Here is what I learned working from home for nearly 20 years:
It is harder than it looks.
As the whole country, and in fact the world, is scrambling to figure out how to successfully work from home due to the pandemic upon us, I want to offer you some perspective on what worked for me — and what didn’t. Below is what I focus on every day. It has turned into a mental muscle. I hope it will do the same for you.
At first it seems like a more relaxing way to work with lots of advantages:
- Less or no time spent on commuting
- Less distractions by co-workers
- A feeling of getting more done
- Co-workers attending meetings on time
- More autonomy and self-control
- More time with family
- More time for hobbies
But there are also some clear downsides:
- Less social interaction bordering on feeling lonely
- Newfound freedom leads to more or less work hours
- Stress of uncertainty leading to stress eating
- No opportunity to have hallway conversation and quick informal check-ins
- No access to physical tools like whiteboards, models, samples
- More time with family
During the last 20 years, technology has changed significantly and some things have gotten much easier. You will find plenty of articles on the internet about what tools to use, from Zoom to Skype to FaceTime. I will write about tools in a separate article, but what I want to focus on here are the emotional and inner aspects that one has to tackle and overcome. Working from home presents daily challenges like how to focus, making decisions seemingly in a vacuum, and leading others without being in their physical presence. It can be exhausting and lonely, but it can also lead to much more meaningful and intimate conversations. It has made me a better communicator and maybe the same will happen to you.
Top tips for how to turn working from home to your advantage
1) Designate a work space
A dedicated workspace is absolutely essential for working from home for me. I need a place to come to for ‘work’ and leave when it’s time to relax. If you don’t have an extra office or guest bedroom, at least find a space that is not the kitchen table or the couch. I cannot stress this enough. You need to be able to separate work from personal time for your mental well-being. In the absence of dedicated space you will be tempted to either work all the time, so be on all the time, or alternatively sit on the couch and treat every minute of the day as extra Netflix time. To help your own self-discipline and not have to make this decision over and over again, it is imperative to designate a ‘work space’ to be successful at this. And keep this place organized and tidy as much as possible. That will also enhance your personal well-being.
Surround yourself with beauty. A candle, fresh flowers, a comfortable chair, pictures or images that uplift you while you are working from home. Sometimes I put on relaxing, but upbeat music to signal to myself it’s work time. For example, when I am writing, I always play music, no news or podcasts. Same when I am filing documents or answering emails. Silence when I am talking with clients, so a closed door, but I always allow for fresh air before I start with my client calls. Sort of cleansing that way.
Pay attention to the tools you are using; they need to provide you with joy of some sort. I have a collection of fountain pens that I fill with a cartridge. I love the feel in my hand and the flow on the paper. It signals to me it’s work time and I need to focus on listening while taking occasional notes so I can feedback verbatim what a client might have said. It’s called reflective listening and essential to the work I do. I know there are coaches out there who disagree with my note taking, but it supports my listening and helps me organize my thoughts.
2) Establish a routine and practice self-discipline
You might be tempted to use or even abuse your new-found freedom of time. You are used to a routine that includes commuting and socializing with co-workers. But now you need to establish a new routine for working from home. Decide what hours you will work, when you will eat and work out, sleep etc. Keep the routine going during the week and deviate on the weekend. Let me give you an example of what routine I have arrived at lately. It has changed over the years, but not that much.
This routine is my bedrock and allows me to not have decision-making fatigue. I don’t have to decide every day anew what and when I will do things. I designate blocks on my calendar for client calls, for marketing and accounting efforts, for networking and learning new skills. I allow for spontaneity, but I am pretty disciplined about my day. I have to, because I am the only one who can hold myself accountable. And so are you. So, establish a plan and stick with it. Here is an example of a typical day for me:
6:00 am – Wake up to music with an alarm (not my iPhone, I have banned my electronic devices from my bedroom).
6:00 – 6:45 am – Write my morning pages (this practice keeps my stress level down and gets out anything that might be worrying me at the time). Pure bliss!
6:45 – 7:00 am – Check in on what might have happened overnight with family, friends, clients, the world (The temptation is great to get lost in news. I don’t want to consume news and be addicted to it, so I have initiated a hard stop for myself).
7:00 – 8:00 am – Workout time (I vary what type of workout I do to not get bored. Could be running, swimming (that’s out for now), going for a 45-minute hike, a series of seven-minute workouts to get my heart rate up (doable without any tools but a chair), yoga (often followed by some form of meditation). The idea is to get my workout in as my top priority, because my health comes first. All other work is icing on the cake.
8:00 – 9:00 am – Shower and breakfast (I listen to the news on a radio while I am in the shower and cooking my breakfast. Breakfast could be sautéed vegetables and a fried egg, rolled oats with blueberries or fruit with yoghurt (For Lent I am not eating added sugars and I am not drinking wine). I want to keep my immune system up, so I am sticking with this regime for the time being.
9:00 am – 12:00 pm – Scheduled client calls (I take almost all of my client calls on the phone, using a headset) I know there are lots of advocates for video conferencing using Zoom or other teleconferencing software. I think those are great when you are trying to have a project planning meeting. But the type of work I do is engage clients in deep, meaningful and sometimes even intimate conversations about their inner thoughts, beliefs and patterns. They don’t want to be looked at, because it feels as if they are being judged. Some are not initially happy about not being able to see me, but I have discovered that not seeing the other makes both of us better listeners.
When calls get canceled or I have open time slots, I tend to my email. But I am perfectly happy to just handle the most important ones during those hours and leave everything else for later in the day.
Also, I get up and stretch my legs between every call. Sometimes I walk into the kitchen for a new cup of tea. Working from home does give me autonomy.
12:00 – 1:00 pm – Lunch time (often a salad with roasted vegetables and chicken or tuna — it helps me re-energize midday and not get sluggish in the afternoon). Sometimes I allow myself a cup of coffee or a latte after lunch, sort of as a treat).
1:00 – 2:00 pm – This hour varies. It might be a webinar, or accounting or some marketing, but definitely work on my business. I tend to sign up for webinars and then listen to the recordings during that hour. More often than not this is about learning something new.
2:00 – 3:00 pm – Go for a walk, time to clear my head and enjoy some soul food by walking in nature or along the coast. Sometimes I listen to a podcast to help shift my thinking. I choose podcasts that are uplifting and inspirational versus news or dire stories. I need pick-me-ups as well.
3:00 – 6:00 pm – This tends to be my writing time. Sometimes I need to write more thought-through emails, or I am writing articles for the website or for a new book. I wrote my submission to the Global Challenge during those hours.
6:00 – 10:00 pm – Personal time. This varies from cooking dinner to rewarding myself with something fun such as some art project, reading for pleasure, watching a movie, listening to music etc.
You will notice that I didn’t write about networking or socializing in this list. Normally I would incorporate that into my day, but I wanted to give you an idea of how I am adjusting this for the time being, while we are practicing social distancing.
On the weekends, I have dedicated Saturday morning to cleaning and laundry. Sometimes I mix it with running a mile between fun or not-so-fun tasks. My daughter and I are practicing for running a Half Marathon that way. We’ll see if we can actually follow through given the current restrictions. Stay tuned.
3. Practice extreme self-care
It’s time to take care of your physical and mental well-being. Social distancing comes with a feeling of isolation and reduced physical exercise. But it’s vital to keep yourself strong, physically and mentally.
A) Physical well-being
It’s important to get eight hours of uninterrupted sleep. Practice good bedroom hygiene to attain that level of rest. What do I mean by that? Ban all electronic devices from your bedroom if at all possible. Have set times to go to sleep and rise. Set an alarm, but not the iPhone, which will tempt you to check messages and the news. Have a cool and well-ventilated bedroom. Treat yourself to clean sheets at least once a week; I change mine every Saturday as part of my cleaning routine.
It’s equally important to get physical exercise, consisting of cardio and strength training. Check out any of the online classes that are springing up all over the place. A good app I use all the time is the 7-Minute Workout. It can be done even in the smallest of spaces as long as you have a chair. And it can be extended to any length you desire. It gives you a basic regime to follow. I practice it daily. I can always squeeze seven minutes into my day. Also, look into yoga practices. Again, there are plenty online. It’s a good strength and stretching workout and it helps with your breathing and calming of your mind. Multiple benefits. Also consider interval training over longer periods of time. Run for a mile and then accomplish a task, then run another mile. You can extend this to any length you desire.
B) Mental well-being
Now let’s talk about your mental well-being. Find ways to de-stress through writing, art, listening to music or making music. Generally being creative will allow you to put all other concerns aside. Another tactic is to practice gratitude. Write down five things you are grateful for every week, or even every day. Be consistent and mindful in your responses. You might want to check out my 365 Days a Year Project, where I wrote a thank you card very day. Working from home and in isolation requires you to tend to your mental well-being.
C) Experience joy
We are entering a potentially dark period that offers doom and gloom. It’s important for you to experience joy every day. Watch this TED talk about joy. What is round, colorful and abundant in your environment?
D) Social care
We are going through an enormous change collectively and individually. People will grieve at different times and in different ways. Have a system in place before you need it. Being in isolation or socially distant is challenging emotionally. Have some go-to people that you can reach out to, even if it’s just for a hello. Have scheduled check-ins with relatives and friends via phone, video, FaceTime, etc. Actually schedule them on your calendar. And keep track of who seems to be forgotten. Make a list of who you want to maintain contact with on a regular basis.
4. Learn from your children
I won’t write about parenting while working from home here. I trust you will be creative with your kids and teach them whatever life skills you can at home. Being at peace with yourself is probably at the top of the list. That means you have to practice what you preach. The more you can be cool, calm and collected, the better they will be able to navigate things as well. You need to be the rock now more than ever.
There is something you can learn from your kids also. You knew it long ago, but you might have forgotten. Children have great imagination. Let them teach you something new. And listen to what they are teaching you just by being part of your life. The teachings are there, the question is if you are too busy stressing out or if you are listening. This is a time for deep listening.
Focus on the Four C’s:
Finally, we arrive here. Once you’ve done what you can to implement and incorporate the ideas I outlined above, you can check in with yourself by looking at the Four C’s – Connect, Contribute, Cope, Create. This list summarizes and augments much of what we’ve gone over, but it can stand alone as your quick guide:
Listen to yourself and others. First and foremost, connect with yourself. How are you feeling? What is concerning you? What is challenging you? What are you resisting? Likewise ask yourself: What would be so cool if it could happen now? Imagine and let your mind wander behind the immediate challenges.
Reach out to family, friends and neighbors. Help them figure out technologies they might be unfamiliar with. But even more importantly reach out and listen more than you actually speak yourself. Many people process what is happening by speaking about it. Let them speak and name the elephants in the room. This is no time to cover up the elephant. Speak about what’s difficult.
Shift your thinking from communication as needed to over communication. This is no time to assume that everyone is aware and tuned in. In doubt, reach out and engage others as needed.
Some people feel helpless in the fight against the virus while others are working on the brink of exhaustion. Whatever you do, pitch in and don’t just do something for the sake of doing something. Instead find out what would be useful. This applies to virtual meetings to everyone who is currently sheltering at home. If you can entertain people with your art and music, find out what will work by trying different things. If you know how to use a sewing machine, find out how you could help sew face masks. This might sound extreme. But everyone can be useful. All you have to do is ask: What would be useful to you?
Working from home requires different tools, both in terms of the technical aspects, but also in terms of your focus and spirit. We are collectively going through an enormous change process and we are all grieving (some have started a while back and others are a little slow to the party). This will affect all of us. And collectively we have to find ways to respond to the situation. I want to urge you to respond rather than to react. Ideally, you want to imagine what positive things can come out of this crisis and work toward those. I have already seen reports about fish emerging again in Venice, after all of the tourists disappeared.
Learn something new. Cooking is creative and it allows you to be in the moment and derive satisfaction from creating something wholesome and nutritious. So is building a Lego House with your kids. It doesn’t matter what it is, but being creative forces you to be in the moment and mindful. As we are hibernating for the unknown future, we might as well focus on creating something worthwhile instead of being fearful of what’s to come. So write, design, build, draw, make music, cook, bake, knit. And if you don’t know how, now is a great time to learn. Hop on YouTube and be amazed what you can learn from the comfort of your own home.
As we all settle into this new reality for a while, I welcome your thoughts on how these ideas work for you. And of course I’m all ears if you have any further suggestions on how to be working from home effectively.