We live in strange times. I’d wager that a lot of you are now working from home, either for the first time or for a lot longer than you’re used to. I used to work in an office more or less every day, but for the past five years I’ve been working in my garage every day. As a result, I’ve learned a lot about the tools, techniques, and behaviors that can help you work more efficiently on your Mac or iPad from home. I hope what I’ve learned can help you be more productive and healthier at home.
Give your Mac more screen space
If you’re used to working from a Mac with a big monitor and are now working from a laptop, you may be frustrated by a lack of screen space. If you’re using macOS Catalina and you have a recent-model iPad running iPadOS 13 handy, you can convert the iPad into a second display to give you more screen space.
Wake up the iPad, open the Displays section of the System Preferences app, and choose your iPad from the AirPlay Display sub-menu. Your iPad will appear as a full-fledged second monitor, which you can position as you like and use to give yourself a bit more space to work. (This is Catalina’s new Sidecar feature, and it works really well. It’ll work wirelessly, but if you plug your iPad in to your Mac, your iPad’s battery won’t run down.)
Of course, that iPad needs to be positioned in a stable place next to your Mac. If you’ve got Apple’s Smart Cover or another, similar case, you can fold the cover around back and use it as a stand to prop your iPad up. If you’re planning an extended run with the iPad, consider getting a dedicated stand. I like this one from Viozon, but there are many available on Amazon and elsewhere.
Macworld has more instructions on adding a second display, like a HDMI-equipped TV, an extra display, or even an old iMac (if you're also using an older iMac).
Take breaks and avoid distractions
It’s really easy to get distracted when you’re working from home, especially if you’re not used to working out of the office. Software, hardware, and setting some rules for yourself can help.
Sound isolation. If you’ve got a pair of headphones, use them. Isolating yourself from the sound of the rest of your new workspace can help, if you’re someone who can work while listening to music of some kind. (If you subscribe to Apple Music or Spotify, you’ll find lots of movie scores on there, if you’re looking for something without lyrics. There’s also a lot of great electronic and post-rock music that is less distracting because it has no lyrics—I love Explosions in the Sky, and my friend Myke recommends Tycho.)
Group communication. Your employer may be using Slack or a similar tool to facilitate communication among a dispersed team. I love Slack; it’s made me feel connected to colleagues and collaborators even though I’m fundamentally a single person sitting in an empty garage. However, Slack can be a distraction that gets in the way of doing work.
Fortunately, Slack and similar apps have pretty extensive notification settings. You can control which channels you’re notified about, what text is required to set off notifications, and can even set lengths of time where you won’t be disturbed at all. Experiment with all of these features and find what works for you. Obviously, if your boss expects you to react immediately in certain channels, you need notifications set properly for those. But other channels that are less urgent can be muted entirely.
Quit to get ahead. I understand that you may need to keep Slack open for work purposes, but if you don’t, consider quitting it when you’re diving into a task the requires focus. The same goes for other social apps. When I start writing an article (like this one), I quit both Slack and Twitter and don’t re-open them until I’ve finished my work—or at least reached a stopping point where I want to take a brief mental break.
Use your calendar. In an office you might use your calendar to keep track of meetings, and you may still have remote meetings using services like Skype and Zoom. Beyond that, though, consider scheduling in calendar events for the tasks you need to perform. I’ve found it valuable to block out regular time for specific tasks—for example, I have a repeating calendar event to write my weekly Macworld column on Tuesdays at 2 p.m. It’s a date I’ve made with myself, and I can reschedule it if I need to, but I find that adding a little more structure to an unstructured day or week can do wonders for my focus.
Apps to help you focus. There are a couple of free Mac apps that can also work wonders for your focus, depending on your needs. Marco Arment’s Quitter auto-quits apps that aren’t active for a certain amount of time, a tool that’s pretty great for pushing social-media apps out of your life so they’re not distracting you. John Haney’s Backdrop is an app that covers your entire screen with a single picture or color. If you have a lot of windows open on your Mac, Backdrop can help blot them out temporarily and let you focus on just the one or two apps you need to use right now.
Take a break. Unless you’ve got a dedicated home office, your temporary workspace may have awful ergonomics. I know there’s only so much you can do about that—you’re probably not going to build a new home office in the next week—but you can make it easier on your body by taking breaks on a regular basis. Get an app like BreakTime that reminds you on a regular basis to get up from your computer and move your body.
Use an iPad instead of a Mac. And if you’re really looking for focus, consider trying to do some work on an iPad. I know the iPad isn’t for everyone, but it can be so much less distracting than a Mac. On the iPad, you can only really see one or two apps at once. If your business has a subscription to Office 365, you can use the full suite of Office apps on the iPad just as well as on your Mac. You don’t even need to use a Smart Keyboard—you can connect any Bluetooth keyboard to an iPad, and USB keyboards will work too if you’ve got the right cable or adapter.
A few more tips
You’ll find that a lot of the best advice you will get about working from home will not be about computer hardware and software, but about human behavior. Sometimes our brains are the tech that is most responsive to “hacks” that can make our lives more functional and efficient.
Get ready for the office. Try to pick a starting time for work, even if your remote doesn’t require strict hours. Get up, do your morning routine, get dressed, eat breakfast, and be at your computer by the starting time you choose. Having a routine and going through a ritual can help your brain shift its status from “I’m at home” to “I’m at work.”
Set house rules. Breakdowns in communication can be the most frustrating aspect of working in a shared space. If you’ve got other people in the place where you live, try to come up with some rules that everyone can agree on. When is it okay for you to be interrupted? What does a closed door signify? What does it mean that you’re wearing headphones? You can set cues to mean whatever you want, and you can negotiate with the people around you about how you’re all supposed to behave—but if everyone’s on the same page, things will go a lot smoother.
Social interaction online. While I listed Slack, Twitter and other social apps as potential distractions to be managed—and they are—they’re also amazing tools to help you not feel so isolated. Use them. If your workplace Slack doesn’t have a water cooler channel or two, maybe you and your friends (who are also isolated!) should make your own. It’s free to make Slack and Discord instances. Make one with your friends and use it as a lifeline to stay connected to people. Use FaceTime or Skype to video chat. We all have access to tools that can make us all feel less isolated. Use them.
To-do list. Finally, even if you’re not the kind of person who obsessively makes to-do lists—I’m not!—consider making a to-do list every day, on paper or on a device. (Apple helpfully makes a Reminders app that works perfectly for this.) At the beginning of the day, note all the things you’re expected to do, and check them off as you accomplish them. The act of checking that box helps your brain “keep score” and give you credit for your work. It may seem a little silly, but I’ve found that I am much happier when I have tangible evidence that I have accomplished something today.
More tips and advice. My friend (and fellow Macworld contributor) Glenn Fleishman has been working at home for years, and he published a free ebook about all of this. Check out Take Control of Temporarily Working From Home for 50 pages of good advice.
Good luck, stay safe, stay healthy, stay hydrated, and stay indoors.