It’s hard to say if this post is too late or too early. Lockdown in the UK started March 23, and may have ended March 27. There is some debate on this. On the other hand, for the coming term many staff and students will be either working remotely or else with reduced hours on campus, and so working more from home. While working from home sounds easy, it can be mentally taxing. I don’t have all the answers, but here are some tips I’ve found help with working at home. Some, I’ll admit, are easier than others.
1. Have a dedicated work space
This is easy to say if you have a house, but if you’re a student with just the one room, or studio flat, having a dedicated workroom is probably impossible. Nevertheless having a specific workspace is important. If you can have a desk that you only sit at when working. If that’s not possible, try a specific work chair. Anything you can do to mark a specific workspace. This isn’t going to magically make you more productive at work, but it will mean that you can mentally move from work when you stop. One of the dangers of working at home is that all home becomes a workspace, and not working in it will make you feel unproductive.
2. Have a timetable
One reason I’m struggling at the moment is that I’ve moved house and my old timetable doesn’t quite work for me. I had a timetable set up so 9am I would check email, 9:30 triage the day, 10am start preparing project one, maybe reading a paper or making notes, 11am work on writing and so on. Interspersed with this would be timetabled breaks. Dividing the day into task means you don’t sit down in the morning, stare at a screen, look at the clock and feel you’re in a marathon.
3. Build failure into the timetable
Another feature of my timetable is that the day has different tasks. I don’t work on exactly the same thing in the morning and the afternoon. This is important, particularly during a pandemic, because work isn’t going to go smoothly. Things will go wrong, and you don’t need a problem in the morning making you feel like you’re behind all day. Right now I’m waiting for an electrician, who I suspect isn’t going to arrive. That means I’m at my laptop, which is more difficult to work on than my desktop machine. If / when I decide he’s not coming, I can shift to my afternoon work schedule. The morning is lost, but I won’t be tense playing catch-up all afternoon.
4. Build wins into the timetable
I mentioned above 9am was check emails and 9:30 triage the day. Usually, neither of those tasks takes a whole half hour. Sometimes they’re five minutes. That means I usually start the day with two quick wins. Those mornings when something has gone wrong overnight I have some time to deal with it, before I get behind with my tasks for the day. It might seem trivial, but if you devise your schedule for an average day, then the half of days that are below average are all going to feel like fails. And people can easily be over-optimistic about what their average day is.
5. Take care of housework during the day
I have some non-work tasks on my schedule. 8:55 I’ll check the laundry and put it on. 10:55 I’ll put it to dry. Not every day is a laundry day, but when it is, it gets done. Why do this when you’re meant to be working? One is that it schedules tasks that could be miniature gold mines of procrastination. The second is that when you finish work for the day, you’re not hit with another mountain of domestic tasks.
6. Have an end-of-day ritual
You probably have end-of-day rituals at work that you don’t notice. You say goodbye to people in your office, or else lock the office. Shut down the work machine. There’s something you do that marks that Work Is Over For The Day. That can be more difficult at home, as there are fewer barriers to stop you doing five minutes more work. So make yourself a ritual. I have Iron Goddess of Mercy Tea. When the Iron Goddess is out, Work Is Over.
None of the above will make you more productive working at home. But you’re likely to be in a new work environment. Also, there’s a pandemic going on. If things were going better for you right now, then it would be a big signpost that there’s something seriously wrong with your usual work environment.
If we accept the conclusion that you should be less productive at the moment, then what you need to do is find a way to cope with that. Making space between you and work, when you’re not working, is going to give you more opportunity to recharge. Because if you set up your home so you never really leave work, then you’re on a track to burn yourself out.
This isn’t an easy process. Since moving house, my timetable has broken and it took me a while to work out where my workspace is. So make time to think about the differences between working at home and away. Then plan around those differences instead of making home your workplace.