WFH Tip #5: Blocking out the day

Imagine if you will being at your office. The ambient din of typing provides a calming, perhaps even motivating backdrop for your work. Conversations between coworkers happen throughout the day around you. A phone rings down the hall. Unless you’re front lines in IT or running the front desk, chances are good you’ve got time to get your work done throughout the day.

Now imagine your kids, the dog, and your spouse all show up to the office. The kids are running up and down the hall and can’t agree on who get’s to play with coveted toys. Your coworker Tom just sent you a message in Slack about a client that could use some help before the end of the day. Bingo needs a walk and a potty break, begging you with that face – you know the one. The next meeting is in 45 minutes and your presentation needs a little more polishing. The plumber just arrived and needs to be let in to fix the broken faucet in the kitchen. Your phone starts ringing – it’s your mother again, wanting to check in on how the family is doing and is starting to worry because you didn’t answer two hours ago when she tried to call.

Is your head spinning yet?

This my friends, is the experience of working from home every day. Our attention is a precious commodity we’re afforded only so much of each day. It’s no match for the demands of our home full of multiple people, doing completely different things under the same roof alongside our regular jobs. That is, unless we manage our attention using some simple tools.

Surviving, even thriving, takes some adjustments to how we manage our time. It takes more planning, flexibility, and communications that you’ve needed in the past.

Share and discuss the day with your family

Just as you keep in touch with your coworkers on what you’re up to, keeping your housemates appraised of your day is just as important.

Now that’s you’re all co-working under one roof, it’s important to communicate what’s happening with each other. Keeping the family informed of the changes can go a long way to keeping work effective and peace in the house.

When you work from home, there’s more of your day that impacts your family – and vise versa. A last minute important meeting, for example, might necessitate that your pets and children are tended to more actively to avoid unnecessary interruption. Your late afternoon video call might require your teenager to hold off on streaming that 4K movie until the evening. The toddler’s unexpected late nap might necessitate you using a headset and avoid talking loudly to keep the noise down.

At dinner each evening, we make an effort to discuss what’s happening the next day so everyone is on the same page. What important meetings are happening? Does anyone need to start their day early or end it late? Who’s in charge of making dinner? Any changes to the toddler nap schedule?

Block out work time on your calendar

While we can’t keep the kids, coworkers, pets, clients, and plumbers from needing our attention in the moment they need it, we can block out parts of our day for handling the most important tasks.

Historically, many of us used our calendars as a personal tool for scheduling important meetings and events. In times of yore, perhaps an assistant or a spouse was the only one who looked at or wrote things in your calendar.

Times have changed. Chances are good that your coworkers (and perhaps even clients) are looking at your calendar electronically to find time on your busy schedule. Since walking up and having a quick chat with co-workers isn’t as convenient when you’re at home, you’re also likely juggling more meetings for what used to be casual in-office conversations.

As luck would have it, we can leverage this new paradigm to our advantage.

When you know you’re going to need an hour to finish up a project, put an hour on your calendar for it. It sends a clear message that you have work to get done and need the time you’ve set aside to complete that work. You’re not available for meetings 9 hours a day, so don’t leave your calendar open 9-hours a day.

I often put time on the calendar in the afternoon to followup on client meetings from the morning.

Schedule everyday home responsibilities

Each day, our personal life routine responsibilities take a significant part of our time – just like our work responsibilities.

It’s helpful to take stock of these on your calendar and block out time for them. These are excellent opportunities for recurring events on our calendar. Here’s mine at the moment:

  1. The morning routine – (get up, get ready, feed the family)
  2. The evening routine – (making dinner + cleaning the kitchen)
  3. Family videoconference time
  4. Put the kids to bed

Once these are on my calendar, I have a clear time set aside for these important items each day. It’s a visual reminder of these responsibilities. If things need to change, I’m less likely to loose track of it and more likely to delegate those responsibilities.

Pad for the overlaps

While multi-tasking has been busted as an effective way to work, we still do it. This comes out in full view when we’re working from home and trying to balance our work and home responsibilities that overlap throughout the day.

If you have young children, naps are a great time to get work done. But, things can happen. Kids need extra attention for naps from time to time. Sure, kids who are settled into a nap routine aren’t likely to get up early or take extra time to get to sleep. They are, however, still kids. If you’re on an important meeting or have a big deadline, an unordinary nap can create a lot of stress.

When I’m on nap duty, I throw an event on my calendar that reminds me (and anyone looking at my calendar) that I can’t offer my full attention during that time as I might need to step away to tend to the kids. It’s best-effort for getting work done. So, this time is excellent for doing administrative work, catching up on lower priority projects, or light planning.

This same strategy works for when you’re expecting the phone company to show up “between Noon and 8pm”, the kids are playing in the backyard half-supervised, or are anticipating an important package delivery.

You can do this

If you’ve come to this point and are wondering “how on earth does anyone work from home with all these distractions?” – let me sum it up in one word:

Practice.

Working from home means sharing a lot of resources we take for granted in the office – peace, quiet, shared goals, dedicated workspace, etc. We’re equipped differently at home and need to coordinate more, even when it means merely putting out there what we need to accomplish for others to discover.

Don’t expect to get it right the first day, week, or even month. It takes time for the entire family to adjust. Keep at it and adjusting how you and your family make it through the day. A new normal will form, even if it’s just needed for a short time – it’s worth doing.

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

WFH Tip #4: Snacking

If working from home is your new normal, you’re likely burning extra mental energy adapting to a new normal. The foods you eat throughout the day play an important role nourishing mind and body with fuel you need to thrive. At the start, it’s easy to fall into bad snacking habits that can be difficult to break later on.

The Snack Oasis in your Kitchen

Your well-stocked kitchen offers a smorgasbord of snacking options unlike the kitchen cabinets at the office (which tend to be devoid of anything edible). Anything you could possibly eat from your kitchen is suddenly fair game for a snack during the workday. A pre-packaged granola bar, cookies, or even that leftover garlic bread from dinner last night are all fair game.

With all that available food and the freedoms of working from home, it’s very easy to fall into a pattern of over-rewarding ourselves with snacks. Send an email, grab a cookie. Finish a long conference call, enjoy some leftover birthday cake. Finish running a report, grab a bagel. Needless to say, this can lead to all sorts of bad habits and dietary side effects – not to mention mounting feelings of regret and lethargy throughout the day. 

Fortunately, there are ways to curb the snacking and make it more meaningful at the same time.

Don’t skip lunch 

Planned meals help keep us from becoming hungry quickly after long stretches of working. They’re also important for mentally breaking the day into two parts, which goes a long way to keep days from being monotonous.

Just as you prioritize your meetings and tasks, prioritize lunch in the middle of your work day. Put lunch on your calendar every day as a recurring event and do your best to stick to it.

Meetings run long, tasks take extra time, and days sometimes get really packed. It’s reasonable to be flexible with lunch, just don’t cut yourself short.

Snack when you’re actually hungry 

Snacking only when you’re actually hungry is a great way to avoid overeating throughout the day.

It’s easy to fall into a pattern of snacking out of habit as a self-reward for just about anything. Finish a long meeting, snack. Complete a task, snack. Run a report, snack. At best, you’re not going to be hungry for lunch (or dinner) and your weeks worth of snacks runs out on Tuesday.

Try keeping just a single snack at your desk for when hunger strikes. Keeping more more than a single snack at your desk is dangerous. It’s far too easy to be tempted to eat one snack for the heck of it knowing full well that another is within reach.

Have afternoon tea with your house mates 

In the age of social distancing, we still need that human connection and an occasional break from our work. In the absence of the proverbial office “water cooler”, our housemates can stand in for a very English tradition: afternoon tea.

It’s simple – sometime in the mid-to-late afternoon, grab a beverage and small snack and enjoy it together with your housemates. Take the opportunity to catch up on what’s going on with each-other.

No housemates? Setup a standing time with a friend to video conference in the afternoon for 15 mintues.

Make your own snacks 

Convenience foods are great – but nothing satisfies quite like homemade snacks. We sometimes make batches of granola, banana muffins, and protein bars at the start of the week – enough to fill the snacking need through Fridays.

In addition to generally being healthier, as you gain experience making your own snacks – you can adjust your favorite recipes to make them more interesting. Homemade snacks are almost always more cost effective, too.

It’s all about self control

Long term, it’s important to build up your self-regulation and resiliency capacity – something you’ll need a lot of when working from home. Putting your snacking habits in check is a powerful way to help build this muscle. 

WFH Tip #3: Curate your music

Listening to music provides a rhythm to work to – a soundtrack for your productivity. When you’re at home, having a soundtrack helps avoid being distracted by the soundscape of your home environment and instead provide you with some control to use to your advantage.

Curate rather than consume

While it’s really easy to simply put on Pandora or one of the many Spotify stations available – it’s far more enriching and exciting to build your own playlist of songs. Playlists provide an opportunity to pull together the songs of your choice to suit a mood, a specific task, or even just concentrating.

One of my favorite playlists brings together all my favorite pop songs with positive lyrics and powerful chord progressions. This playlist is pulled out when I’m preparing to train clients and need inspiration for keeping my training upbeat.

Another I go to often is a playlist of instrumental fusion jazz + metal tunes (yes, it’s a thing) to listen to while I’m working through a tedious set of afternoon tasks. The tempos, down-tuned guitars, and absence of lyrics help me to focus on what I’m doing and keep at it.

Digging through the archive

Albums – particularly those on Records, Cassette Tapes, and CD’s – offer another curated experience that you can’t get from your own playlist: A set of tracks that was selected by the artist to be played in a specific order. I’m guessing you might have a stash of your favorites hidden away. It can be fun to pop an old album on the turntable or in that dusty tape player over lunch and take a trip down audio memory lane.

As your days working from home start to take shape, consider creating two or three playlists to help you get through different parts of your day. Don’t forget to add new songs into your mixes and take out the ones that you can’t stand anymore. As time goes on, you might just find yourself with a set of really killer playlists worth sharing.

WFH Tip #2: Clean you Window

Working from home is isolating. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been working remotely for 10 years or 10 hours – the lack of people working alongside you is one of the first things you will come to miss.

The feeling of isolation can’t entirely be addressed by conference calls and online chats – our minds are well adjusted to cues normally found in our environment of other people. Those cues – such as voices, the sounds of moving about, seeing movement of other beings from the corner of our eye – simply aren’t reproducible.

So, we need to adapt to our space and learn new ways to thrive in it.

A great way to combat isolation is to make new connections with the outside world. Perhaps the simplest way we can make such a connection is to simply look out the window. Despite the lack of people moving about, there remains nature – birds, squirrels, the sunrise, rain – all things that are happening right outside throughout the day.

If this is the first time you’ve worked from home – you may notice your windows are quite filthy. After all, most of us only clean them once or twice a year – if ever. Take 15 minutes to clean the window you look out most from your workspace at home – inside and out. Some windows (such as vinyl operable windows) can be easily removed, cleaned on both sides, and reinstalled from inside your house – often with no tools.

Should working at home become your new normal over the months to come, make time at least once a month to clean your window. Immediately, you’ll start to see more and appreciate what’s right outside.

WFH Tip #1: Working at Home with Kids

Kids aren’t born knowing that they can’t barge in at any time when you are working. They see Mom and/or Dad at a desk typing away as an opportunity for grabbing our attention.

What is work?

Little do they know yet, that what we’re doing when we’re working is so much more than just sitting idly, staring at screen and randomly pressing buttons on a keyboard. They haven’t yet grasped what work is for grown-ups. To them, work is math assignments, cleaning their room, or sweeping the floor.

In this moment, when they want our attention, there is an opportunity to educate them and help them to develop an understanding and respect for our work time. It’s not effective to instruct them to “leave mommy alone when she’s on the computer” (honestly, when does this approach ever work?)

Sharing what you do

Instead, share your work with them. Share with them the tasks you do as part of your job. Let them know you meet with people all day, work on complicated reports, build software – whatever it is you do. Help them connect by keeping it at their level.

At some point, they’re going to calmly ask you the golden question: Why do you work? This is your opportunity (and possibly only chance) to share with them WHY you work – the basis for respecting your work time space.

Here is what I shared with my 8 year old in this moment:

I work because I like to help people learn how to share and teach each other (I help clients build Intranets for a living for those who don’t know) and in return, my company pays me for my work so our family can pay for the things we need – a home, food, heat – and yes, even Minecraft and Netflix. I do my best work when I have quiet and no distractions.

That helped her build an appreciation for what I’m doing and its importance to our family. It started a dialog over time about what work is, and its place in our lives, and life/work balance.

Keeping the calm

With many of you working from home alongside our children to help slow the spread of the pandemic – creating calm, cooperative, respectful environments in our homes is more important than ever. Turn the pandemic response into an opportunity for your family to grow together.