WFH is hard to do

How to Work From Home Without Going Nuts

A little vacation from the IRL office probably sounds nice. But there are quite a few ways to derail the productivity of a work-from-home workday. Here’s how to avoid them.

Remember March? In those early days of the COVID-19 crisis (at least in the US), it felt like social distancing might last just a few weeks.

Given the uncertainty of the situation, people across the country started working from home, whether by decree of a lockdown or because of individual company policy decisions. Google, Apple, and a host of other companies of all sizes asked their employees to work from home, hoping to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus. But now, we find ourselves several weeks down the road from that initial starting point, and many of us still have no real end in sight.

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Over the past few seemingly endless weeks, the work landscape has become almost unrecognizable, and though many essential workers across the country are dutifully showing up at work day after day, many of us still find ourselves working out of our living room for the millionth day in a row. And the set up can, on the best days, feel downright lonely.

Let’s be honest: For many, this little vacation from the IRL office sounded kind of nice—at first. Now? The idea might not be as appealing. As a work-from-home expert (I’ve been a remote worker for going on seven years), let me warn you (if you haven't already gathered): there are quite a few ways to derail the productivity of a work from home workday. If you've been struggling to stay focused, here’s how to avoid the classic home office slip-ups.

Get ready to rock and roll: Prepare for the shift to working from home

Especially if you don’t usually work remotely, it’s important to know if and how your job might change once you’re off-site. Have an explicit conversation with your boss or supervisor (or, if you’re the boss, with yourself) about what you’re expected to do while you’re not physically in the office. What accountability will there be, and what are the metrics for success? Be sure you have all of the resources on hand to get the (modified) job done; if you need something more, make sure you ask for it.

You’ll want to have a similar conversation with your customers, clients, and employees or team members. Will you reschedule meetings (or hold virtual ones)? Push back deadlines? Let them know if there’s anything that will change because you’re working from home.

Start strong: Follow your regular morning routine

You might be tempted to sleep in and roll into the remote office later than you would on regular days, especially if your job isn’t rigorously scheduled or doesn’t have a standard remote sign-in system to keep you accountable for your hours. Maybe you’ll be tempted to leave your bonnet on and stay in pajamas or skip your morning skincare routine. I’d ask you to reconsider.

The more you stray from your regular AM routine, the more difficult it will be to have a successful day working from home. The brain loves a pattern—routines help us stay focused and calm, and let our minds prepare for what’s likely to follow. Just like how Pavlov’s dogs’ saliva glands knew that a bell meant dinner, your mind knows that your 7 a.m. shower and stylish blazer mean it’s time to shift into work mode.

Location, location, location: Choose a place to work

In the same way that your brain associates certain routines and rituals with working, it also attaches expectations to certain places. Obviously, if you’ve already got a home office, that’ll be the place to work from. But if you don’t, carve out a section of your house that can function as a work from home home base.

Try to set aside an area that you don’t often use for relaxation or, heaven forbid, napping. The moment you plop yourself down in that comfy reading chair, you’re apt to nod off. And don’t make your laundry table an impromptu office; you’re likely to feel antsy and anxious because you’re following up on emails instead of folding towels.

Housework isn’t work: Leave the laundry for later

Laundry isn’t the only distraction that can undermine stay-at-home workers. There’s nothing like working from home to make you realize just how much housework there is to be done—especially if there are tasks you don’t enjoy or have been avoiding (trust me on this one; I’m a person who’s found herself on her hands and knees cleaning baseboards to avoid doing monthly social media analytics).

If you can, choose a home workspace where you won’t see your dirty dishes or unswept floors. If not, set yourself up for success by doing a little extra housework the evening before you plan to work from home. You can’t put off that newsletter by vacuuming the couch if you already did it last night.

Do not disturb: Maintain your boundaries

It can be difficult for friends and family to recognize that you’re working if you’re not at work. Do what you can to block them out (log out of your social media accounts; turn notifications off on your phone; invest in some noise-canceling headphones). Don’t respond to digital interruptions, and let anyone who’ll be in the space while you’re working know in advance that they shouldn’t interrupt or try to engage with you. If they forget (and trust me, they will), gently but firmly redirect them by telling them you’re working, and that you won’t be able to do anything with or for them until your scheduled end time.

Be a productivity pro: Efficiency is important

Following your regular routine, choosing a good home base for from-home-work, and avoiding the trap of housework should help with productivity. Having a list of tasks or goals for each day is also useful. But if you’re still struggling, try downloading a productivity app.

Feel The Burn...

Another way to promote productivity (and alleviate stress) is to add some physical activity to your day. This doesn’t mean you should take a spin class at lunchtime, but a 10-15 minute walk can help you to refocus between tasks, or if you start to feel yourself shifting into home-mode. Another thing to consider? Downloading a meditation app that can help you ground, refocus, and keep anxiety at bay if you find yourself feeling overwhelmed in your new work environment.

...But Not The Burnout

Work-home life balance is key to long term success, no matter where your office is, and it can be difficult to manage when you’re literally working from home—especially if you’re not used to it. So, consider ending your work-from-home days at the same time you end your regular workdays and don’t work on the weekend unless that’s normal for you. Perhaps counterintuitively, not putting in extra hours will help you feel like you’ve met your work goals. And you won’t be too worn out to go back once your regular work site is back open for business again.

Most importantly, be kind to yourself. It can be hard to disrupt your normal routine under the best of circumstances, and anxiety about the news and the cabin fever that comes from social isolation won’t make it any easier. But don’t worry—once you find your stride, you can be just as successful working from home as you are working from work.

Terri is a writer, researcher, and program coordinator for the US's first academic trivia league for HBCUs. She lives and works in New Orleans, with her partner, their 3 kids, and an ever-growing book collection.

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