Tried and True Strategies
20 years ago, I made my first 9-step commute to my home office. It was a spare bedroom at my house in the suburbs of San Francisco. It’s fair to say I’ve done this work-from-home thing for awhile now. I’ve adapted my ways and found a few tricks and tips that work well for me. I’ve been asked quite a bit lately how I do it, so here goes.
In case you’re wondering, yes, I did write this in the height of the first hints of Covid craziness in 2020. That said, first I’ll explain that in “normal” life, I do not do it with a four-year old screaming “Mummy, watch this one!!” as she spectacularly dives off the bedhead to the mattress for the seventieth time in a row since 7am as I try to thoughtfully compose an email at a crappy makeshift desk in the spare bedroom. These have NOT been normal circumstances. We know that. If you are reading this during a new Covid outbreak, or any other less-than-normal life circumstance, for now, simply do what you can do. Be patient with yourself, your timelines, your family, and try not to yell “for the love of God just let me concentrate!” too many times. I am trying to heed my own words. Current circumstances mean that I am setting my alarm for 5:30, making a coffee, then sitting down to crank out as much work as possible before the chaos ensues. Early mornings have become my friends for the first time ever. Experiment. Adapt. Find a new way to make things work for now. These next tips should help regardless.
Put on some pants kid!
I am constantly telling my daughter to put some pants on in the morning. Why? Because it is a sign that the day has started. Do the same for yourself. Chances are that if you’re still wandering around attempting work in your PJs at noon, your brain is following suit and hasn’t fully switched into go-mode either. None of us want to do more work than we need to. Make it productive. Take it seriously and it will take you seriously.
Think 3:30-itis was bad in the office? It is soooo much worse when it’s just you, by yourself, in your house, fighting afternoon fatigue demons with weapons of music and coffee and occasional star-jumps. Nearly from the get-go, I realised that the afternoon slump was greatly fuelled by the food I chose at lunch. I know that for me, large amounts of simple carbs (say a bowl of pasta) will turn me into the walking dead. A cheeky afternoon beer? I’m out for the count. Experiment with this for your own body, but generally, the fresher the better. Eat food with colour and vibrancy, food that makes your body sing, and your afternoon’s to-do list will thank you.
Many people are finding that their workday is more flexible now than in an office where people are standing over their shoulders and wanting things on the spot. Take advantage of that and schedule your work list to your advantage. Try leaving some of the fun stuff to the end. (Let’s hope, for this one, that you do enjoy at least part of your job). When it’s possible, I try to save things that I am a little more excited about doing til the end part of the day. That way I’ve made sure to tick off all the boring bits before the afternoon slump, and I leave the workday doing something I’ve enjoyed. For me, this means that my mornings are spent with mundane tasks like emails, invoicing and proposals and my afternoons are spent designing.
Seriously, take it seriously
Make no doubt, it is still work, wherever you do it. Before the Covid work-from-home necessity (now I feel like people are a tad more understanding), I would constantly have invites along the lines of: “You’re working today? Cool, do you want to go to the cafe? Or take a walk?” Ummmm….no. I’m working. People seriously didn’t get it. I actually stopped using the phrase. “I’m working” and replaced it with “I’m at work” because I felt the boundaries seemed tighter. But really the boundaries lay with the worker. For some people, it’s hard to take it seriously. I first began knowing that I needed to put strict hours on my schedule, otherwise I was very at risk of “just one more episode of Gilmore Girls” at lunch, then staying on the couch til 4. So, I gave myself a strict 9-5 with a half hour for lunch and did that routinely for years. Find a schedule that works for you, then as much as it pains you, stick to it as though you had to answer to your boss if you were late. Just because your boss is you, doesn’t mean you can’t take him or her seriously.
IF you are planning on working from home long term (as many have discovered they now can, and now actually enjoy), really truly think about your space. That goes for short term too, but I would say that of all the spaces I’ve had, the most successful have required me actually going outside and opening the door to another building. In Melbourne, I even decided to rent a studio space that required me riding a tram for 30 minutes just to clear my head before entering my new space. Sure, I’ve worked from spare bedrooms, but if I had to do that long term I would likely put in an outside door so I had to put on my boots to walk around the house. It is invaluable to have a space that requires the literal turning of a door handle so that you know when you enter, that is your designated work zone.
Design a space that portrays what you want. My first space all that time ago was set up quite differently to now. Back then it looked like an Apple store, clean and white with perfectly placed Apple products. I even had a drafting table, which I’m pretty sure I used only twice, but it made me feel like I was in a proper office. I had all of my design mags and books on display. Now my space is separate from my house (I even have a 3 minute drive). It is warm and cozy, with wood and dark tiles and just a handful of my favourite design books. Paired back, clutter free, and perfect.
Many of you now are improvising home offices, which is great. Desks can be made from a couple stools with an old door on top (as my spare-bedroom desk is at the moment), but the same still applies. Spend some time making it a space that you enjoy being in. Not everyone is equally affected by their surroundings, but most people find that a space that has good energy, is purposeful, clean and conducive to work will be more productive.
Clear visual distractions
As much as you can, clear out all unnecessary items (at least from your field of view). Even though you may not be intentionally focusing on the loaded laundry basket in the background of your computer, chances are a part of your brain can’t fully forget it’s existence. The less the amount of “home stuff” in your “work stuff” space the better. Some days I can focus more than others. There are certainly days where so much as a misplaced sock will distract me.
Coffee by moonlight
There is undoubtable beauty in the flexibility that affords us working from home. So play with changing it up! You might be pleasantly surprised, as I have been, that you are more productive at bizarre times. Take it from the self-professed night owl who now gets up before dawn. Who would have guessed that my most productive times are the wee hours of the morning when I am sipping coffee by the light of the moon with a candle burning.
The work-life separation can be one of the hardest parts of working from home, but you still need to switch off at the end of the day (wherever in the day that may be). Writing out your to-do list the night before is a great way to aid in that work-life separation. Write it out. Close the laptop. Then sign off. Enjoy your family and your evening. Both your work life and your family life will be happier if you can get this balanced.
I am not a routine person – not by a long shot. I love the quote “Routine is the enemy of creativity.” I can say with absolute certainty that I have never once followed the same routine for two days of my entire life. That said, I do understand and value routine and structure when working from home. The older I get, the more I seem to need it. It seems to untangle my anxiety, and smooth out the wrinkles in my day, if I can know how a few things go before I do them. Put an order into as much of your day as you can, and it allows more headspace to tackle other things.
Be flexible, be forgiving (on the back of that last one):
Even after nearly 20 years of this, I still get it wrong, probably every other day. Even though I feel that I know my “rules” for what to do and not do, I don’t always do a great job of following them. Especially now, be kind to yourself when it looks like you are getting nowhere with the day’s task list. This is hard. Routines are out the door, lives are entangled in complexities and stresses. Try to have a wee bit of routine, but let it change. Honour the process and the learning and the journey.
I’m hoping ideas are helpful. Have fun with it. Working from home is a great gift. It’s not easy but there are little tweaks to your day that can help. Experiment and play and be attentive to what works and what doesn’t and you’ll find your way with an awesomely productive day working from your own home.
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