This piece was originally published at http://fersacambridge.com on March 23, 2020.
Even before we all had to start taking measures against the spread of COVID-19, I pretty much worked from home full-time. As much as I enjoy working in various libraries and cafes, it is not always feasible for me given that my research can sometimes require watching films side by side multiple times a day. It’s not really quiet work, involving things like listening to clips of scores as loud as possible to isolate instrumentation. So, I find myself for the most part working from my apartment where I have all the things I need, but sometimes, not a lot of company. Graduate work, whether masters or PhD level research work, can be an intensely isolating process that becomes especially compounded if you work primarily from home. However, after three years of building my little media-infused work bubble, I’ve come up with some things that help me maintain focus, break up the monotony and develop healthy work habits.
NB — a lot of this advice was written pre-isolation measures becoming a necessity. I’ve made caveats where necessary, but anything involving being in public, or meeting other people, well, use your best judgement in the service of public good and public health. However, noting that this period might also make working from home a lot more normalized post-pandemic — and there WILL be a post-pandemic world with a new normal, I am still making note of things like, going outside and having real human connections, which will become more and more important as we build a new reality.
Have a distinct work space — if you can
This one is a little tricky as everyone is encouraged to work from home and not everyone has their own space, but, if you can manage having distinct areas for work for all the people in your shared space who might now find themselves cooped up, it will make a difference. For example, when my partner was still commuting to London, my work/writing space was in a separate room from the main living area so that I could close the door and keep writing while he had room to decompress in the evenings, and I did anything movie-related during the day while he was at the office. We’ve flipped things around now so that he has a space to shut the door and take conference calls, and I’m perfectly happy bouncing between the couch, the desk and the dining table (it’s where the snacks are) without having to worry about my noise ruining his work.
Have distinct start, stop, and break times
Structure is really important because working in the same place that you live the rest of your life in means that it can be hard to not feel like you should always be working. But it can also very easily feel impossible to start work because you’re surround by all the other work of daily life. This is a mistake in both ways. Treating your research like a job, with designated break times, and a designated stopping point, can help make the day contained, manageable, and more productive. Tracking time can help — whether via software like Toggl or just on a sticky note the way I do.
Take Breaks Shame-Free
I’ve worked in offices proofing audiobooks, writing articles, editing copy, and doing a hundred other things, and I’ve freelanced from my own workspaces at home across many jobs. I can tell you one thing, whether working at home or from an office no one can work an arbitrary working day without some sort of breaks built in. So, if you can go outside take a walk (maintaining appropriate distancing techniques), call a relative, meet someone for coffee (do this digitally in these days), visit that college you’re a part of but might not spend a lot of time at and just pootle around (when we’re not in the time of a global pandemic of course) — but feel free to step away without any shame of “not working”.
Don’t take your work to bed
This is less about screens and sleep habits, or where you work (though personally, I have had to bar myself from working out of my bed because I won’t sleep if I do), and more about making sure to leave some buffer time between when you work and when you sleep. A bit of space for your brain to decompress, do something else, and get ready to rest. If meditation works for you, great, or reading something off-topic. Personally, I like to watch cartoons or fashion design, house design, or baking shows before bed to wind down — so long as it is nothing that I can incorporate into my current work.
Cultivate a hobby or two
Sometimes the biggest problem with academic work is that we don’t get the validation of being “done”. We don’t get to finish discrete completable tasks on the day to day, and it can be hard to figure out if we are making progress at all. When I’m stuck, that is when I step away and bake something, or cook something. I also started knitting and crochet again. There is a satisfaction in looking at a completed project, which can help mitigate the stress of carrying long term work projects to completion. Also, my hobbies in particular are activities that consume my attention — and the use of my hands, meaning that I have to be absorbed in what I’m doing for the amount of time I’m doing it.
Have “days off”
Somewhere in my second year I decided I was just going to build in days where I went to London to DO SOMETHING different. I would bring something to read on the train, but then go see an exhibition, or visit somewhere I’d never been. While this time to study feels very limited, it is a unique period in life where it is possible to be flexible with how we use our time and explore things. Though leaving Cambridge, if you’re still here, might be less feasible at the moment, there are a ton of museums who are putting their works and exhibits online. There are also a lot of places like the Met Opera and other production companies putting opera and musical performances online, so even if you can’t GO to the theatre, you can take a theatre trip. Be creative, get friends to all watch the same movie marathon together, or try Zoom-based fitness class. Find a bunch of at-home science experiments for kids and make a day of it (mentos in the soda bottle is never not great, if incredibly sticky). Have an at-home spa day. Options are endless.
Exercise is neither punishment nor reward
Anyone else decide they can go for that jog or hit the gym only if they hit a certain word count or finish a certain number of tasks? I am currently working to deprogram that sort of thinking in my own thought processes, scheduling how I work around what I do to take care of myself. For me, this means, yoga, walks, classes, etc get scheduled first, and then I plan how I’m going to execute my work around that. It’s a work in progress; it’s hard to not feel guilty about stepping away, but even after making this shift for three weeks I can see the positive effects it has had for me. With the switch to more indoor time, this has meant finding digital solutions for the time being, and even investing in a couple of yoga and pilates DVDs (and not feeling guilty about making using them a priority).
“Food is fuel” is a phrase more associated perhaps with athletics, but your brain needs energy to run, also. Find an eating plan that works for you — maybe you like three squares and nothing in between, or maybe you’re more of a grazer. But most of all, do not forget to eat.
Water is life. Coffee does not count. Tea does not count. (The jury is out on wine and G&Ts and assorted delights.) But seriously, a hydrated brain and body is a happy brain and body. It’s so easy to forget to do it, but maybe keep a water bottle by you even if you’re working from home. It is how I keep track of how much I am drinking. Also, I’ve become very competitive with myself in terms of tracking my daily water intake in the fitbit app. If water is boring on its own, try having some cut citrus fruits or cucumber on hand, and drop some in the glass or bottle.
Find a working method that works for you
If you’ve gone to any of the FERSA writing or working groups, you might have come across different time management methods for productive work. Pomodoro is a very popular one in group settings because of the off-and-on break structure and how it divides time into manageable chunks. For other people, a daily word count goal or a to-do list might work better. Find a system that works for you and make it a habit.
Be proactive about seeing people and getting OUT (so to speak)
The most important thing I’ve found about working from home, is leaving it. Even if I’m not necessarily going to meet someone for something specific, just getting out into the world, where other people are, helps to lend some perspective to the work process. It’s easy to forget that even as academics we are people, and people need the presence of other people. We need society, even if we walk alone among it. Now, this might be a little bit harder in the days of quarantines and self-isolation, but it’s still possible. We’re all talking about zoom for teaching — what about setting up a Google Hangouts coffee/tea date with friends, or even an evening happy hour. The Chrome extension Netflix Party lets you sync up with friends to have movie nights or binge-watch all of Project Runway together remotely. The social distancing phase does still allow for being outside — take a walk in the fresh air (while maintaining a healthy distance away from others).
Working from a home office has its benefits, and is currently definitely a necessity for those of us who can do it, but it definitely requires its strategies to maintain healthy habits. Hopefully some of my habits can be of help if you find yourself a little lost in setting up a home-working routine. Do you have any other tips about how to manage working from home? Please share them on Twitter, @anjirbaguette and @fersacambridge using the hashtag #FERSAWFH.
Michelle Anya Anjirbag is a 3rd year PhD at the Faculty of Education, and a co-editor of the FERSA blog. Her dissertation is on depictions and constructions of diversity in fairy tale adaptations by Disney, but sometimes also writes about the intersection of fantasy, magic, and institutions. Her work has appeared in Social Sciences, Jeunesse, and Adaptation. You can find her on twitter @anjirbaguette (she really likes bread), or instagram @michelle_anya