Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Working at home for the first time? I’ve done it for the last 26 years. Here’s what works for me!

If you think about it, you’ve done working from home before. It’s just like school homework: you’ve got stuff to hand in to people in authority, who probably have the power to tell you off or at least be ‘disappointed’ in you, it’s got a deadline, you’ll eventually be in trouble with your family if you don’t do it, and ultimately there’s a reward at the end (a good mark, or, as a working adult, cash).

I could tell I was cut out for working at home quite early on, from growing up in a noisy, busy household with two smaller siblings, one substantially younger, who could raise noise levels to an impressive quantity of decibels and move around the place like loud, fast ectoplasm. Throughout, somehow, I was always able to zone it all out and practise my organ playing in the middle of the living room, headphones somehow shielding out both the noise and the visual distraction. In a modest-sized house of five energetic people and some pets, I could write or draw quite happily at the epicentre of the gleeful sh*tstorm of bustling family life (as long I as tidied up afterwards).

So as people around the world move to doing their work in their homes, many of whom might never have done it before, here are the handful of things that have worked for me. You might like to do things differently, but this is my code for working life, and the first time I’ve written it down. Remember: you can do it your own way. But I offer this to you in the spirit of welcoming you to the growing, curious home-working squad!

1) Getting up.

If you've had to be at a place of work at a certain time for a decent amount of years. your body clock will be set. I don’t see any reason to change this. But if you can, you might like to factor in that any commute you had is now reduced to a flight or two of stairs, or a walk from the kitchen to the front room, and adjust that morning alarm accordingly. Extra sleep is good and it supports the immune system. You can still be at work at the same time. Win!

2) Clothes.

i) For years and years I was told it must be great to work at home ‘because I can do it in my pyjamas’.

No, nope, and thrice nope.

If I’m going to work, I need to feel dressed accordingly. I try to choose clothes which suit ‘who I have to be’ that day - if there’s a client call scheduled, I need to *feel* smart and sharp - whether they can see me or not. That’s all about how *I* feel, not about impressing anyone. If I’m doing mucky print work, comfy clothes under the apron set the scene. If I know I‘m going to be doing mainly accounts and admin, often the most simple black clothes feel best. If I’m doing a school or college talk, speaking at an event, then the ‘artist must be seen to arrive’ - so on with my most anomalous earrings and bold clothes! - and the same actually applies to my radio shows, even though you can’t see me. 

This doesn’t always work out. Sometimes I’m lazy and just bung on what I wore the day before, or the thing I want is in the wash - but. Dressed. Always.

ii) I do the makeup, and the jewellery. No-one but my partner or accounts lady might see me, but a lot of my nice stuff would just go unworn if I saved it for times when there are other people around, and that’s a shame. It’s a bit like costumes - I’m dressed for the part. I need to be awake and ready for what’s coming my way.

iii) Whatever you put on, the point is you’re up and about on your feet and have already made the declaration that ‘you’re at work' - to yourself, and to anyone else who might be around.
(This works at the other end of the day too - ‘getting home’ now means declaring yourself finished for the day, with the delicious symbolic move to chill garms, or, if you want to just take it straight there, the jamas.)

Basquiat Socks...

...and tiny pencil earrings. Accessorise for productivity!

3) Breakfast.

Eat it. Start the day right! A bowl of porridge and a discussion about the day ahead sets the scene and girds the loins for WORK.
[Not strictly a working-from-home tip, more a general good-for-you tip.]

4) Washing up, laundry, dusting. Etcetera.

Two ways to handle this.
a) Ignore it. It WILL wait for you to ‘get home from work’ because it did before. Just because you can see it now, it doesn’t mean it’s suddenly vital to DO it now.
b) Do it now. If it’s going to be a nagging distraction in your peripheral vision all day, get it done. Shut it down.
Some days (like deadline days) you’ll have no choice but for it it to be a).
Other days, together with sharpening the pencils, organising the desk and polishing the Mac screens, that little household job will just be part of ‘clearing the decks’ ready for THE WORK, and it’ll be b).

You’ll soon get a feel for which days are which!

5) Interruptions.

It will be clear that the other humans, small or big, who live with you will continue to talk at you, ask decisions of you, think aloud, and so on.
Other friendly humans who do not live with you may assume it’s OK to just pop in, or phone.

For years I struggled with saying ‘I’m at work’ when in fact I am ‘at home’. The latter, however, refers to location; the former, to a state of mind. I began to say things like ‘I’ll be leaving work in x minutes’ or ‘I’ll be free at lunchtime’, when in fact I can of course technically be ‘free’ almost at any time I choose. 

But again; being ‘At Work’ is a declaration, not a location. It’s perfectly all right to tell people that, and be kind but firm about giving you some space while you’re trying to focus. If there’s something they need you to chip in with - a decision, opinion, or a little task - explain you can’t give it your attention now but you can at lunchtime, or in an hour’s time, over over dinner, then the other human(s) will be able to chill in the knowledge that stuff’s still going to get done.

6) Appointments and Errands

You’re now free to book appointments at any time of day or day of the week, rather than just say post-6pm or at weekends.
As with 4), there are two ways to look at this. Either works!

a) Continue taking the appointments outside of your traditional working hours.
This keeps your precious working hours clear of interruption.

b) You’re now in a position to take an appointment in the middle of a Tuesday afternoon, or a Thursday morning, for example, when other people might struggle to make that one. So take those, and free up space during the most popular times for those who need them. In addition, you can help keep small businesses busy down the week - the person who does your nails, the barber, etc.

As with the other points, your own schedule/workload will ultimately dictate which approach works best.

5) Social Media

If it’s a necessary part of the job, do it. Do your work-based social media in ‘work time’.

While you're there, do your personal socials if you want to as well - you’ve opened the app after all, and better to shovel that photo online now than re-open the app again in half an hour’s time…or five minutes’ time…and five minutes after that.

But don’t get into the scrolling. I’ve learned I have to be one of those people I used to think of early on as ‘selfish’ - prep your content, get online, post your posts, quick scan of the horizon to check for direct messages and work-related questions, ignore the rest and get the hell out. I don’t think of that as selfish any more, because working time is precious and the distraction potential is a WILD and sometimes untameable threat. Later in the evening, when the telly programme’s finished, we’ll have a good old scroll and thorough interacting session - like having a good scratch. I enjoy it much more, and savour it.

(Note: I know when I‘m getting tired, because I feel the urge to just go online and have a mindless wander. This CAN be good for the brain - like an unscheduled little logging-off, ironically - as long as you come back into the room. My first few years working happened in world without the internet, and I can still remember what that was like - I could be profoundly distracted by a book, or a magazine, or sleeve notes, but once they’d been read, that was it. They didn’t change or update when you picked them up half an hour later.)

PS: sometimes I fail, and the scrolly-scrolly happens. I let it go. But just because you can, don’t let a sneaky habit form.

6) The News.

Particularly now, it’s hard to curb the urge to look.
But think of it like a newspaper that’s delivered - check in the morning, maybe with that porridge. Then fold it up.

Lunchtime too, if you want.

It can’t punctuate your working day though - the effect on the brain is damaging as it tries and fails to fully address so many topics and tasks at once. But those spikes of anxiety can as easily come from NOT looking as they can from looking - so being realistic and gentle with your need to be updated is the way, for now….but once past the main headlines, just watch out for the scrolling.

7) Lunchtime.

Eat. Do the day right! 
[Not strictly a working-from-home tip, more of another general good-for-you tip.]

A nutritious lunch and a discussion about how the day’s going (with whatever other humans share your space) helps the flow, in every way, rests the eyes, the pencil hand, and the brain. it doesn’t have to be an hour, if you’re the busy-busy type - or the type who prefers the 2hr Spanish mode of lunching. Stopping to prepare food can be useful swerve for the brain too, swapping tools, changing location in the house and altering depth of field. It can be a little creative exercise that’s different from the one you’ve been doing all morning. If you went out to get some lunch every day at the office, then providing that’s possible, you still can. 

But move away from the desk/screen/work area to eat it.
I did not do this for many years, and hardly noticed my food going down. I didn’t necessarily do anything useful or productive while I was scoffing at my desk anyway. So I eventiually packed it in, and eat at the dinner table now - the NON-work table.

By the way, lunch doesn’t have to be 12, or 1, or the same time every day. Ours is often 3, or 4. But it’s quite important to be hungry and ready for your dinner…so you don’t eat too late, and then lie awake trying to digest…which has knock-on effects for the next day.

If like me you could eat whatever is put in front of you at all times of the day and would probably just eat continuously till someone Took It Away From You, see point 8.


8) Drinking.

Tea, coffee, whatevs. Doesn’t matter.

But keep drinking. If there’s no water fountain/drinks machine/colleague nipping out to the coffee shop/coming round with a tea trolley (if only) it’s easy to go on and on without thinking about having a drink, particularly when immersed.

By the time you notice you’re thirsty though, the damage is already done and your body and brain are dehydrated; it makes itself known via a fuzzy head, tiredness, lack of concentration and focus, sometimes a headache. It can be mistaken for hunger, too (put the biscuits down). Constantly sipping on water is best, but providing it’s not a parade of espressos from 9am till ‘home time’, just having regular drinks is wise.

A sound habit is to have a large container of water on your desk with the aim to finish it, and maybe another one, by the end of every day. Just don’t knock it over (*voice of tired experience*).

Caffeine I’ve personally curfewed to 2pm. Having finally found my taste for the power of caffeine, years into my time on the planet, it’s since taken more years to figure out it was disturbing my sleep if drunk after that time.

But it feels nice and work-y to have a proper coffee at 11-ish. And maybe one right after lunch, if that’s not happening too late. In the same cup every time. Everyone’s got to have a work mug, right? (Well actually I‘ve got two; Little Barrel, and one with pencils and a mole on it).


9) Exercise

It is vital. Where you might have walked to work, or for a bus, or to the train station, or fulfilled your step count walking round the office or into different departments, you won’t be doing that sort of incidental exercise if you’re working from home. What you choose is up to you - but if you like it, you’ll keep doing it! My current system is walking to a nearby gym early in the morning so that the exercise is done and dusted for the day, with Big Workouts on Saturdays and Sundays, and one rest day, but I try to keep it flexible. 

If visiting a gym isn’t possible, there’s the warming, flexing wonder of yoga - which depending on the combination, rapidity and intensity of poses you choose can be just as burn-y as a cardio sesh - along with a plethora of online systems, both the sort you buy into (Joe Wicks for example) and the kind you just follow for free on YouTube. A yoga mat and a bit of gym gear is all you’ll need unles you fancy putting an order in for some kettlebells that you can wang about any time you feel like it.

This article has some tips!

Along with that, sitting in a chair for a long time means STRETCHING is important too. Yoga works for this, but just getting up and touching your toes, a few cat-cowsdownward dogs and head-rolls can work wonders to break that stiffening stillness.

This is in no way my area of expertise; but I do know is how vital it’s been to me for for two and half decades (see this blog). The added bonus is that if you’re stressing about deadlines and pressure is bearing down on you, there’s no mental white noise/BS that can’t be crushed by twenty minutes on the grappler, or attempting a monster deadlift. Getting outside has become something of a cliché in the myriad piles of advice for sound mental health, but it really is true: a walk out in the daylight works wonders for clearing the inside of your head, forcing your eye muscles to move differently, look further afield - literally and metaphorically - and take in more oxygen.

Ready to CRACK SKULZ (metaphorically)

10) Home Time

This is where I’m most flexible. It can be whenever you want. Only you know how much you need to do that day, and when small people might need collecting, etc. 

But perhaps the most important thing is to keep as in sync with the rest of the working world in your geographical location as possible. You want at least 3-4 hours at work where you’re in tandem with ‘everyone else’ - so even if you can only manage core hours of, say 11am-3pm, you’re still going to up and about and busy while others are. This is particularly relevant if you’re a natural night owl; you might well be able to do your best work at 1am, but long-term it has knock-on consequences (THIS I KNOW from experience!)  - and when a new kind of isolation is looking to be a factor in most lives for a while, knowing you can chat with people who are at work at the same time as you is really important for staying grounded.

If you do decide your modus operandi is clean and firm end to the working day, stick to that. My bedtime is drastically earlier than it used to be, and the benefits have been profound. (Also, refer back to section 2) point iii).)

Mariella Frostrup is responsible for my favourite quote on the subject. I have to paraphase as the original wording is lost, but she spoke about the societal trend for bragging about how long one had stayed at work, whereas she preferred to show off about getting all her jobs done with an hour to spare and spending it reading at her desk. Goals! I thought. (Still working on that one).

PLAYTIME. I've discovered what all the kids already know: hitting some skins to a Slipknot track will drive out most of the day's demons (or at least, trying and failing spectacularly)

This is everything, though if I think of a salient additional point I’ll add it. To many people these things might be obvious, but they may help with a first-time/long-term homeworking adjustment in this weird and unsettling situation we’re in.

Best of luck with it all!

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