Hollywood screenwriter and author Stephen Foreman says he’s inspired by nature and the black bears, elk, cougar, turkeys and other wildlife who have peeked through his home office windows over the years. Although he lived in Alaska for years, Foreman now divides his time between his home office in Los Angeles and his man-cave style home office in the Catskill Mountains of New York.
Phil Elmore, best-selling ghostwriter of 22 of the 600 books in one of the most famous action novels of all time, Mac Bolan: The Executioner, (sales have exceeded 200 million) also has two home offices, and commutes weekly between Rochester and Syracuse. “If you count my commute time, that’s three offices,” he says.
Seth Godin, whose blog is consistently ranked first or second in the AdAge Power 150 as the number one marketing blog out of the 900+ blogs tracked, spends almost as much time on the road as he does at home. He considers a home office an “optional luxury,” but when he can, he looks for “An inspiring environment, a place that causes a Pavlovian desire to do great work every time you walk in.”
Dan Pink is the author of five provocative books — including three long-running New York Times bestsellers, A Whole New Mind, Drive, and To Sell is Human. Pink’s books have been translated into 34 languages and have sold more than 2 million copies worldwide. A popular speaker as well as author, he spends a lot of time navigating airports and other wildly noisy environments. It’s no surprise that when he sits down to write he says, “I need quiet. Lots of quiet. My current office is pretty mellow, yet I still find myself using headphones to drown out what little noise there is.”
Sally Hogshead is a world-class branding and persuasion expert. She’s also the creator of the Fascination Advantage Assessment: the world’s first personality assessment that measures what makes someone most engaging or attractive to others. She uses her office, and several communication skills she’s honed to perfection, to make her home office more than just a space, but a dynamic place to connect.
Really great writers can write from anywhere, but the most successful ones write from home offices as much as possible. Each one has different tricks for creating the perfect writing space, but they all agree on one or more of these seven features:
Natural Lighting is the Number One Home Office Feature
As the lead speechwriter for former Vice President Al Gore, Dan Pink once had the distinction of having an office in the White House. When you’ve worked in the most famous office in the country what do you look for in a home office?
“I’m not a fan of working in windowless rooms. Sometimes that’s unavoidable. But if you can swing it, go for a place with ample natural light,” he said.
Travel Writers and editors Jules and Effin Older insist on natural light too. “It’s best not to be stuck in a cave for most of your waking hours,” Jules Older says. A psychologist, ski-blogger for the San Francisco Chronicle, Jules is the author of Death by Tartar Sauce, and TAKE ME HOME: How to Rent or Buy in a Hot Home Market, among others. “A view helps too. While it’s not as critical as light, a view helps ‘unfocus’ the mind. Stuck on a problem? Cast your eyes to the heavens above or the streets below. It’s not as good as taking a walk, but way better than staring endlessly at the screen,” he says.
Quiet Please. You Can’t Hear Your Muse Over a Barking Dog
“Given the presence of Starbucks, the home office is an optional luxury,” Seth Godin says. However, he adds, “If you’re going to have one, there are three things you need. A truly good headset is vital so that you sound present and professional on calls. Quiet. The quiet that lets you hear the things that are hiding, the opportunities that are being overlooked. And if you’re listening for a muse, no writer’s office should be without a copy of The War of Art by Steven Pressfield.”
Mike Michalowicz has not only founded and sold two multi-million dollar companies, he’s also the author of a series of best-selling business books, including The Pumpkin Plan and Profit First. He’s now working on his third multi-million dollar venture. He takes the challenge of a quiet office a step further than just headsets. “Invest in soundproofing. Nothing screams ‘lame home office’ like a dog barking in the background or the sound of a TV in the distance. Sound proofing the office keeps it quiet and professional. Not only do you not hear the house noise, they don’t hear you. I feel much more comfortable having confidential conversations when the office is soundproofed.”
Large or Small, Size Matters
Except for the time Hurricane Sandy forced him to work for weeks out of his backpack in a local community center, Michalowicz shares his home office with three to four other people. He says office size and access matters. “Have a separate entrance. Even if it is just you in your home office, you will have business guests. Since you don’t want people tramping around the house get a dedicated entrance.”
Pink, on the other hand, says, “Small is better. It forces you to be more efficient. Your office is a place to work. Don’t use it for anything else. Even if you’re using your dining room table to work, make a particular *corner* of the table the office. Then keep it sacrosanct — even if that means being cramped while eating.
“One reality check: Sometimes, many times, you have to make due with whatever space you have. Know that you can make just about anything work.”
Elmore embodies Pink’s reality check. He admits space in one of his offices is “incredibly limited by stuff piled all around,” while his second office contains a desk, a computer, and a chair.
“I think all authors create a space around them that is a self-fulfilling prophecy. I write action novels when I’m not doing technical and business writing, so my office space looks like somewhere Mack Bolan would keep his typewriter. If I could get a whiskey air freshener I’d hang one up,” he said.
Separate Access to Your Home Office
Michalowicz is a family man, but he doesn’t mix his home with his home office.
“Avoid shared resources,” he says. “My employee’s park in the driveway, and then my wife can’t get out. If my employees use the kitchen and my wife has a guest over for lunch, that’s not so great. While it may sound crazy to double up on a kitchen or parking, we did that with great success. A kitchenette in the office is great. A separate parking area for my home office employees helps too.”
Internet Access and Working Technology
Make sure you have a decent Internet connection. “You need to be in touch with the world in a timely fashion,” says Older. “If you’re constantly cursing Comcast, that means you’re not.”
Reliable connectivity is the first secret to home office success. “Use professional connectivity. I think a grand mistake I made, in the beginning, was using the home Internet for the office connection,” Michalowicz says. “Same with the phones. I realized that when the kids came home and started hitting the Internet and video games, it would kill the office performance. I have a dedicated high bandwidth line for the office and it has been rock solid as a result.”
Other Tips and Tricks for Writers
“Fix the little things that bug you so they don’t distract you,” Hogshead says. “For instance, if your computer cords are all scrambled, set aside time to fix these problems so they don’t interfere with your mental space. I like a chair or desk that allows me to sit in a proactive stance for phone calls. If you’re slumped down in a chair during phone calls with prospects, clients, and co-workers, you’ll sound more passive than when you’re upright with your feet firmly planted on the floor.
“Have a computer screen to look at a photo of the person with whom you’re talking. Studies show that looking at someone’s face while talking increases the quality of your personal connection with them. When you can’t be in person with them, then pull up their photo on LinkedIn or their website so you can be talking “with” them rather than “to” them,” Hogshead says.
If you’re planning to start or run a business from home, make a list of all the features you think will be important. Decide which features are deal-breakers, and which features you can learn to work around. If you’re going to be spending more than 10 hours a week there, it’s important it be comfortable. If you plan to work out of the space more than 20 hours a week, it needs to be comfortable, quiet and professional, so take the time to create the best space possible, whether you’re a writer or a business.