Right now, much of the world is fucked up. The COVID-19 global pandemic has turned our lives upside down (or at least it feels that way to me). The empty shelves at the grocery store sent me into a silent emotional meltdown the first time I saw them, and I know I’m not the only one.
As the infection and fatality numbers continue to rise in many of our countries, the best thing most of us can do is practice social distancing and respect the fact that even if we personally aren’t high-risk, others are. Taking precautions to limit our chances of spreading the virus helps to protect the vulnerable, which is why regional and national governments have been implementing emergency restrictions on public gathering. Many companies have stepped up by allowing employees to work from home. Based on current projections, at least in the US and Canada, we might be here a while. That brings us to this blog post.
Working from home is going to be a new experience for a lot of you. It’s not always easy, either. I’ve been fortunate enough to work from home full-time since 2013, so I’ve got my personal routine down, with lots of tips to share. I also happen to know many other full-time remote workers, who’ve contributed their thoughts and tips to this post. Let’s get productive while staying healthy and socially distanced!
Working from home: Your workspace
So. Your office is now at home. That means that it’s time to designate a space in your home as your office, if at all possible.
Our brains tend to wire themselves around our habits, linking specific locations with specific activities and more efficiently shifting into readiness for those activities when we enter the locations we associate with them. That’s why sleep experts recommend that we only use our beds for sleep and adult fun times, to train our brains to be ready for sleep (or adult fun times) when we get in bed. It’s also why trying to work outside of the workspace we’re accustomed to can be a challenge.
Designating a workspace in your home is the first step to rewiring your brain for the new current reality. Ideally, you’d be able to dedicate an entire room or at least a desk as your new home office. To establish this as Your Workspace, set it up as such. This is not a place for stacks of household bills, grocery lists, the kids’ homework projects, or anything else that will remind you that you are working from home. Clear away as many reminders of domesticity as you can. “Creating a physical delimitation of where you work within your home really helps separate work time from the rest of your life,” says Mariève Inoue, freelance beauty journalist and translator (and amazing illustrator) at By Minoue and @by.minoue.
Set yourself up as much as you can for success. Stick with “wired Internet—do not play with WiFi” if you can help it, says Tracy Robey, a Renaissance historian, journalist, and beauty blogger whose productivity powerhouse status always awes the rest of us in the Snailcast group chat. In addition, Tracy suggests “a bed for your cat (if you have one) on your desk so they let you work” as well as “a computer that’s fast enough to power like…NASA.”
Not everyone now working from home will have the luxury of a full home office or even a spare desk, however. Over on my Instagram, several of you asked what to do if you can’t set up a physical workspace.
The lack of a settled, dedicated workspace in your home doesn’t have to be a productivity killer. Instead, find other ways to establish your work routine and boundaries. I actually do most of my work from a corner of our dining table, because a single income in a high cost of living coastal area doesn’t really buy me an extra room, and I prefer to use the one free space in my place for yoga instead.
What I’ve done is make a work “kit”. I keep it handy so that I can have it with me whether I’m at the table or sitting on the sofa. My kit contains my Hobonichi planner and pens, my phone and charger, my wireless headphones, sometimes some snacks, and whatever products I’m currently tasked with writing about. Yours will look different, but the concept remains the same. Keep your kit in a small basket or similar container, along with your laptop. This is now your office.
One important caveat for those of you with limited options: the bedroom should be the last resort. As freelance writer and beauty blogger Ali from Queen of Wrong Style put it, “If you can help it, don’t work in your bedroom. I did this the first several years I worked remotely and it started to feel like I couldn’t escape my work because I used my bedroom as an office.” Associating your bedroom with work can inadvertently train your brain not to relax fully there. Conversely, it can also reduce your focus and energy, thanks to the temptations of the warm cozy bed.
Working from home: Creating a productivity- and creativity-boosting routine
Establishing a workspace or work kit is only the first step to rewiring your brain for maximum productivity and creativity during your stint as a remote worker. Equally critical are the habits you build to delineate the beginning and end of your workday.
It’s easier when you work outside the home. You get dressed, leave the house, commute to your workplace, and settle down at your desk. Those physical movements and actions are a daily ritual that tells your brain it’s work time. A two-second commute doesn’t offer quite the same automatic delineation between work and home.
As with skincare, productivity is very YMMV. The specifics of what you do to tell yourself that you’re now in work mode will vary from person to person. What won’t vary is the effectiveness of having a set pre-work ritual to get you into work mode.
Many remote workers suggest getting dressed as if for the office, even if the office is at home and no one will see you due to Social Isolation. My number one beeb Sean, a NYC art director, told me that “when I have to work I like to get dressed. Easier to work if you’re not in PJs.” Many others concur.
On the other hand, I personally like to be as comfortable as possible when I’m working. That means no binding, restrictive clothes. (Maybe my problem is my preference for the look of binding, restrictive clothes?) Certainly no bras if no one’s going to see the headlights anyway. “Don’t wear pants unless your chair is sweaty,” says Cat Cactus, the blogger behind Snow White and the Asian Pear, who worked from home full-time for several years.
So I don’t get dressed. I do, however, always wash my face, apply skincare, and do light makeup (brows and blush usually), even if I’m expecting to stay in for the vast majority of the day. Then I spend a few minutes reviewing the day’s page in my planner so that my task list is fresh in my mind. This ritual gets me out of lounging mode and into “sane and productive member of society” mode.
Nicole Hopkins, a freelance writer who blogs about beauty and yoga over at Ms Merriam (and who is a founding member of the No Pants No Bra Work From Home Club with me and Cat), shared her work prep routine:
It’s especially helpful for days that I’m feeling overwhelmed by the amount of work I have to do or just really not feeling it. I set up my computer screen with whatever work I’m going to be doing and close everything else, then set up my Pomodoro timer. I silence my phone and put it out of sight, then take about 20 seconds to just do a couple of deep breaths and get in a headspace to be productive. Just doing that quick couple of minutes more than doubled my productivity.
Speaking of Pomodoro timers, using this simple time management system has increased my productivity massively over the years. I’ve found it helpful for boosting motivation, creativity, and overall output. It’s also a fantastic procrastination killer. While it may not be feasible for remote workers bound to customer or client calls or frequent meetings, it works great for solitary tasks.
The Pomodoro technique is simple. Procrastination often results from dread of a task, typically stemming from how long we think it’s going to take or how complex it is. Similarly to how bullet journaling helps us by breaking down large projects into smaller and more manageable tasks, Pomodoro timers break down the workday into smaller and more manageable chunks. The method involves working in short bursts (20-25 minutes generally), with five-minute breaks in between and a longer break after several of the short work sessions are completed.
It’s amazing. Knowing that you’ll only have to work on something for less than half an hour and then you’ll get a break is often enough to clear away the dread and get you to work. There are desktop and mobile apps to handle the timer aspect—I use the Pomodoro Timer Pro app.
If possible, also try to block out the ambient noise of your home with some background noise. Preferences vary here–I like the gentle sounds of the Hogwarts Library. Rachel @noonatown, who has been telecommuting full-time for about six years, uses standard white noise to improve focus. On the other hand, her husband, who’s been working from home for 12 years, prefers podcasts and music while working. And video game soundtracks are amazing focus boosters, since that’s exactly what they’re composed for.
Between your start-of-the-workday ritual, productivity hacks like a Pomodoro timer, and some good background noise to shut out your domestic surroundings, you should be better equipped now to get the most out of your home-based workday. But that’s just the beginning.
Encouraging productivity and balance with a consistent schedule
Many remote workers struggle with maintaining a healthy separation between work time and leisure time. I’ve definitely had that problem. When your office is in view of your sofa and your sofa is in view of your office, it’s easy to make yourself too available to work even outside of your regular business hours, which can be detrimental to both mental health and family relationships. If you’re not feeling particularly engaged with your work, the converse can be just as true: being at home presents many temptations to step away from the desk and not come back.
If your job requires you to adhere to a set schedule while working from home, that makes things simpler. You know your start time, your break time, and your end time. Commit to showing up on time and ready to work–and commit to walking away at the end of your shift. Make it clear to anyone you share your home with that in between your start and end times, you are working and should be treated as if you aren’t home as much as possible.
Make it equally clear to yourself that once your workday is done, you are not working and don’t need to go back to your workspace until your next shift begins. If possible, leave your workspace altogether and don’t come back until the next day. Alternatively, put your work kit away. I also like to finish the workday by reviewing my planner and creating my task list for the next day.
If your job is relaxed in terms of scheduling, with expectations centered around the completion of deliverables rather than the logging of hours, you’ll have to put more effort into establishing your work-life balance. I strongly suggest you set yourself a consistent workday schedule anyway, based on the number of hours you estimate you’ll need each day to complete your tasks. Habit is a powerful thing. The more you can get into the habit of sitting down to work at X time and expecting to stay there until either Y time or until you’ve completed your tasks for the day, the more efficient you’ll be. Otherwise, it’s too easy to start sliding down the slippery slope of starting a little later every day until you’re fully on Quarantine Time and chained to your desk until midnight.
Choose rewards for yourself to encourage punctuality and productivity. They don’t have to be huge, but they should be something you look forward to enough to earn them. Maybe you’ll order yourself a box of sheet masks after starting on time for a full week; maybe you’ll give yourself a Lindt chocolate truffle egg for each day you complete all your tasks. (Did you know those are a thing? I didn’t before, but I do now. They’re delicious.)
Staying alert and healthy while working from home
Several Instagram followers asked me how they can avoid sluggishness and the temptation to nap during the day, especially if they’re struggling with depression already. These are struggles I’ve had too. I’ve developed several mechanisms to prevent them.
The most helpful trick I’ve found is to stay physically active during the day. Remember those short and long breaks bestowed by the Pomodoro technique? I use those to get up and move around, taking a couple of minutes out of my chair and away from my desk. I’ll often go look out the window or step onto the patio for some sunlight and fresh air. An excessively sedentary lifestyle is detrimental to both physical and mental health, so any movement helps.
I also often stretch. One major benefit of working from home is that you don’t have to worry about coworkers witnessing your stretch breaks. I find that stretching my hamstrings with standing or seated forward folds and my hip flexors with deep lunges helps prevent lower back tightness. Upper back and shoulder stretches also keep my back from turning into one massive sheet of pain by the end of the day. As a bonus, the effort and sensation of stretching wakes me up when I’m feeling sleepy.
I’ve got a personal list of helpful stretches for my particular back problems, which I mostly learned from the Daily Yoga app that I use. Daily Yoga even has an easy office yoga program to help counteract computer back and desk legs.
Making sure to move around regularly during your workday counteracts sluggishness and fatigue, but there are other things you can do, too. Many people find that limited food options at work cause them to eat unhealthily. Taking advantage of your full kitchen for your snacks and lunch can give you a leg up. I know I put Kit Kats and cartoon character corn sticks in my work kit photo, but being at home also means I have access to all the fresh meat and produce in my fridge to make healthy meals that won’t leave me drooping after lunch.
Try not to rely on caffeine too much if you can help it. That can disrupt your sleep at night, making you feel progressively worse and more dependent on caffeine as time goes on.
Having fun working from home
Until now, we’ve been pretty serious about establishing good professional work habits and environment. But let’s face it–you’re working from home. There is a flexibility inherent in working from home, and as long as you’ve established your baseline productive work habits, you should take advantage of it!
Earlier, I mentioned establishing a set work start and end time even if you’re not on a shift schedule. I never said it has to be 8-5 or 9-6 or anything like that. If you’re naturally more nocturnal and you don’t need to be present in the mornings specifically, feel free to play around with your schedule, starting later and ending later than standard business hours if you feel it would suit you more.
Unless I have meetings in the morning, I personally like to start about 11. If you naturally get up earlier, meanwhile, you could always start earlier and end earlier, leaving yourself with a lot of the day free afterwards. I also build a couple of longer breaks into my day, rather than just a half hour lunch; the longer breaks are for making meals and doing things with my son. Then I just end my workday later in the evening.
Sheet mask at your desk if you want. Hell, do entire skincare routines at your desk if you want. Give yourself an exercise break over lunch. Within the limitations of Social Isolation, you can find plenty of freedom to craft a workday that perfectly suits your needs.
And try to stay positive overall. There’s definitely a lot of internal screaming in my head, and plenty of external screaming in the group chats I keep open with friends so we can connect and have some adult human interaction and fresh cat memes throughout the day, but at the end of the day, those of us able to work from home are very lucky and very privileged to do so.
As a final note, several readers asked what they can do to help support loved ones who are not able to work from home–first responders, medical personnel, and others in positions deemed essential. I think finding ways to help reduce the time they need to spend away from home outside of their jobs is a great place to start.
Offer to pick up groceries and household supplies for them when you’re doing a supply run or online order for your household if you’re in a position to do so. You can still minimize social contact by agreeing on a pickup time and leaving their items by your door or in some other place they can access at that time. Keep in touch and check on them via text or phone–not just their physical health but their mental health as well. And simply find ways to be a friend (or sister or brother or whatever your relationship is) whenever you can, in whatever ways that means to you.
We really will get through this.
These times are insane. My head spins on a more or less constant basis at the speed with which life flipped upside down here in the States, where I live. But I do believe we will get through this somehow. The more we adhere to best practices for keeping ourselves, our families, and our fellow humans safe and healthy, the more likely it is that we’ll get through this with society fairly intact, and sooner rather than later. We may even come out of this with some better habits than before.
Be kind to yourself. Give yourself space and permission to fall apart if you need to. Just remember to catch yourself if you’re falling into real despair.
If you need someone to talk to, even just to vent about the state of the world or the state of your pantry or toilet paper stash, and you don’t feel like you have anyone to turn to, please find me on Instagram and DM me! I try to get through most DM requests when I have spare time and I would be happy and honored to listen and help if I can. I’m also fully on Quarantine Time now and find myself waking up in the middle of the night for an hour or more, so that’s extra time I’ll probably use to field messages anyway.
I love you guys. Be healthy and safe and do your best to stay sane!