New to working from home?

COVID-19 has really quickly turned our lives upside down, and we're truly living in unprecedented times. As tech folks, many of us are working from home now. From a WFH-er for over 5 years now, welcome to the WFH crew!

I've had a lot of fellow colleagues and friends over the years who've had the same experience as me in the work from home world:

  • When you're new to working at home. You're in work mode 24/7. You're getting so much done!
  • A few months go by. You burn out and you have to work less. You feel guilty because you think you're not working at all. Everyone says this is what happens when people work from home
  • You notice you're still doing good work despite your feelings. Time to ramp up the hours again!
  • Oh wait, you've gone down that road before. It didn't work out well
  • Then, you start learning how to be sustainable working from home

For some, this takes a few months. For me, it took a few years. Don't be like me. Here are some hard-earned rules that I've picked up over time to help keep me sustainable.

I hope they can help you skip this whole process and go right into sustainable mode. Try them for yourself!

I was talking to some of my fellow Gophers on the Gophers Slack about the new work setup a lot of folks have. In that discussion, I verbalized these rules for the very first time. What follows is a better-written version of what I wrote in that chat.

Your "office" is fundamentally different

You now work in the same place as you live. Your commute is now basically getting out of bed and there's no traffic. That's awesome, but it comes with some hidden gotchas!

Having a separate workspace

What you want to do is draw a line between "work mode" and the rest of your life. Don't try to be "on" every waking minute, even though it's tempting.

If you can do so, work in a separate physical space. Maybe a spare bedroom or basement (basement office represent!).

If you don't have that kind of extra space, separate your workspace out in your mind. One way to do that is to set an alarm on your phone to signal that work has started. It can help you put your brain into work mode in the morning. Then, set up another alarm to signal the end of the day.

Make that end time non-negotiable. That means when the alarm sounds, the laptop gets shut, no slack, no IDE, no “just one more thing before I go to dinner”.

Ending your day is hard to do. Sometimes you won't get it right. I got it wrong yesterday, in fact. That's ok. Don't beat yourself up and try again tomorrow.

Finally, make your workspace yours. Work in a clean and comfortable desk area. That means ... wait for it ... you should clean it up. Having stacks of papers or crumbs around is annoying and distracting.

Getting "hardware" for your office

This doesn't mean you have to buy stuff. If you want to, and assuming you can get things delivered still (I have no idea), you can think about monitors, speakers, laptop stands, mice, and keyboards.

But there's a lot you can do without spending money. If you're working on the dining room table, put your laptop on top of a book, cutting board, or anything else like that and plug in your headphones. If you have a sweater, roll it up and put it behind your lower back.

Do the same thing and use that sweater to rest your hands on as you type.

All of these things will help you concentrate and keep your body in shape.

Any little improvement to make you more comfortable and you’re winning

Don't cut yourself off from people

If you were previously in an office, you were around people. Even if you hated it, don't let that environment go away overnight. Do video calls with people you like. This could be FaceTiming with family or doing a hangout with friends or colleagues.

I do a "no expectations" Zoom chat with my work mates every few days. We just come to hang out and talk about whatever comes up. No need to talk just about work if you don't want. If you do, keep it to brainstorming or other low-pressure topics.

Just make sure you're not always communicating by typing. Look at someone's face regularly. Talk to them with your voice. You know, human things!

Take care of your body

At the office, you have meetings, lunch, or your car at the end of the day. That means you walked to places.

At home, there's none of that and no more natural prompts to walk around, so you have to replace them. Take breaks on purpose and get up, walk and stretch your body. There are some apps like Time Out that can help you remember to get up, but I mostly roll with my phone's alarm.

Walking outside and putting fresh air into your lungs is best, but that depends on whether it's allowed in your locale. If outside isn't an option, just walking around your domicile for five minutes works wonders.

There are real physiological reasons to get up:

  • Get more blood flowing to your legs. This is critical. Study after study shows that, tl;dr, your body is fundametally not designed to sit all day. You actually need to walk around to get proper bloodflow to your legs.
  • Let your shoulders and upper back relax. Especially if you're on a laptop that's below your natural eye level. Stand up straight, slowly pull your shoulders up to your ears, back, and back down. Go as far as you can and then a litle less. If it hurts, stop immediately, reset, and do it way slower and more gently.

Your eyes!

This one is important - I even gave it a different header!

Every 10 minutes or so, look at something far away. For at least 20 seconds. You'll exercise a lot of the muscles in your eyes.

It's proven to help prevent various kinds of eye degeneration long term. It also helps prevent dry eyes.

Sidenote: you won't break your flow doing this. Most of the time, it helps you keep your flow.

Try to enjoy!

Finally, try enjoy your time working from home! These are uncertain and possibly scary times, but the silver lining is that you can learn a new way to work and live.

Be creative with your office, maybe take up a new hobby, read a non-tech book, teach someone how to code, help your community.

Above all, be just a little bit safer than you think you should be out there.