Have a work box
If you don’t have a separate room, you can still create space for yourself. “If you’re working on the kitchen table, then the most simple thing is to have a big box. Shove everything in it at the end of the day and then get it all out next day,” says office designer Emma Morley. For me, this is a shelf in a kitchen cupboard. At the end of the day, I shut the door on it all.
Keep bright light for daytime
Home workers regularly underexpose themselves to daylight and overexpose themselves to blue light from screens at night. Many of us work late into the evening and then find it impossible to sleep. Our brains have been confused into thinking we’re trapped in a never-ending day.
Go outside during daylight hours, several times if you can, and let natural light work its endorphin-releasing, mood-regulating magic. Work near a window, if possible. Otherwise, fit daylight bulbs into your office lights, switching them off at dusk and changing to warmer-toned, lower lighting.
One of the most common problems home workers tell me about is feeling cold all day because they don’t want to turn on the heating just for themselves. Being warm enough is more important than we might think, though: a study on office temperature showed productivity increased as the temperature rose to 22C (but started to fall as it got hotter).
Give yourself time to recharge
The more you push yourself, the harder everything becomes. You drain your reserves, leaving nothing in the tank for the next round of work (or life).
Recharging is more important now than ever, and probably harder to achieve, too. I try to find pockets of recovery by growing herbs on a windowsill, watering the house plants, mending things, tidying cupboards and going for walks alone without my phone.
Set your own office rules
Routine is crucial, because it helps focus become habitual. Habits require less willpower and we have a limited amount of willpower each day. If you use up some of it bickering with yourself about when to start working, it will be harder to access more willpower when you need it for other things.
If parts of your day or week are a given, you need far less willpower. If you’ve made certain decisions – that work starts at 9.30am and finishes at 5.30pm, only to look at emails after midday, not to buy biscuits – then you don’t need to make them again.
Careers coach Karen Eyre-White helps her clients to plan what she calls an Ideal Week on paper. “Having a clear idea makes it much more likely that you’ll start to adapt your habits towards that ideal, and make decisions that support it.”
Put your phone in a drawer
We are interrupted, or interrupt ourselves with our devices, hundreds of times a day. It takes 23 minutes and 15 seconds to refocus properly on a task after an interruption. On this basis, 20 interruptions a day would mean we never have a chance to focus. Log out of everything and turn off notifications.
Demand equality in the workplace
Many heteronormative families still uphold relatively traditional gender roles, which can have an impact on home workers. As sociologist Heejung Chung explains: “I see so many women who have ‘flexible working hours’, meaning they drop the kids off, work, pick the kids up, do the tea, homework, bath, bed, pick work up again at eight o’clock and work until about midnight to make up their hours. But Dad goes into the home office, shuts the door, doesn’t come out, but at six o’clock, he’s still there working.” In her experience, men tend to work longer hours and win career premiums for doing so.
“If you’re not questioning the unequal distribution of work and power within your relationship, essentially you’re exploiting yourself,” Chung says.
We should all examine our own set-ups, heterosexual or not. Is one person carrying a heavier household burden, and is that fair?
We already know that spending all our time inside is bad for our brains, bodies and circadian rhythms. But why does being outside help us work better? “We can only focus for a certain amount of time,” says industrial designer Ingrid Fetell Lee. “But one of the things that is very successful at restoring our attention is nature. Just spending a few minutes outside has a tremendous capacity to restore our ability to concentrate.”
Even if you live in a busy city and have no garden, you should still be able to seek out nature. “Wide open spaces allow the eye to focus on the distance, as opposed to the foreground,” says Fetell Lee. “Eye muscles that are staring at computers all day need some time to zoom out.”
Create transitional rituals
Stripped of our unconscious rituals – the commute, picking up a coffee – many of us have struggled to create a boundary between work and non-work. You need to make a new one.
These will be very personal. I could save time by not doing my hair or makeup, but if I do, I don’t get much work done in the “extra” time. Barely anyone sees me most days, so there is no real need to look smart. But I know I’m dressed for work, not laundry.
The same is true of end-of-day rituals, like writing tomorrow’s to-do list, say, or disabling email – these help the transition back into non-work life. And help us to stay there.
• Solo: How To Work Alone (And Not Lose Your Mind), by Rebecca Seal, is published by Profile Books on 17 September at £14.99. To order a copy for £13.04, go to guardianbookshop.com.
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