This weekend, over a
glass bottle of wine with a girlfriend, we started talking about the weird and wonderful world of working from home. “I can’t work barefoot,” she told me. “Wearing shoes means it’s time to get down to business—even if I am in sweatpants. But once I take my shoes off, it’s time to relax.”
To each his (or her) own. For me, it's not quite that simple.
I’ve worked from home for the last three years, after I moved to Atlanta from New York City and started a one-woman PR company. (Editor’s note: Kelsey heads up PR for Food52, remotely.) Most days, I know I was made for it. Some days, I feel like I’m in solitary confinement. And every morning I roll the dice again—you never know which day you’re going to get.
I’ve learned lessons about self-control and productivity, the heights of joy and the depths of guilt. At work— at home— I’ve learned who I am and how to have grace with that person. I’ve also learned my own versions of the arbitrary “don’t work barefoot” lessons, like how easy it is to overwater houseplants, how clearly I think when taking laps around my dining room table, and the Life-Changing Magic of Taking a Shower. And I’ll admit, I’m a professional procrastibaker.
Writer and theologian C.S. Lewis describes the birth of friendship as the moment you say: “‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one.” Both the blessing and the curse of working from home is being alone, being the only one, all the time. I’m more productive without the distractions of an office, without the “water cooler,” if you will.
But I also have to cope with the lack of human interaction. Over the years, I’ve learned a number of helpful lessons, for both balance and productivity, that I’d love to share with fellow homebodies. I hope you’ll feel like we’re in it together, coworkers even. I could use a few of those.
I’ve never been one of those people who gets fully made up for a day of work ALONE at home. I’ve heard the rumors: It makes you feel less like a slob and more like a professional who gets sh*t done. But I mean, come on. Let’s not take ourselves so seriously! In my experience, changing from the yoga pants I slept in to another pair, putting on some face oil and a sports bra (maybe) is a small victory, and a good start to a productive day. However, I must shower. It can be the night before or first thing in the morning, but it clears my dreams and my mind.
Last year, I got a Boston terrier named Lobo, and he changed everything. I realized how much I craved companionship throughout my day. And I also realized how often I talk out loud and how many laps I take around the den or dining room table when I’m on a call or need to think. Lobo cocks his head and paces; he’s concerned. It’s a strange life to work alone all day, every day, so I surround myself with as much life as possible. I have a lot of houseplants, two bird feeders hanging outside of my office window, and live albums on repeat. (I recommend The Avett Brothers or John Butler Trio.)
And when the pup and the plants just aren’t cutting it, I go to a coffee shop (where talking to yourself is frowned upon). I only do this occasionally—I like being home!—but if I’m feeling distracted by the dirty dishes and laundry, I’ll leave for a few hours to refocus and let someone else make the coffee.
Alright, let’s get practical. I’m religious about monitoring my hours every day, but I didn’t use to be. I used to get to the end of my day and feel like I hadn’t done ENOUGH and I’d never feel accomplished. This was the greatest incentive to track my time, not only to hold myself accountable to my clients, but to have proof to myself that I’d worked eight hours and, in fact, had done enough.
I use an affordable app called HoursTracker that is super simple to use, very reliable, and Apple Watch-compatible. I’m probably too maniacal about tracking: I stop the clock any time I’m not working, like if I pour a second cup of coffee, if I use the bathroom. But it certainly doesn’t have to be like that. A ballpark number of hours worked is enough to help me walk away at day’s end. I have a quote from Henry David Thoreau framed on my desk to remind me I can only do so much: “Live your life. Do your work. Then take your hat.” After all, you only have so many hours in a day.
These last three years have taught me a lot about making a home and the small things that bring me joy. When we first moved to Atlanta, I worked at a desk in our dining room that faced a gray wall. I’d essentially made myself a cubicle in my own house. Thankfully, a lot has changed since then and I’ve learned how to be better to myself.
We bought a beautiful home with an office in the front that gets the best light of any room, and I got to make it mine. I work at an antique desk that my Gigi had been saving for me ever since I was little girl dreaming about being a writer. I have art and words on the walls that inspire me, as well as my plants, my bike, some vintage club chairs, and my magazines hung on the rungs of this leaning ladder.
In the afternoon, I usually light a sage & orange candle from a local Atlanta shop called Brick + Mortar to finish out my day. Other home rituals that make me happy and focused while I work are spraying Aesop Istros Room Spray when I need to relax, placing vases of eucalyptus throughout the house (see Lesson #2), and drinking and eating from ceramics.
This lesson comes from Tim McSweeney, Food52’s senior graphic designer, who works from home in Portland, Oregon, along with his wife. “When 90 percent of your communication is based via Slack or email, you tend to lose a lot the ‘missing pieces’ to a conversation, request, or critique, like body language and inflection,” he says. “So if you work with someone that can be particularly business-like in their digital correspondence, you can get it into your head that they're mad at you or you're doing a bad job.”
Tim ascribes this to being by himself all day, and he recommends simply picking up the phone (you can do it, millennials!) to talk with your coworkers. Bonus: If you’re solving a problem, you can likely do it “in 30 seconds on the phone," according to Tim, versus the 20 emails it can take to get to the same result.
Cooking ahead is just as, if not more, important for us work-from-homies. The reality is that we’re not whipping up beef bourguignon in the middle of the day, even though we could. I’ve learned that prepping the parts to the whole is key, so on Sundays or even weekday mornings (no commute, remember?), I’ll hard-boil eggs, rinse and strip greens, make quinoa, boil potatoes, roast sweet potatoes, shake up a vinaigrette and bake my favorite granola. And yes, even still, some weeks lunch will seem like it’s sad soup until you die. But you’ll win other weeks and have glorious grain bowls and parfaits and eggy hashes, and you’ll feel pretty good about yourself.
I can usually nail the prep, but what I don’t nail is stepping away from my computer for lunch. I’ve tried sticking to a dedicated lunch hour about a thousand times, to no avail. But I encourage you to do it. It sounds great! But I figure I take care of myself in other ways and it’s OK to just give this battle up for now.
I need sunshine and fresh air (we all do), but sometimes ungluing from the chair feels impossible when you’re staring at a growing to-do list. Luckily, I have a sweet little doggo who has a tiny bladder. Even now, Lobo is pawing at my pant leg reminding me I’ve been typing too long and it’s time to move. To be honest, when I first got a dog, I imagined long walks every day, but I still have trouble making time for that. It’s a resolution of mine this year to go on more morning walks.
Even before Lobo, walks, runs, and bike rides—or even just working on the porch or grabbing a 3 p.m. coffee—were so important to my ability to work well. The difference in my productivity was noticeable on days I barely left the house (not to mention, I felt like I was going to explode by the time I clocked out). It’s counterintuitive that stopping work to do something like go on a walk would actually help your efficiency, but it does, and I’m learning to not feel ashamed.
That freedom, after all, is the very best part of working from home. Not having a commute gives me more hours in a day, so I take full advantage of them. Every Thursday, I boulder with a girlfriend smack dab in the afternoon. And if I have a clear calendar, I’m jumping on my bike when the sun’s out and the traffic is sparse. When it’s warm, I’ll garden when my eyes need a screen break, or I’ll do a Glo yoga class after a stressful call.
I do this stuff because it gives me balance. Work is so much of our lives that I want to be happy doing it! Going to the grocery store at 11 a.m. when no one is around makes me happy; working a self-imposed 9-to-5 work day does not. So I give myself flexibility and permission, and I tell the guilt monster to get off my hamster wheel of a brain.
You’re not going to be perfect, no matter where you work. Give yourself grace. If I could tattoo this quote from Winston Churchill on my forehead I would. He said, “Success is not final. Failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.” Just keep going, do your very best, and don’t be frozen by failing.
It’s easy to be mean to yourself when no one is around you to be kind or remind you that you’re good at your job. So be courageous already―you have work to do.