Long before working from home was a hashtag (#wfh), I started my own business to allow for independence, the ability to travel and flexibility. Even though this was long before Google Docs and the ubiquitous cloud, my dial up connection gave me enough bandwidth to email my work and correspond with my clients who were all over the world.
As a singleton and then newly married person, I adjusted as needed. I would relish my flexibility and work hard for my clients from the comfort of my home. Then, when our daughter arrived a decade ago, I had to adapt again. Over the years I’ve experimented with different tactics to make my #wfh experience better, some of which I still use today while others failed miserably and lasted only a day. It’s been a process of trial and error.
Working from home is not a new concept as many have availed themselves of it in small quantities here and there. Now with the COVID-19 pandemic, most white collar workers are forced to work from home for an extended amount of time, many with their partners and kids under the same roof, which adds to the challenge.
Fear not! I’ve had nearly two decades to hone some best practices that have worked brilliantly for me. While I am an extrovert I also relish my solitude, so below are some tips that I hope will help you stay sane and productive.
- Create a schedule.
This is probably the most effective tool I have used to be productive, find a balance and stay sane. There is a certain rhythm to having a schedule that is comfortingly predictable. I think this is especially important in the midst of our current chaos.
While for years I had a vague schedule, I found that I often fell into ‘reactive mode’ with e-mail and getting scattered rather than being proactive and productive. One of the most important tactics ’ve learned in the last year and now use religiously is time blocking. Anyone who knows me has heard me marvel at what a game changer this has been.
The idea of zero balance time blocking (NOT zero tolerance time blocking as my friend jokingly calls it) is that there is not one minute unaccounted for in my day. This includes sleep, travel time, exercise, appointments, reading, family time -anything that requires my time. While at first this sounds constrictive, taking time to map out your days and weeks results in a more realistic allotment of time for particular tasks. By sitting down and planning, I’ve already debated and considered the priorities for my days, worked around family obligations and don’t have to constantly stop and prioritize or make decisions in the heat of the moment.
I have found that I’m much calmer and my work is more seamless because I’ve already thought it through ahead of time and know that I’ve allotted the time to work on it. I also find that I can say ‘no’ to things more easily; generally this greater focus on the events and tasks I prioritized make me feel more satisfied overall.
An unexpected consequence to using the time blocking method is that I found that I was getting way to little sleep. I am generally a good sleeper, but as a celiac with autoimmune issues, the right amount of sleep is imperative. So not only am I more relaxed, calm and productive, I’m also well-rested! Need I say more?!
2. Dedicate a space for work and make it your own.
While I have a home office, having three other people at home will be a challenge. With conference and video calls, I need a separate space and quiet to write. Our plan is that I will continue to use my office and my husband has a desk in our living room, which is far enough away that we won’t interrupt each other. When one of us isn’t working, the other will be with the kids, either outside or at the kitchen table supervising school work.
A dedicated space also allows me to create my own atmosphere. As I pen this, I have a lovely smelling Diptyque candle burning with some low, relaxing music on in the background. Fresh flowers, a nice Moleskine notebook and pen and having happy photos around are also part of my office space and make me feel nurtured, which is especially important in this chaotic time.
While a door is ideal for shutting out family interruptions during important calls, remember it won’t be the end of the world if a kid shows up behind you during your video call. For the first time ever in the history of remote working, nearly everyone is in the same boat. Still, to help avoid those interruptions, I let my family know that I can’t be disturbed for a certain amount of time and printed out Eduard Munch’s The Scream and put it on my door as a reminder that this is NOT the time to interrupt mommy.
3. Dress for success.
Gone are the days where you can slouch in your jammies and work all day. This is the era of video conferencing and now more than ever, I dress as if I’m headed to an office because I interact with people on video conference calls several times a day.
I followed this rule even before the computer camera became the ordinary just to get myself in the right frame of mind. While I happily eschewed uncomfortable heels and suits, I do take the time to pick out a nice, comfortable outfit and try to look my best. It puts me in the right mindset and I dread video conferences less.
4. Take regular breaks and MOVE.
One of the mistakes I made for YEARS was to work straight through the day; often eating at my desk. I had some kind of sense of false urgency that I needed to be ‘on’ all the time, as if to make up for the fact that I’m not in an office. To make myself more ‘legit’.
Also, after realizing that my early morning workouts were robbing me of sleep that I couldn’t make up for in the evenings, I changed my workouts to the middle of the day. This would have been unheard of for me even a year ago. A break in the middle of the day to move gave me purpose and discipline to stick to my schedule in the mornings and refreshed me for happier and productive afternoons rather than fading at by 3PM, which was my tendency.
I also schedule short breaks on my Google calendar with reminders to make myself a cup of tea, throw in a load of laundry or simply flip through a magazine. It’s a nice pause and is refreshing.
5. Be social.
Even on the best of days, I could feel isolated in my home office all day. While I tried co-working spaces to be around people, I found that what I was really missing was genuine social interaction with people. With busy friends and my own family obligations, happy hours or dinners out during the week are just too tricky and usually I’m too exhausted.
Instead I’ve set up two weekly accountability calls with different friends who also work from home. We check in with each other on our businesses, brainstorm, use each other as sounding boards for business and personal issues. I find that this intentional time is fun and stimulating. We have stayed committed to these weekly calls, which has been a game changer. I’m in year 3 with one friend where we have weekly Friday calls and review our weeks together. At other times, we dedicate the time slot to a particular topic, whether it’s what’s working for us in managing our wellbeing, brainstorming on how to tackle a new project or how to handle a challenging business or family issue. The icing on the cake is that there is generally an hour’s worth of laughter, as well.
I also have a video group of women from all over the world that meets regularly to check in. There is something about seeing each other’s faces and expressions that adds the needed dimension to keep up connections with others.
In the last week I’ve heard of all kinds of creative ways to connect. Virtual happy hours, virtual play dates and tonight, my family is doing a virtual game of Pictionary with two other families in the neighborhood.
These times are testing ALL the boundaries of working from home, but take it from someone who has been doing this for more than a decade. It can be done and done with ease with a little structure and intention. And who knows, you may even find, as I did, that you’re happier and more productive.