It's easy to forget in 2017 that working in cubicles — or even an "open office plan" — is not a normal human state of affairs when placed in the context of our history as a species.
We are a collaborative-yet-solitary group in many ways, and perhaps nothing exemplifies that push-and-pull as much as working from home. Some people hate it; I am among the group who loves it and thrives on it.
I don't think I've ever been as productive in my life as I can be when I am spending my 40 hours (or more) a week of wage-earning in my own four walls. I've been doing it since 2014 and it's the most fun I've had in my life.
However! It didn't come without figuring some things out along the way — things I now freely share with you so that you can start your work-from-home adventure ahead of the game.
Do you know what working from home is not all about? Spending all your waking hours at work.
Seriously: If you are a week or a month or six into your work-from home adventure and you realize that you never — ever! — turn off, then something needs to change.
Here's how you carve out work time from not-work time so that neither is encroaching on the other.
1. Make a designated work space — and don't hang out there unless you are working
I'm lucky enough to have an office. Not every work-from-homer will be (keep dreaming — it'll happen!), but if that's the case, then just designating a specific seat at your kitchen table or spot at your countertop as your "work zone" can help.
When my work for the day is done, I leave my office and I don't go back in there unless it's an emergency situation. I adhere to this rule so strictly that when I wander into my office on a weekend to grab my purse or calendar, my son has been known to ask me, "Why you at work, Mommy?"
2. Shut it down
If it's at all financially feasible, I highly recommend that every work-from-homer invest in both a desktop and laptop computer. The latter is infinitely more portable and efficient if you're going to be traveling and working, but there's no beating the comfort potential of the former.
You can set your space up to your specifications and keep yourself aligned throughout the day.
But more importantly, there is a real psychological buffer to rebooting a desktop computer that you don't necessarily have with a laptop.
I spend the majority of my working hours on my desktop, and I deliberately power down the whole thing when it's time to be done for the day.
My laptop stays on — but I typically leave it zipped in its protective sleeve and stacked on a shelf, out of sight.
Once I'm done for the day, it takes effort to boot back up. That's deliberate.
3. Hours and expectations
Let me tell you a secret: People will generally accept what you set them up to expect.
So if you want to be the person who's available at midnight or 1 a.m. or 2 a.m., then by all means set that expectation.
However, if the expectation you'd prefer to set is more of a 9-to-5 type of deal, then why would you want to give your colleagues and clients the impression that you're available to answer a question at 10 p.m.?
Our world is already insane with instant gratification and the constant flow of social media and email messages. It's hard enough to detach when you don't work from home — but it's even harder when you do, so set those working hours and stick to them.
4. You need to eat
Do you block out an hour of your day — every day — for lunch? Why not?
I know all about what it's like to be busy in the middle of your day — so busy that the only way you're going to eat something is if someone delivers it directly to your desk.
How many days/weeks/months of working like that do you think you can handle before it starts to wear and tear on the rest of your life? (I'm not including years because you will see the effects way before 365 days.)
Working from home might mean you get to work in a hoodie and pajama pants, but it doesn't mean you spend less brainpower on the tasks at hand. For your brain to recharge, it needs a respite. It's pretty simple science that we tend to ignore.
5. Carve out some additional breaks
Yes, I mean on top of lunch.
Do you need to work out? Throw a load of laundry in the washer/dryer? Prep some food for the slow-cooker dinner or walk the dog?
There is a legitimate work benefit to this: Changing your scenery can help you examine a problem or obstacle from a new angle. If you know you're going to have 30 minutes in the afternoon to go for a run, then schedule your stickiest problem of the day for right before that run. (Just make sure you leave yourself a window to jot down any thoughts generated from your activity.)
Even people who work in an office walk away from their desks multiple times a day — to attend meetings, visit the kitchen or restroom, linger by the water cooler or take a walk around the block. It's good for the thought processes.
Track (and block) your time
I am definitely not a time-management guru, but I do have a pretty good idea of where I spend my time every day. Do you?
6. Track it
Are you spending a lot of time on social media and email? And how much is too much?
You won't know unless you document it. I don't have personal recommendations for software or apps; instead, I've built my schedules around the next concept ...
7. Block it
So here's the thing: "too much time" on any given activity is subjective. The insidious thing about the activities I mentioned above is that they suck up your time throughout the day. (Be honest: How many times have you drifted over to either Facebook or your inbox because you were faced with a task you simply didn't want to start?)
I have the Facebook Newsfeed Eradicator plugin for Chrome installed on both my laptop and desktop computers, so I can still operate the business functions of my social media without the potential distraction of, well, Facebook.
It's also a good idea to block off chunks of time in which you know you're going to need to get work done. One trick I like to use is schedule all of my interviews for any stories (in my head, at the least) for an hour long — any time gained by wrapping up early can be spent working on that story.
As for email, I typically tackle it relatively early on in my day — which makes the most sense for me and my profession; I want to stay on top of the news, which is, by definition "new" — and clean out my inbox, following up on what's important and filing anything I want to save.
Then I will check it throughout the day, but unless there's an emergency or hot project that surfaces via email (increasingly unlikely in this day and age), I won't open it until tomorrow.
(How do I communicate with colleagues? Slack, duh.)
8. Defend it
There's no point in blocking off an hour for research and work if you're going to allow someone to distract you from your purpose — or even leap at the opportunity.
I know; creative work is hard. But respect yourself enough to keep the appointments you put in your calendar. No compromises! (Not here, anyway.)
How do you know what you need to do? Well ...
9. List it and rank it
Oftentimes, working from home is not the most cohesive communication experience — which is why it's important to have an understanding of what your most critical, important tasks are and prioritize them.
There are a bunch of articles on the internet that suggest three as an optimal jumping-off point for the number of tasks you prioritize in your day — depending on your job, that might be too many or too few, but it's probably safe to say that there are at least three high-level things that you should probably accomplish every day, right?
My list might look like this:
- Write such-and-such story
- Report so-and-so piece
- Mail flood insurance premium
... where two of the three items on my list are work-related or income-related and the third is a thing I need to do to keep myself adulting properly. (Have you filed your taxes yet?)
This is by no means a comprehensive list, but if you aren't doing these things and are feeling stretched, it's a decent jumping-off point.