Illustration: David Gil (Sariselka)
Working from home may once have been perceived as a welcome reprieve from long commutes and office politics. But as the coronavirus pandemic continues, some people are finding that the work-from-home reality is a far cry from the fantasy. But the question is no longer whether to work or not—it’s how to successfully work from home.
For better or worse, many professionals are used to the rhythm of eight-hour workdays, bookended by commutes. For some, evenings might have consisted of making dinner, doing laundry or playing with kids. From that vantage point, being able to work at your own pace or do chores intermittently throughout the day seems like a dream. Turns out, it’s not.
Now that they have to do it every day, many workers have recognized that being productive without the structure of the office is extremely difficult. Not only that, but many had very little time to prepare for this change, and no guidance on how to manage it. With family around, other responsibilities keep calling our attention away from work, and we end up frazzled and discombobulated, behind on deadlines and absent from our lives at home even as we spend every moment in them.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
As a work-at-home parent, I write articles, produce multimedia shorts, and teach university classes in journalism. My days are run by lists, my weeks by goals and my time is partitioned into segments to preserve my sanity. Having a schedule is key, but harder than you think. So many aspects of your life will now need to be scheduled.
I’ve worked from home for 10 years. Perhaps that’s why I initially had no idea about how difficult people would find what I consider my daily routine. Without outside structure, you have to learn to make your own. Once you do that, your days begin to have meaning again, time separates itself back out, and you can measure goals and achievements in a verifiable way. The strategies below were acquired over the past decade of experience, and can help you successfully work from home. Putting the tips into action can help you stay mentally focused and attuned to your work/home balance. Even when your work is at home.
1. Learn to use your body as an alarm clock
Now that you no longer have to drive to work, it can be tempting to shut that alarm clock off and revel in a natural sleep cycle. So go ahead. Sleeping in a more healthy manner won’t compromise your productivity. Wake up when you want to; just make sure it is before a certain time in the morning. That certain time is different for everyone. For me personally, it’s 9 a.m.. If I wake up after 9, I feel groggy and off my game. I can’t be as productive as I would be if I had awoken earlier. But waking up at 8 a.m. on my own sure beats being dragged out of bed at 6:30 a.m. by a beeping noise. Everyone’s homeostatic sleep drive is different, but the idea is the same. Learn to listen to your body.
2. Shower frequently
If you are used to showering in the morning, continue to do so. Your routine is already being disrupted by many changes. Maintain as many comforts as possible. Cleanliness, believe it or not, is one of them. A daily shower has been deemed excessive, but beware if you slip into three or four days straight without a single wash. You will not feel like yourself, and it might even be a sign of depression. Keep yourself going as if you have people to see. Your body will thank you.
3. Get dressed
Yes, no one is watching, and pajamas are comfy and everyone hates pants, but the novelty of wearing your nighties all day and back into the night into the next day dims quickly. You can eschew the heels and pencil skirts, the ties and suit jackets, and enjoy our true casual style at home. Or you can dress just as you would to go into the office. Whatever makes you feel fresh, and like your best self—that’s what you should strive for. Like showering, getting dressed helps put you in the right mood for productivity. It also helps your mental health by helping your inner clock and circadian rhythm.
4. Carve out a space for your work
Above all, people who are not used to working from home are not set up to actually do it. You can’t sit on a couch in the living room with your kids running amok in the background. The kitchen table isn’t an option. There’s no space for your computer among the craft projects and school papers. You need a dedicated space for you and your work.
Not everyone has a home office, but a kitchen nook or particular chair in the corner of the living room will do—if you make it yours. Keep it clean and tidy and don’t let the rest of the family use it. It is your work space—a space that is consistently yours for your work. Similarly, when you are there, you work. Don’t open it up to other activities like watching TV or listening to podcasts. Save that for the couch. This will help you delineate between work and the rest of your life.
5. Make time to exercise
Exercise for mental as well as physical wellbeing. This can be every day or every other day, and it doesn’t have to be rigorous. Even a 30-minute walk can help clear your head. I alternate between running, cycling and home workouts that I stream online. Varying the workouts helps my muscles and my brain. It can be hard to keep up a fitness routine right now, particularly because bodies at rest want to stay at rest, so make sure you don’t talk yourself out of it or allow yourself to put it off. Set a time during the day when you get out there and burn some calories and produce some endorphins.
If possible, use the workout session to break up your workday. Sometimes I run at 5:30 p.m. and sometimes I run at noon, but in both instances I use it as a buffer between work projects or house cleaning projects. Back-to-back meetings might make this difficult at times. But exercise breaks can be a great way to clear your head, especially if you’ve been stewing on that one task for two hours. A break is one way to stop stewing, and a workout break can really help foment a breakthrough.
6. Take breaks, period
Work for two to three hours nonstop, then stop and do something else. Eat lunch, clean the bathroom, play with your kids—anything you like. After the break, work for another couple of hours then stop again. Take another break. And repeat once more.
In an office setting, you can walk through the building, interact with coworkers, pursue small tasks unrelated to the project at hand or get takeout for lunch. Knowingly or not, every couple of hours, you probably end up taking a brief break at work anyway. At home, since those little office distractions and tangents no longer exist, your breaks need to be deliberate. An office worker has commute times, a lunch hour and numerous breaks throughout the day. At home, you can use that time to take your own breaks on your own terms.
7. Don’t feel obligated to keep video on
Cameras on or off for work meetings? It depends on your organization, but otherwise, listen to your preferences. Having your face on camera and seeing other faces can make you feel closer to your officemates, and nurture a cross-computer bond. Distance bias is real and it can affect work relationships (for example, employers may feel closer to some employees over others). If you have that home office space on lock, and you’ve gotten dressed as you should have, turning that camera on can help you feel like part of your team again.
However, unless your work specifies otherwise, don’t feel obligated to show your face during every meeting. Every work-from-home parent knows the story: the kids are having a breakdown, or the backdrop is messy and cluttered, or the dog is sick, or any number of home mishaps are occurring right in time for that conference call. If the camera has to stay off sometimes, don’t beat yourself up about it.
8. Embrace lists
If you are task-oriented rather than time-oriented, lists will help you get a lot more done with a lot less floundering. Experts say changing over to results-based work from hourly work helps people stay productive and forward-facing. Also, make sure you have an overall weekly plan. In addition to daily lists, have attainable, overarching goals for the week. This will help you accomplish things and give you a little self-esteem boost, to boot.
9. Eat your meals
It is very easy to skip meals and snack all day instead because the food is right there. Avoid doing that because if your system isn’t used to it, it will just make you feel sluggish and sick. And it’s not just a feeling. Snacking all day can be bad for your health, according to studies.
10. Make time for nothing
Take 30 minutes during the work day to do nothing. Sit outside, rest in your bed, meditate, do yoga and recharge. Use one of your break times to do this. It will stop everything from blurring into everything else.
11. Be both assertive and empathetic
Be firm with your employers, but remember, they’re not used to this either. Over-communication is key when you work from home. The distance and time involved in remote work require extra care when it comes to communication. Being transparent is not a weakness. Giving coworkers a heads up on where your projects are and when they’ll be moving forward makes others feel secure in your work. They’ll be better able to trust how everything is going, even when you’re not physically present. Don’t give in to bullying or passive aggressive tactics; let team members know what you can and cannot accomplish. They will respect that.
12. Stop working at xx o’clock.
The actual hour is up to you because the timing is different for everyone, but everyone has that hour when they shouldn’t be working. You need to separate your days from your evenings, and stop work at a set time to stick to your schedule.
13. Unwind before bed
Watch a show, read a book or play a game with your kids. Do whatever relaxes you. But whatever you do, don’t work the hour before you go to sleep. It’s not worth it and it’s not sustainable. You will be burned out before you know it. Now that you don’t have a schedule imposed on you, you’ll have to work hard to impose your own schedule.
14. Go to bed by xx o’clock.
Again, the ideal bedtime is different for everyone, but no one’s bedtime should be 3 a.m. Remember, just because work is inside the home doesn’t mean it’s not work. If you are going to bed later and later, you’ll either deprive yourself of sleep or start sleeping in later and later, and you’ll kick yourself off your schedule.
15. Remember that working from home can be great
If you know how to successfully work from home, it can actually be pretty wonderful. You are in your element. This is your comfort zone, and hopefully it’s filled with things and people you love. If you can stick to a reasonable schedule, orient yourself toward actionable results and goals and ensure you get plenty of breaks, you’ll do just fine.
Read more: The Toggl Guide to Working from Home