Never have I ever wanted to clean my grout more than when procrastinating work. Sitting at the 29”x29” Ikea table in my living room/kitchen, facing a deadline of my own design, I had a thought. Not one soul will notice if I don’t finish this essay.
That’s when the negotiation began. I reminded myself that it is important to keep the promises I make to myself, and that I set up that deadline for a reason. Well, I told myself, the grout isn’t going to clean itself. I replied that this reasoning was a fancy way of avoiding the mental speed bump that arises whenever I sit down to write.
My brain went back and forth a few more times until I made my choice. I cleaned the grout.
In my early days of self-employment, this scene was common. It took time for my brain to adjust its habits. Prior to this moment, my apartment was exclusively a chill zone and I had a boss who told me when to be where and what to do. Now? Those lines were all blurred.
It took me a while to adjust and figure out what I needed when I suddenly found myself working from home, aka alone most of the time. At first, it was bliss. Then, I realized how much time I had to myself and that any structure my days may or may not have was completely on me to manufacture and uphold.
Even now, I’ve had to make some adjustments. As I’m sure anyone who is self-employed can attest, working from home in a pandemic is different. My home is now my gym, office, recreation and relaxation area, restaurant and bar, and sleepy time area. And it’s all of 450 square feet.
I’ve spent the first two weeks of quarantine noticing what works and what doesn’t, and the one thing you need when working from home is boundaries. This is not different from what is necessary during non-pandemic times. It is, I would say, even more important now. Dr. John Townsend, one of the authors of Boundaries, wrote on Instagram yesterday, “Our brains crave order. Set up your daily and weekly routine.”
Part of the beauty of taking the time to set up some semblance of a routine (boundaries on your time) is that it gives your brain fewer decisions to make throughout the day. This increases your overall bandwidth and allows you to focus your energy elsewhere. Today, I’m going to walk you through a couple of boundaries that have worked really well for me.
Don’t try to implement everything perfectly all at once (guilty). Instead, pick the area you want to start with and then go from there. Read all the way to the end to find out which one I recommend starting with.
Set Up Boundaries
If you’re like me, your tendency might be to think I will be able to do all the things now that I’m home all the time! Unless you have an army of woodland creatures assisting you, I would like to gently pry this delusion from your hands. Two weeks in, perhaps you are coming to this realization on your own. We might have more time, but our habits and tendencies are still there. You may find that time was not the real thing keeping you from working on that big project you’ve been putting off. It was one of the first things I realized when I became self-employed.
So, to minimize distraction and maximize productivity, be a little anal with your time allocation. Know that you have the freedom to stray when you need to, but this is a really great way to begin to notice where you’re self-sabotaging and spinning your proverbial wheels. This year I started using a Full Focus Planner, and it’s been a powerful tool for helping me make meaningful progress in the most important areas of my business and life. One thing I really like? You can only set three big goals for the day (and week, and quarter). I used to over-plan and not have a clear sense of what I was working toward. Honing in on what was essential was a vital first-step in creating meaningful structure.
Mayhaps you are one of these mythical creatures who enjoys getting up early. A coach of mine gets up at 4am every day, like, by choice. But if you find yourself to be more of a night owl, this section is for you. Two years later this is still a struggle for me. If I’m not meeting another person at a specific time, it is very difficult for me to drag myself out of bed.
I used to be really hard on myself about this. Ok, many days, I still am. But I’ve noticed that my brain is simply less functional in the morning versus the afternoon. So I’ve given myself permission to get my full 8 hours of sleep, but to also put in a full day of work. Most days, arriving at my office around 11 and leaving around 8 works well. Working from home? That snooze button becomes even more tempting.
Mayhaps this is a good place to set up some accountability. If you have a roommate, you could team up and decide to both get up at a particular time. If you live alone, you could ask a friend if you could text them at a specific time to let them know you’re up. Check out these tips from a recent New York Times op-ed on becoming a morning person.
Plan time to reflect and set a timer.
I like to start my day in prayer and journaling. I set a timer for 20 minutes, during which I read a short devotional and write out a couple things that stood out and riff off those to guide my prayer time. Once I finish that, I set a timer for 5 minutes during which I sit quietly and listen. I only recently implemented this time in my morning routine, so I gave myself permission to start small. Being still is more challenging that it sounds. When I’m working from home, I then set a timer for 15 minutes and read a non-fiction book.
If you’re Type B, this timer thing might sound totally psycho. But I found that before I started using timers, my brain would drift aimlessly and I would inevitably end up thinking about work. Limiting my time has trained my brain to focus, and incentivized me to gently catch myself when I find my mind wandering too far afield.
Perhaps at the office you would have felt weird taking 5-10 minutes here and there to move around. Guess what? Unless your boss is spying on you via your webcam, they will not know if you do this, or if you take a full thirty minutes for lunch instead of shoveling down your food at your desk. What if you used the timer method from the previous section here? 55 minutes for working and 5 minutes to move around. That might sound bonkers to you, but just try it out. Take a moment to stretch, go for a walk around the block (or pace around your living room, I guess), and generally check in with your body. Are your shoulders tense? Are you breathing deeply?
Maybe a 90 minute work cycle would work better for you (85 minutes of work and 5 minutes of movement). Whatever you decide, you might be surprised how this will help your productivity. Like I mentioned before, something about setting a timer helps your brain focus in. You might find that dedicating 55 minutes to a specific task helps you complete it in less time than you thought it would take.
My voice teacher recently challenged me to alternate between my work table and a make-shift standing desk (aka my baker's rack/bar area). I mentioned that I am gradually becoming a human question mark and asked for some tips on helping with posture. A change in perspective can also help with focus. Try it out and let me know what you think!
Schedule Social Media Time
I’m still figuring out this one, to be honest. I know it’s important to moderate my social media time, but it’s so tempting to pick up my phone and scroll. A good first step is to notice when you reach for your phone, or open a particular page on your computer. Notice what impulse you’re listening to. Are you bored? Anxious? Curious? Then consider what is a reasonable limit to place. Twice a day for 15 minutes? Thrice daily for 30 minutes?
Designate chairs or areas for work
If you’re like me, you don’t have a ton of extra space. I’m now in a one bedroom, so I was able to put in a small table and chair. But I noticed that when I tried to do both my reflection time and work in that chair, I had a hard time staying on track during my reflection time. So I moved my reflection time to a different chair. It wasn’t an automatic fix (hence the timer system), but it's helped a lot. Some people have designated rooms for different things, but if you’re in a limited amount of space, start by thinking about using different seats for different things. Or even different areas of your couch. Pro tip: Never ever work in bed. Even if you only have a couch or the floor as an alternative.
Make Plans to Get Out
Before I was freelancing, I was working in a restaurant. So when I made the switch, my introverted self was all about spending all of that time alone. If you’ve ever worked in the service industry, you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, it has a way of convincing you that humans are garbage and there is no hope for humanity.
Once that wore off, I started to notice that it was not healthy to be in my own head that much of the time. Things got weird. It drove me to intentionally schedule time with other people and take responsibility for my social life. If you're looking for creative ways to stay sane and connect with friends virtually, check out "How to Stay Sane in Quarantine."
Think about what would be ideal for you and try to work towards it. We can practice social distancing without isolating ourselves from necessary human interaction.
Have a Solid Out Time
It might feel counter-intuitive, but I think that this is the best place to start. Decide at what time you’re going to stop working and start focusing on keeping that promise to yourself. You might find it helpful to give yourself an action associated with stopping work as a signal to your brain to stop thinking about work. This has been the hardest adjustment for me, because my brain naturally wants to mull over work problems and solutions always and forever.
You could do a stretching or yoga routine, change clothes, turn off your work area lamp and physically move yourself. If you have colleagues, let them know you will not be checking your email or answering work calls after this time. Unless you are a medical professional or governmental official, it can probably wait. If your colleagues have a problem with this, it is probably more a reflection of their own boundary issues and time management than yours.
Everything is going to feel urgent for a while, and perhaps many of us are still in survival mode and stuck in living from a reactive place. But it’s better to mentally prepare ourselves for the possibility that we’ll be in this for quite a while. Having a solid out time that we mostly stick to will help us go the distance here. If we are able to give ourselves margin and rest (looking at all the non-essential workers like me), we can avoid burning out and build a sustainable work flow that will continue to serve us long after this pandemic has passed.
Balance Discipline and Grace
This is not something you will master during your quarantine time. Or perhaps in your lifetime. I don’t know, maybe there are grace ninjas out there who are the epitome of shalom. But this perfectionist is not one of them.
Setting up structure gives you an ideal to work toward. It is not, however, the end all be all determiner of whether you are winning at quarantined life or not. If you start getting worked up over all you aren’t getting done, come back to your breath. Take a beat to look back at your 3 goals for the day. Set a timer. And do one thing. Then the next.
What about you? What boundaries are you finding helpful right now? Leave a comment and let me know!