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Work from Home: Tips from Twenty Years out of the Office

Susan Dieterlen
Mar 20 · 3 min read

I’m an old, old hand at working from home. Been doing it at least part-time for almost 20 years. I know this will shock everyone who’s struggling to adjust, but at this point, I much prefer working at home to having an office anywhere.

Another day at the “office,” right next to my living room and inside the front door (photo by author)

Useful things I’ve learned:

Get real about your daily cycle. The constant distractions of a workplace make it easy to hide your ups and downs of focus and energy, but in your new workplace of one, there’s no hiding. I do the good creative work in early afternoon, the necessary but unfulfilling in the morning, and brainless stuff after four. It won’t work to browbeat yourself — just find your cycle and work with it.

Your work station can’t suck. Make it as comfortable and pleasant as you can, and not somewhere that requires you to put everything away at night (like the kitchen table). It doesn’t have to be anything like what you have at work, though — use the couch, the deck, move from place to place, as long as…

Don’t ignore pain. Ergonomics matter, and laptops keep physical therapists in business. Even just propping your laptop up on a box and plugging an external keyboard into it can make a huge difference. Easy to let this fall apart at home, especially when you expect it to be short term, but it matters, especially because…

Don’t work round the clock. Keeping a schedule lets you relax into routine without having to create every day’s schedule anew. That schedule includes breaks. You move around a lot less at home, because the bathroom, coffee, etc. are all closer. Make up for it with a walk around the block or the yard or better yet…

Customize your day. Want to try eating lunch as your biggest meal or exercising during your midafternoon slump? This is your chance to give it a try, as long as you’ve got the flexibility. I often use exercise as an opportunity to let my mind work on an idea or problem, which means it’s most useful in the middle of the day, not before or after work.

Silence is precious, unless you want noise. Most places I’ve lived while working at home had traffic and neighbor noise around during the day. I need silence to do heavy-duty analytical thinking, but generally I work to music and/or the background hum of laundry or the dishwasher, which provide a nice feeling of busyness. Dull tedious tasks, like updating my website, are sometimes best done in front of the TV, just not the currently-terrifying cable news.

What no one admits: If everything goes your way, an hour working at home is much better than an hour at the office (with a huge caveat to those with kids and/or pets demanding constant attention). Your mileage may vary here, but for me it’s at least 2 to one, especially for focus-intensive tasks like writing.

Also published on my blog, City Wild.

Susan Dieterlen

Written by

Urban designer and environmental scientist, looking at the world.

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