I promise I won’t start off every post forever with a coronavirus segue, but I’d be lying if I said it’s not the biggest/only thing on my mind every moment I’m awake. I’m starting this post at around 10PM, cross-legged on the sofa, computer on my lap, chihuahua at my side. I should be in bed (I need a full eight hours every night these days), but I’m wound up and my thoughts are racing. The best cure for that is usually writing a little, even if it’s just to set up a framework of ideas.
From 1998 until 2015, I went to an office building in Midtown Manhattan every single weekday and sat at a desk in a little corner in a big room with all of my coworkers and worked there from 9AM until 5PM (or 9PM, or something in between). I was really lucky to get a very stable job doing exactly what I wanted to do professionally within weeks of graduating from college, and never once in the whole 17 years I was working at Simon & Schuster did I feel like I might want quit and become a freelance book cover designer. I loved having a stable routine, and as much as I’m a homebody who often has a hard time being around people, I loved being around THAT group of people.
My life got weird in 2015, though, and by the time I turned 40, I’d left my stable, reliable job and my cute little office and my beloved coworkers…and moved to New Mexico. It was entirely my choice, but it was completely terrifying to give up what I had at S&S. I’m not sure I realized how hard it would be to adjust to working from home, though.
Since I know a lot of you are now working from home (maybe for the first time), I thought I’d share a few things I’ve learned about having a functional workday without the structure of being in an office. I’m sure not all of it will apply to everyone, and I’m also sure that everyone is going to face their own unique challenges, but it’s something.
Get up at your usual time.
I know it’s tempting to sleep in when you don’t have to rush to the train or sit in traffic, but your body and mind will thank you for sticking with a regular schedule. Even if the lack of a commute means you’ll have some extra time to spare before you have to be at your desk, think of that time as a bonus—you won’t have to hurry as much or constantly look at the clock. If the weather is nice where you are, maybe that means you can have your coffee on a porch—or even just while looking out the window and getting lost in thought for a while.
Really. I don’t just mean coffee, either. If you’re not in the habit of eating breakfast already, now is a great time to start. Without the structure of a commute and an office, you may find that your mind doesn’t click on like it usually does. Breakfast can help with that. It’ll also keep you from feeling like you want to wander into the kitchen every 30 minutes just to “browse” in the refrigerator. I usually have a bowl of soy yogurt (I make it in the Instant Pot) with fresh fruit and a little granola or flax meal. Or, you know, a bagel.
I’m not saying you should necessarily put on a suit and pantyhose (unless you want to, of course), but make some kind of effort to wear clothes that aren’t what you sleep in. Take a shower. Brush your teeth. If you like to wear makeup, wear makeup. Pretend you’re going to see someone, even though you’re in self-isolation. I promise that treating yourself like you would on a normal day will help you feel more normal in a highly abnormal situation.
Have a designated workspace.
I don’t think most people have enough rooms in their home to dedicate one to solely being an office (especially if working from home is a temporary thing), but if you’re able to designate a corner of your home to just being for work for the time being, do it. There have been periods of time in the last five years when I’ve settled for working on the sofa, and my back, mind, and work have suffered as a result. Give yourself all of the opportunities you can to have a normal workday.
Try to replicate the kind of workspace you have in an ideal working environment as best as you can. If you don’t have a desk or an available table, maybe you have the wall space to install a flip-down table like this? I had a similar one from IKEA in my old Washington Heights apartment (seen above, around 2010) and it was just the right size for a laptop and a few desk essentials—plus, you can flip it down at the end of the workday and not worry about it taking up too much space.
This is another option (again from my old Washington Heights apartment) I thought I’d re-share in case it gets your mind working about where you can create an impromptu desk. This is a workspace I set up inside of a closet that was too shallow to be practical for standard clothes hangers. It’s really just a couple of inexpensive pine boards on simple cleats with a keyboard tray mounted underneath, but it functioned very well. You could recreate something similar in an awkward space in your home, if you have one—maybe at the end of a hallway or even in an unused doorway?
This is similar to eating breakfast, but later in the day. I’m sure you’re grateful to me for explaining that. Seriously though, don’t skip it. And don’t make lunch Oreos and Ruffles, either—those are your quarantine snacks, and you should be conserving them. Eat something healthy—say, lentil soup and a piece of knäckebröd. Use nice dishes. Don’t eat over the sink. And whatever you do, don’t eat at your desk. I know that’s probably what you usually do when you’re not working from home, but this is your opportunity to become a little more refined. Go for it.
If you need a coffee in the afternoon, have a coffee in the afternoon.
I mentioned this when I wrote about my little pick-me-up coffee station, but since freelance life means I no longer go out for coffee, I try to make my afternoon caffeine fix a little special. I find that because I don’t have coworkers around me I sometime start to “drift” a bit mentally by mid-afternoon, and a cup of coffee helps snap me back. (Sometimes I have tea instead, but don’t tell that to my Nespresso machine.)
Don’t watch cable news all day.
I am guilty of totally ignoring this advice on a regular basis, but I’m going to offer it anyway. I absolutely do not believe that people should block off the news from their lives and be unaware of what’s happening in the world, but I can say with 100% confidence that if you miss a White House press conference or one of those media events where Trump stands next to a running helicopter and screams at reporters, you’ll be fine. You’ll be better than fine, actually. The same goes for Twitter. You do not need to be aware of everything that’s happening in everyone’s minds for every second of the day. Do your work. This mad world will still be there when you’re done working.
Instead, if you really feel like you need some kind of entertainment while you’re working, listen to a podcast. (Maybe something about mass murderers, to take your mind off of the pandemic?) Or, if you just feel like it’s too quiet, try a white noise app. Noisli even has a setting that sounds like people chattering at a cafe, so you can remember what it was like when you had friends and a social life.
Keep track of any expenses.
I don’t think it’s totally clear yet what incurred expenses will be tax-deductible for people forced to work from home because of workplace closures, but assume that at least some stuff will be. I use Quickbooks to track my expenses throughout the year, but that might be overkill if this is just a short-term situation for you. At the very least, keep a notebook and write down everything you spend money on to be able to do your job at home: WiFi, utilities, pens, rent, printer paper, etc. Save the receipts. It can’t hurt to keep track now in case you need it later.
Know when to stop working for the day.
It’s really easy to slip into a 9AM-10PM kind of routine when you’re working from home (graphic designers, I am looking directly at you), and sometimes that can be really great creatively, but I strongly suggest at least setting a timer for your usual end-of-workday hour and then considering whether you truly need to keep working. Maybe it’s a better idea to make yourself a nice dinner, or take your dog for a walk? Speaking of which…
Pay attention to your pets.
If you have pets, they’re obviously going to notice the difference in the daily routine. Fritz loves having me work from home, but sometimes I think he misses the excitement of seeing me walk in the front door at the end of the day. So I really try to make sure we get in plenty of toy-throwing time and cuddles during the day, and a walk (it’s OK to go for a walk) at least three times a week (he has a bad knee, so he can’t go every day). It’s good for both of us.
So, tell me: If you’re suddenly working from home because of the coronavirus, what have you found is the hardest part? Have you discovered any unexpected perks? Do you wish you could keep working from home, or are you ready to go back to your office?