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How to Work From Home Without Losing Your Mind

productivity remote work work style

No matter why you’re WFH, snack breaks and boundaries are your friends.

AS THE NEW coronavirus continues its romp around the globe, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended “social distancing” as one way to combat the spread of disease. So far in the United States, that’s meant the canceling of conferences like Facebook’s F8 and anticipatory Costco raids by Covid-19 preppers. Companies like Twitter and Square—which share Jack Dorsey as CEO—have now taken the next logical step of asking employees to work from home whenever possible, and more could potentially follow their lead. As someone who has worked remotely for nearly a decade, I am here to tell you: It’s not easy. But setting some boundaries will go a long way toward keeping you sane.

Yes, working from home has its perks. You’re always there to accept deliveries. You can play whatever music you want as loudly as you want. You don’t have to abide the loud chewing or ungracious smells of your colleagues. But you also have to contend with the Scylla and Charybdis of isolation and distraction. Loss of productivity feels less urgent in the time of coronavirus. Spend enough time working alone, though, and you may start to lose your sense of self.

So! If your employer has asked you to stay home, here are some strategies for keeping it together, gleaned from someone who’s been doing it since “slack” was mostly a verb. Note: This is not a guide to responsible prepping, washing your hands, or scavenging Purell, although by all means do those things. It’s mostly a reminder to draw bright lines between work and the rest of your life. It also draws on my own experience, so it hopefully goes without saying that your mileage may vary.

It’s also important to acknowledge that working from home in the first place is a luxury, full stop. Too many people don’t have that option, which is especially worrying in a time of precarious health care and rapidly spreading disease.

With that said, doing the following will hopefully set you up for success, regardless of why you’re telecommuting, or for how long.

Get Dressed

Not to get too personal right off the bat but put some clothes on. It’s tempting, I know, to roll out of bed and blob over to your laptop in your pajamas. Or maybe not even get out of bed in the first place? It’s a trap. If you’re dressed for sleep, it’s going to be a lot harder to get your brain up to a canter, much less a gallop. (In this metaphor your brain is a horse, go with it.) More important, though, if you don’t get up, take a shower, brush your teeth, get dressed—whatever your morning routine entails when you actually do go into the office—you’re breaking the cardinal rule of working from home: Set boundaries.

If you don’t get ready for the day, your day never really starts. Instead of working from home, you’re just at home, with the occasional work check-in. That’s fine and healthy now and then! You are not a drone. But if you’re in this for the long haul, you need to treat it like any other day at the office, minus the office part. Besides, it’s good to be prepared if someone springs a surprise virtual conference invite on you.

Have a Dedicated Work Space

Do not work from the bed. Do not work from the couch. Do not work from the futon. In fact, let’s just say don’t work anywhere that lets you recline if you can help it. If those are the only options available to you, that’s OK! Just try to find a nearby coffee table to use as a desk, or anything that keeps your laptop out of your literal lap for most of the day. It helps with focus, yes, but also those things get hot.

Where you actually set up shop is entirely up to you. Maybe you have a dedicated office space with a desktop and a view. Sounds nice. If you don’t, that’s also fine; I usually work on my laptop at a kitchen counter. The point here is to clearly define the part of your house where work happens. That makes it more likely that you’ll actually get things done when you’re there, but just as importantly might help you disconnect when you’re not. Remember that when you work from home you’re always at home—but you’re also always at work. At all costs, you should avoid turning your entire house or apartment into an amorphous space where you’re always on the clock but also kind of not. It’s no way to live. (Full-time remote workers take note: You can also write off a few hundred square feet of in-home office space on your tax return.)

Whatever your set-up, keep it tidy, or at least as much as you would your comparable office space. Here’s a guide to some cleaning and organizing supplies that’ll fix you up nice.

Go Outside

Every few days I spend at least a few hours at a coffee shop. It’s a change of scenery, a good excuse to get some fresh air, and provides a tiny bit of human interaction that Slack conversations and online meetings do not. Should that no longer be feasible for coronavirus reasons, at the very least see if you can walk around the block a couple of times a day. There’s no water cooler when you work from home, no snack table, no meetings down the block. It’s easy to stay locked in position all day. Don’t do it! Sitting is terrible for your health, and mind-numbing when you’re staring at the same wall or window all day.

A subpoint here: Having a pet helps. If you have a dog, you have to go outside to walk it. If you have a cat or a fish or a ferret you can talk out loud without feeling like a crazy person. And if you’re feeling stressed out, a good belly rub usually helps. In either direction.

Get the Right Set-Up

My colleague Adrienne So also works from home and wrote a great guide to videoconferencing, standing desks, and more. Little things like the right Zoom lighting and switching up which leg you’re putting weight on can make a big difference in how people perceive you and stave off atrophy., and more. Little things like the right lighting and switching up which leg you’re putting weight on can make a big difference in how people perceive you and stave off atrophy.

Give Them Some Slack

On the one hand, working remotely for several years has probably made me a little paranoid. On the other hand, your colleagues are all talking about you behind your back. Kidding! (Mostly.) In truth, the bigger concern with working remotely is that they’ll forget you’re there at all. You inevitably miss the impromptu meetings and side conversations that spin little ideas into big projects. Which is mostly OK—you’ll get caught up, especially in an environment when most people are working from home.

I think the best solution, both for your work life and sanity, is to use Slack more than functionally. Check in with people even if you don’t have a work-related reason to. Send them dumb tweets. Don’t be afraid of italics and exclamation points. It’ll never be the same as grabbing a midday coffee or a beer after work, but it helps to remind people that you’re not just out there in the void. And when the conversation does center around work, know when to switch from Slack to phone. You’ll be surprised how much can get lost in translation when you only type.

No TV

Sorry. Unless you work in an office that already has CNN or CNBC or whatever on all day in the corner, no television. You are not as good at working with that background noise as you think. And that one little break to catch up on Better Call Saul will invariably turn into a binge. This applies to videogames, books—anything but music, really. Basically, if you wouldn’t do it at the office, don’t do it at home when you’re working. Boundaries!

Prep Your Snacks

Look, you’re going to snack. Constantly. It’s something to do! Why type when you can chomp? That walk to the pantry or snack drawer is the perfect procrastination. The best I can do is to encourage you to keep something remotely healthy on hand—baby carrot crunch is a satisfying stress reliever—so that when you do finish off a bag of something in one sitting, it’s not, like, Guy Fieri’s Double Salt Fajita Pringles or whatever.

Similarly, I’d recommend cooking enough dinner to have leftovers at least a couple times a week. Maybe you’re more creative than I am, but homemade sandwiches for lunch get pretty boring pretty fast, and there may not be as many outside options near your domicile as there are near your office.

Shut It Down

I think what I miss the most about working in an office is the commute (I realize this may sound unhinged). Yes, traffic is terrible, and subways are crowded, and the weather is unpredictable. But it seems nice to have a clear separation between when you’re at work and when you’re not, and some time to decompress in between. That doesn’t exist when you work from home. It’s all on the same continuum.

I don’t have a great solution for this. Quitting out of Slack—or whatever your workplace uses—is probably a good start. People are less likely to ping you if your circle’s not green. Or maybe find a gym class or extracurricular that you have to leave the house for at a certain time every day and let that be your stopping point? In some ways it’s like figuring out how to ditch your shadow.

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