Friday, May 18, 2012

Working from home and what works for me

Children's novelist Katherine Rundell said that she ties herself to her chair with shoelaces and forces herself to meet deadlines by writing 1,000 pound cheques to the BNP, which she gives to a friend with the instruction to mail the cheque if she hasn't written her book by a certain date.

I wouldn't go to such extreme lengths when it comes to self-discipline, but sometimes I think I might have to.

At the moment I have various projects to work on outside my paid work in a real workplace (and even when I don't have any specific projects, collaborations and deadlines, there is my own art practice). I can decide the hours and where I work - the 'where' tends to be my house. The times are never fixed, but I have found that setting aside an afternoon or even an entire day and keeping it free for working from home is important; otherwise I might easily fill it with other things. Both the location and the flexible hours are a luxury for which I am very grateful, but you do need a lot of discipline to make it a satisfying and productive endeavour.

I cannot rely on those instances where I end up at my desk or easel as if guided by an external force. I have wasted too much time waiting for the right frame of mind - it is discipline, rather than muse, that will yield more results. So here is a list of all the things that I find helpful, and I need to remind myself to try them all before giving up the next time I just can't seem to get going.

- Exercise outside first thing in the morning. Somebody told me a faux commute helps to make us go into working day mode. And it gives you energy. If you don't go outside before you start work - especially if the weather is nice - for the rest of the day you will feel you are missing out by staying indoors. Knowing I have already got my dose of Vitamin D and fresh air makes it easier for me to concentrate.

- Dress properly, but comfortably. Actually, the perfect work outfit varies quite a lot for me. Occasionally I feel I need something tight and constricting (a corset!) because it means I sit upright and makes me feel more alert, confident and inspired. Sometimes it has to be soft yoga pants and no bra. If I am up very early, I might stay in my pyjamas or put on a bathrobe and exploit that working-from-a-dream-state transition from sleep to being fully conscious. Most of the time, however, an outfit that I could get away with in the world outside (and facing unexpected visitors) but that doesn't make me feel uncomfortable is the best solution. Hair/face/body care is also important. There are days when I don't brush my hair until 4pm and wonder where that underlying sense of unease is coming from.

- Have enough food in the house and know what you are going to eat. If I don't know what to have for lunch, chances are my thoughts will be spinning around the theme of food instead of focusing on the task in front of me. I also make sure there is a lot of healthy food around. If I have haphazard "meals" of muesli, bread and chocolate, everything deteriorates - I feel bad, unhealthy, guilty, and these feelings make their way into my work, and thus the spiral of self-loathing begins (worst-case scenario).

- Tea, tea, tea. In a teapot and/or thermos jug, not individual cups of tea, the repeated preparation of which would be an interruption and distraction (I drink a lot of tea, so this is a big deal). Edited to add: Green tea, jasmine green tea or white tea for the first half of the day, herbal tea for the afternoon and evening - too much caffeine would make me hyper.

- Often I prefer to work in silence, but depending on what the work is, music, a radio show or a podcast can be stimulating as background noise as well as a source of information.

- A tidy, clean environment. I am very domestic, so working from home is dangerous in that I easily get distracted by things that need to be done around the house. I often succumb and then justify it by saying I need order around me so I can focus. So it is best if housework is done beforehand, ideally the previous evening.

- Allow disturbances and interruptions (especially if it is a welcome interruption. And you never know where it might lead; spontaneity can be a good force), but don't let the phone, e-mail and doorbell control you. I do not have to be available 24/7. If somebody sends me a text message, they cannot expect me to reply straight away. I still get stressed out by text messages that seem to demand an instant response, but I now often just ignore my phone for hours (the message tone is always on silent, anyway) - it is very liberating. For a long time, I felt I had to be available and flexible because most of my work is flexible, but then I realised the amount of time that allowed said flexibility in my work was getting less and less because I was so flexible.

- Make a list and tick things off. I write down the smallest, most trivial tasks, as well as things I have done already, as I get such a buzz from being able to tick something off. Identify at the beginning of the day what will be most important (but still feasible) and make sure it goes on that list.

- Schedule short breaks. Knowing I am only going to spend x amount of time on something makes it less daunting. And the breaks are little rewards. I might set my alarm to ring in an hour's time, and within that hour I really have to work hard, but afterwards I am allowed to indulge in 15 minutes of reading/eating/whatever I fee like doing.

- Meditate at some stage during the day. Or do yoga/Alexander Technique/progressive muscle relaxation/...  This is when I notice how tense the muscles in my face have become and that I wasn't breathing right. I always feel calmer, more relaxed, refreshed, happier and overall better afterwards.

- There are lots of pockets of time scattered throughout the day that can be made better use of. I used to think 15 minutes was too little to get anything done and wouldn't want to start something and then have to abandon it. I still struggle with the latter, although it's astonishing how much can be achieved in a week by doing a little every day. It might just be prepping a canvas one day, but that small thing means when you come back to it all the preparation is done already. 15 minutes are also plenty of time to do one short admin-type task, such as writing an e-mail. Sending an e-mail I've been meaning to send or writing and posting a letter makes me feel so much more productive and on top of everything, and it sets the tone for the remainder of the day.

- Don't worry if nothing outwardly productive happens. Staring into space does serve a purpose, too. Daydreaming is important. If I am too rigid I only get stressed and can't think of anything. Some of my best ideas just seem to emerge from my subconscious after periods of inactivity. Trust that things will happen in their own time.


  1. Reading about tea was many people swear by it! I really need to start drinking hot tea :-0

    1. Yes - I really like the smell of coffee, but drinking it turns me into a shaking, panicky mess, so I mostly stick with tea, which I love. I just updated this post to clarify that I mean green, white and herbal teas, though I like normal tea and Earl Grey, etc., as well.