In recent weeks as we’ve settled with varying degrees of comfort and success into our “stay at home” protocols, I’ve been asked a few times about how I handle working at home. Mostly these are folks who were used to “home life” and “work life” being two very dissimilar things, separated by at least some distance and at a minimum defined by two markedly different physical locations. Now their worlds have been thrown into a blender and mixed together and they’ve been working these past weeks to establish a new paradigm, set of habits, expectations, and so on.
“You’ve been doing this forever,” they say. “You’re used to having to remain productive even in the face of frequent distractions,” they say. “How do you manage it all?” they ask.
Granted, my work really hasn’t been disrupted by the current situation to any significant degree. I’m still employed, for which I am immensely grateful as that lessens the stress I’d otherwise be feeling on any number of fronts. Yes, this has been a transition — in large part due to the kids — but we’re making the best of it with assistance from their wonderful teachers and school support staff, who also are doing their best to push forward despite the challenges they face.
Between the last few years of my corporate life and my switching over to be a full-time writer (aside from one brief stint where I took a contract writing job that required commuting to an office), I’ve been working out of my house for well over a decade. It started not long after my first daughter was born, which was helpful as I was in a position to get her (and, later, her sister) to and from daycare/pre-school and ultimately to and from “regular” school. Then we moved into the current Ward Manor in 2014 and they started taking the bus to school.
In the early going, establishing a routine was easy. Kids and my corporate job required I come up with a schedule and stick to it. Without going into specifics, my job involved a series of deliverables which had to hit their marks every month in order to keep the larger process moving. Most of those deliverables were due on specific dates each month, regardless of when those dates fell on a calendar. So, weekend or holiday? That’s the way it went. Hit the mark. If I screwed up, it affected the people waiting on me and so on, to a point where my company could be financially liable for violating service level agreements. So, not much room for dicking around.
Anyway, between work and getting the kids to school, it didn’t take long to establish a routine whereby I was up, clean, groomed and presentable, and ready to go on a regular daily basis. This continued to serve me as I left Corporate America and moved to freelancing full-time. Even as the kids have grown older and become more self-sufficient, I still use their schedule as a guideline for keeping my own routine on track. It works more than it doesn’t, even when you don’t factor in extended stay-at-home orders in the face of a pandemic.
Though I admit to moving the goalposts here and there with respect to start and stop times, I try to stick to something resembling a schedule and routine, especially during the week. First and foremost, I get up and get cleaned up. I know we all joke about staying in our jammies all day or maybe just going completely smokeless as we dance through our abodes, but for me getting dressed and all that is a mental button I push that tells me it’s time to be productive. Granted, during the cooler months that might very well mean sweats, but it’s something other than what I wear to bed.
Once all that’s done – including fixing breakfast if I’m hungry — I’ll finally make my way to my office. The basement in our house was completely finished by the previous owners, and the layout is a sort of “L” shape that divides the level into two main areas along with a full bathroom and closets. It’s basically a small apartment, for all intents and purposes, and the way our house is built and landscaped means the basement level is a walkout to the garage and ultimately our driveway. I even have decent windows so it doesn’t feel as though I’m toiling in a dungeon. It’s also far enough from the kitchen that I’m not as tempted to go fridge forraging.
My office area is separate from the part of the room that has a TV and couch, and the layout is such that I can’t see the TV from my desk. Still, the nature of my writing work does mean I’m on the couch with my laptop from time to time, watching something for research at some point during a project. Otherwise, I tend to work at my desk. That’s where the library is, and I’ve usually got music on for background noise.
The first part of the morning is usually spent going through email and seeing if there’s anything pressing I need to do for this or that client. This transitions into my writing up a brief “To Do List” for the day’s activities. My rule of thumb is to organize what I perceive as the day’s tasks in ascending order of time needed to complete each action item. So, I knock out the quick stuff before moving on to progressively meatier tasks. This approach provides a little series of warm fuzzies as I get to cross items off the list, for which I confess a weakness because it tells me I’m getting shit done.
More often than not, the meatiest item on my daily menu involves the major writing project on my plate. The novel-in-progress, for example. Depending on various factors, things come along during the day that get added to my list and I adjust as necessary. If it’s a hot item then I may move it to the top of the day’s pile and proceed from there, otherwise it gets set aside for adding to tomorrow’s list.
I make sure to take breaks throughout the day, whether it’s for lunch or hanging out with the kids for a bit. With the current situation, they have school during the week via “virtual learning.” It’s not nearly as structured as a regular school day so we have to make sure they’re doing okay with their assignments and other activities like practicing with their instruments (one daughter plays the viola, the other the cello) and doing the challenges put forth by — for example — their P.E. teachers. They’re old enough now they have their own preferred ways of keeping busy and they can fend for themselves if they’re hungry. They’ve even been pitching in with meal prep. As needed or just because I’m feeling antsy, I get outside to work in the yard at some point during the middle part of the day. I also make sure to hold up my end of things like cooking and cleaning, laundry, grocery shopping, and so on.
(This is probably a good time to admit some of these practices long predate working at home and even my stint as a cog in the private sector wheel. Military life instills routines and habits for pretty much every aspect of your existence at some point, including figuring out how best to allot time and attention spent on mundane tasks like laundry and housekeeping. Despite being a civilian for more years than I care to say out loud, a few of those ingrained habits and approaches to accomplishing such tasks linger to this day.)
Work interactions, as they’ve always done, continue to involve email and phone conferences. Phone calls factor into a daily task list, and it’s only recently that video chats have been added to the mix. I’ve done a couple, but even those were enough for me to up my Zoom game with a few different virtual backgrounds. For example:
There almost certainly will be others.
Anyway, the routine I’ve established takes up most of the daylight working hours. Pretty much every “sucessful work at home strategies” article you’re going to read will tell you making and sticking to a schedule is essential to that success. It’s a good guideline but let’s face it: If we’re on the jazz then schedules go out the window. There are more days when I keep working into the evening than not. Sometimes it’s because I’m on a roll, but others it’s due to my being behind on a project and a deadline is looming and I feel like I need to put in the extra effort. Work comes in waves where I’ll be at it for days on end with long hours, broken up by periods of little or no pressing deadlines or other tasks. That’s when I get to do things such as catch up on leisure activities like reading or plowing through the TV backlog.
As with anything of this sort, what works for me may or may not work for others. You have to find an approach that best fits with all the various things and people going on in your life. It takes time for a schedule to become a routine before solidifying itself into a habit, so don’t be too hard on yourself in the early going. Look for the rhythm that’s right for you, and dance to it.
Just don’t dance too close to the fridge. Or the windows, if you’ve opted to go without pants. Or, maybe you want to give the neighbors a thrill. Whatever tickles your…whatever.