9 Valuable Lessons I’ve Learned Working from Home

First: Don't forget to shower.

March 11, 2019
Photo by Mark Weinberg

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.

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Top Comment:
“Funny with the meal prep thing, because (though keeping in mind I'm a recipe developer so sometimes my work day is in the kitchen) I find meal prep helps break up computer based days which makes me more productive - today I've roasted a chicken (taking off the legs first to stash in the freezer for another meal), picked it ready for a pie tonight, and put the bones in the slow cooker to make stock, in between beasting through my to-do list - if I was just working solidly, I'd probably have burnt out by now!”
— Rachel P.

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.

The view from my "office," most days. Photo by Kelsey Burrow

1. Shower

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.

What! You too? I thought I was the only one.
C.S. Lewis

2. Surround yourself with living things

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.

3. Clock your hours

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.

4. Treat your space (and self)

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.

"Mom, can we go yet?" Photo by Kelsey Burrow

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.

5. Pick up the phone

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.

6. Meal plan and prep

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.

Always here for the egg content. Photo by Kelsey Burrow

7. Go outside

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.

Hop on! Photo by Kelsey Burrow

8. Make time for what makes you happy

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.

9. Have grace with yourself every day

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.

Do you work from home? Let us know about your experiences below!

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marymichael March 20, 2019
Kelsey, "boulder with" your girlfriend? No clue. I even looked it up in the Urban dictionary. Can you shed some light?
Kelsey B. March 20, 2019
Indoor rock climbing!
kskorman March 14, 2019
I've been working from home for around 5 years - it's generally a joy and has allowed me to continue working long after I might have stopped because of the commute, etc.. Being your own boss has up and down sides. But I've set up my business to include remote help - a great boon to the little day to day details I don't feel like doing ... and yes, getting outside is a must!
Eric K. March 11, 2019
I loved this, Kelsey, and seeing a glimpse of (your) Atlanta. #8 is so important.
patty@bryce March 11, 2019
I've worked from home for a decade and found this spot on. I've found getting outside is very important, as is changing up your environment sometimes. I also work occasionally in a shared office space or in a local restaurant in mid afternoon (quieter than coffee shop between 2 and 5). Social life is extremely important - plan dinner/drinks/coffee frequently with others to remember how to converse. I'm not great with mixing work and home tasks, but do find a lot of value in running errands at odd times (grocery store eat 10 am on a Monday? - yes please!).
Kelsey B. March 11, 2019
Yes, Patty! Great point re social time. I used to identify as an introvert but since I'm alone all the time, I'm much more social than I used to be. I just want to be with people at night.
Caroline H. March 11, 2019
Kelsey, I occasionally work-from-home and will use this article as my go-to checklist from now on! These are great tips on how to stay productive and centered when there could be so much distraction (laundry, in my case). Thank you for posting this!
Kelsey B. March 11, 2019
When will the laundry end?! Glad this will act as your checklist :)
Rachel P. March 11, 2019
Love these tips! It has reminded me that I should occasionally treat myself to the little things like the nice candles for when it gets dark early, and some fresh flowers when things are getting a bit gloomy, because as we have a tiny place our living room is also my office!

Funny with the meal prep thing, because (though keeping in mind I'm a recipe developer so sometimes my work day is in the kitchen) I find meal prep helps break up computer based days which makes me more productive - today I've roasted a chicken (taking off the legs first to stash in the freezer for another meal), picked it ready for a pie tonight, and put the bones in the slow cooker to make stock, in between beasting through my to-do list - if I was just working solidly, I'd probably have burnt out by now!
Kelsey B. March 11, 2019
Totally agree, Rachel. I sometimes meal prep throughout the day as well. Doesn't it make you feel like a superhero that you can do all of that in one day?!
Isabella March 11, 2019
Thank you for this relatable and helpful read. As a newly retired person, my work right now is focused on catching up with a home neglected for years and rediscovering beloved hobbies. Having this gift of time, though, has proved to be challenging and I struggle daily with finding the happy homebody my retirement fantasies always featured. Reading about your process for creating joy and satisfying standards for your work and workplace inspires me to reframe my days. I know I can get the hang of this!
Kelsey B. March 11, 2019
You can do it, Isabella! You've spent many years working hard - it's time to let yourself rest and, as you said, rediscover what makes you happy. I started a pottery class recently that's really giving me life. Don't forget to give yourself grace on those hard days, ok?
Mary J. March 14, 2019
I started to do the same. Pottery class rocks!
Aileen March 11, 2019
Thank you for the great article! I am a newbie at working from home. I need to take some of your suggestions and run with them! Very insightful!
Karen March 11, 2019
I am interested in working from home, but I cannot find reputable site with job listings. Can you help me out?
Norma M. March 11, 2019
Hi just read this and found it interesting. Retired would love to work from home. Do you know if any legit companies.
Kelsey B. March 11, 2019
It's an adventure, Aileen! The best.
Susan March 12, 2019
Thank you Kelsey for an interesting and thought provoking article. As is Isabella I’ve just retired and am looking forward to the next adventure in my life. l have plans to catch up on long neglected hobbies including more fun in the kitchen (l read Food52 regularly) and my fiber crafts. I’ve decided to give myself one to two years to travel, play and plan. My thought for those who want to start working from home is to really think about the commitment and self discipline it takes and to choose something you will enjoy overall, even during times that are not so great. I was a sole business owner for almost 22 years and before that worked in companies big and small for 25 years. So my advice is go forth and experiment with joy, kindness and grace. Enjoy💛
Kelsey B. March 12, 2019
Man, that's good advice. Thank you, Susan!