Working from home sounds like a breeze. Wait, I can do my job and don’t have to leave my house? Let’s go!
In actuality, WFH can easily be more like WTH. I’ve been there: I’d spent over a decade at the same job, working out of the same office, and eventually I got to the point where I hated going to work in the mornings. I kept my head down and kept doing my job, because I needed to survive, but I knew something would eventually have to give. And it did: Ultimately, I left my job and spent the next six years as a freelance writer, working from home in my apartment in New York City.
Throwing aside the difficulties of cobbling together a living as a freelance writer, working from home presented its own set of challenges. Our apartment was appropriately small for Manhattan living, and the available working space was scaled back even further once a child was introduced to the mix. The truth is, learning how to work from home may require a bit of home work. Here are some tips I can offer from experience…
1. Create A Working Space — Our child came about a year after I started working from home, and instead of being able to set up all my work stuff in the living room every day, I was basically banished to our bedroom to make space for our nanny. I’ve always been proud of my ability to work from anywhere, if needed—I’ve written articles and columns and breaking news updates from airplanes and trains and random media work rooms in arenas all over the country. But that’s when I was away from home. Now I was at home, but in the bedroom I felt like I didn’t have a place of my own. After a few weeks of lounging uncomfortably atop the covers, I repurposed a table and set it in front of a window, bought a cheap area rug from Ikea and a chair via Amazon, hung up some photos, and suddenly I had an “office.” It was inexpensive and simple, and even though it was literally two steps away from our bed, it made a huge difference, just knowing I had a space of my own to go each day.
2. Be Routine — As I’ve aged, I’ve found myself valuing the tedium of having a daily routine. One of the things that led me to quit my job was being dissatisfied with the dreary details—getting off at the same subway stop each morning, going to the same coffee shop each day, having the same lunch options, etc. But once I eliminated those choices, suddenly I missed knowing at least some of what the day held for me. So, I created new routines. I woke up at the same time every day. I fixed my own coffee. I made sure I was sitting at my desk by a certain time. When you’re working from home there are so many variables, it can be nice to have even a few things you know you can count on.
3. Get Out — I found it was so easy to get into a groove working alone that I could easily sit at my computer for hours at a time, and the next thing you knew the day was mostly gone. So, I started forcing myself to take a break each day around lunch time. I’d leave my apartment and take a walk to take care of whatever errands needed to get done—groceries, drug store, dry cleaning, etc. This turned into making myself eat something for lunch each day while I was out, and then I’d make myself walk an extra a mile or so, to get in some exercise. Before long, I couldn’t wait to get away from my desk and get out into the world for a while each afternoon.
4. Don’t Be Too Connected — I could afford to leave my desk thanks to my iPhone—it was easy to monitor emails or take calls while I was out and about, without missing much. It’s OK not to respond to every email or text message the moment it arrives – I’ll monitor what’s coming in, but I try not to be glued to my phone at all times. Sometimes a longer email sent from my computer an hour later beats a terse sentence sent from my phone in the moment. I didn’t need to be constantly in touch with the world at all times, and it’s probably somewhat healthy that the world isn’t constantly in touch with me.
5. At The Same Time, Stay Connected — When I started working from home, I realized that the moment my wife walked in the door at the end of her day, I’d have about 20 things I wanted to tell her immediately. This was because I was mostly alone all day, and by the end of the day I’d have all these mundane stories and thoughts banging around my brain. I just couldn’t wait to let them out, without considering that perhaps my wife was, you know, tired, or had things on her mind. I began to combat this by finding people to talk to during the day. I made it a point to have at least one phone conversation a day with a co-worker, or a friend, or someone I hadn’t talked to in a while.
6. Set The Mood – Before I started working from home, I spent over a decade working at SLAM magazine, which shared office space with a number of magazines, but most immediate to us was the hip-hop magazine XXL. I sat across the hall from former XXL editor-in-chief Elliott Wilson, who played loud music all day long. Eventually, I got used to it, and reached the point where I found that I didn’t like to work in complete silence. (Having a child would eventually reinforce this notion in me.)
These days, when I’m working, I’ll usually play music in the background or on my headphones. I prefer stuff without lyrics, to keep my mind locked on whatever it is I’m working on; I usually listen to jazz music. But if I’m in a room with a TV, I usually prefer that to music, and over the years I have delineated a clear hierarchy of background television programming…
- Movies — For me, movies are the best thing to write to, particularly movies that I’ve already seen. There are no commercials breaking up the action, which tends to keep me in my work groove. Big action blockbusters are usually my go-to flicks (Armageddon, Independence Day (the first one), Contact, etc.), with comedies second. Also, HD beats SD.
- “American Chopper”— I’ve never driven a motorcycle and am not even close to being a gear-head, but for some reason I find this show great to write to — each hour neatly wraps up the start-to-finish of building a bike, all while people yell at each other. “Pawn Stars” is also a fairly good writing show.
- Anything on HGTV — This is the go-to network for many sportswriters I know, with a bunch of shows that allow you to mindlessly check in and out (“Fixer Upper,” “House Hunters,” “Home Town,” etc.) while being mildly jealous of how cheap real estate is in other places. This channel is also widely available in hotel chains around the nation.
Or you could also just work in silence. Your call.
7. Give Yourself Some Slack – Things won’t go perfectly, and that’s OK. As I’m trying to write this column, for instance, right when I was in the middle of a thought, my kid came running into the room and asked me to administer some eye drops. So, I dropped everything and took care of him. When I needed an hour yesterday to knock out some work, my wife got pulled into a work conference call, leaving me in charge of the kid. Working from home isn’t perfect, but to be honest neither is working in an office. Just do your best.
8. Enjoy The Process —I’ve spent more time with my wife and son over the last week than I had in months, and while we’ve had some ups and downs, it’s mostly been awesome. It’s neat to actually have some space with my family, to get to see them when I’m not worn out at the end of the day. Right now working from home isn’t my choice, but I don’t have a choice. Might as well make the best of it.