How to Stay Sane and Productive While Working at Home

Since 2005, I have been working at home, and by now it is commonplace to me. However, this month as coronoavirus forces many of my Seattle friends who work for Amazon, Microsoft, and other large area employers into working from home for the first time, I’m hearing many of them express frustration with this mode. Here are some of the things I have learned over the years, in the hopes that it’s helpful.

Routine is your friend. I rely on a routine that gets me up, caffeinated and fed, dressed and stretched and to the keyboard at a predictable time. You may ask: why not revel in this brief chance to sleep in and enjoy life and I will say a) I have a cat that appears at 6 am every morning demanding to be fed and b) it is easier to be productive if you maintain a routine that involves times where you are expected to be productive.

Create a work space if you can. Your couch is not an optimal space, but sometimes you do what you have to. If you can, find a corner or room where you can have your office and establish that it’s your space where interruptions are not welcome. Do the same thing with your time. One of the hardest things I found when I first started working at home was getting through to family and friends that working from home did not mean I was perpetually free to go out for coffee with them.

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You are your own janitor. Keeping the area around you reasonably clean and uncluttered will make you happier and, depending on circumstances, healthier. I spend a few minutes at the end of my work day tidying up my office: removing coffee cups, taking out the trash, decluttering the desk, and similar tasks. This makes starting off the day the next morning much more pleasant. I think of it as a small gift to my future self, and I remember to be grateful when I come in and see my clean desk ready to go.

Exercise is good. You may not be able to get to the gym — I’m currently avoiding it, myself — but you will be happier and healthier if you are doing something. For me, that’s walking, because I’m lucky enough to live in a great area for it. I also have a standing desk that I got from Ikea years back. Your mileage may (literally) vary, but at least stretch when you can and be mindful of your back.

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Social media is not your friend. If you’re missing your office interactions, you may find yourself pulled to social media more strongly because it’s a chance to interact with other humans. But there is no surer thing I know for unraveling a morning than finding an interesting thread on Twitter and following its pull. Schedule social media breaks for 10–15 minutes if you like, but don’t keep it open throughout your day.

Do socialize. Your workplace may have a Slack or Discord channel where actual work-related discussion is taking place; that’s certainly worth following. I schedule co-writing sessions with other people, where we do 30 minute work sprints with brief check-in breaks in between, both with friends and as part of my Patreon. Check in with your friends and text a few pet pictures back and forth. Maybe call your mom.

Things are different here. This is not the same work environment as the one that you’re used to. It’s okay for it to feel a little weird at first, and that may make you feel guilty as you’re getting established with your process.

Go with the flow and enjoy it. There are advantages to working from home that will vary according to what your home is like. Live next to a park? Take some time to explore it on your break. Listen to the music you want to listen to. Eat stinky food. Let the cat sit on your lap while you’re at the keyboard. Revel in the fact that you don’t have to find a parking spot.

In his book The Third Wave, published in 1980, sociologist Alvin Toffler predicted a third wave of change in labor enabled by the Internet, a wave that would include many more people working from home, but it never manifested. I think the reason for that was cultural, that employers simply refused to believe that workers would be productive under such circumstances.

Will that change in the coming year, if many large employers witness the effectiveness of the practice? Dubious, but I would certainly expect it to become much more acceptable. And certainly plenty of people work jobs where it’s not an option. But the advent of the Internet has made it possible, and as robotics and drone technology continue to advance, working remotely becomes available to a greater and greater pool.

Here’s wishing you luck as you first dive in.

World Fantasy and Nebula-nominated speculative fiction writer/editor. I read and write a lot.

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