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How to work from home when you aren't very good at working from home

Hayley van Waas | 26th Mar 2020

So I spend a lot of time working from home. I actually don't tend to seek out remote work, it just seems to keep happening. Given the state of the world at the moment, a lot of us are suddenly finding that we now have no choice but to work from home, I thought I would jump on the bandwagon of writing about effective ways to do this, but for when it's really not your thing.

I don't know about you but there were 3-4 days where suddenly my entire social media feed was just filled up with blog posts about how to work from home, and my system didn't resonate with any of them. I decided to take some time to actually analyse and think about my system, and see if there were any nuggets of wisdom that I could pull out from my somewhat chaotic strategy.

Here's what I came up with, although keep in mind that I am lucky enough to pick my hours, I've never had to work with any strict 9am-5pm requirements at home. I also don't have anyone else in the household that I have to work my schedule around.

Workstations

So, nearly every post I have read has recommended that you allocate a space in your house that is a dedicated work zone. This is so that you have a space that your brain associates with work. This is why a lot of people recommend not working from bed, because you want your brain to associate being in bed with sleeping.

I understand the motivation here, and I understand that this is useful for a lot of people, but I am not one of those people. This doesn't work for me at all. I have tried (and I mean really tried, over several weeks) implementing this in other houses I've lived in, but honestly, it makes absolutley no difference to my work (and sleep) performance whatsoever.

Also, I live in a tiny apartment. If you are tall and were really trying, you could probably leap from my desk (one end of the apartment) to the kitchen bench (the other end). So right out of the gate, segregating one area of the apartment to work only is just not going to happen.

"But Hayley, why not just make sure you only sit at the desk when you are working?" Because my computer is here, and I am not moving it to the kitchen table every time I want to play Factorio, Sims or Cities Skylines.

So instead I prefer to make the most of the apartment. Sometimes I'm at my desk, sometimes I work from bed, sometimes I sit on the couch, sometimes at the kitchen table, sometimes on the balcony. The main thing to consider is your posture. It's not really great to sit hunched over a laptop on a couch without good back support for 40 hours a week, so you know, change it up, and do what works for you. I do aim to spend most of the time at the desk, and also stretch frequently, see below โคต๏ธ

Stretch

This one is so important, especially if you are sitting on the couch, in bed, etc more than you know you should. I have back troubles, not from working where I shouldn't, it's actually a whole thing. So everyday I get out of bed and do stretches that help my back (Child's Pose and Thread-the-Needle are good ones for those of you who speak Yoga), and I make a conscious effort to do this throughout the day when I'm at home. It helps my back pain a lot and the movement between long work periods is really good for energy levels and general wellbeing.

The daily commute...

...does not work.

A really common tip I've read is going for a walk at the start and end of the day to mimic having a commute. I also tried establishing this, but alas, it did not work for me at all. For me, if I'm in the mood to do some work, I'm not wasting 10 minutes of it walking around the block. However, I do make a point of going for a walk at some point during the day, but I've found that I need to have a destination to make it worthwhile. Usually this means that I go to the supermarket once a day, or to the closest cafe for a chai latte. The latter has actually become my new routine, which has been particularly hard to deal with losing now that I am in self isolation, so you know, it's a double edged sword.

Recognise your unproductive times

This is the best thing you can do for yourself if you are like me and get to pick your hours, or better yet, work on deliverables rather than hours. As a general rule, I am useless 1pm - 3pm. If I'm in an office, it doesn't matter what time it is, I'm fine, but at home it's a don't-bother period of the day. After years of trying to work through it I finally accepted that there is just no point working through this period, so instead, this is lunch break and TV time. Yes it pushes my workday longer into the evening, but my productivity sweet spots are first thing in the morning and last thing at night, so it doesn't worry me.

I actually first implemented a morning and evening work schedule when I was at uni. My day usually looked a bit like this:

6am - 7am: Get up, have food, drive to uni

7am - 12pm: Study/work

12pm - 6pm: Walk home, lunch, break, run, shower, dinner, walk back to uni

6pm - whenever I got sleepy: Study/work, then drive home.

I was often doing long workdays here, but that's just uni being uni, I didn't have the luxury of calling it quits at 8 hours exactly. But having that giant break in the middle made it feel like I wasn't losing my whole day and made the evenings way more productive. Also it was cold in Christchurch in winter and so this way I could spend the coldest parts of the day in free heating ๐Ÿ˜œ (I would literally fill up my hot water bottle before I left and everything, it was a good system).

This system actually served me really well for a good few months (and then my work schedule changed). Granted, I wasn't working from home, but what I want to illustrate is that it's ok to have a weird workday. You don't need to sit down and work for 8 hours straight.

Another strategy I implement here is that if I get a choice of meeting times (or appointments when not in self isolation) then I will almost always aim to schedule them in the early afternoon. This isn't my prime time for coding or writing, so meetings are a good way to fill this time because then I can still feel productive in the worst work hours of my day.

Chores

If a chore is bothering you, just do it. I have a bit of an obsessive personality. If I know that there is washing to be hung out, I wont be able to get it out of my head until it is done. So I've given up waiting for the break coming up in 30 mins and just get up and do it instead. It helps me focus, and then doing that chore becomes my break because I use the opportunity to make a cup of tea and stretch. Obviously this doesn't work if you get up and do 7 different chores, some self control is needed here.

Set yourself up for tomorrow's success

Since we just chatted about chores, another strategy I like to implement is getting ready for the next day. Any remaining chores at the end of the day are good to do now rather than tomorrow, because otherwise you might ruin tomorrow's chances of having a productive morning.

Sometimes if I am having a particularly distracting week, or am maybe just less enthused about the work I'm doing at that time, then I make a conscious effort to set up a work station for the next day. I might leave my laptop plugged into the screen, open up all the relevant applications, have my note book, pen and drink bottle on the desk, etc. This way when I get up the next morning, there are no excuses, the work is there ready to go, literally all I need to do is sit down.

Sometimes you just have to remove the chance for you to come up with excuses for why you can't start working ๐Ÿ˜œ

Forgive yourself for having breaks

I used to really struggle with having breaks, and if you have ever been in tertiary study then you can probably relate to this. When your work is at home you often feel like you need to always be working, you end up walking around with that lingering guilt from knowing there is work to be done. It pays to redirect that energy to actually having a break. Sometimes I time-box myself. So I set a timer for 5, 10, 20, whatever minutes. This helps me to switch off that guilt feeling, because I know it is a scheduled break that work Hayley factored in for break Hayley. The time also helps me to feel assured that I'm not going to get distracted and realise it's been two hours, because it is literally going to obnoxiously beep and bring my attention back to work when the time is up.

Conclusion

Well I hope you found something in here that helps you to be more successful in your new office. Everyone has a different strategy for working from home and if yours is a little less structure and a little more chaotic then hopefully this gives you a little more comfort in knowing that's ok, and maybe there are one or two things you could tweak to make it easier to deal with.

We live in stressful times, so do what works for you and nothing more ๐Ÿ˜Š

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