Much to my surprise and my roommates’ consternation, I have somehow managed to work from home for an entire year. There are a lot of upsides to leading a laissez-faire life of couch-writing. I never have to commute, which is a true blessing, considering how often all the New York City subways experience systemwide meltdowns during rush hour. I rarely put on real pants. I can make doctor’s appointments in the middle of the day, or at least I could if I had health insurance that covered a doctor’s appointment.
On the other hand, working from home is often claustrophobic and isolating. This is particularly true in the winter, when it gets dark just when you’ve worked up the courage to brave the outside. I once went five whole days without leaving my apartment in daylight. I swore after last winter I’d spend the next one in a warmer, sunnier climate if I was still freelancing, but here I am, December oncoming, anticipating another three months of self-imprisonment with no one to talk to but my computer. If that sounds depressing, it’s because it IS.
Still, there are lots of ways to stave off despair if you work from home. Here are a few of them.
Keep to a schedule
This is a much less important step if you have a regular gig with set hours, but if your workday is a little more amorphous, it’s still important to create some structure. “One of the biggest downsides of working from home is lack of routine,” says Goali Saedi Bocci, a psychologist and author of The Social Media Workbook for Teens: Skills to Help You Balance Screen Time, Manage Stress, and Take Charge of Your Life. “If your schedule is not as structured, you can end up sleeping in all day.”
Saedi Bocci suggests going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, since changing your sleep hours can screw with your natural circadian rhythm and leave you feeling sluggish and slightly depressed. It’s also a good idea to schedule a regular work start time and work end time, so your brain can separate work from leisure no matter how stagnant the space. “It’s important to make work time, where you’re saying, ‘Okay, I’m going to work on this from 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.,” says Dr. Alan Cavaiola, a professor at Monmouth University. “Setting up distraction-free time is really important.”
Other tips from work-from-home friends include giving yourself a half hour or so of free time before starting work (make coffee, breakfast, read the paper, go for a quick stroll, etc.) to get your head in the zone, and opening windows/shades in your designated work space to brighten things up a bit before you dive into business.
If you need further tips on how to structure your work-from-home day, we’ve got you covered.
Get out of bed
I have spent more than a few work days in bed. This is a mistake. Your brain needs to be able to separate work from not-work, and awake time from sleep. “Keep your work space separate from your living space,” Caviaola says. “Have a little office space that’s set aside for work.” You don’t need to dedicate an entire room to work, though if you can, you may find that helpful.The bottomline is that when you start your work day, you should do it from a desk, or the kitchen table, or your couch, or your living room windowsill, if you prefer to work while standing with the sun streaming in (highly recommend!). Bed is for sleep and Bodyguard bingeing. Get out of bed.
I am writing this very post in the very outfit I just slept in, but this is why I am a slob with a sink full of dirty dishes and relentless insomnia. Experts always recommend that if you’re working from home, you should get dressed as if you are not. This does not mean you need to sit on your couch in a suit, but you should, at the very least, put on pants and a shirt, and potentially brush your hair. Saedi Bocci suggests donning an outfit you’d feel comfortable wearing outside. “Maybe you’re wearing joggers, but you should wear something that at least makes you feel more put together,” she says. “Wear some basics that can go out door.” Otherwise, you’re a) less likely to leave your house at any point and b) more likely to go a solid week in the same pair of dirty leggings, not that I’ve ever done that!
Find a working group
Just as you’d make work friends at a new job, I’ve made a bunch of new freelance buddies in my work-from-home year, and we have regular hangouts to break up some of the isolation and monotony that can come with couch-working. Usually I find writing from a coffee shop distracting, but working with one or two other people means I can go to the bathroom or buy a scone without having to take my computer with me, plus I tend to get more work done when there’s someone else typing away and tacitly shaming me into following suit. “There is something about that accountability that’s helpful,” Saedi Bocci says.
If a coffee shop doesn’t work for you, or you can’t afford to join a co-working space, see if you can post up at someone else’s house for a few hours, or invite people to yours. If you can’t find anyone else to co-work with, see if you can start a group chat with your friends on Slack or on text—not to distract you, so much as to have a couple of people to check in with from time to time, or to cheer you on when you’re struggling to get through a difficult stretch.
Put on the television
Or the radio, or a Beethoven playlist, or an 11-hour YouTube video featuring ocean sounds. I find that it’s helpful to have noise on in the background, not just because you feel a little less isolated having sounds around you, but because it drowns out the sounds of your upstairs neighbors or leaking faucet or unending car alarm. Unwanted ambient noise is annoying in offices, but there’s something extra annoying about hearing it all day when you work from home, in part because it feels like there’s no escape from it. I have very nearly started a war with the music-blasting taco shop underneath me, and I cannot promise the current detente will hold out.
With that in mind, I like to work with an old movie on in the background, or an episode of Cheers or Friends—something I’ve seen a million times and don’t need to concentrate on, but can glance up and watch for a couple minutes when I need a break from writing. I have watched My Best Friend’s Wedding no fewer than five times since I started freelancing.
Other people prefer music, with or without lyrics. “When I’m working from home, I put classical music on in the background,” Cavaiola says. Play around with what works for you, and switch it up every so often to give your brain a new challenge.
Keep a planner
If you’re disorganized, working from home is productivity’s death sentence. With no boss sneaking peeks at your computer screen, and no set start/end to the day, it is all too easy to waste an entire morning on Twitter and then get stuck trying to make a deadline at the last minute. This also holds true for chores outside of work. Though working from home technically makes it easier to, say, clean your house or do some laundry, knowing you can always put it off until later makes it more likely that you will, until one of your roommates or friendly house mice sends you a polite but firm text.
“Working from home tends to be a win/win for people who are well-organized. These are people who can set goals and objectives and stick to those schedules,” Cavaiola says. “You take somebody who’s a bit disorganized, that would probably be really difficult for them because they’re just not used to setting goals and working toward goals, and being able to organize their time well.”
If you fall into the former camp, good for you! If you’re in the latter, though, consider investing in a planner or making a bullet journal. Keep a checklist of your to-dos, and give yourself a small reward (a piece of chocolate, a gold star sticker) when you cross off the whole list each day. “I use a planner every day,” Saedi Bocci says. “I write down what my goals are for the next day. A planner can really help to keep you accountable.”
When I started working from home, I expected to have more time to exercise, since I wouldn’t be chained to a desk or beholden to a typical 9 to 6 schedule. Technically, that turned out to be true, but I have also found I move less as a whole, since I no longer walk to and from a train stop or take a stroll around the block on lunch breaks. Do carve out time to work out, and stick to that allotted time—if you plan to go to the gym first thing in the morning, for instance, don’t decide, when your alarm goes off, that you can just do it later. Trust me, you won’t.
Get the hell out of your house!!!!!!!!
This is, in my humble and tested opinion, the single most effective way to keep from driving yourself insane. When you work from your home, it is way too easy to never leave it—day turns into night, night turns into six hour Great British Baking Show binges, and suddenly it’s bedtime and it’s been a full day since you left your couch or spoke to anyone other than your radiator. That’s fine every so often, but when you do it for days on end it’s a nightmare.
In good weather, I like to go for long walks in the middle of the day, right when I start to feel my productivity drop. If I don’t have time for a long walk, I might take a quick stroll to a bakery to pick up some lunch or a snack, instead of making food at home or ordering something on Seamless.
In bad weather, I have a habit of talking myself out of going outside, but you should not! Bundle up, walk around the block, walk in circles, walk to a coffee shop, walk to the drugstore, walk to the train and walk back without getting on. Some people find it helpful to go outside first thing in the morning, before sitting down to work; I prefer midday, but whatever you choose, do it before it gets dark. GET OUTTTTTTT. “Schedule breaks. When you have those breaks, get out of the house,” Cavaiola says. “Take a walk, maybe go have coffee someplace, where you’re going to have contact with others. This way you’re not totally isolated.”
And when you return to your couch/desk/floor, the walls will feel like they’re closing in slightly less.
Do not disappear
If you work remotely, it is easy to be forgotten. This is both true if you are one of the few employees who does not go into the office, and if you are one of many. If you miss meetings, be sure to pitch ideas via email or other correspondence, or attend virtually if possible. If you, say, work in a different city from the main branch of your office, suggest a company-sponsored meetup with other employees in your area, or plan a trip to visit headquarters when you can. Weigh in on group conversations on Slack. Tell jokes. Make yourself known (but not annoying.) This will make you more visible (and potentially important) to your boss, and it will make you feel less isolated.
Set social activities
When I had a job in an office, I looked forward to spending nights at home alone with a good movie and maybe a glass of wine. But those nights are way less pleasurable when you work from home, which is especially tough in the winter, when other people are less likely to jump at the chance to go out on a weeknight. “Making sure that you have social outlets is a really big part of [working from home],” Saedi Bocci says. “You can go to a yoga studio or to a gym, or join a church or synagogue. Going out and seeing people helps to protect your sanity.”
I recommend having a few regular weekly activities so you have some set social interactions to look forward to. For instance, I go to the same Pilates class every Sunday, and I know the other regulars. I go to a weekly happy hour. You could also attend a weekly trivia night, or join a skeeball league, or take a Spanish class, just to fill up your calendar. You may have to beg your friends to get dinner with you the rest of the time, but if they bail, at least you’ve got your standing commitments.
Remember that the grass is always greener
When I worked in an office, all I wanted was to stay at home on my couch. Six months into staying at home on my couch, I spent six hours crying on it because I couldn’t take the solitude. I do not miss the commute, or having to fit in errands on my lunch break, or never being able to go to the dentist, or having my boss ask me every fifteen seconds why I was giggling when I was supposed to be blogging about a murder (probably I was watching a cute animal video because sometimes you need a break from murder), or feeling like my soul climbed out of my body at 2 p.m. when the coffee wore off but I still had to be at my desk for four more hours.
Now, I can take long walks whenever I want. I’m way more productive since I work when I’m feeling most inspired, outside the constraints of a 9 to 6. I save money on lunch and MetroCards and after-work beers I don’t need. I miss the camaraderie of an office, but I don’t miss the politics. Sometimes the best way to deal with working from home is to take note of the benefits. Once you’re back to a regular work schedule/life, after all, you’ll miss the midday naps.