I worked from home for 2 years as a freelance writer. That’s usually not something I brag about and never will. But partner, I’ve been inundated with questions about remote work these past few weeks as more and more family and friends are being asked to telecommute where they can. Fielding questions and trading notes isn’t a cherished pastime, but admittedly it has been gratifying to help others get situated and to demystify what working from home really means.
I didn’t realize how much I had to say about it until my conversations became pseudo TED Talks. Now, I don’t consider myself an expert by any means, but I thought I’d pass along a few work-from-home mantras that helped me succeed. Also, this will make things much easier for me as I can now direct others to this page and people can finally (hopefully) leave me alone. I’ve got work to do too you know…
Hooray you’re working from home! Now GET TO WORK
Take it from me, it’s very easy to celebrate this as an accomplishment of sorts. Because we fixate on the “home” part of the equation and that’s the problem early on. Working from home is not a vacation or a prize won. We still have hours to put in, quotas to hit, and deadlines to meet. Your work hasn’t changed, but your workplace has and the same rules still apply. Pat yourself on the back for maybe 15 seconds then get to it.
DON’T DRESS COMFY. I for one thought I could be productive in board shorts. (Because I live in Hawaii babyyyyy.) But board shorts hardly put me in the zone, and this hampered my productivity for my first month freelancing. What’s widely suggested is to come up with your own uniform. Less about trying to impress and more about mentality. We dress up for school, social gatherings, and jobs in general. So why not dress up a bit when working from home?
I myself opted for a plain black shirt, pants (not sweatpants), and cheap canvas shoes found at Target— which I never wear outside. Again, I’m not trying to impress, just trying to get myself to work. And it made all the difference. So go ahead and wear something nice, something pressed, but for the love of god make it functional. When it comes to working from home, it’s best to NOT dress for the job that you want (sleep).
Have a schedule
This is the only way to ensure you’ll get some actual work done. You are your own boss, which means you have to be your own scheduler. I for one would get up at 6am on weekdays and set aside the first 90 minutes of my day to stretch, take the dog out for a walk, and eat breakfast. (Mornings have been a mad dash for me all throughout my years in school, so it was nice to create a schedule where I could ease into the day.) Work then promptly started at around 7:30-8:00AM where no one could reach me until noon. After lunch, I resumed work from 1-6PM and then called it a day.
I know what you’re thinking, you have the freedom to set your own schedule and you chose the 9-5 on purpose??? I’ve been a night owl since high school. Everyone else’s bedtime was the only time I could get my writing done— and this only escalated in college. While I still look back fondly on those late nights that tipped into early mornings, it’s just not sustainable when you have a daughter to take to school and a household to help manage. If before I enjoyed the peace of late nights, I’ve found equal diligence in the day-to-day work grind. Don’t be afraid to experiment with this, but you have to ask yourself: when are YOU most productive, and where does that time fit into your day?
Manage your workload
Because you’re working from home, it’s easy to assume you’ll be granted special powers in which you can take on twice or triple the workload. I’m here to tell you to sit down and accomplish your tasks one at a time like a humble human being. We may be vulnerable to disease, but we’re susceptible to hubris too. Overloading yourself is a surefire way to crashing and burning. Stop multi-tasking to the 10th degree just because you no longer have to commute to work and thus have “all the time and energy in the world.” Focus on one task, one project, one goal at a time. Don’t over-exploit. Pace yourself.
Breaks still apply
This goes hand in hand with managing your workload. Take. Your. Breaks. This is the part of the process where you start to feel the power of being your own supervisor. No one tells you to take or finish your breaks now except you, meaning you have to set boundaries too. There is no such thing as a 90-minute nap (sleeping, what you’re doing is called sleeping) just as there is no sane way to sell a “3-hour lunch recess.” Take a 10 or 15 when you need them. Give yourself a reasonable lunch. Get back to work.
Atmosphere is key
I like decorating my workspace. I’ve got pictures of my daughter, an inspirational placard or two, and a coffee mug that just sits there after a while. But I cannot work without a little ambience. This has been true ever since college where I used a white noise site like Coffitivity, and I still use Rainy Café today. Sure, plain old silence can be helpful, but other times it can be punishing— especially now that your employee count has dwindled down to just you.
Cafe ambience was particularly helpful for me in establishing, and encouraging, a busy mood. Nowadays I cycle through a bevy of film scores like Dario Marianelli’s score for Atonement (that typewriter motif, man), or anything by Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross. Heck, I even listen to some Lord of the Rings ambience from time to time. Anything without lyrics, basically. But don’t let me tell you what’s good atmosphere. Maybe you enjoy silence because work might be the only time you can enjoy the quiet. Or perhaps the background noise is soothing and helps to quell the thoughts racing in your head. Consider this: you no longer have to listen to the same ‘90s revival radio station at work anymore. Soundtracks are your oyster!
Separation is key
I like to do everything from the comfort of my couch when I’m at home. Watch TV, eat snacks, play video games, scroll on my phone— sometimes all at once. Since you’re working from home, you might want to apply those same lazy habits at your desk, BELIEVE ME. Early on I would eat meals at my desk, check social media while slouched in my chair, or swivel around and watch TV with my feet up on the coffee table. Why wouldn’t I, everything’s convenient and within distance! Turning your desk into your main hub might sound like being efficient, but it’s just trading in your couch for a desk and calling it “work.” Strive to keep things separated. Take your breaks away from your desk. Have your lunch at that dining table you never use. Keep your phone out of sight and out of mind whenever possible. Work and home don’t normally go together, which is why it’s twice as hard to make it work.
Talking to your pet is normal
One thing I missed the most about the physical workplace: the water cooler. You might send emails back and forth or attend virtual meetings, but working from home is a lonely, solitary thing. Having no one to converse with in-person means no petty drama. Maybe this is a good thing in the long run, but my dude, I missed me some petty ass drama. Co-workers ranting about training new hires, micro-managing bosses up the wazoo, or getting worked up because someone moved their lunch in the fridge. I’m Asian; I crave drama.
I can only vent to friends about remote work and remote clients for so long until no one has any idea what I’m talking about. The one person who actually has context to my job frustrations is my dog, Lucky. I talk to Lucky all the time, but while freelancing full-time these turned into full-blown conversations. She’s the sounding board to all of my sighs, my grunts, or my unexpected cheers like, say, when the payment arrived on time. She also serves as a keen companion for my breaks. The more stressed out I get the more I’m likely to stroll around the block, so it’s a win for her either way. It’s how I stay sane, or perhaps go insane. Have I considered buying another laptop and setting up a desk space so she can formally be my co-worker? No. Am I considering it now? Yes.
Know when to stay, know when to leave
Half of this applies to the bars. Now, when you’re in the thick of work and truly soaring, you don’t need me to tell you to keep it up. It’s those godawful lulls that prove to be the real test. Walls, stumbling blocks, and sluggish days are a given but if you proceed to push through despite any real progress, you could wind up killing your enthusiasm. You’ll need all the enthusiasm you can get, otherwise those walls at home will start to feel that much closer. It’s perfectly fine to get up from your desk every once in a while, pace a little, or stretch. Some problems require the good old-fashioned stare down. Others just might be about ego, chasing perfection, over-obsessing, or insecurity, in which case you’ll benefit by stepping away. Know your strengths, but recognize your limits.
Your work is still work and never let anyone tell you different
This applies mainly to fellow freelance writers. During my time spent working remotely, I fielded many a suggestion that I ought to “get a real job.” It’s a bias I’ve encountered ever since wanting to be a writer, and it becomes much more pronounced when your only available avenues require you to work from home. To older generations, working from home is unfathomable— unconscionable, even. To some, work means physically lifting things, getting dirty and bruised, or actually commuting to and from a workplace. I define work as a thing you do and you get paid, but I’m not here to split hairs.
If you find yourself in an existential crisis as to whether you’re doing honest work or if your remote job is worth doing at all: take a deep breath, listen to your gut, and screw the naysayers. I for one believe that if you’re busting your ass off, you’re busting your ass off, no ideological debate needed. I’ve lost a lot of time trying to explain telecommuting and gig economy to others. I’ve since made peace knowing that certain people in my life will never understand why I pursue writing as a career and that’s okay. I don’t owe them a damn thing, not the sweat off my back or a single pay stub. What you do is and should be for you and no one else. That can be wholly liberating when you discover that working from home effectively means there’s no one around to judge or criticize you.
For some of us, working from home isn’t a dream scenario, especially nowadays. It’s what must be done given the circumstances. It’ll suck, just as work itself by its very nature sucks. But I think you’ll find that working from home is very doable if you’re open to the challenge.
What about you? What are some commandments or mantras you’ve stuck by while working from home?
3 thoughts on “The Ten Commandments of Working From Home”
All great advice that closely aligns with my own experience, particularly the need to settle on some kind of dress code and preference for the kind of background music that doesn’t feature lyrics. I have several Spotify playlists of musical scores I rely on for that. John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness is a good one for that purpose, since it’s so long (9 minutes!), pleasantly repetitive, but also energetic. Somewhat contrary to that, however, I would add on top of your “talking to your pet is normal” that you can also get at least a one-sided sense of conversation from podcasts. If I have a day where I know it’s just going to be me, my dog, and my office – and from the looks of it, that’s going to be my every day for the next couple of months – I make sure to listen to Daily News podcasts in the morning and maybe another favorite over lunch to not feel quite so isolated. I know it’s not that far removed from simply taking TV breaks, but listening to people talk to each other about the news or movies or whatever on a podcast feels so much more like a genuine conversation.
Trust me, no one was more bummed about the dress code than me. I begrudgingly had to admit that one, but dressing up, actually combing your hair, (and committing to putting on underwear 😬) and putting the slightest effort into my attire just worked!
I’ve never been one for podcasts, but that’s mostly because I’ve never considered them. I know LOTS of people who listen to podcasts religiously in the car or in the office. Since I have the time now, I might give one a try to inject another social aspect into my routine. Thanks!
I was a late adopter on the dress code as well. However, there is actually a fair deal of psychological research about it, as I recall, that does support our mutual experience that committing to an at least semi-professional dress code for the home office can be beneficial for productivity. It’s all about your mindset and how certain actions, like treating your day as if you were driving to a physical office, help to adjust your expectations and focus.
That being said, yeah, I’ve had days where I sit here in collared shirt and still end up falling down Wikipedia holes or YouTube playlists. Constant battle for me.
As for podcasts, some probably find them even more distracting than music. I can rarely truly write to a podcast, I’ll say that, but it does help with feeling less isolated or cut off.