Staying Sane When You Work From Home

August 28, 2006

Some time ago Mark Hollander from Coaching Creative Minds, in a comment on this post, asked me

What advice would you offer to those individuals who work at home? They have to *force* themselves out of the house. And they sometimes report it to me as thought it were a personal short-coming. Might they consider this it a “good mental health habit” like “brushing your teeth”. There’s no judgment there. You have to do it or you get cavities. You have to go out regularly if you work at home to keep things in balance?

Working from home is an interesting one…On one hand you can work all day in your pyjamas – and as someone who has occasionally done that – there’s definite merit in a dress down Monday to Friday 🙂 Apart from everything that’s been written about the lack of commuting time, reduction in expenses etc etc the main challenge is managing boundaries.
I discovered this for myself when writing up my Masters’ dissertation and now that I’m writing up a paper to send to my PhD supervisor – I get very creative about distraction and procrastination strategies. Because I don’t have a group of peers or colleagues around me to chat with the day sometimes disappears and before I know it I have written 4 blog posts, done the laundry and have no word count worth talking about when it comes to my main task. So far so normal eh?
The real issue comes when it’s past 6 O’Clock and technically personal time. The guilt kicks in “I should have more done”; “I can’t go out and meet friends because I’ve wasted the day” and the inner dialogue proceeds. (I’m not assuming that everyone’s boundary is 6pm, but I do think there needs to be a defined time between work and play!)
This entire conversation in my head can turn quite pathological – and I have also seen it with clients. The inability to manage the boundary between work and personal time means they blend together with neither being productive. We need the water cooler conversations, the trips for a coffee in our work lives as social encounters that get us out of our own self referring worlds. Sometimes our pathological chat can lead to a self perpetuating perfectionism that never gets addressed – comparing what we’re doing to what someone else is struggling with builds camaraderie and can be sustaining in the tough times – those who work from home need to develop a system for sustenece in the absence of those casual work rituals.
So in answer to Mark’s question I would say:

  • Strategically Socialise: Working from home, particularly if you work alone can drive you crazy – we all need social interation so you are going to have to deliberately and strategically manufacture that for yourself if you are a home worker. Pick up the phone, make an arrangement to meet a friend for coffee or lunch.
  • Prioritise the Personal: It’s never “if” you go out of the house if you are working from home it’s always “when” – you’d never stay tied to your chair in the office at work? Why would you do that if your office happens to be in your home? Schedule a workout at the gym or the pool into your diary directly before or after your work day and don’t negotiate on that unless it’s a world war 3 emergency.
  • Creatively Rejuvenate: If the work is not flowing give yourself permission to take a guilt free hour/day off. Unproductive time off is simply guilt time and leads to more pathologising and no creative rejuvenation.
  • Ritualise: Create rituals around the beginning and ending of your work day – this is particularly pertinent if you don’t have an official work space in your home. I sometimes burn different aromatherapy oils to transition from one space to another. Clients of mine dress in a particular way if they are in work mode and another when they are not – simply to create a boundary.

There’s also a great post on this topic over at Escape from Cubicle Nation.

9 People reacted on this

  1. There is a general assumption here that working from home is more or less the same as working from an outside base and that it should be a nine to five thing. While for some this may be what they want to do, others may make, or be forced to make, different choices. The key, as I see it, is to ensure that you are not on a threadmill whether you are working from home or not. I agree, therefore, with the various break strategies you suggest.
    Might I add one other possibility – join and participate in a virtual community. My personal bias is naturally towards, but there may be one catering for your personal or professional interest. Of course you must then be carefut that it does not become just another work diversion!
    Of course personal contact is best, but if it is not always possible my suggestion could be Paddy, the next best thing!

  2. When I was juggling diss-work and teaching, I’d often GO SOMEWHERE to do my work-at-home stuff. I found, for instance, that it was easier to concentrate on grading papers if I did them in the school library before coming home from teaching, and/or it was easier to focus on diss-work if I made “work dates” where I’d take my laptop & write at a library, coffee shop, or cafe: anywhere away from the usual distractions of home.
    Although this time wasn’t officially “social time,” I did find it cheering to be around other human beings: even if you didn’t talk to the other folks at the library or coffee shop, you felt there were other people in the world who were working on things, something easy to forget when you’re working at home alone. (I used to joke that the DOG was the only person I had to talk to during my loneliest stint of diss-writing, when I was stuck at home without a car in a rural New Hampshire sub-division: talk about a desperate housewife!)
    And under the category of “strategic socializing,” I found it helpful to have a “study buddy” in a nearby town who was also working on a dissertation, albeit in a completely different field from mine. We’d meet for lunch every month or so to talk about life, the progress (or lack thereof) we’d made on our dissertations, etc. It was a definite highlight to have someone other than the dog to talk to…and because we both were working on the same kind of project, we could commiserate about the unique challenges of producing academic writing in geographic isolation.

  3. Frank – I’m dangerous pottering about online – it’s a total distraction for me. I started blogging as a diversionary tactic when I was writing my Masters! I’m currently looking for my “somewhere” to do my work at home stuff and so far I haven’t been too successful, but I’ll keep trying.

  4. Good post Annette, and I recognise many of the home-working challenges you describe. Especially that end of the day guilt if you haven’t had a productive day, or the to-do list is particulary long and stubborn. It’s that ‘if I don’t work late, i’m a slacker and don’t desreve to succeed’ feeling. Hard one to get around. But, haveing read your post, I’m now scheduling in some strategic socialising, heading to a cafe with my laptop for a change of scene, and promising myself a trip to the swimming pool at 6.05pm.

  5. I sure recognise all challenges of working from a home office, which I did for 12 years and have just – with mixed feelings – abandoned for a 9 to 5-type job in a social/community environment. I was always conscious of the wisdom of the many good tips you and others suggest here to counter the lack of division between work and rest of my life, but always failed dismally to put them into practice on an on-going basis!
    Social isolation and inability to get head space away from my work were the main reasons for me to wind down my independent money-making venture and become an employee. Lack of access to broadband was another factor – I was finding dial-up on slow speeds increasingly frustrated both my need for human contact through virtual communities and my need to work efficiently on a level playing field with my clients and competitors.
    So far, I love the novelty of getting dressed for work and meeting real people everyday, and truly leaving work behind when I finish for the day. On the other hand, I do lament being a slave to the clock, having to turn up on time…..
    How you organise your work life is a series of trade-offs and at different times, different priorities kick in!

  6. Great comment Eimear – I’d love to hear more about your transition to full time work after such a long period working for yourself..Is your new job similar to what you did before? and what’s it like having a boss?

  7. My new job is totally and utterly different – though both have a lot to do with paper and print! I switched from editing/graphic design/print production to working in the local public library!!
    At the moment, I’m in a relatively small library with four staff in total and we normally work in teams of two. I’ve been lucky with the people I am working with; my colleagues and ‘boss’ are very easy-going. And I have broadband on my desk so I go all over the place when its not busy! I find shelving books is quite zen, and my exchanges with library users are mostly pleasant and often fun. I love the order in the library – unlike my home/office where I was constantly struggling with where to put things.
    This is a major change for me, and one I had huge doubts about beforehand: doubts about making the application and I almost pulled out before the interview. But I knew – for my sanity – I had to make a change in my working life. I would always have wondered about it and might not have got the opportunity again. I met some resistance from my siblings – those in high-flying high-earnings jobs – but for me, money is no longer a motivator.
    Funny enough, my attendance at a strategic marketing training course for my small business was pivotal in making me realise that my heart was no longer in what I was doing. So, there you go…..!

  8. Thanks for coming back and posting again Eimear – it’s fantastic that you’ve managed to find something that really interests you and also something you’re happy with. I think you’re so right about the trade offs – what’s important now may not be so in a few months/years time etc…There’s a lot to think about in your comment – pressure from family; integrating into a new structured work envionment; working out what makes us happy – Thanks so much for being so generous!

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