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How to Work from Home (While Maintaining Your Humanity) 👩‍💻

As the founder of a small business that came to life at my kitchen table, I have years of experience working from home. Here’s what I learned over the years to stay productive – and to maintain that separation between work and life that we all need to be human.

Trisha Working From Home At Her Desk

1. Dedicate an area of your living space for work.

The right foundations will set you up for success, so the first thing you’re going to want to do is to choose a dedicated work space. It may be tempting to sit on the couch with your laptop, but you’ll train yourself to conflate work time and leisure time – making it harder to “turn off” at the end of the day. As someone whose poor posture has now led to a bad back, I’d recommend have a table and a chair that allows you to sit up straight. For those of us who live in small apartments, if you don’t have a dedicated desk to work at, you can still use the kitchen table – just make sure that you can put away your work at the end of the day so that it doesn’t draw you back like a magnet during your off time. (It can be so tempting to just check email one more time….fight that urge!)

2. Structure your day: if you don’t run your day, your day will run you.

Before I sign off each day, I create a straw man plan for the next day. It may change (as it often does), but having a framework to work from focuses my day and my thinking like nothing else. Five specific recommendations:

  1. Set an alarm and wake up at a regular time. It helps your focus to have a routine, even if you don’t have outside scheduling constraints.
  2. Make sure to shower and get dressed as you normally would – even if getting dressed involves comfy sweatpants.
  3. Choose your hardest task and complete it in the morning before lunch. Lunch tastes like victory when you have your most difficult work behind you.
  4. Schedule your work in blocks of time. Pay attention to how you do your best work as you create your schedule. Is it in 30 min chunks? 60 min? Do you need to alternate different types of tasks, or do you do your best work by going deep on something? You can set an alarm to help keep you on track.
  5. Go to bed at a regular time – so you can wake up refreshed the next morning to do it all over again.

3. Make sure to take regular breaks. You’re never fully on if you’re never fully off.

Give yourself some unstructured time to do something you love. It helps to break up the day, and you never know what it’ll lead to. Often times, it’s during these unstructured breaks that I have my greatest insights. Plus, you need to take a break to be human.

4. Get some fresh air. Everything looks better with fresh air.

Even if it’s just cracking the windows open to let the breeze in, fresh air will help wake up your senses. In my pre-quarantine work from home days, I would take a walk in the neighborhood – even just around the block – to wake myself up during the mid-afternoon slump. But even just having a breeze blow through will help freshen up your living space. Just say no to stale air!

5. Maintain social contact. You’re finally getting enough “me time.”

My favorite part of working in an office was always the people – and I formed friendships that I keep to this day, even almost 10 years out from my last office job. When I started working from home, I soon realized the importance of maintaining these friendships – even from afar, and even if it’s only virtually. Especially now that the quarantine has further separated us, it’s more important than ever to reach out to the people in your life that you care about the most. Check in with your loved ones, message your friends – and if there are any at-risk people in your life (like the elderly), make sure to reach out to them.

6. Take care of yourself. Find the things that bring you joy.

You can’t do your best work unless you take care of yourself first. And especially with creative work – whether it’s coming up with a new strategy, or designing something new – you’ll be able to best unlock your creative resources if you make sure to incorporate joy into your life. It can be through the smallest of things – a picture on your desk that makes you smile, taking the time to really sit and enjoy your cup of coffee (or sneaking a bite of chocolate in between meetings). Now more than ever do we need to tend to our inner well being to face the challenges we all have ahead.

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Even more actionable wisdom from our community:

  1. Try the 25 on, 4 off rule: “You set a timer for 25 minutes and when the time is up, you take a four-minute break. Usually, I take those 4 minutes to stretch and move and just generally stop thinking. Some people scroll social media, but that’s never worked well for me! Too addicting!I find it much easier to focus for short periods of time, but obviously you can find whatever cadence works best for you.” – Grace M.
  2. Keep in touch, virtually. “Utilize channels to chat with people so it doesn’t feel isolating – texting, Marco Polo, Slack. It’s water cooler chat – without the water cooler.” – Michelle P. of Squared Away
  3. Keep your meals regular.  Mary F. has worked from home 2-3 days of week for the last nine years – she says: “Eat a regular breakfast and regular lunch to keep out of the kitchen and away from snacking temptations during work hours.”
    • Kat D. agrees: “Set aside your food for the day in a designated spot you can grab from quickly. Day 1 of working from home saw me go through a frightening amount of my quarantine snacks while grazing through the kitchen at large o_0; don’t be like me. I don’t think “out of quarantine Hostess snacks” is a good enough reason to brave the grocery stores 😂”
    • Ana G. recommends having healthier snack options at home: “If you keep more fruits and veggies at home, you can still snack without feeling the scale guilt once this is all over.”
  4. Reward yourself for diving into not-so-fun tasks. “This can be listening to a podcast, crafting, anything you enjoy to give you the drive to push through.” – Michelle P. of Squared Away
  5. Balance your day between work and play.  “Time Blocking (our favorite) make sure you block times for work & play throughout the day.” – Michelle P. of Squared Away
  6. Get lots of sunlight. “Even if it’s just taking a 10 min walk between calls – get your sunshine, away from others of course!” – Michelle P. of Squared Away
  7. Leave work fully when you’re done at the end of the day.  “Have a dedicated workspace to get in the frame of mind to work, and leave work in that chair or room when you are finished.” – Stephanie T. of Confident Introvert

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Some additional resources:

For all of the parents out there, the New York Times has a practical guide to How to Work from Home with Children. So does The Cut.

And just for funsies – from the ever amazing McSweeney’s: Working from Home During a Global Pandemic Bingo.