How many of you are struggling to work from home for an extended period of time, for the first time ever? I certainly am! My co-working space is open, and left to my own devices, I’d be there. But sadly, I am fighting a sore throat, and my doctor’s office is strongly advising anyone with cold or flu symptoms to self-isolate for 10-14 days. I’m pretty sure I haven’t been exposed to coronavirus, but I also don’t want to become Denver’s own Typhoid Mary, so I’m working from home.
I am fortunate to have both a spouse who works from home and some very smart friends, so let us all benefit from their wisdom.
First, the sage advice from my friend Richard MacDougall is to emphasize the beginning and ending of your workday. For me, this means setting an alarm, getting up like normal, and going through my regular weekday rituals. My friend says he likes to start with a brisk walk, which can be especially useful if you have an active dog—your “commute” can also give your pet some exercise. Then, settle in to whatever workspace you’ve carved out for yourself. I don’t have a good setup at home, so I sit on the couch, with the TV remote too far to be in easy reach and my phone across the room to minimize my distractions. At the end of your day, be sure to switch your computer off, not just leave it running. A clear start and end will help keep you from having your work life and your personal life bleed together, and that’s important.
One of the biggest challenges for those of us not used to working from home is all the distractions around us. I’ve already mentioned what I do with the TV and my phone, but there are plenty of other things that we can focus on instead of work, given half a chance. If you have small children or needy pets, this is magnified. I do a couple things to stay focused. The first is that I set up my little coffee table to look like a work station: coffee cup, notepads and pens. I keep the natural distractions as far out of my eyeline as possible. The second thing I do is to work in short bursts. That means that if I can get through a 5-minute task, then I can give myself a minute or two to throw a toy for my dog or get up and have a stretch. If you have small children to need attention, this may look more like equal time: 10 minutes for your work, 10 minutes of whatever they need. (If you have a partner also stuck at home, be sure you’re trading off!) And if your primary distraction is all those delicious things you stockpiled in your pantry (we were advised to prepare as though for a big blizzard), measure out what you allow your self each day. I like to fill a larger bowl with the day’s allowance snacks and keep it in the kitchen with a smaller bowl I fill with each round of snacks. I’ve also had some success if I tell myself that I have to get through some healthy snacks first—a piece of fruit, a serving of baby carrots, whatever. This gives me a much-needed dose of some goodness, and also keeps me from compulsively chowing down on less healthy stuff.
Another common problem is time management, especially if your tasks are naturally a little fuzzy or ill-defined. This is definitely one of my biggest challenges. What I’ve found to be most helpful is to write down a set of tasks for the day. Since I talk with clients, which is easy to focus on, I give myself tasks for the in-between times. Today’s, as you have likely guessed, is writing this blog, but I also give myself a certain time limit for things like email, keeping my records, etc. And then—this is key—I add those to my calendar. Not in general, but very specifically. This morning, 8:30-9:30 on my calendar says, “blog: how to work from home.” Not just “email” but “respond to Jeff’s email about Project A.” I have things color-coded, which is a step you don’t have to take, but I recommend it. It gives me an easy visual when I look at my calendar each day. I also think it’s important to build in social time on your calendar. Plan times to call your parents, Skype of FaceTime with friends, and, yes, spend actual time with the people you love, provided you are not semi-quarantined like I am. (Hat-tip to my beloved friend Connie Kottmann for suggesting that! We will find a time soon!)
Finally, if you have needier pets or small children, I think it’s just going to take time. Your older kids probably have schoolwork to do, and if not, you can assign them things to study or accomplish. And if you have old dogs like I do, they’re not a huge distraction. But smaller kids and excitable animals who aren’t used to having you around all the time will just need some adjustment time. You can build in frequent breaks or spend the morning doing things that tire your kids and pets out, but I think they also just need to sort out this new normal. (I should mention here that I don’t have kids at all, so I welcome any advice from people who do and have found good ways to keep the littles entertained and engaged.)
What tips have you found most helpful as you learn how to work from home?
Before I sign off, I also want to encourage you to think of things you can do to support people in your community who have fewer options. Do you have elderly neighbors who might not have enough food? Add some extras for them when you put in your next grocery order. How about friends in food service, hair styling, or massage? They could use your company (presuming you are in good health) and for you to treat them to a meal about now—remember that their businesses often operate on a thin margin, so this social isolation is taking a big toll on them, financially as well as psychologically. I’ll be writing some survival tips for people whose jobs depend on physical human contact later this week, as well.