Stay healthy and productive by avoiding these pitfalls.
Long before I’d ever heard of the coronavirus or imagined in my wildest nightmares that I’d live to see a pandemic like this one, I’ve made my full-time living working from home as a copywriter and creative consultant. I use my own equipment and deal with all of my clients remotely — no off-site meetings, coffee shop consultations, or traveling. I don’t even do phone calls or video chat as a rule.
In other words, I haven’t professionally dealt with another human being on a face-to-face basis for a good 15 years, so you could say I’ve got this whole social distancing thing in the bag. I’m definitely used to working this way by now, but there was a big learning curve to deal with at first, even for someone as comfortable with being home as I am.
If you’re one of the thousands of people currently working from home because of the coronavirus outbreak, there’s a chance you’ll be doing that for quite some time to come. You’ll eventually run into at least some of the same challenges I did as well, and they’re things people don’t always think to warn others about. The following are some great examples.
1. You realize you actually need structure.
One of the things I was most excited about when I first started working from home was not having any actual rules to follow. All I really had to do was meet my deadlines and do an amazing job of keeping my clients happy. Nobody cared if I stayed in my pajamas all day or randomly decided to have a beer with the cold pizza I ate for lunch. I more or less got to choose when I worked as well.
In other words, I felt like a teenager whose parents were out of town for the weekend —genuinely stoked to learn what it was like to work any old way I pleased. At first, it was pretty fun, but it also got really old really quickly and in ways I didn’t expect. Eventually, it dawned on me that there are reasons most traditional workdays are structured the way they are.
When you work outside your home, it’s super clear where (and when) your work life ends and your personal life begins. Once you’re working remotely out of your home everyday though, everything about your life eventually bleeds together into this weird, confusing soup that makes it hard to know whether you’re coming or going. If you don’t make an effort to impose some structure of your own onto your days, it becomes increasingly difficult to stay productive.
If you’re in charge of choosing your own work hours, come up with a regular schedule that makes sense for both you and your clients/employers. Break your workday up into sections. Assign a designated task type to each, and group like tasks together, as this helps you maintain your momentum.
Make sure you also include a proper lunch hour and at least two shorter breaks when scheduling, just like you’d get at the office, because you need them even when you work at home. If you can, choose a designated room or spot in your home that’s just for working as well. This helps your brain tell the difference between work time and personal time without your having to force anything.
2. Discipline goes straight out the window.
Before I worked at home for myself, I thought I was a naturally disciplined person. I thought this because I’d always enjoyed coming up with little personal projects to do on the weekends and sticking accordingly to the plans I’d made. It turned out there’s a big difference between keeping myself on task when I’m doing something I want to do and doing the same thing when I’m working though.
Even if you love your work, it’s called “work” for a reason. It requires a different type of focus, and it’s not going to be fun or easy all the time. This is something you take in stride without even thinking about it when you work in an office somewhere — especially when you have a boss physically present, looking over your shoulder, and bugging you for status updates every so often.
You may discover you need that boss though, because without him, there’s no one to hold you accountable and stop you from pissing away half your day scrolling through social media or even straight-up napping when things are slow. Before you know it, that deadline is looming dangerously close and you have no idea why you have so little done.
Remember that work schedule we talked about before? Use it to come up with an action plan for each of your projects so you stay on task. For instance, if you’ve allotted yourself two weeks to complete a particular assignment, don’t wait to start it until two days before the deadline. Divide the workload into manageable portions, and schedule them out to be tackled over the entire two weeks instead.
You’ll be less stressed out, and your work quality will be through the roof. A detailed schedule also means you’ll always be able to see at a glance whether you have room for that last-minute project or to take on something extra for a favorite client.
3. You may wind up working too much.
Once you get the discipline issue under control, you’re officially at risk for developing the opposite problem — working yourself so hard that burnout becomes an alarmingly real possibility.
Before I started working out of my home full-time, I thought I actually understood why I was so tired after a long day at my traditional job. I thought it was the commute, the rules, the hours, and the all-day people contact that was required of me. I assumed once I was able to stay home and write for a living all day instead, that wiped out feeling would be a thing of the past.
Writing was my favorite thing in the world, after all. I never got tired of it when I did it for myself in my free time, so how different could writing for other people be? (Very different, apparently!)
Since I didn’t think writing for a living would actually feel like work, I failed to establish regular working hours, take enough days off, or set proper boundaries with clients. It didn’t take long for me to realize that just wasn’t sustainable either. I got super burnt out as a result, and I stayed that way for a long time.
That’s when I realized that you’re tired at the end of a workday because of the actual work, as opposed to the setting or the people.
Even work you love and that you get to do at home takes a lot out of you, so don’t overdo it. You need to be signing off at a reasonable hour every day, as well as keeping regular work hours. Not only will it keep you from eventually imploding because of the stress, but it helps your clients know when they can expect you to be available to them as well.
4. Your physical health will take a nosedive on you.
Back when I still worked a traditional job, I thought of myself as sedentary because I didn’t spend any of my spare time lifting weights at a gym or doing aerobics in my living room. I walked to and from work every day. I was also in retail, so the average day on the job found me working on my feet, as well as constantly lifting, bending, reaching, walking, and carrying.
Quite a bit of activity, really… but I didn’t think it counted for some reason. That said, I also didn’t see going from all of that to sitting on my butt all day in front of a computer as the huge lifestyle change that it was. Or at least I didn’t right away.
It took a few months for me to realize I was really packing on the pounds despite eating the way I always had. I also eventually got where I wasn’t as strong or flexible as I used to be for what felt like no reason. I would find myself out of breath after very little exertion as well, so I became even less active. After a few years of that, I was as unhealthy as anyone else who does zero exercise and doesn’t take care of their body.
Hopefully you’re not as clueless about your health as I was about mine, but just in case you are? You need to make exercise a priority if you work where you live for any length of time. Despite thinking otherwise, I’d never been truly sedentary in my life until I started staying home all the time and writing for a living, so I wasn’t prepared for how crappy I began to feel or for the problems I developed — joint issues, circulation problems, a weight issue, and lots more.
Do yourself a favor, and invest right away in some inexpensive home gym equipment so you don’t have to break your quarantine. Then make it a point to do a minimum of 30 minutes of exercise per day no fewer than five days a week.
My husband and I split the cost of a stationary bike, an elliptical machine, and some resistance bands when we were ready to get to work on our health. I now start every weekday with a workout, and it’s made all the difference in the world.
5. You’ll probably let yourself go in other ways as well.
You hear about this sort of thing happening with stay-at-home parents a lot, but I assure you it happens to ambitious, career-oriented people once they start working at home as well. That whole thing about working in your pajamas and not having to put on makeup or style your hair sounds great at first. Be careful though, because it’s a trap you’ll eventually wish you hadn’t fallen into.
Before you know it, you won’t remember the last time you wore anything but pajamas or lounge wear during the day. Instead of lax grooming days being an occasional weekend indulgence like they are when you work outside the house, they become the norm.
Pretty soon, you just feel downright gross, and you’re left wondering when exactly you apparently made the decision to become a full-time cave person. If you’re gaining weight as well, you’ll eventually stop being able to fit into your real clothes at all. (Super fun and not at all depressing!)
Do yourself a favor, and just don’t go there. Yes, you’ll need to make the transition from grooming/dressing to look good for others to doing it for yourself instead, but it’s worth it. I don’t get as prettied up to go work in my home office as I used to when I worked an outside job, but I do make an effort to see to my grooming on workdays. I clean up, brush my hair, and put on at least minimal makeup after I’m done with my workout.
Doing this helps me feel human and puts me into “ready to work” mode right away. It also means I’m presentable if I need to get the door for a delivery, take a Skype call, or otherwise allow myself to be seen by other human beings. If you have family members that have trouble seeing a work-at-home job as real work, grooming yourself nicely on workdays helps them take what you do seriously as well.
6. Your relationship can feel the strain.
These days, my husband and I both work from home. I write and he’s in music, so we’re both creative types. We have similar temperaments and naturally understand each other’s needs when it comes to being productive. We also truly enjoy being around each other in general, occasionally even during work hours.
Even so, sometimes I have a really important deadline coming up or he just needs some space to concentrate on a mastering project. We have separate offices for that reason — so we can concentrate and buckle down when we really need to or communicate with clients without worrying about interruptions.
We don’t shut each other out though. We’re always available to one another over instant message, which is great, because there’s no pressure to respond right away if we’re busy. We communicate throughout the day about all sorts of little things, and we try to let each other know if we’ll be working later than usual as well.
It took us a while to settle into a pattern that works so well though. If you and your spouse are working at home together for the first time because of a quarantine, you’re likely to get on each other’s nerves a little bit sooner or later. Striking a good balance between separateness and togetherness the way my husband I have really helps though.
Decide on a way to make it clear to your partner and other family members when you’re not to be disturbed and when it’s OK for them to stop by to chat. It helps avoid a lot of hurt feelings while preserving your ability to stay productive. Coordinate meal times, bedtimes, and leisure times as well so that quality time as a family never takes a back seat to work. Your relationships will thank you for it.
At the end of the day, working at home works best for all involved when you establish a routine that you stick to and that keeps you appropriately productive on every level. Just make sure you don’t do what I did and wait to find out the hard way why organization and routines are really important. Start off on the right foot from day one! You’ll be glad you did.