Thanks to COVID-19, a lot of office workers are suddenly home workers.
Working from home can feel very liberating or very scary. In the office, you had a schedule. A rhythm. You knew what the disruptions were, what the distractions were, and you had adjusted how you work to them. You knew when you had to be at the office and when you could leave. You knew the perfect time to beat rush hour and which day was the best for lunch in the cafeteria.
Now it’s a free-for-all. You are suddenly responsible for motivating yourself, creating space and structure for your work, and balancing your home life with it.
It’s a bit overwhelming.
But it is manageable. It can even be enjoyable.
Long before I became a freelancer, I had been working for an employer from home. I started when my first son was born and I had my second son while I was still an employee. I worked a full-time job and my kids stayed home until they were old enough for pre-school.
The rhythm and disruptions were different than they had been in the office, and they changed as my kids grew. When the boys were infants, breaks were feedings and playtime. When they were in elementary school, they were school pickups, kid events, and homework. During the summer, breaks were activities and room pickups. (Our rule was you only trashed one room at a time. It saved our sanity.)
As you settle in to working at home, you can take several steps to create a work structure that works for you, your family and pets, and your job.
Find a Comfortable Place to Work
An office is a solid boundary between work and private life. Working from home, that boundary disappears. If you have a home office, you’ve already got a mental space where work is done. But if you don’t, and I suspect that’s many people, you have to create it.
A kitchen chair is hard on your back after a couple hours. This may be short term, but it’s long enough that you want to take care of your body. Do you have a counter at the right height to stand at? If you rearrange your furniture a bit, can you get a comfortable combo of chair and table?
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No comfy place? Try switching up locations every few hours to minimize aches and pains.
But please, don’t work from your bed, unless you have physical ailments that make it necessary. Your bed is for resting. If you start to work from it, your bed becomes a place of work and stress. Make your bed an island of rest.
Set Your Work Hours and Log Them
As an office worker, you’re used to another kind of boundary: time. You have work hours separated from the rest of your life. At home, they can blend together. To a degree, that’s OK. If you’re taking frequent breaks to care for family and pets, you may end up working a little later in the evening. And, of course, everyone is working on a slightly different schedule, so coworkers might be contacting you outside of work hours because they finally got to sit at their computer.
But don’t let it become 24/7. It’s easy to lose all boundaries between work and private life that way.
Set your hours and track your time, especially if you’re a salaried employee. It will make it easier to see if you’re spending too much time working or not enough.
Make a Realistic Schedule
Pad your schedule to account for interruptions and breaks for you or to take care of family and pets. Put immovable objects, like meetings, in your schedule first. Then add in solo work activities, family needs, and breaks around them.
Take a Shower and Get Dressed
You need to signal to yourself that this isn’t vacation. It doesn’t have to be office wear, but put something other than your jammies on.
Work in Sprints
Our brains are not suited to long episodes of focus, no matter what we tell ourselves. This fact becomes excruciatingly apparent when we’re working from home with so many distractions and little oversight.
To combat this—and to balance family and pet needs—try working in short sprints. The Pomodoro Technique suggests working intensely, with no distractions, for 25 minutes and then taking a short break, say 5 minutes. After four sessions, take a longer break.
I work best in 60–90 minute chunks, what my mastermind group calls a “power hour,” depending on my focus and the task I’m doing. This especially true for writing and editing, which require holding a lot of ideas in my head at once. If I walk away, I have to be ready to clear those thoughts.
If you’re used to a lot of different tasks during the day, you may want more frequent breaks. Or maybe you need a power hour, a break, and then a series of Pomodoros. Play with this a bit and see what works for you.
Take Frequent, Short Breaks
After a sprint, walk away from your computer. Do a chore, such as making the bed, washing dishes, or shifting the laundry. Check in on family or pets. Have a quick chat with a colleague. Take a walk outside. Do 5 minutes of deep breathing with your Fitbit or a meditation app. Rest your brain, and move your body.
Especially if you eat lunch in your cafeteria, plan what you’ll do for lunch each day. Will you take an hour off and make something substantial? Maybe you’ll do what my family calls a “pickies” lunch: a balanced plate of finger foods, like hard-boiled eggs, cheese, bread or crackers, grapes, carrots, and hummus or tabbouleh. Maybe you just reheat last night’s leftovers. Whatever you do, plan it, schedule it, and take a lunch break.
Avoid Video During the Workday
Video is a demanding medium. It’s very hard to pay attention to work and a video at the same time. Most of the folks I know who can do this once worked in chaotic, noisy offices, like a newsroom. If this isn’t your usual routine, don’t start it now.
Be cautious about using video for a break, as well. YouTube and streaming services will serve up another video automatically, keeping you locked in. If you’re scheduling or limiting your kids’ screen time, consider doing the same for yourself.
We’ve all had that text or email taken the wrong way. We all talk over each other sometimes during in-person meetings. When all your communications are text or video, these things can happen more often. The signals we pick up on in person are gone.
Take your time with your communications. Reread before you send, explaining a little more than you would in person, while avoiding writing a book (people skip over walls of text).
Be generous with others’ communications, too. Assume they are as uncertain and stressed as you are. Ask questions before making accusations.
Expect people to talk over each other a lot in online meetings. No matter how careful you are, you will talk over someone and not be able to stop. You’re not seeing the visual cues that tell you it’s your turn to talk and your mouth often works faster than your brain. Apologize and then let the other person talk.
Be Gentle with Yourself
People who regularly work from home spent a lot of time and money creating a space and a routine that works well for them. It’s a lot of trial and error, because everyone’s situation is different. And for those of us who’ve been doing it for decades, we’ve likely changed our routines a lot as our needs changed.
It’s going to be rough going for a while. You won’t find your right balance immediately. Maybe you won’t adapt well in the end.
Do your best. Work on one obstacle at a time. Ask people who regularly work at home for advice, but try to ask specific questions. We can easily overwhelm you with everything we’ve learned. What’s the one thing that if it were resolved would make your day so much better?
I won’t lie: this is a tough balance and some days I’m more successful than others. But if we’re patient with each other and with ourselves, if we take the time to adjust to changes and give ourselves breaks, we’ll get through this just fine.
You may even find your secret recipe to working at home and start doing it regularly.