Wednesday, February 29, 2012

On Working from Home Without Losing What's Left of Your Mind

I am writing a book. I have been writing this book for what seems like the entire history of time.

At some point, the wonderful people at Scribner decided they would take a chance and agreed to publish said book, so long as I finished writing it within a respectable framework of time.

And so, when school was done, Jared and I left behind our normal-person teaching jobs and our easy Iowa life and moved back to my homeland of California. Here we started a new life, one comprised of Jared leaving every morning for his normal-person teaching job, and me staying behind for the abnormal-person work of writing a book.

Now, I think that there is a certain type of person who is perfectly suited to the bizarro-world that is having an enormous chunk of completely unstructured time with a deadline planted waaaay down at the end of it, but that person?

She is not me.

BUT! All that really means is that I have had to develop strategies to get my lazy, distractible, procrastination-prone self to do the work that needs to be done. And so, since I think that the best people to take advice from are the people who are naturally bad at something themselves, I present to you my time-tested tips on working from home without turning into a toothless hermit muttering into the darkness and plucking on a one-stringed fiddle.

Tip One: Shower and brush your teeth! This may seem obvious, but let me tell you, when you roll out of bed morning after morning to an empty house where there is no one to see you or be offended by your slovenliness, it can sometimes be hard to remember why such things are even important. Don't fall into the trap! For Heaven's sake clean yourself.

Tip Two is related: Dress yourself in some halfway decent clothing, maybe even dab some makeup on your face. Again, it's tempting to feel like it doesn't matter what you look like when you are all alone, but I'll tell you, working from home is a mind game. Looking like someone who might be seen in public is a trick that will give you a psychological edge. Besides, the UPS man will see you. He sees all.

Do you see where I'm going with this? Working from home is just like having an actual job. It's just that you are the only one around to enforce the actualness of it. It's sort of like how you have to set aside tax money from your advance because there's no one to withhold it from your paycheck and you do that, right?

<cough> moving on...

Tip Three: Designate a fixed portion of your day to the work at hand and then stick to it. Start your work when it is supposed to start, and, perhaps even more importantly, END IT when it is supposed to end. This is actually the most crucial point of this whole lecture besides brushing your teeth. Before I figured this out my entire life was lived in a fog of guilt-induced anxiety. I couldn't take pleasure in anything I did because deep down a voice would be scolding, you could be writing right now! Nothing is worse for your creativity than that stupid voice.

So, figure out what time of day you are best at what you do and then stick to that time. It will probably not be eight hours. It must be manageable and realistic if it is to work. The important part is you are not allowed to watch puppy videos during that time. You are not allowed to read blogs during that time. But when the time is up, you are to wrap up what you are doing, and then you are to leave work.

"Leaving work" is such a crucial point that it deserves its own tip. Tip Four: Dedicate a section of your house to your work that is not related to the other things that go on in your house. Best case is you have an office with a door that closes, but I realize that may be a bit of a luxury. So. If you must work on the couch in the living room, try to do your TV and puppy video watching in a chair. If you must work in your bedroom, set up a little desk for yourself, don't work in your bed. Boundaries can be very tricky to manage when you work from home, but they must be maintained if you are to hold on to your sanity and not fall into believing that every minute of your day is about your job.

work-free zone
Tip Five. Keep your house tidy, and spend some time getting it set up to be as pleasing as it can be. You are going to be spending a LOT of time in this space. Do whatever you can do to make it a place of calm and not chaos. The chaos will get you down and the UPS man will judge you.

Tip Six is the happiest. Get a dog.

Then you can walk him. This is a very very good thing to do. Moving your stiff, chair-addled body, feeling the sun on your pale face, looking at things that are three-dimentional and not part of your computer screen, these are the things that will keep you from going off the deep end. You can also talk to your dog, if you feel like it's strange that hours pass every day without the sound of any human voice.

Which brings me to Tip Seven: During the parts of your day that are not your working hours, try to have some form of human interaction. This could mean walking to a coffee shop or going grocery shopping etc, but it could also mean simply opening up your gchat window and making jokes with your sister Olivia, who has a real job in a real office, or with your friend Matt, who is also a crazy home-based writer like yourself. Just don't let these chats bleed into your working hours like I sometimes do. Be vigilant!

Tip Eight. Don't allow your online Scrabble accomplishments to stand in for actual accomplishments.
Am I the only one who does this? Don't do this.

Tip Nine. The weekends are weekends and should be treated as such. Is it Saturday? Get out of your house! Go! What are you doing sitting here looking at a computer screen? You have all week to do that. Go be around the actual people! Go on a hike! See some music! Go to a nerdy party! Whatever. Just don't let me catch you here.

Tip Ten. When the walls are closing in on you and the words you are writing are all meaningless drivel, and your dog looks like he has lost all respect for you, and you feel like throwing it all away, do two things. First, lie on the floor of your living room for ten minutes with your eyes closed and play this song.

Then pick yourself up off the floor and read this.

Then get back to work, you old so and so.

You can do this!

(top photo by Shelby Duncan)

P.S. Below are my four favorite books about the writing process. I cannot recommend them highly enough. I've also heard great things about Writing Down the Bones, but have yet to check it out. 


  1. I have found putting on a dab of makeup to be very helpful. Also a nice silky slip.

  2. All of this is exactly right but tip six is the rightest.

  3. This is such great advice. I work from home and have had to make up all sorts of ridiculous and sometimes arbitrary rules to keep my sanity and get my work done.



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...