If you’re a loyal listener to EarBurner, you might not have understood a joke Zac cracked in a recent episode when he asked our new SideDish editor, Rosin Saez, if she has ever met me. Sounds like a strange question. We work in the same office. Her desk is on the other side of a thin cubical wall from mine. But then, for the majority of 2020 I’ve already been in something like a self-quarantine. I have features in each of the first two issues of the magazine we’ve produced this year, one of which required a lot of running around, reporting, and so it hasn’t made much sense to go to the office.
I prefer to work from home. I find I can’t write with all the distractions of the office. I get a lot more done here. And when I did head into the office a couple of weeks ago, to help with the fact check on one of my stories, I caught a nasty cold from a coworker (who will remain unnamed) who decided to come to work even though they were hacking up slugs and wiping their nose on their sleeve. So, yeah, I have long been a fan of working from home.
That said, I have a bit of an unfair advantage. Like many writers, I’m a natural introvert. I can stand very long stretches of time alone. I enjoy the quiet routine of a hermit-like lifestyle. But with so many people now forced to adopt to the kind of work-life routine I already enjoy, I can also appreciate that the transition may be difficult or daunting to a lot of people out there. Don’t worry. We may now live in a world in which we are all forced to be shut up inside for weeks on end, but we writers were born for this moment. I’m here to help. Here’s a handy guide to surviving quarantine without sacrificing productivity or sanity.
Step 1: Wake Up Early
For housebound workers, the snooze button is your worst enemy. Your commute may now consist of walking from your bed to your desk, but that doesn’t mean you should use that saved time to add extra sleep. I recommend waking up at least an hour or two before your workday normal starts. Use this time to do something that has nothing to do with work. Exercise, read the day’s news, meditate, do yoga, or work on a personal project. These days, I get up at 6 a.m. and spend a couple of hours working on some personal writing projects.
The idea is this: the biggest challenge to working at home is creating clear boundaries that keep home and work life separate. Setting clear boundaries will keep you sane and make you more productive. Getting up early keeps you from waking up and rolling right over into the work routine. It helps establish a mental space that delineates between work time and home time. Get up early and make some home time for yourself. Then, when it is time to start work, you’re not only awake and ready to go, but you’ve already had some time to yourself that will make it feel less like work is invading every waking moment of your day.
Step 2: Get Dressed
Sure, indulge in the pleasure of working in your pajamas for a few days — even a week or so. But once the novelty wears off, you’ll find that showering and dressing for the workday, even if you aren’t leaving the house, will make a huge difference in keeping you from losing your mind.
Step 3: Make Breakfast
It doesn’t have to be a four-meat omelet or poached eggs with avocado toast, but it is important to carve a little time out of your morning to have breakfast. This is again about creating those little moments that delineate work and home life and prepare you for the day. It is easy to forget about eating while working at home or to simply snack constantly throughout the day. I’ve found that by taking a few minutes to cut up an apple or boil an egg helps with the transition from home time to work time. When you’re done with breakfast, you know it’s time to start work, so enjoy the break. I’ve come to treasure this little respite in the morning routine. I flip on the New York Times’ The Daily podcast or NPR, pour a fresh cup of coffee, and enjoy a few quiet minutes before the day starts. Think of it as your commute time, only you get to enjoy it at the kitchen table in the peace of your home.
Step 4: Set Up a Designated Work Space.
Writers need a space to write. Virginia Woolf called it A Room of One’s Own. In Stephen King’s On Writing, he writes about how, when he was a young writer, before he published his first novel, he re-purposed a laundry room in the back of his little apartment as his designated writing room. One of the secrets to working from home is setting up this work space so that you know where you work and, when you are in that work space, you know it is time to work.
Again, this is all about setting boundaries and having a space where your brain and your body know it is work time. If you don’t have a home office, set up at the kitchen or dining room table. Ideally this should be a place where you can shut the door, but you’d be surprised how effective a good pair of ear buds can be to block out distractions. Make sure everything you need is within reach—office supplies, files, phone, etc. When you sit down to start your workday, you will know you’re “at work.”
Step 5: YouTube Is Your Enemy—and Your Friend
For work-at-home newbies, you might be overwhelmed by the tremendous number of distractions all around you. There’s the laundry that needs to be done, the dishes in the sink, the open tab on your browser with an endless stream of Facebook banter. Resist, but also don’t despair if you find yourself puled off course now and then. The trick to avoiding distractions is giving yourself breaks during which you allow yourself to be distracted.
Take five minutes in the middle of your morning to see what Trevor Noah said on last night’s Daily Show. Take some time in the afternoon to run the dishwasher. Give yourself work benchmarks that keep you from breaking pace, and then reward yourself with a silly video or a distracting chore. Think of it this way: when you’re at the office, how often are you distracted by a colleague coming by with a story about the weekend or a needless meeting that you don’t really need to sit through? Use your home work distractions as a way to stay semi-socialized in your new isolated existence. But don’t let it get out of hand. This is not the time to binge watch old clips of Man Stroke Woman.
Step 6: Take a Real Lunch Break
It’s easy to get wrapped into the day and not move from your desk for hours on end. Occasionally, this is unavoidable. When I’m working on a feature, usually all boundaries between work and home life disappear and I’m up at all hours of the night huddled over my computer tearing my hair out. But during normal work weeks, I find that setting time aside for organized breaks helps with the lack of socialization. Take a break around midday and prepare lunch. Again, it doesn’t have to be complicated—it is more about having a moment to step away from work and recharge. While I’m making lunch and eating, I’ll throw on a podcast or a book on tape. This could be a time to call a friend or family member and chat on the phone. Or take a brief walk. If you’re at home with your spouse or kids, take the break together, gather the table, and lunch together.
Step 7: Create an Afternoon Commute
Most of the time we think about our commutes as a daily annoyance, but they also help us transition mentally between work and home time. When you work from home, that transition doesn’t exist. After a few days, it can begin to feel like you have a home in your office and not an office in your home. I find that it helps to create a transition so you know when your workday ends and you can reenter home life. When you are ready to call it quits for the day, create a routine that substitutes for your commute. I usually go for a run or workout. You can mix up a cocktail and enjoy happy hour on the front porch. Walk the dog. Go on a bike ride. Clear your head. Then, when you return home, you’re at home and no longer at work.
Step 8: Don’t Get Sucked Back In (Too Much)
The boundary between work life and home life is already blurred for most people. Our phones tether us to the needs and concerns of our jobs. And during uncertain times, that boundary blurs even more. Of course, there are going to be times when we must do some work outside of the time we would normally be in the office. But just as one of the challenges of working from home are all the distractions around the house during the workday, it can be as difficult to avoid the distraction of work when our new office is tucked into a corner of our house.
Again, surviving a home-work life is all about creating boundaries that keep you sane. Use your evenings for resting and recouping from the day. We can’t go out to a bar, nice restaurant, or movie, so try to mimic those experiences at home. Now’s the time to dust off those cookbooks and spend a few hours making an elaborate, multi-course dinner. Start working your way through the Savoy Cocktail book. Create your own mini-film fest by streaming every movie by a favorite director. Break out the board games. Give yourself events each night to look forward to. Then, when the day starts again tomorrow, you’ll be ready and refreshed.