As another week of quarantine passes (week 3? week 4?) with no clear end in sight, working from home is the new normal for many of us. My home office has a window that directly faces a busy sidewalk and I've grown accustomed since lockdown to see people strolling past on their phones holding meetings while escorting little ones on scooters while consciously steering six feet apart from oncomers doing the exact same thing. For those of us fortunate to still be able to work, the fragile balance between personal and professional we previously knew has been shattered. This blog is about reclaiming enough of that balance to restore your productivity-- and sanity.
Now for the final part of our Working From Home series, let’s talk about one of the most important but frequently overlooked aspects: structuring your day.
One of the most common surprises for people who transition from the office to working from home, is how suffocating it often becomes.
Back when corona was still a beer, most people went somewhere outside the home to work, which provided easy framing for the day. With a defined workspace, you have a clear cognitive signal of when the workday begins in earnest and things you have to do before then, such as shower, get dressed, get the family ready, etc. The same signal applies when you leave the work space: your workday is done and it’s ok to stop working.
Now consider what happens when you’re working remotely instead of in a separate, designated workspace like a company office: both the start and end signals are gone. Your normal morning routine and the drive for getting ready evaporates since you’re “just staying at home.” If you do nothing to create structure for your day, the most natural outcome is haphazard attention to how you look and feel. When the start of your workday is signaled by when you first check your phone in the early morning and then drags on well through the evening with no clear end. In simple terms, it sucks.
On top of losing your traditional start/stop signals that were previously tied to your external workplace, people can no longer meet ad hoc. As a result, everything turns into a scheduled meeting. Your once reasonable calendar, which left you time to breathe between activities, is now “tetris’d out” – meaning that your calendar now looks like the 80s game Tetris where colored shapes quickly piled up on the screen as you frantically tried to make the shapes fit together.
In my own experience, there are other things happening that are more subtle, but no less important. The most consequential being how working from home can accidentally starve your subconscious mind and as a result, cripples your creativity.
Think about it this way, the commute to and from work and the evenings physically away from office or other workspace pressures, enable your subconscious brain to chew on hard, abstract problems that your conscious brain is poorly suited to solve. The downtime that naturally accompanies your traditional work schedule isn’t really inactive at all, but time when your subconscious brain can take over for your conscious brain, which has been providing all of your critical thinking and logic horsepower throughout the day.
So what does your subconscious brain do when you’re not sitting in meetings or grinding out tasks? It uses your imagination to solve unstructured, big problems – problems that your conscious brain can’t handle. Your subconscious brain is doing very important things although it seems like you’re not doing anything important at all. While your conscious mind is great at making Excel spreadsheets, it will never dream up a truly breakthrough algorithm or a killer concept for that new marketing campaign.
There’s a number of things that can help prime your subconscious but the most important thing it needs is downtime. That often disregarded empty space in your schedule is really what allows your subconscious mind to thrive and do its best thinking. That downtime is in such short supply when you’re run ragged from dawn to dusk because of an oppressive work from home schedule.
No meetings longer than 45 minutes – The 15 minutes between meetings will allow you to attend to biological realities and enable you to mentally shift gears between meetings. It also means that if one meeting runs a little over, you’re not constantly running late, trying to catch up for the remainder of the day.
Force empty space into your schedule – The way I personally use this technique is by working in the early morning (my “priming time”) and then stopping to exercise, often by myself with music playing on my headphones (no lyrics). I find this gives me optimal chances at solving thorny problems when I return to my work later in the morning. A great resource on this concept comes from a Medium article by August Birch entitled How to Engage Your Subconscious Mind to Solve Your Toughest Problems:
Your subconscious will hoard its ideas while your conscious mind is busy working-away. If you fill all your time with busy-work, you won’t give your mind the needed rest required for the ideas to surface. Block-off thinking time in your calendar.
The article also has useful tips on “priming” and other means of making the most of your brain’s “back office.”
Treat mental energy as a fixed resource – The idea here is that you only have so much cognitive power each day and once you use it, it’s gone. At some point, you’ve burned through all your high potency brain power and you’re then stuck with gut-level decision making where your biases are largely in control of your thinking.
In Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow, he explores how humans make decisions. He carefully explains the interplay between “System One” and “System Two” thinking. System One, our lesser faculties or “gut,” is in control when we cannot or will not summon the mental energy to carefully consider a problem. This is not uniformly a bad thing, but it is prey to a large number of documented biases that can lead to inferior decision making.
So how do can you make sure to use your best energy for your biggest opportunities or tackle the biggest problems? Schedule it early in the day and protect the time. Save the easy stuff (email, calendaring, expenses, etc.) for later when you know you’ll be working with less mental savvy.
Start using a shutdown sequence – Cal Newport has a method he uses for turning off work for the day that can help reestablish your evening boundary. It involves a systematic review of work that was done, and tasks for tomorrow and glance at upcoming weeks. Cal starts his evening personal time with the following ceremony:
Finally — and I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit this — I close down my computer and say the magic phrase: “schedule shutdown, complete.”
And what do you do when work comes knocking again after shutdown?
Here’s my rule: After I’ve uttered the magic phrase, if a work-related worry pops to mind, I always answer it with the following thought process:
Schedules are personal and what works for me probably won't be what works best for you. So I’ll resist the urge to share how I schedule my days and advise you to do the same. Instead, I hope the concepts outlined in this three-part series help you create the right approach for you – one that allows you the right balance while you work from home.