in silence, consider noise-blocking headphones.

Create time.

Block out what time is “work time,” and what time isn’t, and respect the divisions unless there really is an emergency in either sphere. Don’t go into your work space if it’s not work time, and don’t take extended breaks outside of the workroom if it is.

Create a safety valve.

This means getting out from time to time. Take a brisk walk. Drive to the post office. Often the answer to a problem comes when we put it on the back burner, and you can’t access that back burner if you’re always in the environment where you work.

And so there you have it. Ways to make your home workspace work for you and for others in your household. How about you? Do you have helpful ideas and hints to make working from home more productive, more pleasant, more user-friendly?

Bestselling novelist of mystery and historical fiction. Writer, editor, & business storyteller at

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