I’ve worked at home for 25 years: my (unorthodox) insights

We’re in the middle of a once-in-a-generation, unprecedented watershed moment in the world. We won’t know the global paradigm shifts this will spawn for a while yet — as my sister said, “the earth seems to be saying ‘if you won’t reduce green house gasses, I’ll do it for you'” — but the vast majority of us are having some pretty massive shifts in our reality and day to day lives already. One of the most immediate is shifting our distributed, active lives to our homes — with a ton of uncertainty and anxiety about making that work for us.

We’ve already covered “working out at home” fairly extensively on the blog, and I expect that will continue to happen as the weeks go on. I’m going to change gears today a little bit and talk about working at home. Even though this isn’t technically about “fitness,” I’m going to describe what I’ve figured out over time that lets me balance productivity and wellness. (This image is my cat Georgia, who spends a lot of time monitoring my computer usage).

I’m in the unusual position where I’ve worked at home the vast majority of my adult life. I’ve been self-employed since 1995, doing various evolutions of consulting work, for the past 12 years focused on strategy development and change leadership in health care and higher education. I also do a lot of teaching and coaching. This means that my work is split between in-person meetings on client sites, facilitating large groups and working in my home office. In that 25 years, I’ve figured out a formula that works for me. I asked people what questions they have that I might be able to offer some insight on, based on my experience.

I want to make a bit of a disclaimer at the front end that I offer this in the spirit of “your mileage may vary” — since my way of doing this differs a fair bit from most of the recommendations out there, which tend to have an overall message of “recreate the illusion that you are doing something completely separate from your homelife.” Most “expert” recommendations include things like: keep a strict schedule to focus solely on work, dress like you’re going to work, create starting and ending rituals, etc. That’s not entirely how I do it — but as you’ll see, there’s some intentionality and meta-structure behind what I do. Now to the questions. Some of my answers will refer to the Non-Pandemic Time, when we could freely go in and out of our houses — I’ve adapted some, and of course, you can adapt as appropriate for your current situation.

Do you keep regular business hours?

This is one of those topics where the “productivity experts” usually recommend structuring your day as though you are going into an external workplace, with clear start/finish hours, keeping to your schedule, dressing for work, etc.

Well, I don’t really do any of that. And my mental picture of the people making the recommendation is either of journalists writing on their laptops in their beds, dipping their hands into bags of doritos and wiping them on their sheets while writing about Meticulous Boundaries, or ladies in pristine corporate offices imagining that this is what they would need if they were to work at home.

Here’s the thing: I know how much time my work takes. I know I need to do my work. So I start at a reasonable hour and finish at a reasonable hour, but my blend of productivity and wellness means that sometimes I do things before I start working, ranging from laundry to calling my mother to going to the gym, and I always conjure up good coffee and a decent breakfast, and usually bring them to my desk to signal the start of my work day.

I have loose start and end times, mostly dictated by a combination of phone and zoom meetings, deadlines and what feels like a reasonable amount of work for one day. I am usually at my desk by 830 or so, earlier if I have something I want to churn something out quickly or an early call, a little later if I go to the gym, and I “finish” most days sometime between 5 and 6. In normal times, the end of my day is often marked by “which fitness class do I want to go to before dinner?” Now it’s “I should get outside before dinner.”

Sometimes — less than once a week, maybe 3x a month — I have something to write that didn’t get done during the day, and I am back at my desk from about 7 to 9 pm. And I have a pretty big job, so on about half of the Sundays, I do a couple of hours of work, mostly to make sure I’m ready for the week to come.

So mostly, I “keep” more or less regular hours — but without being rigid about it. I rely on a combination of bullet journal lists, my calendar, our project manager and my intuitive sense of what’s due, what’s pressing, and what MUST be done today to shift around my priorities throughout the day.

Do you dress for work?

Resoundingly — no. No way, never.

This is one of those places where the “experts” and I differ — although it may be different for YOU, I see no reason whatsoever to act as though I’m heading into an office building when I’m sitting in my home office surrounded by cats. (Not to mention that my work clothes would just end up covered in cat hair).

I do get dressed — I don’t usually shower until after I work out, but I get up and change out of jammies into workout gear or sweats. I’m up and dressed, just not dressed “for work.” I’m happier and more creative and more productive when I’m comfortable, and over 25 years of doing this, I’ve figured out how to put my head into my work because my work interests me, or because I have email or slack messages to respond to, or because I have a meeting coming up to prepare for, or a phone call right now.

I know that dressing for work is, for some people, a physical manifestation of a shift in reality from “home” self to “work” self. For me, brushing my teeth, washing my face and getting changed does that.

And of course, if I have a video call, I make my top self presentable. I’ve had to learn to put video calls in my calendar in a separate colour so I’m not running around looking for a bra at the last minute. (Mindy Kaling posted this excellent image on IG of herself in the “zoom mullet” as I think of it — business on the top, jammies on the bottom).

Designated space is really important

What about managing work time when you don’t live alone? How do you keep others from interrupting you (especially if you do quiet work)?

Having designated work space has turned out to be far far more important to me than any of the other structures. I have a big imac (desktop) that I use only for work (laptops are for streaming tv), and a home office (which is always where I keep my clothes, art supplies and pullout couch). If you don’t have the luxury of a home office with a door (cat infested or not), try to pick a place that is your “work” space, and let anyone else in your environment know that you need to be left alone when you’re in that place. Having a designated space is, for me, a mental signal to focus, and — if like so many people, you are not only working at home unexpectedly, your house is full of others — it can become a signal to leave you alone.

I live alone (apart from the cats, who are masterful intruders), but I’ve toted my work around to a lot of other environments over the past decades, and I know a lot of people who are trying to juggle kids, family members and others in their space. In my experience, the biggest issue is people continually interrupting because it doesn’t look to them like you are “working.” Or they don’t understand that a quick question can destroy your train of thought.

My best advice on this one is to get people together at a time when you’re not actually working and lay it out — “when I’m at my desk/the dining room table/ the kitchen counter, I’m working, even if it looks like I’m looking at facebook or something — I’m thinking. I need to not be interrupted until I stand up.”

Carefully selected noise can also be your friend here. I play CBC radio all day while I’m working, tuning in and out to the words as I shift in and out of thought. For some people, white noise is helpful; for others, it isn’t. If you are managing others in your space, try using headphones, either for white noise, or as a signal not to interrupt you. (Or be creative — “don’t interrupt me when I’m wearing this funny hat”). What I have also learned is to not reward the interrupters — pretend you don’t hear them, or give them something very unsatisfying like a long pause and a confused, what, sorry, I was thinking.

I know this has limited effectiveness with bored children, but keep trying. I feel you.

Do you host meetings at your home office?

Well not right now, for sure, but for the most part, no. I do invite the kinds of colleagues who are also friends over occasionally for a retreat type meeting, and I do a little in-person coaching in my living room, but mostly, hosting clients at home would require me to pay more attention to tidying and professionalizing my space than I want to. (I even use a virtual background some of the time on zoom, implying that my home office has a lot more design flair than the cat-bed strewn, laundry-piled place it really is).

What do you do about breaks? What do you do about meals? How much flexibility do you allow yourself in your schedule?

The person who asked about breaks also said “like obvs. don’t do housework, but do you deliberately take breaks?”

Here’s my dirty little secret: I DO take breaks, and I do all sorts of things in those breaks: housework, yoga, short runs, crossfit, spinning, short errands (I can walk to the pharmacy or food shop). Sometimes I even take NAPS.

For me, the questions about flexibility, breaks, etc. mirror the same need to structure your day around work. My approach to this is to get a feel for how much work I have to fill a day (as though I’m literally weighing it), and then keep mentally weighing that during the day to decide if I have the space to leave my desk for more than 10 minutes or so. (Again, bullet journal lists are helpful here).

Obviously, if I have a major deadline, or a pile of phone meetings, or more to do than I can imagine doing, I’m not swanning off to spinning mid-day. But if I can mentally allocate the time — if I take an hour off for cross-fit at noon that might mean working until 7 to get x and y done, but that’s okay — I do it. And that tends to make me more productive when I am at my desk.

What I’ve learned is that when I’m not interacting with other people real time in calls or slack, I need a rhythm that is a bit ping-pongy. I work in an intense burst, then I take a brief break, then back into the intense burst. Most of the time, if I’m trying to write something, I manage my time with the pomodoro method : a set focused work time, with brief planned breaks. What works for me is that I set a timer for 25 minutes, during which I close my email, windows on my browser, etc, focus hard, then when the timer pings, pop up for 5 minutes to do one small useful non-work activity. Usually this is how I load or empty the dishwasher, throw in a load of laundry, make lunch, take out the recycling, clean the cat boxes, etc. This is also when I do things like cruise through social media or answer texts. Sometimes if I’m really being productive, I reset the timer without getting up, but mostly, this popping up every half an hour to do a useful thing means that I get my work done and leave my desk at the end of the day to a reasonably tidy house.

I include meal prep in these little breaks, but I mostly eat breakfast and lunch at my desk. Again, your mileage may vary on this.

Do you co-work/meet other people to work together?

No. I know this is something a lot of people want and need, for many reasons, but it’s never worked for me. Getting into my productivity mindset means that I can’t switch *interaction* gears mid-day. I can take quick text or social media breaks, but actual human contact for non-work purposes tends to interrupt my train of thought. And even if it felt socially accountable to leave the house right now (which it does not), the only reason I can do all of the things that give me flexibility through my day (an organic approach to housework, errands and working out) is because I don’t add travel time or chit chat time. I know a lot of people who have and need regular work or writing “dates” (even virtual), but for me, I hoard time in a pretty miserly way, and to keep my work days a reasonable length, and to integrate working out, I don’t do anything social during the day, ever. I almost never meet people for breakfast or lunch, but if I need to, I tack it onto a time when I’m already out at a meeting. My major principle is “never add unnecessary commute time.”

What motivates you to get out of bed? How do you handle emotions? I go through boom/bust cycles in the day and get anxious if my routine is interrupted.

This is the crux of the matter, isn’t it? How do we stay grounded when everything we take for granted about our purpose, our routine, our sense of meaning is upended, and strung into a zone of severe uncertainty?

Right now, our anxiety is at its highest — everything has changed, and it keeps changing, and we don’t know when it will stop, and for most of us the things we need to do like social distancing are about protecting others, so it makes it even more surreal. And the initial nervous excitement of “what is going to HAPPEN?” has faded into dull anxiety.

On this one I can only talk about what motivates me to get up. It’s easy, of course, if I have an early meeting. But if I don’t, the first thing I do is call my mother most mornings. Right now, this is even more important, because she’s an at risk person who can’t go to the pool or see her friends, and I want to check in. And then once I’m up, I check in with some of the other important people in my life. I drink my coffee and sit at my desk, and start to remember the things that are important to me. Right now, this is connection. Caring for each other. Supporting each other in our anxiety. Using this time to reflect on what’s most essential.

If I were coaching someone who was experiencing anxiety at the disruption of routine, I’d suggest they explore their greater sense of purpose — beyond the way it’s usually employed in their occupation. Like, if you are a teacher who suddenly can’t teach (true for many of the people in my life), reflect on what you are able to create in your teaching relationships that matter, and how can those values be brought to life right now in a different way? Can you help parents with a little at-home curriculum design?Can you put some purpose into your day by phoning people who are alone and could use a friendly voice, can you be a shoulder, can you write to someone you have been wanting to mend something with, can you participate in “caremongering” and be of service in your community?

Most of my work has been postponed or canceled, because it’s “non-essential” during this time. One of the ways I’m coping with that to offer some pro-bono coaching hours to people who were experiencing disorientation and anxiety. I find that helping people define their values in this time helps me ground myself.

These are really surreal times, and our anxiety and uncertainty is showing up in different ways. And, paradoxically, this time of social distancing can also create opportunities to connect. And keep moving with our work and purpose. We are all in this together.

You got this.

Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who lives and works from home in Toronto.


9 thoughts on “I’ve worked at home for 25 years: my (unorthodox) insights

  1. Cate–as someone who has worked at home for almost as long as you–I love this! Thank you for the permission to be messy about all the supposed “rules” about efficiency when working at home! Stay well!!

  2. I’m really struggling with this. It’s so not the way I’ve worked by whole life. I love my divide between work and home. I worked at home in graduate school for some of the time, when I was pregnant and not teaching, but I had an office that was a separate floor of the house and you had to exit and climb stairs and unlock a different door to get there. Here we are five of us in a small house. We’ve made the back room into a temporary office and we’re taking turns. I can see already that I’m going to struggle with stopping work each night. Although as an academic administrator in busy crisis times, that may just be how much work there is to do.. Think I may use meals to divide up work time, ditto exercise. But for now I just need get used to the tools. You’re so far ahead of me on this. I may reach out for tips!

  3. I am happy to check in on this — I’m pretty good at stopping work. I came to realize, writing this, that this is Intuitive Working with many of the same principles as Intuitive Eating. I work a lot when I really need to and chill more when I don’t. I have a different job than you do but mine is also never “done” — I have had to learn to draw lines intuitively. But it would be a lot harder if I had to negotiate home office space with others. Hugs.

    1. And a lifetime of habits of using home/work to set boundaries! But I think I can do this.

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