No man is an island, yet in today’s quarantined, post-apocalyptic world, we find ourselves as the little archipelagos that is our family. As a society separated, we try to find inventive ways to stay occupied, busy, and quite frankly…sane. As for those of us that work from home, either as telecommuters or freelancers, our lives are at once very much the same as it was pre-COVID and wholly different. I can attest through personal experience and anecdotal accounts, we face a set of unique challenges every day, with or without a pandemic. Indulge me while I cover a few of the hurdles I’ve faced in my life-at-home, and how I have overcome them.
Let’s get the big one out of the way. Keeping myself motivated and disciplined while working at home was my biggest mountain to climb. Add to that the fact that my family depends on me for a great deal, as I’m sure yours does as well. “Well, you work from home so you can (insert task or errand here)”. I am willing to bet that we have ALL heard that line before. It’s not just a mental hurdle, but a social one as well. Those that have “regular jobs” don’t always grasp the fact that this IS our regular job. Finally, I had to overcome the fact that I’m home…all the time. It was easy for me to just roll out of bed, sit at my computer in my pajamas and halfheartedly work. I was losing efficiency, time, and money because of all of these things. So how do we overcome these obstacles? Let me tell you how I did it.
Someone close to me once told me, “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude about it.” This very simple phrase changed my life in so many ways. I realized that in order for me to make a career out of working from home, I actually had to WORK from home. That meant treating it like a job, like a business. I have worked in offices before and I would never shown up to work in my pajamas with bed head without showering. The very first thing I did was create a routine as if I were “going to work”. That meant a dress code, a schedule. I was my own boss, but I was also my own employee. And that change of attitude and routine made all the world of difference.
My next hurdle was dividing my time up among my job and the things that needed to be done around the house. Cleaning, cooking, laundry…it all started to take a toll. Now, obviously things had to get done and I’m not condoning neglecting those things. I just made it part of my routine. From the time of 7:30 AM until 5:30 PM, I am at work. I don’t do any of the household chores that needed to be done until after that time. I take scheduled lunches and breaks. I don’t allow food at my desk. I hold myself to the same standard I would set if I were paying someone to do my job.
The other big part of this time division was being on the computer. I’ll admit to you, I’m a casual gamer, I enjoy YouTube and Facebook, but those things were standing in my way. I told myself I would just stop it while I was at work, but that didn’t work. Everything I loved about my computer was on my computer. This is something I had to change. I changed it by taking an unused guest bedroom in my house, putting in a plain desk, put mirrors on one wall (I’ll tell you why in later), and purchasing a desktop PC that would be dedicated to work. Not only did this give me some really great tax write-offs (speak to a tax professional about how to maximize your return as an independent contractor), it changed my attitude about it. While I was there, in my little room at my job, I was truly at work, more so than I ever was at any “regular” job.
The last little hurdle was simple. How to help those who I care about and want to do things for understand that I couldn’t always do things for them because I worked at home? I simply sat them down and explained to them that I am essentially running my own business. A business’s life and growth depend on reliability and reputation. When I was at work, I had to BE at work. I explained my newly developed routine to them and showed them what I did. I explained that if I worked anywhere else, they wouldn’t call me on a Tuesday morning and ask me to watch their kids, and this is the same thing. They immediately understood and it has made all the difference in the world.
I was once alone at home, now no one will leave!!!
I’m a single dad of a 13-year-old girl. That’s hard enough as it is, right? She, like most of us, is going stir crazy being cooped up in the house for weeks on end. There’s only so much you can do on your phone, even for a social teenaged girl. After the second or third week, around 11:00 every day, I would have a knock on my office door where I would hear “Daddy, can we…” and it broke my heart to have to tell her that now wasn’t the time and she would have to find ways to entertain herself until I got off work. Then, I had a brilliant idea. Several years ago, I bought a travel trailer with hopes of taking her across the country one summer, just the two of us. She loved the idea and was all ready to go. The only problem was the trailer I bought needed some work and I had wanted to remodel it into something that’s uniquely ours. I decided that this would be the perfect time to get rolling on that project we had put off.
Obviously, I can’t have a teenager using power tools, so I decided to do something different. Part of the remodel is replacing all the walls with new panel board. One weekend, she and I went out and picked up all the wall panels. I measured and cut them for her and we wrote on the back of them where each panel was going. Now, she’s painting them. I don’t mean I gave her a roller and told her to have fun. I mean she’s painting murals to go in each area. Starry night scenes for the ceilings in each of our sleeping areas, a beautiful mountain scene for the bathroom, and the perfect little alfresco café scene for the kitchen. She’s messed up on it several times, but she just throws another coat of white primer on it and starts over. Some parts of the walls will be thicker with paint than wood, but it’s all worth it. I’ll catch her video chatting with her friends and she can’t wait to show them the progress she’s made. She will show it off with the same pride and sense of accomplishment as I do watching her do it.
Now, I’m not telling you to go run out and buy a camper so your family can do the same thing. That’s MY story; don’t steal it from me. I’m saying that, in one way or another, we all started working from home to create our own stories. So find yours and create it. Help you kids start a garden that they can tend and watch grow. Tell your kids to write a play that you will broadcast to family and friends. The activity isn’t important, the act of DOING it is important. Remember that our children are awestruck, wonderous, and creative creatures. Allow that to safely come out to shine while we are forced to stay in. Plus, it’ll occupy them long enough so you can reach those very important deadlines.
Staying Home, Staying Healthy
So the things that I’ve shown you so far are designed mainly to keep your mind and your spirit healthy in a COVID filled world, but what about your body? Talk to anyone who works from home, they will tell you the same thing: It’s REALLY hard on your body. You’re sitting for hours on end, you eat so much more than normal even though you’re not really hungry, and it’s always something that’s easy to grab like some sort of junk food. Our backs hurt from sitting all day, our eyes hurt from looking at the computer all day, our hands hurt from typing all day, and our gut is growing WAY faster than our bank accounts. It’s a trap that is easy to fall into, but luckily is easy to get out of.
Let’s talk about the worst four-letter word in the English language…diet. Don’t let your eyes glaze over on me yet; just stay with me a little longer. Look, I love junk food as much as the next person. If I could, I would take a hamburger, top it with pizza, wrap it in a tortilla, wrap THAT in bacon, dip the whole thing in funnel cake batter, and deep fry it until my heart stopped (I think I may be on to something there). I’m not going to tell you what to eat. Eat whatever you want, but there are foods that will make you feel better while you’re at work. I’m a caffeine fiend. I won’t lie, I’m addicted to it. But I don’t drink it while I’m at work. For breakfast, heck yes. Lunch? You know it. But while I am working, I drink water. It helps me stay focused and gives me something to look forward to. I also eat lighter meals like salad or a sandwich during the workday. This keeps me from getting that heavy “I just want to go to sleep” feeling. Just as important as diet is exercise. Again, I’m not going to tell you how to exercise or even that you should. That’s something to take up with a medical professional. I’m going to share with you think to make your time in your workspace easier and more enjoyable.
Stretch. Stretch. Stretch. I can’t say that enough. Stretching helps promote blood flow, especially to your lower extremities, and increases your metabolic functions. It also deters your body from getting that sore, achy feeling after not moving all day. Also, take walking breaks. Try this: break your days up into one-hour intervals. In those intervals, break it up to where you will spend 50 minutes sitting down and working, then you will take 10 minutes standing, walking, and stretching. Stretch your hands, your fingers, your calves, your shoulders, and your chest.
Imagine being stuck for all eternity in a room by yourself. Now imagine the room has every book imaginable, the entire collection of human knowledge and literature. This is all you have to do for eternity is read, but the glasses you need to read are broken. Now, imagine you work from home and you spend all day looking at a digital screen and, due to that same screen that is your window to the world, your eyes start to fail, you start to get headaches, and you can’t seem to focus for it anymore. I bet you don’t have to imagine that. It’s probably happened to you. It happened to me, and I found a very simple way to fix it. Did you know that the brightness of your screenplays a huge part in the damage it causes your eyes over prolonged periods of time? Did you know that artificial light does, as well? Well, it does.
Remember my little office I told you about? How it only has a desk, a computer, and some mirrors? It’s designed to be an ergonomic dream team. See, the room has one wall that is almost all windows, and that’s great. Having a view of the outside will absolutely help keep you from feeling trapped. However, putting your desk right up against a window is actually causing you more home than good. The bright outside light, the bright computer screen, and the contrast of the otherwise artificially lit room causes your eyes to strain unbearably. That’s why I turned my desk around to face the wall opposite of the windows and turned the brightness down on my computer monitor to match closer with it. I have some nice, sheer curtains I can pull closed during those times of the day and year that the sun will beam directly in, causing glare on my screen. “But what about the mirrors?” you ask. They sit on the wall I’m facing so I still get that view of my beautiful back yard. I can see my daughter painting away and having fun, bouncing on the trampoline or playing with the dog without causing undue stress on my eyes, ensuring me many more years of enjoying those sights.
There is one part of our job, and our life in general, that we often neglect is our posture. Whether we are walking, driving, sitting, or laying, our posture plays an important part in our overall health. Try something for me as you’re sitting here reading this. Pull your shoulders up to your ears like you’re giving an exaggerated shrug. Now pull your shoulders back, imagine trying to squeeze a grape between your shoulder blades. Finally, while pulling your shoulders back, drop your shoulders into a relaxed position. You feel that tight pull in your chest, around your collar bones? That’s from bad posture. As a society, we have become accustomed to slouching over our phones, our computers, our dinner plates, in our chairs, everywhere. This not only causes our shoulders, necks, and chests to hurt, but it goes against the natural curvature of our spines. This leads to inevitable mid and lower back pain. If you’ve ever spent any amount of time working from home, you know you’ve felt it. That constant throb in your back that doesn’t seem to go away. With time, it is easy to retrain your body to hold itself correctly while you’re still comfortable and casual.
It starts, oddly with something called your core muscles. These include your abs and your obliques. No, you don’t have to have a washboard stomach to have great posture, but having a strong core helps support the rest of the trunk of your body. Exercises like planks, hollow bodies, and supermen help me maintain that core strength and keep me happy and healthy.
The last, and arguably most important piece of advice I can offer is this: Be very choosey about where you park your rear. Remember those chairs in your grandmother’s house? Those high-backed Victorian looking wooden chairs that no one ever sat in because they were just uncomfortable? Those are surprisingly best for your back. I’m not advocating for you to move that chair into your office. I’m suggesting to do some research and find a chair that is comfortable and promotes good back health. As much time as we can spend in that chair, we owe it to ourselves to spend a few extra minutes and dollars to get that throne that best suits us.
This is the End, My Friend
Work-from-homers overcome a great many challenges every day. Some of those we can’t change, others we can. Changing those that we can and adapting to those we can’t can make our jobs and our lives so much easier. I highlighted my challenges and how I overcame them. In Japan, they have a business practice they call “Kaizen”. It’s a philosophy of continual improvement, not only of one’s self, but of business processes and efficiency. I challenge us all to keep that mentality, adapting to things, changing things. Always looking for that next thing we can improve upon.