Growing up in the US, it was all too easy to replicate the ideals that are espoused in so much of our popular culture and our work culture at large. Long hours, no lunch break, shame in taking your meager vacation allotment. Much has changed for the betterment of the employee, but American exceptionalism born out of out-working your competitors and even your colleagues remains the backbone of business. And it’s hardly fair to qualify it as solely American anymore. I’ve been living in Europe for a decade (a decade?!) and I’ve seen plenty of colleagues mired in 60-hour work weeks scarfing pre-made supermarket sandwiches while putting the finishing touches on a PowerPoint presentation — I mean slide deck.
So, is it surprising that, as people started to work from home, the OT hours started piling up? Is it surprising that a populace, that struggles to strike the work-life balance even when reminded to by line managers and corporate acronyms, wouldn’t spend the time gained by not commuting working? It’s hard to turn off when we’ve traded the switch for a dimmer knob. Even if you have your own dedicated office in your home, it’s terribly easy to walk the twelve paces from the kitchen to the office and move the mouse to see if the word “inbox” has converted itself to bold. It’s worse if the culprit lives on your dining room table, or your breakfast island, or—gasp—your bedroom.
We are lucky enough to have that dedicated space with a door that closes and everything. But that still doesn’t prevent us from doing the aforementioned more often than we’d like to admit. What’s worse, like many, I have my emails on my phone which just amplifies that low level hum of activity. In order to keep from going crazy, I’ve set some ground rules for myself for working from home and so far it’s kept me from buying a typewriter and taking up topiary.
Keeping a routine and sticking to it helps with the structure of the day. In the before times, we had train schedules to stick to, or commute flows to join or avoid. Working your way backward from your bus’s timetable, for example, structured your day down to the minute and that routined choreography in the morning set the tone for the day. Now, with commutes down to minutes with clothing being, frankly, optional, much if not all of that previous temporal scaffolding has disappeared. I do my best to maintain some structure in my day. Waking up, coffee, getting dressed, getting Little Guy up and fed and ready, and pushing the “on” button happens with pretty good regularity in the 90 minutes we give ourselves for it. (No commute, remember? Morning time is quality family time.)
In good weather times I like to get out over lunch. I try to get on my bicycle once or twice a week and the other days to get a little walk in. As the days get longer it’s less critical to take advantage of the lunch break as activities can be done after work (or before if your routine allows it). Movement is health. Exercise and keeping the body healthy is a great way of keeping the mind healthy. There is very little more I need to say about this point other than I like to remind myself: “Make time for your wellness or be forced to live with your illness.” I saw that on a social media post and it really stuck with me.
Having to grind coffee by hand and then pack and pull an espresso makes for a nice break. The product is also both necessary and delicious. We make coffee pretty routinely around 9:30 and around 13:30. But I also take non-coffee breaks, especially if I’m stuck or after an intense task. I try to be intentional about my breaks by leaving the office and going to the kitchen or living room. Doing a mindless activity like unloading the dishwasher can do wonders for your creativity, or gives you the space to cool off if the email thread is getting contentious.
To be fair, this is something whose benefits transcend the realm of working from home. And some people might call this mindfulness and some might call this taking control of your life. I like the word “intentional” because it reminds me of living my life with intent. In a YouTube video about mountain biking, the hosts were talking about the trail being just a suggestion and that the rider decides how to make the turn, or how he or she is going to ride the trail. I liked that. Not just for my burgeoning mountain biking skills, but as a metaphor…sorry…for life. The workday is a journey; the workday is a path. And you have the freedom (mostly) to organize yourself within the parameters of that path. Like trees, some meetings cannot be moved; but like with many trails, you can take different lines as you navigate your way through. There are so many things that you cannot control, why not seize what you can?
Are these ground rules perfect? No. Neither is the person writing about them passing them off as original. But a bad plan is better than no plan. And, for better or for worse, this is my plan. It’s working. I’m working. From home. Probably like you. It’s helped me to take the WTF out of WFH.