How to WFH without Saying WTF

March 20, 2020
min read
How to WFH without Saying WTF

*This article was written by CEO, Matt Fellows early in the COVID-19 pandemic.

WFH is the big deal?

In this age of social distancing and COVID-19, almost every customer and partner we work with has made the responsible decision to mandate that employees work from home - in most cases indefinitely. I believe in this policy, but I've also learned that the effects of working in isolation from your home - a place that you reserve for your personal life - for an extended period of time shouldn’t be underestimated. The loss of a physical space to separate work and personal life has a psychological effect that must be addressed in order to maintain a healthy balance between where you work and where you live.

My WFH Experience

When I first started my business I spent the first 6+ months working from my one bedroom apartment. Previously, I had worked at a digital marketing agency’s San Diego office of about 12 people. When I told friends I worked from home they usually reacted with resentful jealousy - how they wished they could work from home every day. The truth is, working from home is nice once in a while but having a dedicated space to work alongside other humans has benefits that shouldn’t be taken for granted - even in businesses where all the work can be done online.

I underestimated the psychological effect of working from home every day and I quickly learned the importance of a clear, recurring transition to and from work mode that a physical office and daily commute provided. I found myself unable to relax, I wasn’t sure when work began and where it ended. My energy levels, leisure time, and relationships suffered until I found a way to re-create the rituals that would ease me into and out of the work mindset.

How to WFH

Transitioning into and out of work mode is critical to defend your leisure time and make sure your mental batteries can recharge. The good news is that geographical distance is not required to create different spaces in your mind for work and play. More important than distance are the rituals that signal transition from work mode to leisure time. To work from home in a healthy way, I've developed the following work from home habits and rituals.

🖥️ Create a dedicated, isolated workspace

The first step to separate your work life from personal life is to create your own little office and make sure it’s respected as such. Carve out a corner of your home that is dedicated to work, separate it from the rest of your home, and make sure you work in that space consistently. I have a desk in the corner of my apartment and actually bought a room divider to create a makeshift cubicle that keeps me focused and in a separate space. It was just too easy to find myself at my desk one moment and in front of the fridge the next. The divider provided human blinders so that any longing glance toward the refrigerator was met with the blank canvas of the room divider. It also made it awkward for me to get up and navigate around the divider, providing an actual physical obstacle to keep me in place.

🌅 Develop a morning ritual

Take time for yourself in the morning before you start working. Since you work in the same space you live, you need to assure yourself that you have time for you before the workday begins. When you report to an office the time in your home is insulated from the pressures of the workday, so you naturally get some time to yourself (granted you don’t snooze your alarm one too many times and wake up late for a meeting). When you work from home there’s a risk of losing this time, which results in feelings of resentment or fear of your workday because it’s inescapable and ever-present.

You might find yourself staying in bed knowing that your workday starts the moment you leave your bedroom and head to the living room where your workstation is set up. Make sure you have at least an hour in the morning to read, relax, or otherwise enjoy some time for yourself before your workday begins.

⏱️ Start and quit the same time each day

Time is one way to keep work life under control while also making sure your days stay consistently productive. I learned that even with the freedom to work whenever I wanted, I missed the consistency of starting and stopping work at the same time each day. Sure, sleeping in and getting in front of the computer whenever I felt so compelled was nice for a week or so but it wasn’t an enjoyable way to live. Conversely, at the end of the day it’s easy to be tempted to work just one more hour to get further down your to-do list. One hour can easily turn into two and before you know it your workday is spilling over into your leisure time and you have no safe haven to recharge. Even if your schedule is the same as your previous in-office work schedule (which it likely will be for most), decide the times you will begin and end work and stay consistent with that mandate to enforce the habit despite the new environment.

👔 Dress for work (even though you aren’t at the office)

I know, I know - one of the most coveted upsides of working from home is working from sweatpants. However, what you’re wearing is just as effective a signal of mindset as is the morning commute we’re trying to substitute. I used to rock a t- shirt all day and then wear the same clothes into the evening. I got comfort all day but I lost the satisfaction of taking my shoes and socks off after a long day. Costuming is a thing. Your mind can’t help but react to the fact that you spent time and effort putting on a new outfit.

If you don’t feel like ironing anything before you sit at your home workstation, you can try a more subtle but effective hack. Initially, I bought some of those blue light blocking glasses  (non-prescription; I don’t wear glasses) solely as a way to costume up for work. For me, when headphones and glasses are on, I’m "work Matt." Then, at 5pm PST (my quitting time intention) I take them off and become "leisure Matt." Sounds weird but your brain is surprisingly easy to hack with these kinds of rituals if made into habits. These days I just dress up like I'm going to an office, collared shirt, pants - whatever - and fight the temptation to work all day in sweatpants. It will affect your work (you know you’re in sweatpants even if the person on the other end of the call doesn’t) and it will rob you of a critical tool to transition in and out of the work mindset.

📝 Create a to-do list for each day

I find writing a to-do list to be an effective and valued buffer before diving head first into the requirements of the workday. Taking some time to assume a high-level perspective on what I need to do - listing critical items and prioritizing them - has served me well not just as a way to organize tasks but to ease my psyche into the workday ahead. I use a physical paper list because its tactile properties make it a definitive source of truth amidst so many digital lists and task management platforms. I still use digital tools, but as collaboration tools to let others know what I have done, not as the way I set daily expectations of myself.

🥪 Take breaks, including snacks and a lunch break mid day

During the workday in an office you take breaks throughout the day and you usually take a lunch break. When working from home you might feel like a slacker taking a break because you’re already home hanging out, but you aren’t home hanging out. You’re in the middle of your workday. You’re overcompensating for the false perception of comfort that comes with working from home and trying to work 8 hours straight. This isn’t sustainable or healthy and it will make it impossible to detach your workday from your living space. Take your lunch break, enjoy it, and take other smaller breaks throughout the day (2 or 3, let’s say) to remind yourself that you’re not handcuffed to your desk, you’re working there because you are voluntarily putting effort toward a better future for yourself, your customers, and the fellow members of your organization.

😊 Talk to other humans

When I worked from home, social isolation was definitely a problem and another reason why I eventually decided to work at a shared office space. The major difference between the present situation and when I was working from home was that I could freely wander to the local coffee shop or bar to satisfy needs to feel the collective energy of other human beings. I haven’t extensively tested the efficacy of digital / phone interaction to supplant the yearning for in-person human interaction, but I say it’s time for technology to redeem itself as a tool for connecting humans. Have a question or a need to collaborate on something? Give them a call. Set up a video chat. Say hi. Tools like Slack (when the Giphy app is enabled) makes IM collaboration a blast but don’t underestimate the satisfaction that comes with hearing tone of voice or seeing facial expressions. At Tangible Value, we do video calls with all customers and partners brave enough to turn their cameras on.

Remember when people used to sit across the table from a friend, looking at their phone instead of interacting with the human in front of them? Here’s a situation where we’re physically isolated but can use the same technology to re-connect us. Funny how perspective works.

🧘‍♀️ Create a ritual to transition yourself out of work mode

Decide your own quittin’ time and develop a done-with-work ritual that works for you. This can be anything. Maybe you stretch, meditate, or go for a walk. Change out of your work clothes now that you’ve earned those sweatpants. Don’t just try to relax right after you send your last email. I don’t know why, but it’s really hard. Something like saying out loud that you’re going to stop eating pistachios, which I can yell as loud as I want while still cracking and shoving green morsels into my mouth. Instead, I have to put the bag down, seal it, empty my overflowing shell bowl, and put it in the sink. Now life without a mouthful of pistachios can begin. The same is true of your workday - you must create transitional periods to ease your mind in and out of each space. I don’t know how long it should be, but consider your usual commute as a guide. Exercise is a great option as well and I often finish my workday and go for a quick run to shake off the work psyche.

🛀 Accept the value and importance of leisure time

Leisure time is important. Period. I completely lost sight of that at one point while building the business; everything seemed so urgent and important. Relaxing seemed like a luxury I couldn’t afford. Even though I’m still heavily focused on building my business and am fully aware of the great potential that lies with this effort, I’ve come to realize that my effectiveness is tied to my ability to let my mind rest, to absorb new thoughts, to entertain myself in productive ways, and to feed my creativity by listening and imagining instead of telling or planning. Your interests outside of work fuel your workday more than you know. They’re what make you a unique and valuable member of a team. Learning this is a hidden and unsuspecting piece of knowledge that will keep your mind sharp and your work a consistent well of productivity.

Keep this in mind as you end your workday. Consider it your duty to your teammates and your employer to take time for yourself in whatever form that takes. Leave work behind and take confidence in the fact that your work mind is sleeping, resting, and getting stronger for the next day ahead.

Please have a happy, healthy WFH experience

I can hope for nothing more from this post that you find some inspiration to use these uncertain times as a moment to test yourself and learn just how powerful and capable your mind is when you set out to overcome change. I have no doubt that we’ll be able to stay healthy, happy, connected, and on task.

I look forward to witnessing the strength that is born out of the challenge.