Woman at writing desk (1898) by Lesser Ury
About two months ago, I decided I should rent a desk at a writer’s co-op away from home. Having worked from home for a solid two decades, I figured it was time for a change. I was feeling more social, energetic, and adventurous than usual. Time to start a whole new life!
At least I’m used to this. New work-from-homers started lamenting their plight in life sometime last week, before the whole world got locked up and sealed in. (Wow, last week was cool, remember? Very nostalgic for last week right now.) “Working from home is less creative and less productive than working in an office!” claimed one writer in the New York Times. (Related: “Why can’t my spouse go somewhere else and leave me alone?”)
I love working from home, but it took me a solid decade to get it right. (I really wish I were exaggerating.) For someone who hates schedules (me!) and has very little self-discipline (also me!), it can be a big challenge. Here are a few tips based on what I’ve learned over the years, along with some ideas about how to handle your (f***ing) kids:
1. Set up a workspace that’s separate from the rest of your living space. Even if you have to empty out a closet or set up in your kitchen, it’s better to avoid your shared living space if possible. Bedroom: Worst of all. Don't do it unless someone else is home/ no choice. If you have to share working space, use headphones and play classical music if lyrics scramble your brain. (Sometimes songs or albums you’ve heard a million times work the best.)
2. Give yourself a standing desk option (books piled on a kitchen counter) for part of the day. Aim to move and stretch while you use it. If you sit on a couch or bed all day, your neck will punish you for it. Get a treadmill desk if you have the $ and space.
3. Stick to a schedule. Taking advantage of early morning hours is crucial when you're working from home, because as the day wears on, you’ll be more tempted to talk to others, answer the phone, and zone out online. Once I figured out that I would have a great day or a shitty day based on how much I accomplished in the first 4 hours I was awake, I started to shake off my bratty, schedule-averse self and dive in first thing.
4. Turn off your wifi for 4 solid hours in the morning unless you need to be in close contact with the office. Note: This is more important than ever at a time when a full year of ominous news seems to be packed into each day. (This morning instead of writing, I woke up and read scary shit until my head was pounding. Don’t be like me.)
5. Don’t text anyone back during your work hours unless urgent. Only return urgent calls.
6. Try to give yourself a 1/2 hour at lunch and a 1/2 hour at night for social media and commit to ignoring it the rest of the day. (I’m not managing this at all right now. You win some, you lose some, see also #14.)
7. Drink a ton of water and stick to mealtimes for food. Don’t start associating a steady flow of snacks or cigarettes with getting work done, or you'll have trouble breaking those associations. (Associating push-up breaks with work is a good idea, but I haven’t pulled that one off yet.)
8. Stop your work day slightly early to exercise for 20-30 min every afternoon if you can possibly manage it. Working at home requires energy and on-board optimism. When you’re sluggish or headache-y or stressed out, you won’t get much work done.
9. Use late afternoon for phone calls, texting, and Zoom/Skype sessions with friends. Don’t underestimate how much random chatting and short periods of connecting with others will improve your overall well-being.
10. Create a clear end to your work day. Put your screens away. Talk to your roommates or family or cook or read a book or watch something pointless on TV. Call your parents. Play a video game. Leisure is crucial. (Right now my household has a roughly 4-5 pm gaming time where we play Overcooked or Heave Ho before dinner.)
11. Don’t let emails or assignments invade your leisure hours, or you’ll find yourself distracted or rebelling against work during your work hours. Trying to squeeze in extra work after hours can destroy your productivity the next day. You'll have a clearer head in the morning, so save your work until then instead.
12. If you live with a roommate, a partner, or a spouse, resist the urge to talk to that person repeatedly during the day unless you’re on a walk or having meal together. If you run to your partner every few minutes to complain about getting nothing done, you’ll be bickering by dinnertime. Try to face your work alone.
13. Okay, writers, get ready to punch me in the face: The more you talk about, think about, read about, and embrace the notion of “writer’s block,” the more writer’s block you’ll experience. I was a big fan of the perils of writer’s block for years. As it turns out, though, if I’m exercising enough and sticking to a schedule? I can force myself to write. I might not write anything that great on bad days, but I can type some shitty words and revise it later. It is always better to assume you can write than it is to escape repeatedly into a discussion of how blocked you are or how much you hate writing. Everyone needs to do this SOMETIMES but the less you do it (and imho, the less you fixate on the big picture of how much shit you have to do in general), the easier it is to write. Write your shitty words and keep it moving, the end.
14. Forgive yourself when you have an off day. I can’t say this enough. Until I learned to be a less punishing boss to myself, I was (ironically) far less productive. Try to keep sticking your schedule overall, but be realistic and merciful towards yourself when you’re struggling emotionally or you just need to mix it up one day. And don’t carry the guilt from one day to the next. Start with a clean slate and congratulate yourself whenever you accomplish something.
15. Breaking your rules in the afternoon is okay if your morning is insanely productive. Remember that it’s not about punching the clock when you work from home. It’s all about figuring out when you’re the most focused and energized and exploiting that time as much as possible. Efficiency over chair-warming!
16. Kids: YOW. I told my kids I was going to make them a schedule and they hated that. So I asked them to make their own schedules (they are 11 and 13). My older daughter’s schedule just said “free time” and “phone time” on it, so we had to amend it a little. Both kids have blocks for chores (1/2 hour, you choose what to clean), exercise (1/2 hour, workout apps, treadmill, or soccer outside), reading (1 hour), and obviously when school starts online there’ll be all kinds of haphazard attempts at learning. I would say “take it easy on your kids” here but you know what? A global pandemic is as good a time as any to snap the little fuckers into the reality of hard work as a way of life. Yeah, I’m a bad parent, never take my parenting advice.
As a family, we are definitely aiming to socialize together a ton, cook together more, talk about what we’re reading more, and we’re also playing a lot of video games that include yelling at each other, which so far feels cathartic but might descend into trouble after a few weeks. It’s all an experiment, basically, so you embrace stuff that works until it doesn’t. (Madison Malone Kircher [@4evrmalone on Twitter, the perfect feed, follow her and find joy] wrote about Zoom Karaoke for Vulture yesterday and YES, a million times yes, lower me into the fire, baby.)
If you’re all alone in your apartment, single, no roommates? You need to make it crystal clear to your friends that you need them. People who live with their partners, married people, people with great roommates, people with families? It’s your moral obligation to reach out to every more-isolated human you know and offer your time to them. Text, call, write emails, and make it clear which hours you’ll be extra-available for emotional support during this brutal time. Obviously you should be reaching out to older people and asking if they need food or want to talk. But don’t forget your isolated home-bound single friends, either. They need you.
OK, let’s talk about strategies in the comments below. I know there are a million and one very bad situations we’re all facing right now and very few of them are covered here, so if just reading this list made you break out in a sweat, I’m sorry and I get it. If we want to skip the work-from-home discussion and just start a long thread that’s just the words THIS IS INTENSE I AM FLIPPING over and over again, that works for me, too. I think I’ve texted something like that to everyone I know 2-15 times so far. Let’s do it here, repeatedly, until we all understand that we’re not alone.
Feel free to pass this to friends and hang tough! as the bros used to say before the whole planet was forced to hang tough together. We’ll get through this.
Heather Havrilesky is a thief who was raised by assassins who were raised by wolves. The new Ask Polly newsletter is 100% free and it’s going to be the tastiest bite you’ll eat during the Great Quarantine of 2020. Write to Molly (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Polly (email@example.com). p.s. Polly cares more.