Our youngest (a toddler at the time) quietly approached me as I typed on my laptop, climbed up the side of my chair, then furrowed in between my body and the chair back. For stage two, he proceeded to clamber up my back, as if summiting Everest, and park himself on my shoulders, his tiny limbs wrapped around my head like a diaper-wearing koala. It was at this point that I pondered, “You know, we might have reached the end of where working from home makes sense.”
17 Years of Working from Home
There’s certainly an article to be written about the pros and cons of working from home, but we’re past that now, aren’t we? The fact is, millions of employees suddenly find themselves with a commute that involves walking from the breakfast table to their laptop.
It’s challenging and I get it; collectively, I’ve worked from home for around 17 years, including a decade or so as a freelance writer/producer and the balance working remotely for an ad agency.
So let’s cut the jibber jabber and get down to what will actually help you win with working from home based on nearly two decades of real-world experience…
Prioritize or Die
You have a lot to do, but each item is not equal in its importance or urgency, so you need to start with a plan. First, create an exhaustive list of everything to be done – that brain dump will do wonders for reducing stress. Then, create a second list of what needs to get done today. Friendly suggestion: keep that list short. I’ve developed my own way of planning out my day, a simple document that helps me keep everything in view. I’ve made that available here (via a sign-up for my monthly email), but if you absolutely don’t want to hear from me in your inbox, just give a shout directly and I’ll be happy to get it to you.
Now that you’ve triaged your To Do list, it’s time to get down to the getdown and do the work. And your biggest challenge to that? Distractions. I put these distractions into three categories:
Distractions You Can Control
I’m not here to bag on social media – it’s useful for information and, alternately, for a little mental vacay. But beware venturing down the clickhole. Like a Vegas casino, you can find yourself looking up and realizing that you’ve spent way more than you intended to. How about a 5-10 minute social media reward every hour or so instead?
Distractions You May Be Able to Control
Incoming texts and emails demand your attention. But should they? Uninterrupted work – the vaunted ‘flow’ state, as it’s called – is what we’re after. If it’s possible for your job, consider mopping up email and text replies on a regular schedule rather than immediately. But there’s one addendum to this that I want to hit head-on… when working from home for the first time, there’s also an added optics factor: “She hasn’t responded to my email in half an hour. Is she really working or is she actually catching up on episodes of that singing contest show?!” Fight the fear and do what you need to do be productive, not look productive. Anybody who’s slacking, it will show. And conversely, time and results will bear out that you are, in fact, crushing it.
Distractions You Can’t Control
Kids. We’re talking about your kids here. But guess what – they’re not a distraction. They’re the whole reason we’re trying to make all of this work, right? If you Google around, you’ll find plenty of great strategies for managing your offspring, but you know what a kid says to those plans? “Mom, I’m bored…” So forget the dream of having zero kid interruptions. Reframe the whole thing. Take a step back and realize this may end up being one of the best parts of this whole ordeal. Today during a time I really needed to work, our five year-old wandered into my office and wanted to curl up in my lap. Do you think I sent him off? No way – heck, he was just toddler at the beginning of this article. Grab these moments and make them count – you won’t regret it.
Now, that said, beyond those cute and grubby little wild cards, hold the line on distractions. To borrow from Maura Nevel Thomas, “…you must control your attention to control your life.”
First Worst Things First
I have yet to discover the common thread, but I hold certain tasks at arm’s length until they absolutely have to get done. In the process, I find I’ve wasted a lot of energy and time thinking about that task. As Mark Twain (supposedly) said, “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning.” If need be, during your morning planning time, take a minute to imagine how awesome it will feel with that task off your plate – then stop imagining and go make it happen.
Follow Your Strengths
When are you at your best? For me, my most creative problem-solving time is in the 8am to 11am range. So that’s that time I set aside for higher level, big picture, strategic-oriented tasks. Afternoon, I’ll still power through, but it’s not usually the time when I solve the big questions. So after lunch, when I feel those gears shifting, I’ll move over to more rote, repetitive tasks. Does this conflict with the ‘eat the frog’ adage above? Possibly, but think of it less as ‘this is THE way, don’t depart from it’ and more along the lines of me giving you tools, some you’ll find helpful and some you won’t.
Like a gas, work will expand to fill any amount of time it’s given. And that’s especially true when working from home. When to quit? That’s a judgement call, but let’s circle back to the plan we put together this morning – did you hit your top 2-3 items? If so, and if the dinner bell is ringin’, then try closing shop for the day – or at least until the kids go to bed. With time, you’ll develop a better sense of where a stopping point should fall.
I’m not preaching from on high here; in the time it’s taken me to write this, I’ve had to negotiate a Middle East-level peace settlement (deciding what to watch on Netflix) and convince one of our kids that he doesn’t have the coronavirus. For someone just starting this work from home adventure, it can be overwhelming, but you will find your rhythm and figure it out. And that will be rewarding, both now and whenever we get on the other side of this thing.
– Matthew Porter
P.S. Hope you and yours are staying put and staying safe.