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No matter who you are, working from home during a worldwide lockdown is hard. Distractions are omnipresent and routines have gone out the window.
Focus is particularly challenging right now for our office warriors. With little preparation, our global brain trust has been sent home and is now trying to create workspaces, classroom spaces, and family spaces all in the same places.
Because a lot of the advice I see on working from home seems to me to be superficial, I've written out the ideas that have worked for me over a 22-year career—almost entirely at home—along with some discussion about what I like about a strategy, because I find that why is often more instructive than how.
We all have different situations and therefore different challenges. No one technique will work for all situations. I encourage you to try the ideas suggested here and keep what seems genuinely helpful. My goal here is only to help you find work/life solutions that work for you.
Working from home is all about having the right mindset and a healthy set of expectations. For me, the clothes I wear or where I eat my lunch doesn't make much difference in my ability to be productive. What does matter is my attitude. Here are the precepts that have helped me create a healthy mental workspace:
Boundaries are essential for telling your brain when it should be working and when it should be resting or engaged in other activities. I think of three types of boundaries when it comes to working from home:
When my workspace was in a corner of my bedroom, I was initially worried that this would mess up both work time and sleep time. So I made sure that when I sat at my desk I could not easily see the bed, which helped me forget it was even there, and it never was a problem. If rearranging your furniture is not an option for you, try creating a visual barrier, such as a sheet or blanket spread across two chairs. Later, play in the fort you made!
Once you've gotten rid of visual cues that interfere with work, put in some visual cues that this is where you get stuff done. I use lamps, artwork, and plants. You want to help signal yourself into work mode in as many ways as possible.
Also, if you have video meetings for work (Zoom, etc.), provide something interesting, or at least uncluttered, for your colleagues to look at. But I don’t recommend fake backgrounds for these reasons: a) they are distracting, and b) they deprive your audience of a sense of personal connection, which is important right now.
Here are the specific techniques I have used for working at home. Your mileage may vary, but I encourage you to give these a try:
If you must check your email/text/Slack because you’re waiting for a hand-off from a colleague, only read material actually related to what you’re doing and tag messages you should come back to.
Alternatively, don’t even think about messing up your flow; just put in placeholders. I often write [WAITING ON NAME] or [INSERT STATISTIC HERE] as I draft material so that I can keep going without taking myself out of the zone. A bonus of using placeholders is that filling them in later creates a nice, easy transition back to that project.
(Sidenote: Some people find that using time blocks relieves decision fatigue about what to do next. If you want to go all-in on time blocks but don't know what how to handle the margins, use “split blocks.” These half-and-half blocks can be used to indicate when you expect to finish one project and start another. [This idea comes from Deep Work by Cal Newport, a fabulous treatise on how to achieve greater focus in your life. 12/10, highly recommend])
I'll warn you that putting tasks aside can feel uncomfortable, especially when it relates to work messages. A solution to the distasteful feeling that these “open loops” create in your brain is to write down the task in a themed to-do list, Getting Things Done style.
For example, I have a time block in my calendar for Friday afternoons that just says “Admin.” As administrative tasks occur to me over the week, I open the Admin block in my calendar, write in the action step I need to take, close the calendar app, and go back to my work. It takes maybe 20 seconds and I don’t lose focus. And on Friday, all I have to do is open Admin on my calendar and start in on my list. Now that my ignore muscle is stronger, I can attest that batching and theme days have made it easier to trust that ALL the things are getting done.
I don't recommend changing volume to cover rising noise levels. External speakers are more comfortable for all-day listening, but earbuds or headphones are better at blocking really piercing or repetitious sounds (like my husband’s booming voice when he’s on a call or my neighbor’s hammering as he builds his new garage).
To manage upticks in sound, I keep my headphones in a dedicated drawer in my desk and switch between headphones and speaker as noises arise. (I use Apple Music and listen to just about anything instrumental while I'm working. However, a lot of my fellow freelancers swear by binaural beats, a focus strategy that is available from services like brain.fm and Focus@Will, as well as through YouTube videos.)
Whatever regimen you use does not need to be complicated, fussy, or time-consuming. My EOD ritual is to set up a loose schedule for the next day’s work. That's it! To close out my day, I take a few minutes to review tomorrow's goals and lay out a general workflow. This process also helps me plan an easy on-ramp to start with in the morning.
Along these lines, many people like the Pomodoro technique, which involves setting a timer for 25 minutes and making yourself work until the alarm goes off. You give yourself a 5-minute break, and then you do another set. This can be another good way to “dip your toes in,” only to find yourself merrily swimming in the project 15 minutes later. Free timer apps are easy to find online. (Sidenote: For deeper results, blogging expert Antonio Cangiano suggests trying “double Pomodori,” or 50 min. on/10 min. off. Do what works for you!)
I belong to a group that does work “sprints” together on Thursdays. Everyone works on different goals, but we push ourselves in tandem. We hold regular check-ins throughout the day to report progress, brainstorm obstacles, and encourage each other. We also report in throughout the week about big-picture progress (or the lack thereof when we need a kick in the pants).
Another strategy is to “bet” against yourself (on bigger projects, not on little daily things). My colleague Andrew likes to give money to friends to hold when he really wants to get something done. The friends gleefully plan to donate the money to an unsavory organization unless Andrew makes his deadline. If he makes it, he gets the money back. If he doesn’t, his money goes to a cause he loathes. Andrew finds this strategy very motivating.
Simple math will back me up here. If you take a half hour off to take a nap and then get 2 hours of work done in 1, you’ve actually gained half an hour. Whether or not you actually created time, the quality of your work is likely to be higher when you’re rested.
What works with your child(ren) around depends on their developmental age and personality. Expect it to take time before they are used to any new systems. The following strategies helped with my kids, starting when they were preschoolers and moving older as you read down the list:
This strategy was a summertime staple at my house. My kids generally chose a play activity rather than pretending to be "at work," which somehow never appealed to them. But making this discussion a regular practice really helped to cut down on disruptions during agreed-upon work time.
And be really obvious about this last point to avoid misunderstandings (or following the letter but not the spirit of the boundary). When they were younger, our "signal" was that I would come tell them when I was done. If I was still at my desk, I wasn't done.
(I'll be honest that I've had mixed results on my sign strategy. When my office was part of my bedroom, I used a door hanger that was red on one side and green on the other. I preferred the door hanger over a sign because then I didn’t have to worry about where to keep it or how to attach it; it was always on the doorknob, usually on green. My kids were great about leaving me alone if the red side was showing. My husband, however, couldn’t ever seem to get the message.)
Successfully working from home is not a linear process and your days will rarely be straightforward. Like a swimmer caught in an undertow, it won't help you to fight the current.
Instead of wearing yourself out against the forces of nature, think about how to flow between all your roles. With planning and practice, you can quickly learn to recognize and build opportunities to switch modes between work and home, even if you can't switch surroundings.
My most heartfelt recommendation is this: be kind and patient with yourself and your family and give everyone time to adjust. The pandemic is our new frontier, and we are all pioneers together.
Molly McBeath is a content writer for highly technical industries, such as cleantech, finance, software, and toxicology. She's also raised two kids while working from every chair in her house (as well as the yard).
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