7 Key Tips for Working From Home, Mindfully
New to working from home? Here are some best practices from someone who’s been working remotely for a year.
I never thought I was a work from home person. I’d spent a dozen years in high-pressure jobs in big and bustling offices. I couldn’t fathom staying motivated without the exoskeleton of regular meetings, accountable face-to-face relationships with colleagues, and more. I couldn’t imagine a work world so different than the only one I’d known for the last decade.
But last year, I took the plunge into freelance writing and editing. It wasn’t just a career change — it also led to a reorganization of my life as a whole, my relationship to work, and my sense of how work happens.
As it turns out, I am a work from home person. I just needed to open myself up to work looking different than it had before. And I had to learn to notice my own habits without judgment, working with them rather than swimming against the pull of my own tides.
As more and more of us are practicing social distancing, quarantining ourselves in our homes, those of us with the flexibility to do so are working from home. If you’re new to working from home, you may feel intimidated by a looming learning curve, as I did last year.
If you’re not sure where to start with working from home, here are some practices I’ve gleaned from the last year of working remotely.
Define success for your work day.
Too often, too many of us start our workday with a sense of overwhelm, keeping a running list of 10, 20, or 50 tasks that all need doing. We don’t necessarily take the time to prioritize — nor do we give ourselves the opportunity to feel satisfied with what we’ve done with our day.
So start your work day by defining what success will look like. For me, that means identifying my top three priorities for each day. If I do all three, I’m good. I may even give myself permission to finish the day early if I complete all three, or give myself a longer break. Maybe you’ve got a big deadline ahead of you. Maybe your daily goals are set or vetted by your boss. Or maybe you’ve just got one email you’ve been avoiding that you’ve got to get to today.
Whatever success looks like for you: start there. Set meaningful goals that are within reach for a day’s work. Don’t be afraid to think small.
Set a routine and a schedule and stick to both.
Keeping a routine is critical, both for getting things done and for a sense of stability, which can contribute to your overall mental health. I get up each morning at the same time, take a shower, change my clothes (even if it’s into clean pajamas), and sit down at my desk at the same time each day. I light a candle to mark the beginning of the workday and blow it out at the end.
For some of us, it’s easy for working at home to bleed into nearly everything we do. We may find ourselves returning emails at midnight, or preoccupied with work when we could be unwinding. For that reason, a regular schedule can also be helpful — not just to mark when we’ll start working but, crucially, when we’ll finish. Set a clear end time for your work day, and maintain it.
Approach your work day with radical acceptance.
Radical acceptance, a term borrowed here from psychology, is the practice of accepting the world as it is. As some psychologists put it, radical acceptance is “accepting life on life’s terms,” embracing things as they are, not as we wish they would be. Since many of us are quarantined at home by our jobs or our jurisdictions, we may not have a choice but to accept the situation.
But when it comes to working from home, we may struggle to accept ourselves on our terms. But radical acceptance has been essential to my own success in working remotely, and it might be helpful for you, too.
Start by suspending self-judgment as much as you can. It’s a scary time in the world, and it’s only human to feel afraid, anxious, sad, angry, or be less focused than usual. Our lives are taking very different shapes during this time, and it’s natural to struggle to adjust. Remind yourself not to judge your patterns, habits, or emotions. Accept them, learn from them, and plan accordingly.
Do you struggle with an afternoon slump in focus and productivity? Use that time to do something that requires less brainpower (or, if possible, just take a break from work altogether). Barreled through your tasks for the day? Give yourself permission to take a long lunch, or to end your work day early. Feeling anxious about coronavirus? Build in time each day to check in on vulnerable loved ones, or to do a quick guided meditation.
Working from home can teach us a lot about our own work flow, energy levels, patterns and preferences. But that may only be possible if we allow ourselves to do work however it comes naturally to us. Learn to pay attention to those patterns without judging them — they’ve got a lot to teach you.
Track your time.
One of the most important patterns I’ve learned from in the last year is how I spend my time. For the first six months of working remotely, I tracked my time in two ways: both how I expected to spend it and how I actually did. Tracking my time helped me figure out how my workflow functioned when I was away from coworkers, and it gave me a window into my own work patterns.
On one freelance assignment, for example, I blocked out two full days to complete it. True to form, I used both full days, just not the way I expected to. As it turned out, I spent one and a half of those days procrastinating — returning emails, doing laundry, anything but working on that project. It was tempting to beat myself up over wasted time, and for weeks, I did.
But over time, I learned to expect that procrastination and plan for it. Now, I break down freelance assignments into one major task for each day: coming up with a pitch on one day, outlining the piece on another, drafting it on a third day, and editing and submitting on a fourth. That allows me space to chip away at big projects and stay on top communication at the same time. And I wouldn’t have landed on that routine without radical acceptance and a good time tracker.
My time tracker of choice is Toggl, which allows for tracking time on your phone or computer, and automatically generates reports about how your time is spent. I also use a Pomodoro timer to ensure focused bursts, setting a timer for work times and break times alike. The classic Pomodoro technique is scheduling 25 minutes of focus and 5 minutes of break, but mine is currently set to 45 minutes of work and 10 minutes of break. Experiment with what works best for your attention span.
Create a comfortable workspace, and do your work there.
Having a separate space for working has immensely helped with my own time management, work-life balance, and boundaries around work. I’ve set up a desk in a corner of another room, which helps ensure that work happens in that room. Before creating a dedicated work space, I’d try to work in front of the TV (where my focus drifted), in the kitchen (where cooking beckoned), or in my bedroom (where it was too easy to lay around and half-work around the clock, never really focusing and never really resting).
If you’ve got a separate space you can use for work — a spare bedroom, a nook in an apartment, or just a comfortable chair with a laptop table — make it a place you want to be. Surround yourself with your favorite photos, make sure you’ve got your creature comforts on hand, and be sure to make it physically comfortable.
My desk has lip balm, a mug warmer for my tea, hand lotion, and one of my favorite scented candles. I’ve got a chair that’s comfortable enough to sit in for the better part of the workday, but is ergonomic and encourages good posture (which makes me feel attentive, which helps me focus). Whatever makes you feel comfortable, cozy and prepared: surround yourself with those things.
Mix in physical, social and mental tasks.
Working on the same thing all day can be incredibly boring. And for many of us, boredom sends our focus right out the window. So, if it’s possible in your line of work, make sure to get a mix of focused, mental work, physical tasks, and social stuff — like conference calls, zoom meetings, or check-ins with friends. Take a call while you fold your laundry. Take a break from writing a big report to organize your files. Give yourself some variety, so that your body and brain can each get some activity and some rest.
Schedule activities to mark a clear end of your work day.
Ending a day of working from home can be as challenging as starting it. So I’ve taken to scheduling in activities for the end of my work day. Video chats with friends, phone calls with family and instagram lives all help keep me connected to the people I love, and I schedule them for the end of my work day. These days, I schedule a dinner time with my friend and housemate, so that I have to finish work and cook dinner for the both of us.
Try scheduling in activities that will feel like a reward at the end of a work day, and stick to them. They’ll help your mental health, your relationships, your productivity and your ability to unwind at the end of a long, weird day of working in pajamas.
These are the practices that have worked best for me, leading me to a happy and productive life as a freelance writer and editor. They’ve led me to stretch in important ways, and to relax in others. Some of these will work well for you; others, you’ll find on your own. Take the time and space to experiment with what works best for you. And even in this scary time, do your level best to accept life on life’s terms, and accept yourself on your terms.