Last week, my husband Stu got sent home from the university he works at. He is now under instructions to work from home for the foreseeable future. If you’ve been hiding under a rock for the last two weeks, you may not realise that this is now the norm for many employees. Because a little virus called Covid-19 has changed the face of our planet in ways we never expected.
On that first day, he looked pretty excited. He told me how he was going to enjoy working on the sofa and in his underpants. I very quickly told him that THAT would not be happening. But it also occurred to me that I’ve been working from home for over a year now and it’s taken almost all that time to figure out what works best for me. But now there’s an entire workforce who have to figure these things out in much less time. I set about putting together a live session on Facebook. But I figured that information might be useful in a blog post too.
So, here are some of the things I’ve learned about working from home that you might find useful over the coming weeks and months.
What are the pitfalls of working from home?
Stu likes to suggest that working from home is a piece of cake. He says I obviously don’t do anything all day because whenever he walks into my office all he sees is me on Facebook!
I realise there’s a real sense of “romance” about the idea of working from home. People think I get up whenever I want. I lounge around the house all day in my pyjamas and, whenever the mood strikes me, I go out and drink coffee with friends. I’m not going to lie, there’s an element of freedom about it all. That’s one of the things I love about it. But I work far harder now than I ever did when I was under someone else’s employ. I think nothing of working 12-14 hour days, working all weekend or sitting at my desk for 6 hours straight without a break. While that’s not every day (thank goodness), it happens more than you might think. But it’s typical of someone working for themselves and doing something they love that doesn’t feel like work.
That being said, there are plenty of pitfalls to befall you when working from home, when you only have yourself to answer to. Isolation is a common problem, although less so for the more introvert amongst you. Other problems that occur with home working centre around productivity, motivation and focus. Procrastination and distractions are two very real difficulties we often face. But, good news, there are plenty of ways and means to try and work around them.
1 Make a space to work
Not everyone has the space or luxury of a dedicated home office (I am eternally grateful for mine – it’s my happy place!). But if you can find a little space that can be dedicated to working, then that’s a great start. A table and chair in the corner of your living room, the dining room table, a desk in the den. Wherever you can make space to work comfortably and leave your working day when it’s done, then that’s perfect.
I don’t advocate working from your bed or the sofa because it’s not separating work from personal life. And, if you’re anything like me, it’ll be distracting because… you know… the TV is… right… there…
I don’t know about you but I find Netflix very distracting when I’m trying to get work done. It does nothing for my productivity levels to even have it on in the background! You need to try and minimise distractions so that you can get your work done. You’ll have plenty of spare time later to catch up with that TV series!
2 Develop a routine
Now, when I left my day job and started working for myself, the idea of “routine” was one that made me grimace horribly. I always thought of routine as being the enemy of freelancing. It sounds so rigid and restricting, doesn’t it?
Carla and I discussed this in a forthcoming episode of Creative Reboot (go over there and subscribe!) and we both came to the same conclusion. Routine is not restrictive at all. It’s very freeing! Having a routine doesn’t have to dictate every part of your day. But having set processes in place can help with keeping you motivated and fresh so you’re putting out your best work. Even when you are having to work from that sofa!
Some of the things I’ve discovered that work for me are:
- Setting an alarm
I’ll be the first to admit, I’m not a morning person. I always struggle with getting up. I’m slow to get going and I don’t wake up and start producing my best work until early afternoon. But I do set an early alarm so that I can start that “slow” wake up process as soon as possible. My alarm goes off between 7 and 8 am and I’ll aim to get to my desk for 9 to 10 am.
Ultimately, just because you’re having to work from home, don’t let that morning routine change. Set your alarm and get yourself up as you would if you were heading into the office. It’ll help you to get your day started on the right foot!
- Get dressed!
As much as I would love to doss around in my pyjamas all day, I don’t feel like I’m awake and human until I get myself dressed.
I’m not suggesting you have to still put on your normal work gear. No one is going to mind if you don’t wear a suit and tie right now. You can pull on those yoga pants if that’s what makes you feel happy and comfortable. Try to not stay wearing what you wore in bed the night before if you can help it. And, you know, put some clean underwear on!
Also, you can wear a unicorn onesie if that’s your jam. I will never judge you for doing that!
- The daily “commute”
My sister lives in a shared house which means she’s having to work from her bedroom right now. Sleeping and working in the same space can be quite difficult for your mental health. It also makes it difficult for you to separate home and personal life from your work life.
One of the things she says that helps is to finish her work at the end of the day and then head out for a walk with her housemate. They’ll go somewhere for a stroll for half an hour or so and when she gets back, it feels like her workday is done because she feels like she’s returning ‘home’.
I’ve heard of people who do this at both ends of their working day, to create that home/work divide. It’s a spectacular idea. I’ve even heard of people walking around their house or the block and treating that as their “commute”. For me, I always go downstairs to have breakfast and feed the cats in the morning. My walk up to my office feels like my commute but I do love that idea of popping out for a quick stroll!
- Plan your day
One of the first things I do when I sit down at my desk is to go through all the things that are in my list to get done. I’ll figure out exactly what needs to get done that day and I’ll list them out with rough times for when I’ll work on each thing. I’ll also factor in breaks and a decent lunch break at that stage too.
I’m a total planner these days and I couldn’t live without Google Calendar for this. It has become an absolute lifeline in planning out my working day and it helps to keep me on track.
- Take regular breaks
Look, I know I said sometimes I’ll go for six hours without leaving my desk because I’m in the zone with work. This is not a behaviour I advocate though, and what’s that saying? Do as I say, not as I do! 😉
Regular breaks are important whether you’re working from home or not. Taking a little time away from your desk will help to clear your head and refresh you ready to take on the next task. And I don’t know about you but I always have some of my best ideas when I’m taking a few minutes away from my desk!
Working at home means I’m also always conscious of household chores that need doing. For me, using short breaks to tackle one or two chores feels productive. It makes me feel a little less guilty about the dishes piling up in the sink or the floor that hasn’t been swept in days.
- Set boundaries
That leads quite well into the boundary setting part of your day. Setting boundaries, like saying you’ll only tackle household chores on breaks, will preserve your sanity. If there’s one thing I’ve come to realise when working from home, it’s that I cannot do all the things all the time. I used to feel terrible guilt about the state of the house while I was sitting there in it all day long. I had to remind myself that I wasn’t sitting there twiddling my thumbs (contrary to popular belief!), I was WORKING!
Set those boundaries with yourself and your loved ones. It’s not being mean or unfair. It’s prioritising what needs to be done and when. Learn this one quickly, otherwise, it can be a real drain on your mental health!
- Finally, accept that your routine is adaptable
These are weird times. Nothing is set in stone and things are changing on a near-daily basis. So, if you need to adapt your routine, then that is fine. Especially if you’ve also got to deal with children home from school and the other half also working from home too. Don’t feel like you have to keep things rigid. Figure it out as you go and make changes as you need to. And don’t feel guilty about what you can and can’t manage in a day either! Do your best and the rest will follow.
3 Staying Focused
When you’re working from home, one of the toughest things is to stay focused on the work you need to get done.
Is a real thing. And it doesn’t mean you’re lazy! When you’re at home, it’s so easy to become distracted by so many things. The internet and social media are digital rabbit holes. Once you fall down them, they can be hard to climb back out of again. Also, emails! I am forever flitting back to my inbox as emails come through during the day. For the most part, none of them needs reading or actioning right away. But that doesn’t stop me from getting distracted by them!
Also, that dreaded housework. Or keeping the kids entertained. Or, in my case, the cats needing to be fed. All these things can prove distracting and make it hard for you to concentrate on your daily work.
There’s a statistic that states it takes about 20 minutes to regain focus after you’ve become distracted. So if you spend your whole day being distracted, then when do you ever regain your focus?!
There is such a thing as productive procrastination though. My classic one is to start getting a whole load of household chores done when an essay deadline is drawing near. I have the loveliest looking floors around those times, so I suppose that’s something! Sometimes I realise I’m procrastinating because I’m avoiding doing something. It’s those occasions where you have to look at what’s going on and figure what it is that you’re avoiding!
Stu is a paramedic instructor. So, I was happily chatting away with him about the Pomodoro Technique recently, when I realised he had no idea what that was!
This is a great focusing technique I learned for when I’m studying. But it helps if you’ve got a particular task or project you need to concentrate on too.
The principle of the technique is that your concentration levels only last for a set amount of time. It recommends you work for four periods of 25 minutes, with a five-minute break in between each period. After the fourth period, you take a longer break. This is the optimum timing for your concentration levels. I find it does work and I get more done in that two-hour block than I do at any other time.
There are a ton of great apps you can download which utilise this method. My current favourite is ‘Focus Timer’. It’s super simple and allows me to get to work while it times quietly in the background. After 25 minutes, it signals it’s time for a five-minute break. And then after another five minutes, it lets me know it’s time to get back to work again.
Can we talk about the massive elephant in the room briefly? Because I’m sure I’m not the only one who gets distracted by what’s going on on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or whatever other social media platform you use.
I’d love to say “stay off of social media” but I know that’s not always possible. I run my own business, I know that having a social media presence is important for it. But I have figured out ways to minimise its impact on my life.
- Turn off notifications
Ok, look, this might sound scary but I promise you it’s not as bad as it sounds. I turned all my notifications off months ago and I haven’t looked back. Now I have to physically go into the app if I want to check messages and see what’s being posted. It’s liberating in the sense that I’m not now picking up my phone a thousand times a day. It’s also not constantly buzzing or pinging at me while I’m concentrating on my work.
- Unfollow or “snooze” accounts
I love all my friends dearly and I’m always interested to see what they’re posting or what they have to say about things. But the “noise”, especially lately, has been overwhelming. I’ve found it very hard on my mental health to keep paying attention. So, I made a big decision last week to unfollow pretty much everyone’s account on social media. I cannot recommend this enough if your mental health is struggling. You don’t have to have it off forever. But it can be useful at times like these so you’re not getting swept up in the mass hysteria of what’s happening right now.
This has turned into quite the epic post. So, I’m going to leave it there for now and come back with a second post with some more advice very soon.
I discussed all this and a lot more on Facebook recently. You can check out the live post right here. And if you have any questions or comments about this, either drop me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment.
Please do keep safe out there guys! And happy home-working for you all!