Things I’ve Learned About Working From Home


Edit: Feel free to tweet at me at @SFOregonian if you want to ask any follow-up questions!

Hello! This is Angie Little. I’m a science education researcher. I wanted to report on some strategies for working from home/remotely to support others who might newly have to do this more often. I’ve worked remotely for the past 6 years and it’s not easy. So, let me normalize the struggle and suggest that you treat this as an iterative experiment where things will not go as planned, but they will improve week by week.

Some framing:

  • I’m *not* making this document to encourage anyone to work more. Please take care of yourselves and each other. My values in the face of this coronavirus are that work should come after looking out for each other.
  • That being said, I think that staying at home suddenly without a schedule for a long time can really mess with mental health. So, if you are thinking you’d like to work on some things, here’s some strategies that I’ve found useful.
  • I’m writing this up quickly and no one has looked at it or spell checked it.
  • This is really just what’s worked for me - with my various health needs - and I’m sure it won’t make sense for everyone.
  • Edit 3/14/20: this is basically what I think the two most important lessons that I have learned are. I’ll try to put out a 2.0 guide in the next few weeks that answers the question, “OK, I’m doing this, what other things would be good to do?”

I have two main things to describe:

  • Co-working with people via Zoom (or other online video-conferencing software)
  • Routine and Goal-Setting

Co-working with people via Zoom

Ok, this has been a game-changer for me. I highly highly recommend it - but I will also say it takes some experimenting to get it to work sometimes.

Here’s my general approach:

  • Find some co-working buddies and schedule a few hours of co-working time for the coming week. I’m someone who works almost entirely from home, so I might schedule ~10 hours of co-working time a week. Note: for me, my buddies are a combination of people I’m formally working with on grants & additional people that I just like as friends/colleagues.
  • During meetings we work for 45 minutes and then take 10-15 minute breaks. I set a timer for both the work and the breaks. During those breaks, we might talk about how the work went and strategize if we’re struggling with something. It’s pretty typical for me to schedule a 2-hour chunk with a buddy such that we get 2 work pushes in and have 2 breaks.
  • During the 45 minutes of individual work, you mute the volume and minimize Zoom, but leave the video on so that the person is still on your screen. There’s something about the little person box on my screen that keeps me focused.

Some reflections from trying this approach:

  • Let me normalize that not everyone works as a co-working buddy and that’s OK. When I’m feeling frustrated with a work buddy, it’s often a sign that I need to externalize my needs and boundaries more and ask for what I need. It’s not always the case that two people’s needs and boundaries will match. I find that saying something like “Let’s try this for a week and then see if we want to continue or not” is helpful framing. Here’s some things that might impact whether you’ll be a good match:
  • How similar is your work? I find that it’s super helpful to co-work with other education researchers b/c if I’m feeling stuck, they can often co-think with me about that during a break.
  • How much time do you want to spend processing emotions? When I was working on my dissertation, I had one other die-hard dissertation buddy - and we’d be there emotionally for each other. If she needed to cry b/c it was frustrating - I’d listen. But maybe not everyone is looking for that kind of support. I’d recommend checking in with your co-working buddy: “is it OK for me to do a little emotional processing?” This is also helpful if your co-working buddy has a deadline, for instance, and might say ‘let’s work for 2 hours and then I can definitely listen.’
  • How similar are your values/interests? During breaks, you’ll often chat personally - you’ll just find some people feel like more ‘your people’ and so it’s more pleasant to take a break together, which then feeds into more co-working buddy time.  
  • How similarly do you like to spend your breaks? If one person wants to talk for 15 minutes and the other person wants to go do their own thing for 15 minutes, then it might not work as well.
  • How much personal chit-chatting do you want to do vs. work-related talking?
  • All this being said: just experiment! It doesn’t have to be perfect - and it takes time to slowly iterate and find what you need.
  • I would say that most of the time this approach keeps me focused on work for each 45 minute chunk. However, some days I’m just having a really hard day and I can’t stay working during the 45 minutes. If that happens to you, know you’re not alone.

Routine and Goal-Setting

One of the hardest things about setting goals/routines is being honest with oneself: where am I at and what goals are reasonable? When I was new to goal-setting, I frequently took on goals that were ultimately too hard. For instance, as a grad student struggling with some health issues, I might have set a “write 2 hours every day goal” and then I would fail at it. Sometimes the goal has to be very small and that’s OK. Sometimes you have to try a goal for a week and realize it’s too ambitious and scale it back. Based on my health, my goal-setting fluctuates.

The way I currently think about goal setting is to set some goals in the following areas:

  • Limitations to social media
  • I’ve set goals such as “don’t check social media before doing your first 45 minutes of work” or “don’t check social media unless it’s after 5pm”
  • Exercise
  • I’ve set goals such as “20 minutes of online yoga 5 days/week in the mornings” or “20 minutes of jogging 5 days/week” or “120 minutes of yoga per week” or “take 3 10-minute stretch breaks 5 days/week”
  • Doing hard work when you’re most likely to have the energy for it
  • I’ve set goals such as “write for the first 45 minutes of each day” because I’m more of a morning person and I peter out by the afternoon.
  • General work
  • If I’m working on a paper or presentation, I might set goals like “work 6 45-minute chunks of time on the paper this week.” I will usually try to schedule those chunks of time on my google calendar.
  • Holistic goals
  • There’s a ton of general goals one can set - I encourage folks to check in with their values and needs. General areas here might be things like “political action,” “cooking,” “calling family members,” “cleaning,” “organizing work folders on my laptop” etc. etc. - whatever things make sense.

Logistics of staying on track with goals

  • Playing with how many goals you can set each week
  • For me personally, I find that setting 2-3 goals per week is usually a sweet spot of what I can consistently achieve. A typical week for me these days would involve 1 exercise goal, 1 social media goal, and 1 work goal.
  • Using a timer
  • I often set my work goals in 45 minute chunks and take breaks between these chunks. I set a 45 minute timer on my phone where I’m not allowed to go off-task during that time. Sometimes I have to pause the timer, but that’s OK. Then, at the end of the 45 minutes, I usually keep track on a spreadsheet or on my google calendar that I achieved it.
  • I’ve had friends use the “Pomodoro” method, which has similar structures of working in chunks - but the 45 minute thing really works for me personally.
  • Right now, as I’m writing this very document, I’m setting the timer for 45 minutes. My timer just went off. And, I have to say, it feels *really* good to go over to my google calendar and put down “1 push: writing up working from home doc.” For me, a “push” is 45 minutes of work + a 15 minute break. Here’s what it looks like:
  • Using something to track goal-setting achievement
  • If you know me, you won’t be too surprised that I’ve found google spreadsheets to be really helpful for me to keep track of my goal-setting. Here’s an example of how I kept track of my goals during one week:
  • In the past, I’ve used things other than google spreadsheets. For instance, when I was feeling like I really needed to make morning exercise happen, I printed out a calendar, got some stickers, stuck the calendar on the fridge, and literally gave myself a “yay you did it!” sticker for each morning I met my goal. The physical nature of paper and stickers placed somewhere prominent can be helpful.
  • I also track some things on google calendar.
  • Use a buddy system
  • I’ve had mixed results with the buddy system personally with respect to goal-setting. One of my best friends and I set some holistic goals and did weekly check-ins with each other for a few weeks. Then, it sort of dropped off. I still think it’s worth experimenting with - I’ve just had some difficulty in making it work for me. I sometimes find it useful to do for one week, just to get me going if I’m really struggling to get going on a goal.