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May 21, 2020

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.

Mindset

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:

  • The rhythm of working from home is very different from that of an office or other separate workspace. It may take a while to find your new pattern, but you will!
  • Contrary to popular sentiment, it takes more effort to work well from home, not less, particularly if you work on a team. You have to put more into your communications to get ideas through, and you are likely to get less back in response. This is normal (but it might not feel good).
  • Everything will take longer than you think. Expect to work in stages because communication will be slower and because the pace of life is different. This is also totally normal but will feel off.
  • Working from home is more about how productive you are and less about how much time it takes you. With the right energy and attitude (and some household cooperation around interruptions), you can get 4 hours of deep work done in 3. Focus on your energy more than on the clock.

Boundaries 

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:

Physical boundaries: Try to create a reliably clean, organized place that is reasonably comfortable/ergonomic. It should be visually and (when possible) audibly separate from other people and other parts of your living space.

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.

Mental boundaries: Think about the times of day you focus best, when you need to interact with coworkers, and when it is reliably noisy or reliably quiet in your space. Now see if you can get these categories to align in useful ways.

For example, for years my colleague Marguerite saved her proofing work for the afternoons, when her teenager would listen to loud music in the room above her. The noise level was just right for high-detail work during a low-energy time of day.

Emotional boundaries: It is exhausting to always be at work and simultaneously always be parenting/supporting/housekeeping/insert-role-here.

Don’t try to be everything at once. Instead, create structures that help you slide in and out of work mode without creating overload.

Strategies

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:

Schedule time blocks for specific work tasks. This approach helps me to create those all-important mental boundaries. Organize time blocks (two hours minimum for deep focus work) for accomplishing different types of tasks and with different levels of focus. During deep focus sessions, turn off notifications and don’t check your email if you can avoid it. 

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])

Schedule time blocks for non-work priorities. Your home life will start to feel off-balance if you don’t also “schedule” your downtime, personal time, and chores/tasks. Schedule time to check the news (if you feel you must), check personal texts and emails, and make non-work phone calls. You’ll focus on your work better if you know you have this time set aside.

Batch your work/set up theme days. Similar to planning time blocks, it’s helpful to batch certain tasks, particularly if they are naturally distracting or naturally flow together. Examples here are tasks like checking work texts/Slack or reading emails from coworkers that are not pertinent in this moment.

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.

Use music or white noise. Sound can be incredibly distracting, especially when it increases without warning. Layering in intentional noise will help you block out these kinds of changes. It can also help you signal your brain that you’re at work.

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.)

Build yourself on-ramps and off-ramps. Beginning- and end-of-day rituals can really help transition yourself in and out of work. For me, an end-of-day ritual is particularly important because I struggle to mentally put work away.

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.

If you're struggling, take baby steps. Just because you’re not feeling in the zone doesn't mean you should give up. Try one small, so-easy-it’s-almost-nothing kind of task. Then do the next tiny bit. Before long, you may find your motivation picking up.

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!)

Don't go it alone. Accountability partners can be incredibly motivating and can make the difference between being alone and feeling alone.

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.

Stop early if you need to work late. With everybody at home, you might decide to hold off on certain tasks until after others go to bed. If you want to work later at night, try this suggestion from my accountability buddies Greta and Betsy: stop at 4 p.m. rather than 5 p.m. (as an example) and attend to your life for a while. After all, your work day is not over. Save some energy to draw from during your “evening set.”

Do not skimp on sleep. Nothing affects your ability to function more than being tired! Nap, or just close your eyes for a bit, if you feel sleepy, even if it’s not a normal nap time for you.  A 15-minute nap is more effective than a cup of coffee. Again, I recommend you prioritize your energy level over the clock.

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. And whether or not you actually created time, the quality of your work is likely to be higher when you’re rested.

Parenting While Working

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:

Have “special” quiet time toys/activities/CDs/playlists. Have several options available, depending on how long you expect them to play independently. The key here is to only have these out during designated quiet times so that they remain special. (Of course, make sure everything is safe for your child to handle unsupervised.)

Plan out your time together each morning/afternoon/whatever and let your child pick their "work" while you do yours.

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.

Do your work together. With a little planning and flexibility on your part, you can get low-focus work done and still be available to your family. While supervising schoolwork, see if you can read emails, organize your files, prepare a meeting agenda, or outline an idea. Once you get used to breaking work down into its tiniest components, it gets easier to think of productive things to do with your kids around.

Plan together for how others may interrupt you if necessary. When I was on calls that ran longer than expected, for example, my kids would quietly creep over to pass me notes. This was their way of letting me know they needed more computer time, they had a simple question (I would scribble the answer), or on one memorable occasion, that the younger one had swallowed a coin. 

Check in before you start a particularly important meeting. Never rely on someone else to remember your schedule. Instead, just before you dive into something big, poke your head in to make sure everyone knows what's coming, has what they need while you’re occupied, knows not to interrupt you, and knows how to tell when you’re available again.

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, my signal with my kids was that I would come tell them I was done. If I was still at my desk, I wasn't done.

Keep a sign or door hanger handy to visually indicate when you really can’t be interrupted. Equally important, be good about changing it back when you’re done. Otherwise, your housemates may become jaded and barge in any old time. 

(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.)

The TL;DR Summary

Successfully working from home is not a linear process and your days will rarely be straightforward. Like a swimmer caught in an undertow, you won't make things easier for yourself by fighting 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.


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Originally trained as a research scientist, Molly McBeath cut her technical teeth on water quality, electrochemistry, and nuclear waste remediation. Realizing that she was happier at the keyboard than in a lab coat, she transitioned to technical writing and editing. Now she combines her scientific training with persuasive writing techniques to tell meaningful stories with a technical twist.

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