11 work-at-home tips from 20 years of doing just that

A dining room with two laptops opened on the table and a pair of glasses on one of the computers

Working at home this week, er, year? Welcome! Here’s some advice garnered from a couple decades of working from my home office.

1. Put on real clothes.

If you’re someone who normally — as in BC (before coronavirus) — wears pajamas all day or lives in your workout gear, OK.

But most of us don real clothes when we go out in the world — whether that’s jeans and a carefully selected T-shirt or business attire.

You don’t have to pull an Ira Glass and put on a suit to work at home. But at least get dressed the way you might to run errands or grab coffee with a friend. It will help you focus and improve your mood by helping you feel like you’re accomplishing something. Plus there’s no need to panic if you suddenly have to stand up on a Zoom meeting.

2. Brush your teeth.

Hang onto some rituals. Wash your face, brush your teeth, fix your hair at least a little. Slap on some mascara if that’s what makes you feel good. Bathe, for the good of your partner and your bedsheets. If nothing else, think of your dogs: They smell 100x what we do!

3. Move around.

You might not feel like working out, and that’s OK. But at the very least, do some stretching or yoga. A few calisthenics, a walk around the block or your backyard, or a quick bike ride. Just enough to shake off the cobwebs (as permitted by stay-home orders.)

4. Vary your work setup.

Take it from any work-at-home pro: Ergonomics matter. Odds are good that your dining room table doesn’t put you in prime posture for pain-free productivity. Mix it up during the day.

Can you work better from a reclining position? Maybe a standing desk? (Put your laptop on an overturned box atop a table.) How long can you use the dictation feature while you pace around your living-room-turned office?

Try to sit up straight, feet flat on the floor, arms at an appropriate angle. Use a real mouse instead of the trackpad (ask my tennis elbow how I know). Never clench the phone between your jaw and shoulder; use a headset or earbuds instead.

5. Go Pomodoro.

You’ve probably heard of the pomodoro timer — a productivity technique where you work for twenty-five minutes and then take a five-minute break. After a certain number of “pomodoros” (the term for each twenty-five-minute interval), you get a longer break. Download a pomodoro app yesterday — and use it.

If you’re a laser-focused workaholic, the pomodoro method will help you remember to move and take breaks. If you’re distractable, it gives you a limited time period to focus before a few minutes’ relief. You can even use it with kids — “We just have to do one pomodoro and then we can go outside for a bit/get on Zoom with your friend/make lunch.”

During breaks, don’t just hop on Facebook. admittedly, I sometimes do an online puzzle or game during my break. But better is to go grab a glass of water, get your 250 steps per hour, or have some fun wiggle time with the kids or dogs.

6. Don’t expect to be billable 8 hours a day.

True, studies show productivity often increases when people work at home. But you might be surprised how much time in an office slips away: going to the restroom, attending meetings, stopping by Bob’s cubicle for a quick chat.

Do your best. We’re all doing our best here. And remember, when you are “on” via telework, you’re likely to be more productive than you are at the office when Bob returns the favor or an officewide email shouts, “Doughnuts in the kitchen!”

7. Make something of slow times.

When your workday is slow, take advantage of it. Sometimes that means scouring for new business or following up with contacts. Sometimes it means reorganizing your closet or taking a book and a cup of tea outside to sit in the sun.

Exhausting days at home are extra-tiring. Don’t wear yourself out even more by sitting at your desk and panicking.

8. Don’t eat ALL the time.

Especially for the Tauruses among us: Don’t head to the kitchen at every lull — or if you do, make it just to grab a glass of water. Eat meals at mealtimes. If you snack, try to plan a couple prearranged snacks, not nibble all day. Don’t trust your sweatpants to tell you whether you’re bulking up — sweatpants lie to protect their own interests.

9. Lay ground rules for the household.

In the era of COVID-19, you may be working at one end of the kitchen table while your kids work at the other and your partner handles business via Zoom on the couch. Sit down with your household and talk about how you’re gonna make this work.

Can the kids wave a flag if they need help instead of interrupting your call? How will you share the “quiet room” that works best for Zoom meetings? Are you available at certain times and need to be undisturbed at others? Write up your rules and post them on the fridge or somewhere else everyone can see them.

10. Get off social media.

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and the like can suck away hours in the best of times. Now they have the added distraction of sending any of us into a panic spiral.

If you must check out the social-media horizon, set a timer in the morning, take a quick peek, and then shut it down. Check again in the early evening — not so close to bedtime that it will scare you awake. If you lack all self-control, try an app like Freedom to drop a gate over your online liberty.

11. Give yourself time to human.

In normal times, boundaries might mean shutting down work email at 5 or 6. Right now it might mean a three-hour midday break to eat lunch and help the kids with school and then getting back on the computer after bedtime. But try to leave some time for a glass of wine with your partner, an online yoga class, a few pages of a book, or a chat with a friend.

Got other tips? Please share them!

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