I’ve worked from home for five years, and now as we’re adjusting to the shelter-in-place lifestyle it seems useful to share my experience in this unique skill. Working from home used to be one of my largest sources of stress until I applied a few simple maneuvers that restored the balance. These ideas are very basic, but it took me almost five years to realize that these common-sense habits can make a difference. The only secret is to force myself to actually do them.
The first thing that I do every day is get dressed. And recently I’ve started wearing jewelry just as I would if I were going to be out and about. It feels silly to get dressed up when no one will see you, but wearing the same clothes you had on yesterday and the day before is the first step in the downward spiral to self-meaninglessness. Not to mention looking (and smelling) nice is also a huge benefit for the family. I was admiring my husband in a suit one day when I realized that he hadn’t seen me out of grunge clothes for weeks…at the least. I’m the first to admit that wearing pjs all day is one of the great joys of working from home, but if you want to have a Comfy Pants Day, either do it only once in a while, or just do it with purpose: put on some fresh pjs that you didn’t sleep in and go ahead and comb your hair.
The hardest years of my career were when my bedroom and studio were the same room. I slept, worked, and even ate lunch within the same four walls, and I finished every day with this uneasy feeling that the rest of the world was carrying on without me. After moving apartments a few years ago, I was finally able to designate a work space that was separate from the rest of my living space, and it’s been the million-dollar ticket to getting out of that Twilight Zone. When I step out of the “office” and back into the living room, I can stop being a musician and just be a mom or a wife or a lounging TV-consumer for a bit. It’s also painfully obvious that the cleanliness of my studio affects my well-being. A clean studio makes me feel powerful. A messy studio makes me feel like I’m barely hanging on.
One thing that did come naturally to me since the beginning of working from home was to create a routine. I made myself a regular start time, and if possible, a regular stop time (because of the nature of the entertainment industry, I can’t always stick to this routine in the way that I’d like, but the trick then is to be flexible when you need to, and stick to the routine the rest of the time). I do this mostly because it nourishes my obsessively organized personality, but also because starting early enough and ending at a certain time makes it possible for me to have a life outside of work. It also keeps me engaged in my work so I’m actually getting things done during the day and not looking up popcorn-seasoning recipes.
Probably the biggest thing that helped me work from home is the thing we can’t do right now, which is find excuses to join the community and get out of the house. For me this involved signing up for a community Astronomy club, volunteering at the Santa Monica Aquarium, and joining my church choir (all of which have been now canceled until further notice). This is why the experts are encouraging online community events during the pandemic. I won’t go into details because there is already lots of information available about how to stay connected virtually, but I do want to reiterate that it is important, even if it seems pointless or silly.
Getting out of the house is an important part of this idea, and it goes hand and hand with exercise. For me, exercise is essential to a healthy mind, especially one that’s stuck in a sitting position all day. Running several times a week single-handedly keeps me out of mental institutions.
And lastly, I still have to remind myself of this mantra daily: Quit working if you’re not working! Which means, don’t think about work if you’re not physically at your computer or work area. I found that even as I was eating dinner or with my family or doing errands, my brain was actively trying to solve work problems or going over all the stuff that I still had to do. Thinking about work all the time is the quickest way to feel like you are working all the time. It is sometimes nice to take a walk and let my mind wander about work topics and schedules. But when I find myself thinking, eating, and breathing with work on my mind, then it helps to make that effort to separate the two. It takes a lot of practice and constant self-reminders.
Even for those of us who have worked from home for years, this is a whole new level of isolation. Working from home is just like working from your office in that there will still be great days and not so great days, productive days and not so productive days. So if today wasn’t your day, just forget about it and reset for tomorrow with a glass of wine and some seasoned popcorn.