4 things I learned about myself by working from home
I started working from home when I joined Jackson River, and after a week or two of settling in, I realized four things about myself. As it turns out, it’s not hard at all to get into “work mode.” And overall, I’m a lot more productive. But there are downsides, too: I find that it’s hard to stop working at the end of the day. And after over a year of working from home, I felt cut off from the world.
It’s not hard to switch into work mode
Even though I’m in my home, I’ve found it’s not that hard to switch into work mode as soon as I sit down at my desk in the morning. Although I now have a dedicated room for my home office, I was working from a kitchen table for the first month and a half at Jackson River.
Don’t assume that my ability to switch into work mode is just because I can walk into my office, close the door, and shut out everything that might remind me of being at home. Instead, it’s all about setting ground rules and sticking to them.
I have to sit in a chair—a proper desk chair. If I’m on the couch, it doesn’t feel like I’m “at work,” and if I find myself leaned too far back, my neck starts to ache after only a few minutes. The chair can be comfortable, but not too comfortable, like an office chair you’d get in a real office. I think more than anything else, sitting like I’m “at work” tricks my brain enough to forget that my TV or nap-inducing couch lies just outside my peripheral vision.
Music helps a lot, at least it does for me. I’ll set up iTunes DJ to play from a genre playlist or just randomly from my library, and I’m three hours into a series of tickets before I realize it. But I can’t watch TV. This sets off a chain reaction of laziness. I also struggle with podcasts or talk radio, although I’m sure others can multitask just fine.
I also set ground rules with my family and friends: when I’m at work, I’m at work, and there are rarely exceptions to that. I can’t be relied on to do household chores (except sign for packages, small things that don’t detract too much from my concentration). Sure, I can answer the phone, but I can’t talk socially. I can make my own lunch, sure, but watching over a roast in the oven might be too much. This might make me seem uptight, but I need that level of understanding and respect for my work time. It also helps me simulate the physical distance from home life that an office commute provides. I have been fortunate in that everyone in my life had been very understanding of this rule since day one.
I’m a lot more productive
I’ll be frank, some days at my previous office jobs were spent just making sure that the desk chair didn’t float away. (It never did.) So yes, there was a lazy component to the job to begin with. But I would say the most significant barrier to productivity in my old office job was the open door. People would just come in with their help desk issues and I would stop what I was working on to help them. After the first year of this, I mostly stopped working on web development because I was so discouraged by the interruptions.
I think the secret to productivity when working from home is accountability. I’m accountable for the hours I spend, the tickets that I accept and complete, and the emails I send back and forth with clients. I need to maintain a certain level of output, and this keeps me from remembering that I could easily pick up a guitar and start jamming away.
There are fewer barriers to productivity when working from home, provided that you’ve set up your environment correctly. So at first, there will be a temptation to take this too far—to find out just how productive you can be, to prove to your friends that, yes, where you work is a real job, and so forth. My first six months at Jackson River were a blur of completed tickets and a real productivity binge.
It’s hard to stop working at the end of the day
“Honey, it’s almost 9 PM, can you please come downstairs and join me for dinner?” “In a minute, I want to finish this one last ticket.”
Congratulations, you’ve created an environment of productivity and intense concentration—in your home. One consequence is that when 6 PM rolls around, there’s always one last task, one last email to write, one last ticket to return to the client. How do you turn off your brain when you’re in a uninterrupted headspace that comes so rarely in every other office job you’ve ever had?
I don’t have an answer for you, unfortunately. I tried setting a “work curfew,” but the first time you break curfew for an urgent “our website is offline” issue, you’ve rendered it meaningless. Working from home brought out a side of myself that, frankly, I don’t find especially charming: I am now a workaholic.
Just be mindful that tomorrow will be yet another full work day, and the tickets you’re working on tonight at 11 PM won’t be seen by the client until 9 AM at the earliest. Any tickets you complete after hours are just going to be replaced by new tickets tomorrow. I’m not suggesting you blow off work, or set a slower than realistic pace for yourself, because that benefits no one. But if this was an office job, you’d be eyeing the people leaving the building at 5:30 (because the boss left at 5) and wondering whether finishing two more tickets is worth coming home so late.
I felt cut off from the world
In the first six months of my job, I found that I wasn’t leaving the house except on the weekends. We would run our errands on Saturdays or Sundays and I would have enough lunch food to last me through Friday, and I just didn’t have a need to leave the house. Not healthy, not one bit.
One perk about a commute is that you’re out in the world, experiencing it with other people. You go to an office full of people, you go out to lunch with other people, you’re participating in society in a physical, tangible way. Yes, the 45 minutes on the train or the 2 hours in traffic are a real drag, but it’s real.
Again, I don’t really have a solution to offer. If you’re going to be working from home, then you need to make time to leave the house. I never really figured this one out for myself, and Jackson River opened a DC office just as I was reaching my breaking point. If you have lunch options that are walkable on a nice day, take advantage of that. Is there a park nearby that you can walk around in the mornings, evenings, or midday? Aside from being an excuse to walk away from the computer (and avoid the workaholic mentality), clearing my head with a good neighborhood walk usually helps me solve a tricky software bug or come up with a new approach to a design problem that has been plaguing the team.
Overall, I give it a B+
Working from home can be a real enjoyable experience if you do it right, and it’s a lot easier to be a productive worker at home if you approach it with the right attitude and preparation. I think it’s a win-win if you go in with eyes wide open. There are pitfalls to watch out for, certainly, but overall it’s a manageable, positive experience.