Even before—was there a before?—coronavirus, about 24 percent of fulltime U.S. workers did “some or all” of their work at home. The preferred term is now working “remotely,” which sounds more professional than “working from home” but strikes my ear as a little too detached and automated. I began writing cozily from home last fall, and here is what I needed, in case it helps anyone forced into what used to be a delightful situation. (Nothing is delightful when you have no other option.)
Above all, the possibility of a latte, which for me meant a few bottles of hazelnut barista syrup (do not judge) and a frother. Also a coffee warmer, to remove the existential dread of pleasure diminishing by the second—and the temptation to gulp my pleasure all at once in order to avoid that disappointment.
Fluid gel-ink pens and stone-paper notebooks to eliminate at least the physical friction of what is now called, God help us, efforting.
A dog at my feet (which meant a stock of bribes and a really comfy dog bed, curved at the back but open in the front to avoid the claustrophobia a home office can occasion for any of us.
A plant on the window seat, for the times I missed tending to coworkers’ needs and could spritz the ivy instead.
Respect for my aging body, in the form of a Tibetan-chime timer on the computer that insists I stretch every hour. Ergonomics—use either a monitor or a spare keyboard to make your laptop kinder to you. You should be able to look straight ahead at your screen, and your forearms should not have to angle up to reach your keyboard. I am waiting for a laptop that divides itself like a reproducing amoeba or maybe goes up on a coil.
Google Keep to color-code all my scattered ideas; a Task list and electronic Post-Its and a physical notepad for varying levels of angst and urgency. Colleagues’ questions and meetings used to infuse the necessary urgency; now I am on my own.
Peace made with my limitations and those of my surroundings. It is easier to unscrew a flickering overhead light bulb than to rewire an old house. Easier to forgive the inevitable lousy writing than fret myself into paralysis every time.
Clothing a half step up from pajamas. Why is grownup garb so insistently uncomfortable? Granted, normal work clothes have come a ways from the corset, but I honestly did not realize what I was putting myself through until I stopped. After writing from home a few days in a row, dressing to go into the city feels like getting ready for a costume ball.
Incense sticks that offer a wave of fragrance, even unlit, every time I enter my office. A French economist once pointed out that far more pleasure is gained, in sum, by scattering your money across a series of fresh, tiny joys—a bouquet of flowers, a really good candle, a delicious chocolate bar—than on one-time purchases of expensive luxuries or fancy appliances you soon take for granted.
Creative pranks for the telemarketers and scammers when you forget and answer the phone.
The real challenge of working at home is creating those liminal states formerly provided by transportation. You need a way to ease into your day and a signal to leave your work in the evening. Hunger pangs are effective, but I still have not managed to overcome the temptation to go back to work after dinner. What we are talking about is a blurred, merged life with less externally imposed structure, and I relish the freedom but easily abuse it. After yet another late work session I was yet again sleepless, and my husband finally said in exasperation, “Take advantage of this! Work and rest by your body’s clock. You don’t have to get up at the crack of dawn to fight traffic across the river anymore, so if you work late, fine, sleep late the next morning. Then you’ll be able to relax and fall asleep without worrying about how little sleep you are going to get.”
I said something wan and pathetic about wanting to wake up and fix his coffee, and he gave me one of those over-the-spectacles looks, like, “We are beyond that. Don’t be an idiot.” That is when I realized the sheer force of habit, and how even emotions—a sense of time urgency, especially—can become automatic, no longer necessary but still in the way.
Slowly, I am learning. I no longer rush back from a dog walk like a guilty schoolgirl to check my voicemail or email. I am reading better books, because I have the mental energy, and I have not used my Calm app since I switched jobs. Now I welcome phone calls from friends; I suspect we each have a set point of social stimulation, and sometimes after a barrage of interviews and meetings, I was peopled out. I feel lighter and sillier; life feels more manageable without all the schlepping to and fro. Because I can decide my topics and my timing, life feels less multitasky. And, the real miracle? I cook more, sometimes even from scratch, because practical tasks are a nice reprieve when you need not squeeze them into a hasty, hungry twenty-minute window.
We all need a certain balance. Figure out how much communication and how much solitude is ideal for you, and honor that. Figure out your best times for deep thinking, concentration, idle browsing, research, mindless tasks. Keep enough in the air that you can turn to whatever suits your mood. Focus on the work itself instead of critiquing or second-guessing your performance. Create the kind of work space you need in whatever way possible, even if it involves reconfiguring a closet as a tiny hermitage. And leave your screen(s) regularly.
When normalcy returns, we may have figured out just how to balance our work lives, what works remotely and what does not (I desperately miss face-to-face interviews), and how to trust ourselves without adult supervision.