How to Work from Home

Even if no one wants to let you.

Photo by Agnieszka Boeske on Unsplash

I’ve been able to make the social distancing transition fairly easily, at least when it comes to working from home. But for a lot of my friends who are used to going to work, or used to having their family out of their house when they work, this has been a tough transition.

And by “work,” I don’t just mean your salaried position. For a lot of us, work is what we do for creativity, whether we’re paid for it our not. Right now, for example, I’m writing a book on spec (meaning I don’t have a contract for it right now), but that doesn’t mean that writing this manuscript isn’t work.

So here are some quick tips for people who are used to working in an office, or somewhere else public, who now have to work from home. Some of this advice is also for people who are used to working from home, but used to being ALONE at home, and are now sharing their space with various, bored family members.

Create an “office.”

Ideally, obviously, this would be a room with a door. But you can be creative with the definitions of both “room” and “door.” Hang a sheet to block off a corner and you’ve got a room and a door. Sit in the cupboard if it’s big enough. Or, if that’s too claustrophobic, just designate the kitchen table a “room” for however long you’re sit at it. Rooms can also do double duty. Bedroom by night; office by day.

This “room” with a “door” does double duty. It’s your commute. That’s the place you go to work! Let other people know this (and this part is key). When I’m “at work” with the “door closed,” you better be bleeding from more than a paper cut if you interrupt. But even if you live alone, know that this is your workspace and you’re serious about what happens in that space.

Create a ritual

I’m actually not a fan of rituals under normal circumstances, simply because it’s so easy for them to tip into fetish. By that I mean that it’s easy for them to stop being the thing that helps you work (I must be wearing my lucky socks!) to becoming the thing that KEEPS you from working (I can’t find my lucky socks! I can’t work!).

But this is different. You want something to signal to other people and/or to yourself that you’re serious. The best kind of ritual involves an actual sign to other people, like lighting a candle. When the candle is lit, I’m working and shouldn’t be disturbed. But it works the same if the only person you’re signaling is yourself! While the candle is lit, I gotta work.

Obviously, the ritual should be cheap, cheerful, and easy to enact. No drenching the alter in the fresh blood of a goat, because what happens when you run out of goats?

Enlist aid

For a lot of you, this might mean having a serious talk with your partner or your children, if they’re old enough. You need support in order to do this thing that’s important to you. This is easier if you’re working from home for a paycheck. “Do you want me to bring home this bacon? Then here’s what I need.” But it can be just as important to have this talk, and to be really honest, if you’re doing something that matters to you but isn’t paid work. "Writing (knitting, singing, practicing guitar, whatever) is really important to me and I need you to help me reach my goals. This week I want to (write a chapter, finish this blanket, learn this song) and I need two hours a day to myself to do this. Can you help me?” I hear a lot of stories in my work where people haven’t really communicated with their spouses or their children or their parents *why* something is important to them and what, exactly, they need to accomplish their goals. As someone who grew up speaking passive-aggressive I understand this. I was much more comfortable making vague, open-ended comments (“I need to write.”) rather than specific requests (“I need two hours to myself so I can write this scene.”) But now I ask for what I need, specifically.

If you do live alone, but are finding it hard to focus, you should also enlist aid! I wrote this piece on accountability strategies for writers, and many could be adapted for other kinds of work. I’ve been doing a lot of Zoom Write-Ins, where we gossip for a little bit, then work for a while, then break to gossip again for a bit, then work for a while. It’s great because when I really get a lot done during the work sessions. There’s something about knowing others are watching (hello Big Brother!) that really keeps me on task. That said, I’m not always writing. I’ve been grading papers, reading manuscripts, and anything else that needs my full attention at a time when I’m finding it hard to focus.

Set a time limit that’s communicated

This is important! People are better able to leave you alone for a set amount of time than a vague one. “In one hour we’ll play!” or “In two hours I’ll make us lunch!” works so much better than “I have to work.” If you tell me “I have to work,” I immediately wonder “For how long? When will you be done? When can I interrupt?” If you tell me “I have to work for two hours but then we can have lunch,” I know what you need from me and what my reward is for obeying (I am very food-motivated, like a golden retriever, so a meal works for me).

This sounds weird, but do this with yourself if you live alone! Set a timer for however long you want to work and then reward yourself. Rinse and repeat. Here’s a longer piece on this strategy, but it’s a tried and true way to keep yourself on task.

Don’t be precious

Don’t be your best self. Don’t think you can do it all. Don’t think you can be perfect. DO compromise. DO resort to bribery. DO barter. What I mean by this is, especially with family members, go ahead and relax your screens rule if it means getting that hour of writing time you need. Don’t be ashamed to sit your kids in front of Frozen II for the eighteenth time if that keeps them sitting down and quiet for 90 minutes. Yes, if they leave you alone they can have ice cream. Yes, they can play that wretched video game for the next two hours as long as they do it in their rooms.

If you live alone, yes you can have a bowl of chips while you work (as long as you’re working). Yes, you can order those new comfy pants—but only if you write that chapter! Yes, you can message him or her back (there’s always a him or her floating around somewhere), but ONLY if you write first!

Do whatever you have to, in order to get ‘er done. ;)

These are just a few ideas for those of you struggling to work from home and stay focused, especially when your family (or your own brain) seems to want to sabotage you. Please share what you’ve done to get some quiet time to work — unless it’s to bury them all in the backyard. That can probably be used as evidence against you. 

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