How to Stay Sane & Actually Be Productive When Working From Home
Social distancing is our new norm—if we can call anything normal right now—and like many people around the country and world, starting today I'll be working from home for at least a few weeks. While the current circumstances are unprecedented, I am quite familiar with working from home. Up until last year when I moved to Vermont to work for EatingWell, I spent a large part of my career as a freelancer working from a small New York City apartment (like not a Friends apartment—a real one-room New York apartment).
Over that time I developed some strategies for staying sane and productive. I've also chatted with my colleagues who have work-from-home challenges I haven't faced (like having small kids to take care of while working). Read on for our tips—which I am intentionally not calling rules since I have broken a number of these already today. (Hey, we're all doing our best here.)
Put on pants
When I worked from home previously, I tried to make sure to do the basic things that I'd do to go into the office, like getting dressed in real clothes, brushing my hair and maybe even putting on a little makeup. This was good if I had to answer the door, run to the store or hop on an unexpected video call. It also put me in the getting-down-to-work mindset.
Replace your commute
Working from home has some downsides (getting lonely was one of the top downsides for me), but one definite upside is not having to commute. When I was a freelancer, at the end of each workday, I made a point to go for a walk that was about the same length as my previous 45-minute commute to midtown—if I didn't leave my apartment I found the workday never quite ended.
Set up your workspace
While you might not have a home office (I sure don't), to the best of your ability, set up a defined workspace—even if it's just a corner of your kitchen table. Make it as comfortable and ergonomic as possible. To keep from hunching over my computer, I like to use an external monitor and keyboard for my laptop; a cheaper option that I used for a long time is using the combination of a stand to elevate a laptop (cookbooks work as a great laptop stand!), an external keyboard and mouse.
Set official work hours
It might not be realistic to keep to your exact same schedule—especially if you have kids at home—but having at least planned work hours will help you not work too much (or conversely, not get sucked into a reality TV marathon instead of working). "Try not to let work flow into all areas of your home," says senior digital nutrition editor Lisa Valente. "Set a start time to your day and an end time. Try to stick to that. In the same aspect don't let home flow into your work." For example, don't take two hours to do laundry in the middle of your workday. "All bets are off when school's closed too and you're just in survival mode," she adds. To that last point, EatingWell's executive digital editor Penelope Wall told me she and her husband's strategy: "Divide and conquer, so one of us can focus on work and one of us on the kids at any given time. One of the items is choice time that will include the option of baking with the kids."
"Do take snack breaks when you're hungry," says Valente. "Don't take snack breaks so you don't have to do work (aka standing in the kitchen mindlessly eating to avoid that next task)." And don't forget to drink water.
Don't forget about meal prep
Take it from somebody who just almost ate moldy cheese on toast while on a conference call because she hadn't planned for lunch, you need to think about meal prep ahead of time even when you're home all day. Don't expect to have time to make something elaborate in the middle of the day. "Do a little meal prep, like chopping up salad ingredients or veggie sticks for snacks or making egg or tuna salad to have for lunch so you don't have to spend too much time on it during the day or push eating till you're so hungry you devour everything in the kitchen," suggests our meal-prep editor, Victoria Seaver. Maybe replace that morning commute with a little meal-prep session?
Try to step away from your computer when you eat lunch (if nothing else, you are more likely to notice when you are about to eat moldy cheese). Though many of my colleagues frown on TV during the day, I confess that I used to watch a 20-minute sitcom during my work-from-home lunch break. If you can, add a short walk or yoga/stretching session after you eat.
Build in breaks
Make a point to get up and away from your computer every now and then to avoid sitting all day. Get up and stretch or tackle a small chore that can be finished in five minutes or so. "It's tempting to do housework or little projects while you're home," says Seaver. "Doing dishes, folding laundry, sweeping the floor or organizing one cabinet at a time can be good ways to give your brain a short break from the computer. Just keep these tasks simple, rather than aiming to vacuum the whole house or overhaul your entire kitchen."
Get a jump on dinner
I'm not suggesting you give over your entire workday to making dinner, but being able to set a pot of beans or brown rice to cook, sticking some veggies in the oven to roast or getting a slow-cooker dinner going is an advantage of being home all day.
Your work-from-home life is not going to look exactly like your at-office life—particularly if you also have your kids in your office. Right now, we're working out how to keep developing and testing recipes without all being together in the test kitchen, for example. And all of my colleagues with children are figuring out how to make that work. (Note to co-workers: Hearing your kiddos and pets in the background during calls brings true joy to my day, so please don't have too much work-life separation.)
Communicate with your colleagues
When your boss and co-workers can't wander over to your desk to check in, you might need to step up the online communication. For example, sending an email at the beginning of the day about what you're working on and what your schedule is like, then checking in before logging off to say what you've accomplished and to officially mark the end of your workday. Jump on a video chat for meetings—or get together for a virtual happy hour. We're planning one for our team right now.